Blip Magazine Archive


Home : Archive : Links

Jere O’Neill Surber

Europe’s America Today: A Little Help for Our Friends?


Over the years, and in a variety of situations, I have heard several of my European friends quote the same statement when the question of prevailing attitudes toward our country arose (their attribution of its source varied, so I’m not sure who originally turned the phrase): "America is the only country that has gone from barbarism to decadence without the detour through culture."

Though it has always struck me as a fair gloss of a common European viewpoint, I’ve always wondered about some of its underlying images and assumptions. For instance, was the "barbarism" they had in mind something like the lawlessness of the Old West, a sort of a Hobbesian state of nature, vividly portrayed for several generations of German schoolboys in the novels of Karl May? Or was it the fact that, to "civilized" Europeans, early America was just "the other," that which they were not? Was the "decadence" it envisions the kitsch consumerism represented by Las Vegas or maybe, now, Wal-Mart? Or did it indicate merely that we had somehow lost our focus or self-confidence as a people? And should "culture" be spelled with a lower- or upper-case "c"? Does it imply that the American "melting-pot" failed to congeal into some identifiable culture, or that we neglected to make our own distinctive contribution to the "Cultural Inheritance" of the world?

The last time I heard this unflattering aphorism was back in the early nineties. Perhaps now, in light of intervening events, it seems dated to them, perhaps even too generous, and has fallen into disuse. After all, one might feel that "barbarism" fails to adequately convey the violence and degradation implicit in the genocidal wars against the Native Americans, the legacy of slavery, or the exploitation of immigrant labor. And the accusation of "decadence" seems relatively mild in the face of the numerous bellicose adventures pursued by the U.S. since the Second World War.

Culture, however, is another matter entirely. Ironically, by most accounts, the Europeans’ problem with us now is that "American Culture" has imposed itself upon and largely displaced any distinctively European Culture – especially so in light of their earlier suggestion that we developed no distinctive culture of our own. The French, for example, have particularly smarted from our "hijacking" of the epicenter of the artworld from Paris to New York in the fifties and, more recently, have instituted programs to protect their native film industry from Hollywood’s hegemony. I hardly need to mention the American television and music industries as favorite recipients of European cultural spleen.

In light of all this, I began to consider how one might formulate a parallel dictum that would better reflect recent shifts in the American mentalité and European attitudes toward it. Although I haven’t yet run it by any of my trans-Atlantic friends, I think that they might now accept something like this: "America is the only country (at least in recent history) that has gone from idealistic delusion to paranoid aggression without the detour through reality." What might be said on behalf of my suggestion?

To begin with, many of the most influential groups and individuals involved in the founding of our country were, in fact, self-declared idealists. From the seventeenth century religious dissenters’ vision of the "City on the Hill," to Jefferson’s secular view of an egalitarian nation of citizen-landowners and independent artisans, to the New England Transcendentalists’ dynamic organism of harmonious self-reliant parts, to the various utopian experiments of the nineteenth century, our beginnings were saturated with idealistic rhetoric and conviction. So much so that it led even such an arch-euro-centrist as Hegel to view America as his westward-winging "Owl of Minerva’s" next landing zone, the place where the weary idealism of Old Europe would be rejuvenated.

Of course, one would expect little argument from a European over the fact that this was a deluded idealism. As a graduate student in Europe in the seventies, I remember my surprise at hearing my Continental colleagues recite details – even specific names, dates, and events – regarding the American slave trade and the genocide of Native Americans. They had learned in primary school a history that had as yet made little impact on my own early schooling, occurring, as it did, long before the emergence of the curricular "culture wars" of the eighties. In fact, I had grown up on the staple diet of "America is the freest and best country in the world" (and, as a sometime resident of Texas, that "Texas is the freest and best state in America" to boot). That our present administration seems fully to subscribe to both is ample testimony to the staying power of this delusion.

The morphing of idealistic delusion into paranoid aggression probably began in earnest with the Cold War, though fault lines were already in evidence beginning with Reconstruction, the closing of the American frontier, and, most clearly, the economic disruptions of the Great Depression and its aftermath. Still, it was the effects of the Cold War, epitomized internally by Sen. McCarthy’s Communist witch hunts and externally by the nuclear arms race, that were the first unmistakable symptoms of the onset of aggressive paranoia. For their part, most Europeans, by then ambivalent hosts to a massive occupational force and often reluctant allies in its machinations, seemed to feel the same range of emotions as anyone who has dealt with an armed paranoiac. You certainly don’t want to offend him, in certain limited situations you might actually be safer with him than without him, but you can’t ever feel entirely comfortable in his presence.

