America the Marvelous: A Defense Against Euro Liberal Views

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Niccolo and Donkey
America the Marvelous

Vanity Fair

A. A. Gill

July 2013


'Stupid, stupid. Americans are stupid. America is stupid. A stupid, stupid country made stupid by stupid, stupid people.” I particularly remember that because of the nine stupids. It was said over a dinner table by a professional woman, a clever, clever, clever woman. Hardback-educated, bespokely traveled, liberally humane, worked in the arts. I can’t remember specifically why she said it, what evidence of New World idiocy triggered the trope. Nor do I remember what the reaction was, but I don’t need to remember. It would have been a nodded and muttered agreement. Even from me. I’ve heard this cock crow so often I don’t even feel guilt for not wringing its neck.

Among the educated, enlightened, expensive middle classes of Europe, this is a received wisdom. A given. Stronger in some countries like France, less so somewhere like Germany, but overall the Old World patronizes America for being a big, dumb, fat, belligerent child. The intellectuals, the movers and the makers and the creators, the dinner-party establishments of people who count, are united in the belief—no, the knowledge—that Americans are stupid, crass, ignorant, soul-less, naïve oafs without attention, irony, or intellect. These same people will use every comforting, clever, and ingenious American invention, will demand America’s medicine, wear its clothes, eat its food, drink its drink, go to its cinema, love its music, thank God for its expertise in a hundred disciplines, and will all adore New York. More than that, more shaming and hypocritical than that, these are people who collectively owe their nations’ and their personal freedom to American intervention and protection in wars, both hot and cold. Who, whether they credit it or not, also owe their concepts of freedom, equality, and civil rights in no small part to America. Of course, they will also sign collective letters accusing America of being a Fascist, totalitarian, racist state.

Enough. Enough, enough, enough of this convivial rant, this collectively confirming bigotry. The nasty laugh of little togetherness, or Euro-liberal insecurity. It’s embarrassing, infectious, and belittling. Look at that European snapshot of America. It is so unlike the country I have known for 30 years. Not just a caricature but a travesty, an invention. Even on the most cursory observation, the intellectual European view of the New World is a homemade, Old World effigy that suits some internal purpose. The belittling, the discounting, the mocking of Americans is not about them at all. It’s about us, back here on the ancient, classical, civilized Continent. Well, how stupid can America actually be? On the international list of the world’s best universities, 14 of the top 20 are American. Four are British. Of the top 100, only 4 are French, and Heidelberg is one of 4 that creeps in for the Germans. America has won 338 Nobel Prizes. The U.K., 119. France, 59. America has more Nobel Prizes than Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and Russia combined. Of course, Nobel Prizes aren’t everything, and America’s aren’t all for inventing Prozac or refining oil. It has 22 Peace Prizes, 12 for literature. (T. S. Eliot is shared with the Brits.)

And are Americans emotionally dim, naïve, irony-free? Do you imagine the society that produced Dorothy Parker and Lenny Bruce doesn’t understand irony? It was an American who said that political satire died when they awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger. It’s not irony that America lacks; it’s cynicism. In Europe, that arid sneer out of which nothing is grown or made is often mistaken for the creative scalpel of irony. And what about vulgarity? Americans are innately, sniggeringly vulgar. What, vulgar like Henry James or Eleanor Roosevelt or Cole Porter, or the Mormons? Again, it’s a question of definitions. What Americans value and strive for is straight talking, plain saying. They don’t go in for ambiguity or dissembling, the etiquette of hidden meaning, the skill of the socially polite lie. The French in particular confuse unadorned direct language with a lack of culture or intellectual elegance. It was Camus who sniffily said that only in America could you be a novelist without being an intellectual. There is a belief that America has no cultural depth or critical seriousness. Well, you only have to walk into an American bookshop to realize that is wildly wrong and willfully blind. What about Mark Twain, or jazz, or Abstract Expressionism?

What is so contrary about Europe’s liberal antipathy to America is that any visiting Venusian anthropologist would see with the merest cursory glance that America and Europe are far more similar than they are different. The threads of the Old World are woven into the New. America is Europe’s greatest invention. That’s not to exclude the contribution to America that has come from around the globe, but it is built out of Europe’s ideas, Europe’s understanding, aesthetic, morality, assumptions, and laws. From the way it sets a table to the chairs it sits on, to the rhythms of its poetry and the scales of its music, the meter of its aspirations and its laws, its markets, its prejudices and neuroses. The conventions and the breadth of America’s reason are European.
This isn’t a claim for ownership, or for credit. But America didn’t arrive by chance. It wasn’t a ship that lost its way. It wasn’t coincidence or happenstance. America grew tall out of the cramping ache of old Europe.

