Empire of the Senseless

When Donald Rumsfeld turned the phrase “Old Europe” he meant a culture more than a landmass, those quaint habits and ideals of our continental brethren–respect for international law or taste for good wine–which ought to be left behind. Ours is an empire of intolerable provincialism, small minded and close fisted at once. In the latest number of the increasingly reliable New York Review of Books, Tony Judt takes stock of the  kulterkampf:

Consider a mug of American coffee. It is found everywhere. It can be made by anyone. It is cheap—and refills are free. Being largely without flavor it can be diluted to taste. What it lacks in allure it makes up in size. It is the most democratic method ever devised for introducing caffeine into human beings. Now take a cup of Italian espresso. It requires expensive equipment. Price-to-volume ratio is outrageous, suggesting indifference to the consumer and ignorance of the market. The aesthetic satisfaction accessory to the beverage far outweighs its metabolic impact. It is not a drink; it is an artifact.

This contrast can stand for the differences between America and Europe —differences nowadays asserted with increased frequency and not a little acrimony on both sides of the Atlantic. The mutual criticisms are familiar. To American commentators Europe is “stagnant.” Its workers, employers, and regulations lack the flexibility and adaptability of their US counterparts. The costs of European social welfare payments and public services are “unsustainable.” Europe’s aging and “cosseted” populations are underproductive and self-satisfied. In a globalized world, the “European social model” is a doomed mirage. This conclusion is typically drawn even by “liberal” American observers, who differ from conservative (and neoconservative) critics only in deriving no pleasure from it.

To a growing number of Europeans, however, it is America that is in trouble and the “American way of life” that cannot be sustained. The American pursuit of wealth, size, and abundance —as material surrogates for happiness —is aesthetically unpleasing and ecologically catastrophic. The American economy is built on sand (or, more precisely, other people’s money). For many Americans the promise of a better future is a fading hope. Contemporary mass culture in the US is squalid and meretricious. No wonder so many Americans turn to the church for solace.

These perceptions constitute the real Atlantic gap and they suggest that something has changed. In past decades it was conventionally assumed—whether with satisfaction or regret—that Eu-rope and America were converging upon a single “Western” model of late capitalism, with the US as usual leading the way. The logic of scale and market, of efficiency and profit, would ineluctably trump local variations and inherited cultural constraints. Americanization (or globalization—the two treated as synonymous) was inevitable. The best—indeed the only—hope for local products and practices was that they would be swept up into the global vortex and repackaged as “international” commodities for universal consumption. Thus an archetypically Italian product—caffè espresso—would travel to the US, where it would metamorphose from an elite preference into a popular commodity, and then be repackaged and sold back to Europeans by an American chain store.

But something has gone wrong with this story. It is not just that Starbucks has  encountered unexpected foreign resistance to double-decaf-mocha-skim-latte-with-cinnamon (except, revealingly, in the United Kingdom), or that politically motivated  Europeans are abjuring high-profile American commodities. It is becoming clear that  America and Europe are not way stations on a historical production line, such that  Europeans must expect to inherit or replicate the American experience after an  appropriate time lag. They are actually quite distinct places, very possibly moving in  divergent directions. There are even those—including the authors of two of the books  under review—for whom it is not Europe but rather the United States that is trapped in the past.