There is abundant clinical evidence to suggest that paranoia is a relatively fixed psychic structure, though quite capable of expanding, transmuting, or substituting the immediate objects of its fear and aggression. It can also enter a period of latency when its original object has been eliminated, only to reemerge, sometimes in an even more delusional and virulent form, when provoked by a "trigger event." It would not be too much of a reach to suggest that this is exactly what happened after the collapse of Soviet Communism, followed by the events of 9/11. That so many of the architects and executioners of our current Middle-Eastern policy were former Cold Warriors seems to confirm this diagnosis.

What, then, was "the detour through reality" that we missed? Most Europeans are well aware of their own country’s colonial heritage and of the usually slow, painful process of its disintegration. How could they not be? In central London, for instance, it is difficult to walk for more than a few minutes without passing a monument to British troops fallen in some remote corner of the earth, now liberated from its imperial orbit for many decades. And one encounters the occasional Frenchman who feels that handing over their problems in Southeast Asia to the Yanks was a "petit revenge" for the postwar American cultural imperialism inflicted on France. Germans and Italians, of course, were forced to face the reality of utter defeat in its most unconditional form. Whether due to loss of empire or decisive military defeat, and hopes of renewed glory pinned on the more recent experiment of the European Union notwithstanding, European nations have, for the most part, found names for their "real," put aside their colonialist delusions, and embraced their role as members of a broader world community. If a trace of past delusions resurrects itself from time to time, like the Neo-Nazis in Germany or Le Pen’s radical Right in France, Europeans now seem to have a firm enough grip on reality to see these for what they are and react accordingly.

Perhaps, then, there is a dark side to the old optimistic doctrine of American exceptionalism. Just as the singularities of our geography and our natural and human resources permitted us to sustain our idealistic illusions well beyond any point warranted by the realities of our situation, so they may also have conspired in barring us from the therapeutic embrace of our own natural and historical limitations, thus allowing one delusional state to morph seamlessly into a far more dangerous one…like the chronic alcoholic who is instantly "cured" by joining an apocalyptic religious cult without first traversing the "Twelve Steps," one is tempted to allegorize.

But American exceptionalism, even if granted the limited validity implied in my proposed dictum, cannot be the entire explanation. As certain European "postmodern" critics have been especially keen in pointing out, America is also the main factory in which the modern machinery of self-delusion was first forged. It was during the time between the closing of the frontier and end of the Depression, a period when we might have commenced an encounter with reality as the European nations did in the wake the First World War, that witnessed the rise of the American corporate media conglomerates, epitomized worldwide by the word "Hollywood." In many ways, our "dream-machine" worked like a mis-prescribed drug, intensifying the very symptoms that might otherwise have been cured through an effective encounter with the "real." Unfortunately for us, further "treatment" involved the prescription of ever more powerful drugs, first in the form of television, now in digital packages, to the point where our aggressive paranoia has become so chronic that the primitive "duck and cover" delusions of the Cold War have given way to entire umbrellas of military and bureaucratic machinery (think "Star Wars" and "The Department of Homeland Security").

What, then, is the chance that our own "detour through reality" will yet occur? Might it happen gradually, as it slowly dawns upon us that we simply do not have the resources to continue costly bellicose adventures in the face of a declining economy? Will it involve some sudden assault that would make the collapse of the Twin Towers seem merely a minor diversion in comparison? Or do we yet have the fortitude to stop our self-medicating, admit that we are afflicted, and then seek assistance, perhaps from those who have already been through the therapeutic procedure…perhaps even from our European friends?

During a college travel course in Europe not long ago, a member of my group encountered several French students in a cafe who expressed some strong anti-American sentiments. It was her first inkling that others, especially young persons her own age, might not share her own terminally optimistic view of her country. Later, after an emotional and sometimes tearful conversation with me about this, she finally concluded, "I just wish that, like, when I traveled and someone asked me where I was from and I said, ‘America,’ they would say, ‘Oh, isn’t that, like, that nice country just south of Canada?" OK, it’s hardly a blueprint for the future, but somehow I thought that she was on the right track; somehow she had begun her own therapeutic process.

Jere O'Neill Surber is Professor of Philosophy and Cultural Theory at the University of Denver.  He has logged many years abroad, mostly in Europe, studying, teaching, and leading student travel groups.  He is the author of five books and over fifty papers, chapters, and reviews on modern European philosophy and culture.

Maintained by Blip Magazine Archive at

Copyright © 1995-2011
Opinions are those of the authors.