When I was a child, there was a lot of talk of a “brain drain”—commentators, professors, directors, politicians would worry at the seeping of gray matter across the Atlantic. Brains were being lured to California by mere money. Mere money and space, and sun, and steak, and Hollywood, and more money and opportunity and optimism and openness. People who took the dollar in exchange for their brains were unpatriotic in much the same way that tax exiles were. The unfair luring of indigenous British thought would, it was darkly said, lead to Britain falling behind, ceasing to be the pre-eminently brilliant and inventive nation that had produced the Morris Minor and the hovercraft. You may have little idea how lauded and revered Sir Christopher Cockerell, the inventor of the hovercraft, was, and you may well not be aware of what a noisy, unstable waste of effort the hovercraft turned out to be, but we were very proud of it for a moment.

The underlying motif of the brain drain was that for real cleverness you needed years of careful breeding. Cold bedrooms, tinned tomatoes on toast, a temperament and a heritage that led to invention and discovery. And that was really available only in Europe and, to the greatest extent, in Britain. The brain drain was symbolic of a postwar self-pity. The handing back of Empire, the slow, Kiplingesque watch as the things you gave your life to are broken, and you have to stoop to build them up with worn-out tools. There was resentment and envy—whereas in the first half of the 20th century Britain had spent the last of Grandfather’s inherited capital, leaving it exhausted and depressed, for America the war had been the engine that geared up industry and pulled it out of the Depression, capitalizing it for a half-century of plenty. It seemed so unfair.

The real brain drain was already 300 years old. The idea of America attracted the brightest and most idealistic, and the best from all over Europe. European civilization had reached a stasis. By its own accounting, it had grown from classical Greece to become an identifiable, homogeneous place, thanks to the Roman Empire and the spread of Christianity. Following the Dark Ages, there was the Renaissance and the Reformation, and then the Age of Reason, from which grew a series of ideas and discoveries, philosophies and visions, that became pre-eminent. But at the moment of their creation here comes the United States—just as Europe was reaching a point where the ideas that moved it were outgrowing the conventions and the hierarchies that governed it. Democracy, free economy, free trade, free speech, and social mobility were stifled by the vested interests and competing stresses of a crowded and class-bound continent. Migration to America may have been primarily economic, but it also created the space where the ideas that in Europe had grown too root-bound to flourish might be transplanted. Over 200 years the flame that had been lit in Athens and fanned in Rome, Paris, London, Edinburgh, Berlin, Stockholm, Prague, and Vienna was passed, a spark at a time, to the New World.

In 1776 the white and indentured population of America was 2.5 million. A hundred years later it was nearly 50 million. In 1890, America overtook Britain in manufacturing output to become the biggest industrial economy in the world. No economy in the history of commerce has grown that precipitously, and this was 25 years after the most murderous, expensive, and desperate civil war. Indeed, America may have reached parity with Britain as early as 1830. Right from its inception it had faster growth than old Europe. It now accounts for a quarter of the world’s economy. It wasn’t individual brains that made this happen. It wasn’t a man with a better mousetrap. It was a million families who wanted a better mousetrap and were willing to work making mousetraps. It was banks that would finance the manufacture of better mousetraps, and it was a big nation with lots of mice.

One of the most embarrassing things I’ve ever done in public was to appear—against all judgment—in a debate at the Hay Literary Festival in the mid-90s, speaking in defense of the motion that American culture should be resisted. Along with me on this cretin’s errand was the historian Norman Stone. I can’t remember what I said—I’ve erased it. It had no weight or consequence. On the other side, the right side, were Adam Gopnik, from The New Yorker, and Salman Rushdie. After we’d proposed the damn motion, Rushdie leaned in to the microphone, paused for a moment, regarding the packed theater from those half-closed eyes, and said, soft and clear, “Be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby, / Be-bop-a-lula, I don’t mean maybe. / Be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby, / Be-bop-a-lula, I don’t mean maybe. / Be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby love.”

It was the triumph of the sublime. The bookish audience burst into applause and cheered. It was all over, bar some dry coughing. America didn’t bypass or escape civilization. It did something far more profound, far cleverer: it simply changed what civilization could be. It set aside the canon of rote, the long chain letter of drawing-room, bon-mot received aesthetics. It was offered a new, neoclassical, reconditioned, reupholstered start, a second verse to an old song, and it just took a look at the view and felt the beat of this vast nation and went for the sublime.

There is in Europe another popular snobbery, about the parochialism of America, the unsophistication of its taste, the limit of its inquiry. This, we’re told, is proved by “how few Americans travel abroad.” Apparently, so we’re told, only 35 percent of Americans have passports. Whenever I hear this, I always think, My good golly gosh, really? That many? Why would you go anywhere else? There is so much of America to wonder at. So much that is the miracle of a newly minted civilization. And anyway, European kids only get passports because they all want to go to New York.
Niccolo and Donkey
Team Zissou

Europe can lecture us about provincialism when they can explain why the Continent's numerous nation-states don't just merge for the sake of glorious, unified humanity. Why do places like Belgium, Austria, Switzerland even exist as distinct polities? Why is Eastern Europe so fractured? What will the place do when Uncle Sam's Big Green Machine has to pack up and return home?

Niccolo and Donkey

Why do you like this article? I think it's shit.

