February 7, 2005
The Sound of No Hands Clapping
Martin E. Marty
We (Alexis de) Tocquevilleans enjoy that great French genius's enjoyment of the United States in the nineteenth century, and like to laud his laudatory comments on Democracy in America. Most praiseworthy was his praise of Americans for boundary-breaking and community-making. So it was unsettling to read the last two sentences of Tony Judt's review of three new books on Europe and America. Judt is not an America-basher, and is critical of the bashing done by two authors he is reviewing. But after assessing their work, he ends with this: "Boundary-breaking and community-making is something that Europeans are doing better than anyone else. The United States, trapped once again in what Tocqueville called its 'perpetual utterance of self-applause,' isn't even trying."
The three books Judt considers show that for a growing number of Europeans "it is the 'American way of life' that cannot be sustained." His authors hear many Europeans sounding like preachers, back when they preached against "the American pursuit of wealth, size, and abundance -- as material surrogates for happiness .... Contemporary mass culture in the U.S. is squalid and meretricious. No wonder so many Americans turn to the church for solace."
Judt finds Europeans noting America's well-documented cultural peculiarities: "the nation's marked religiosity, its selective prurience, its affection for guns and prisons ... and its embrace of the death penalty." Europeans think there's something wrong with the U.S. when the top 1 percent control 38 percent of the wealth, when our 5 percent of the world's population generates 25 percent of earth's greenhouse gas pollution, when we are "number one in health spending" and thirty-seventh in quality of health services. They are puzzled by how Americans work things out, because while being number one in religions (of peace and mercy), we are also by far number one in executing people -- joining only Somalia in rejecting treaties that rule out the death penalty for the under-aged.
Enough. Remember that Judt is trying to be a cool minimalist, a critic of whiners and of the authors under review when they are too sweeping or hyperbolic. It's a "just-the-facts" sort of article designed, I take it, to cause us to stop the self-applause long enough to do some comparing. So he ponders why Europe has a different take on Islam. We are close enough for terrorists to reach us, but Europeans are adjacent to the terrorist-exporting nations and have large Muslim presences, many of them "unemployed, angry, alienated, and increasingly open to the communitarian appeal of radical Islam" -- and thus close-up threats. Still, we don't get it when we wonder why Europeans don't get it.
As Judt sees it, Europe has a "dislike of bellicosity .... American-style belligerent patriotism, as [Timothy] Garton Ash notes, is rare in contemporary Europe." War-making has become the exception in modern international affairs. "The real challenge is preventing war, making peace -- and keeping it." To use more recent linguistic coinage, they don't any longer "get a hoot" out of killing, and worry about staying alive. Our intrusion of "preemptive war" into just war theory perplexes them.
Judt's motive, as I read it, is not to get Americans to engage in "other-applause" for troubled Europe, but to use the telescopes and the mirrors of books like these in fresh efforts to gain wider perspectives in a dire time.
Tony Judt's essay "Europe vs. America" appears in the New York Review of Books (Feb. 10, 2005), where he reviews (most critically) Jeremy Rifkin, The European Dream: How Europe's Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream; and (most favorably) Timothy Garton Ash, Free World: America, Europe, and the Surprising Future of the West and T.R. Reid, The United States of Europe: The New Superpower and the End of American Supremacy.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.