Why are we so different from Europe, or other industrialized nations?
Americans who travel often encounter people who want to understand why the United States is the way it is. Why are we so different from Europe, or other industrialized nations? Why do we seem uninterested in foreign news, isolated from the world despite our vast economic reach? There are many factors of course, and untangling cause and effect would be difficult. But the intelligent foreigner would find our country less puzzling if they kept the following in mind.
It’s a big place
San Francisco to New York City is 2,900 miles by the shortest route. Along that journey you’ll encounter several mountain ranges, ranch lands, farm lands, old industrial areas, some urban centers and much open space. But you’ll only be in one nation and only need English to be understood.
Venture out of London by road and ferry the same distance and you will find yourself in Damascus. Along that trip you’re likely to pass through at least seven countries and hear as many languages. The same distance east of Damascus would find you at the far end of Pakistan, assuming you could drive it without incident.
America’s size has several consequences. For most Americans, the foreign (non-U.S.) world is far away. They don’t need to go to a different country to get to the ocean or go skiing or see plays in a major city. American youth can travel a distance to go to university that would land them several countries away in Europe.
If in business, Americans have a vast common market to sell to, where everyone uses the same phone system, the same electrical system, the same media system of TV and radio, the same way of measuring things and the very similar legal systems.
We only have two neighbors, and one of them, Canada, hardly seems that foreign. We are separated by vast oceans from everyplace else.
Because of this size and our geography, foreign news is always from places very far way, places that don’t seem to have any direct impact on our lives, places that we can (mistakenly) think we can ignore.
If you are French, then Germany, England and Spain are much closer, and much different.
We have no history
Most of the rest of the world is old, and knows it. A drive to work takes you past buildings and sites from hundreds, if not thousands of years ago. Recorded history goes back just as far.
By contrast, to most Americans, our nation is a blank slate, started from scratch in 1776. That’s not accurate, but the native cultures here before 1776, and even the pre-revolutionary era European culture has vanished from our memory. And even when we see ancient cultures, such as at ancient sites in the southwest, those older cultures doesn’t seem to be “our” history — the history adopted by the descendants of Europe. We see ourselves as a “nation of immigrants.” Occasionally we add an asterisk to that phrase with a footnote that mentions the Native Americans.
Ironically, we may be doing better with assimilation of immigrants than Europe is. The “melting pot” image has fallen from our vocabulary, and we do have struggles over immigration. Yet, across the nation Asians, Muslims from many lands and other groups are integrating into society with less of the trauma that smaller migrations into Germany and Greece are causing.
The scars of history
Equally, we lack many of the scars of history that bedevil Europe and other cultures. We’ve never really been invaded. The one exception, the War of 1812, is so invisible to us that its 200-year anniversary went more or less unnoticed. We’ve not been plagued by massive religious strife and we have no monuments of ruined churches to remind us of it.
Again, citizens of France and Germany, as one example, have a long history with each other that complicates their current relations.
We haven’t lost an empire either and so have no bitter memories that Canada or Mexico or Cuba should have been ours. We may be on our way to losing some of our economic empire, and that may prove traumatic. The bookstores are starting to fill up with books about how to get our greatness back.
The one ongoing historical trauma of the United States, slavery and its aftermath, we white people have transmuted into a myth of injustice overcomemyth. The Civil War is remembered by most as a sort of pageant with much eloquent rhetoric and noble suffering. We don’t appreciate how fortunate we were that, thanks to Generals Lee and Grant and others, that war actually had an ending and didn’t mutate into generations of bitter guerrilla warfare. Historians regularly note how unusual it was for the military action of a civil war to end in such a tidy fashion.
And while slavery and its racist aftereffects are certainly not resolved, it also is not a shared experience with Europe or other cultures. Perhaps India and the ongoing struggle over its caste system might be the closest equivalence.
Our unusual nobility
We don’t have a hereditary nobility; ours is a nobility of wealth. We have those who exercise great privilege but they do so by virtue of money not titles. Their wealth gives them informal power and privilege in the legal system, the health care system and other places.
But in our imagination, they acquired their privileges of nobility by economic creativity. We think of people like Ford, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller and their modern equivalents of Gates and Jobs as people who brought into being new industries and created employment for thousands. Thus, we don’t begrudge them getting rich.
We haven’t noticed that today, many get rich by eliminating jobs, not creating them. Nor have we really taken stock that we do have dynasties such as the Kennedys, the Bushes and the Clintons.
The open nation
In the history we do have we settled an open frontier, and in our memory it is one in which the Indians hardly figure as more than a momentary nuisance. We could and did go west to start from scratch.
So the open road is part of our culture in a way different from the compact European countries. With the road, and the metaphor of “the wild west” open for settlement comes the notion that we can reinvent ourselves. We can always, we think, start over someplace else. And while that “someplace else” will be new and different, it will be a place where they speak the same language, and have the same appliances and gizmos we left behind.
America the exception
So we have the irony of being a world superpower in both military and economic terms with a citizenry that hardly notices. Or rather, a citizenry that takes for granted our power over the world, but then hardly is aware of the world. The joke goes that Americans aren’t sure there really are other countries, just some colorful rides and interesting places to eat, like at Disneyland.
Did the average Roman feel the same way?