"What about Mark Twain, or jazz, or Abstract Expressionism?"

the great death-continent, the great No! to the European and Asiatic, and even African Yes! ... the great continent of the undoing, and all its peoples the agents of the mystic destruction! Plucking, plucking at the created soul in a man, till at last it plucked out the growing germ, and left him a creature of mechanism and automatic reaction, with only one inspiration, the desire to pluck the quick out of every living spontaneous creature.

... all the people who went there, Europeans, Negroes, Japanese, Chinese, all the colours and the races ... the spent people, in whom the God impulse had collapsed, so they crossed to the great continent of the negation, where the human will declares itself ‘free’...

The problem with run of the mill anti-Americanism is that it underestimates America out of hatred. America is a force for evil in the world, but it is not all the low things said about it.
I experience this sentiment in Korea, a sort of defiant, spoiled son who hates his step-dad, despite old Sam being the best dad he's ever had.
The problem with America isn't that it's uncultured, stupid, ignorant, and so forth.. but that it isn't. It didn't become the biggest bully on the cell block except by its strengths.

One of the points of argument I've had with Americans regarding Jihadists was how much shit they talk. If the Jihadists are really a bunch of wife-beating, cave dwelling numbskulls... how are they scoring against you time and time again?

For all the talk of America's demise, it's still owning the whole Earth culturally, economically, and geopolitically. What you must ask yourself, as an anti-American, is why. If the first thing out of your mouth is 'America stupid', then you're not wrapping your mind around the true threat.
Niccolo and Donkey
America's power is based on the luck of geography with no hostile bordering states and abundant natural wealth and history in which rivals demolished themselves either through war or through ideological/economic reasons.

America's economic might as leverage is gone. They're indebted to shit and geopolitically they've been suffering setback after setback this past decade with the only win being Libya. They are now entering the most dangerous phase in which their economic leverage is gone and all they have is military strength. Meanwhile, others are beginning to rise and/or restore themselves.

The author does touch upon a key point though, the lack of a bullshit detector/inherent cynicism amongst Americans that manifests itself in American Exceptionalism. The Duopoly plays ping pong with American minds in respect to a partisanship that will forgive their own side for almost anything, leading to an incredible amount of cognitive dissonance.
Then Australia, Canada, Argentina, etc could be just as powerful.
It took that vast geography from others, by the way, superpowers like Spain. America's power preceded its vast geography, which only augmented its power.

America still ranks near the top in every measure. It would rank even higher if not for being inundated with Blacks and Mestizos, who bring its score down in such basic measures as literacy and life expectancy.

America owes its power to many factors, many deliberate, not sheer and total luck.

America is indebted but it doesn't mean much.

That America can spare the time and energy to losing wars of choice on behalf of some firms and foreign lobbies is a sign that the empire is strong, not weak. War for America is now basically a hobby where Uncle Sam throws in a token force and hopes to get something back for the small investment.

In a consequential war that mattered to the American public's survival, the world would be witness to nightmares it has never known.

All in all, the world still orbits around the US. Not any less than it did in 1991.

That's right. Americans have had it so good that they don't bother to care if they're being lied to. Again, this is a sign of a strong and secure country... that the people have known so little danger to themselves they'll wave their hands in consent to anything their government might like to pursue.
Niccolo and Donkey
None of those countries have the population of the USA, not even close. Argentina sabotaged itself through poor economic policies, Canada's too cold, Australia's too remote.

This doesn't disprove the general stupidity of Americans. Americans have succeeded in spite of themselves.

The only factor that wasn't total luck of geography or history is the economic policies that it engaged in. And once again this was predicated on having no natural rivals and the luck of having two oceans to protect it from invasion.

No, this is incorrect and easily proven by the fact that more and more countries are dropping the greenback in direct trade between states.

A strong country doesn't have 16% of its people on food stamps.

A secure country doesn't engage in the most widespread intel monitoring in history on its own citizens.

I'm not saying that the USA is going to collapse, but it is going on a downward trajectory...a fact that even its own planners concede which is why they're rushing to assert hegemony in as many theatres as possible.
America's large population came from being an attractive, strong, immigration target.
Canada is about as cold as Europe, isn't it? Russia at least. No excuse for not being a superpower.
Argentina sabotaged itself, while America didn't.
America became strong by being remote, Australia didn't become strong because it was remote?

I agree that they're generally ignorant of topics that are important in Europe, for example. But that's because they don't need to be interested, again, because they're strong and secure.

America spent most of its history pinched between European Empires, including its mother empire, Britain. Only when it was strong could it take dominion of the Western Hemisphere.
Your mistake is saying America is strong because of its population, isolation, economics... etc... when all of those things came on the back of America's strength.

They could trade in bitcoins if they like, the US would remain on top. How is this relevant?

That it has the might to feed its starving spics and niggers and not even notice it is astounding.

Then China is not rising?

American interventionists exaggerate America's problems abroad, or make them up entirely, to scare the public into supporting intervention. Hitler's Germany posed no threat to the US, yet Roosevelt's gang was able to convince the people that they'd be speaking German soon enough. You are the equivalent of an observer in 1941 saying, 'See, America's going to get it this time, the White House is shaking in its boots, boy golly!'