- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 4, 2009

He came and he saw, but he didn’t play the conqueror. Instead, Barack Obama journeyed to Europe, as he put it, to pay attention.

“I don’t come bearing grand designs,” he said. “I’m here to listen.” And the French, the Germans, the British _ weary of being ignored in recent years _ grinned broadly.

In the United States, things play a bit differently.

These nations may be our friends, but skepticism of things European has been woven into the fabric of American culture since the beginning. Sure, we want allies. But when the president acknowledged Friday that “my French and German are terrible” _ well, politically, that might not be such a bad thing back home.

Pragmatism and principle require that Obama talk sweet to European leaders. He needs their cooperation to navigate the economic crisis and the Afghanistan war. He also wants to demonstrate in a global forum that he is following through on campaign pledges to play well with others.

But examine how Europe has played in American discourse over the past few weeks and you’ll find a flurry of uneasy interludes _ images driven by economic troubles, yes, but also by a persisting cultural suspicion that goes all the way back to the first American settlers.

Just last month, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., invoked the specter of an imminent “Europeanization of America” if the Obama administration’s economic initiatives went forward unfettered. Neil Cavuto on the Fox Business Network last week denounced Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., as “Sweden in a suit,” for promoting a bill that would try to keep bailed-out financial institutions from paying their employees hefty bonuses. And there were the British analysts all over cable news whose accents were, more than once, played for laughs.

The American attitude toward Europe _ and by Europe, we usually mean France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom _ goes something like this: Europe is our stalwart and loyal partner … until it isn’t. Friends? More like frenemies.

Because in the United States, “European” as a concept is often deployed to mean unpleasant and undesired _ and, most saliently, un-American. Effete intellectualism! Nationalized medicine! Class-based arrogance! Bad electronic dance music! A lack of masculinity!

“There’s that visceral hatred of effetes,” says Richard J. Golsan, a Texas A&M; French professor who studies the political relationship between the United States and Europe. “You have a lot of reaction against the French and Europeans as heathens and bon vivants. … And there is an increasing sense, or was until recently, that the Europeans were not doing their part to defend the West and Western democracy.”

Now, the suspicion has a handy and relevant political container _ socialism. Those who oppose Obama’s recent economic initiatives and big business interventions find a ready target in European social and economic policies that lean more toward command and control than American-style capitalism.

The implication is that more government-focused social policies such as Europe’s are way stations on the road to Soviet communism. No matter that modern European approaches, while socialistic in name and sometimes in practice, are a far cry from what was practiced in Khrushchev’s Kremlin.

But politically, does invoking European socialism work in America?

“The problem with using socialism is that even Ronald Reagan had stopped using that. It had sort of dropped out of the formula,” says John Baick, a historian at Western New England College in Massachusetts whose specialty is the contemporary United States.

“I’m not sure if the American people really know or care about socialism,” Baick says. But whether they do or not, the very word _ and how it’s usually uttered, almost as an epithet _ is enough to redirect the debate. It manages both to summon vague Cold War ghosts and tweak the pervasive American sense that weak-minded European systems undermine rugged individualism.

Republican strategists see little risk in occasionally fomenting the suspicion of Europe that lurks under the American surface. Obama, on the other hand, must handle matters carefully lest he be cast, as Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., was in the 2004 presidential campaign, as more inclined toward Europe than America.

This wary-of-Europe line is unsurprising in a nation that came into existence by rejecting its British masters. But it really came into its own in the 1820s with Andrew Jackson. His early American populism was built upon rejection of European mores _ and, by extension, those of the American founding fathers _ as highbrow and out of touch with the common man. Sound familiar? Check out some of the speeches at the 2008 GOP convention to see how it endures.

France is a particular object of annoyance in modern American culture, despite its longtime status as a staunch ally that has both helped us and required our help. A backlash against France for its unwillingness to support George W. Bush’s approach to the Iraq War in 2003 led to the temporary demonization of French wine and the emergence of “freedom fries.” We remain a society that, when we think of France, are as likely to summon an image of Pepe Le Pew, the cartoon skunk, as we are Renoir or Voltaire.

Yet quick redemption is also a hallmark of the American character. And the young Obama administration’s fundamental differences in style, if not policy, from its Bush-era predecessors are beginning to soften how Americans view their cross-Atlantic counterparts, Golsan says.

Nevertheless, it remains delicate in a post-Bush era for a president to say that America “may not always have the best answer” _ and, what’s more, say it in Europe. So when Obama tells a town hall gathering in France that “we must not give up on one another,” and that “we must renew this relationship for a new generation in a new century,” he is making more than a diplomatic and economic statement.

He is saying, in effect, that while there may be disagreements, the Europe of 2009 is the United States’ undisputed friend. At least until it isn’t.


EDITOR’S NOTE _ Ted Anthony covers American culture for The Associated Press.

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