Catfish and Cod
Thursday, May 20, 2004
America is Frankenstein -- and that's a good thing.
(Link path: F*** France, Catfish and Cod, USS Clueless)
I see from the referrer logs that I've been linked to by a American-boosterism page called "F France", who are touting my post as a reason to disapprove of the French and boost American exceptionalism.
That's not exactly what I had in mind. As I said in the last post:
I don't agree with them, but I understand it, and I don't get angry when I hear it. They're not my enemy. They're just wrong.
Contrast this with a FF commenter:
We are a more advanced species because we've taken the best of humanity, accepted a common language and ideology, and moved forward while the rest of the world stood still or went backward.
That's not exactly what's going on.
The American experiment has suceeded where other attempts failed, to a large degree, because of the relatively clean sheet we got to work with. American society started virtually from scratch. We were able to take "the best of humanity" because we were in a New World with few preconceived notions of how a society should be run. That meant we were able to set up societies that simply couldn't exist in Europe -- the Plymouth Colony is a good example.
Every attempt to revolutionize European society (and there were many, all through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution) had to start with a basic cultural matrix that was already in place. Attempts to ignore that cultural matrix and apply a completely new template generally ended in failure and brutal tyranny. Examples include the Thirty Years' War, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Paris Commune, the Spanish Civil War, the.... I think you see the point. Only by adapting a political idea to the society in which it was implemented could such an idea be accepted, and only once it was accepted could it succeed.
And one of the biggest impediments to acceptance of a new idea in governance, or in culture, or in politics, was its origin from some other nation. Englishmen didn't want to hear about the Rights of Men from the French. Austrians would never take advice from the British on how to order their government. Peter the Great had to use terror and violence to force Russians to adopt European styles and attitudes, and so on.
The English colonies in America were generated as the result of the English takeover of several other nations' colones. New York was once the New Netherlands; Maryland was New Sweden; and there were Germans and Danes and whatnot scattered along the coast in the 1600's. All these were swept up by 1700 into the block of English colonies that became the United States. From the beginning, then, we were cosmopolitan; after independence, we became more so as people flooded in from every corner of Europe. As a result, we had far less resistance to the idea of adopting ideas from people of other races, colors, or creeds.
Because we had a much weaker "autoimmune system" in our body politic, we were able to stitch together (and add to!) a totally new society from Europe's cast-off parts. The skeleton of that society came from Great Britain; it incorporated a number of things the British wanted to do with their government (and eventually did) but were temporarily unable to enact because of their heritage. Another pile of good ideas came from the French, from the ideas of Voltaire and the Paris salons. You couldn't get people in London to adapt French ideas -- but you could in Philadelphia. Some more ideas, with attached warnings, came from Poland, where the "Democracy of the Nobles" had shown the powers and the pitfalls of republican government for centuries. (Who in England or France would pay attention to the affairs of the Poles? They're having trouble doing it even now.) And a few key ideas, such as seperation of powers, came from our neighbors the Iroquois. (If you think Europeans had resistance to taking ideas from other European powers, imagine their resistance at adopting the ways of a Native American state.)
If you'll look at the ideas underpinning European states today, you'll find that the two countries most like America, the two whose self-concept embraces ideals of citizenship as well as culture or language, are.... Britain and France! The experience of the British Empire caused the British to reconsider the definition of "Britishness"; as a result, there are large numbers of Pakistani, Indian, black, Caribbean, and other races and peoples who live in Britain (and have for generations!) and consider themselves as British as the next man. Being British means embracing the "rights of Englishmen" as well as their ways. In France, too, the whiplash of governmental reinvention over the last two centuries has caused the concept of bring "French" to embody the ideals of securalism and "liberte, egalite, fraternite" as much as the French language or attitude. And while the embrace of American ideals is a key part of becoming American, there is definitely an acculturation process as well, as our immigrants learn to speak, act, and think American. America's differences with Europe are, in many ways, in degree and not in kind.
But there is one glaring difference between the European and American immigration experiences that stands out like a beacon. America believes that its immigrants are essential to its identity as a nation, while Europeans feel that their natural-born are the heart of their identity. As a result, European immigrants are often the least attached to their adopted home, while American immigrants are the most attached.
I don't think that Europe has been "standing still or going backwards". I think the European peoples have been trying just as hard as we have. But they've been struggling under some limitations. The European Union, for all its faults, is an attempt to remove some of those limitations. One of the long-term goals of European integration is the development of a "European consciousness", a sense of allegiance to Europe as a whole, rather than solely to your country of origin. The idea is that a population that puts Europe first would be able to exchange money, ideas, and so forth in the free-form way that America does.
It's a great idea, and I hope it works. I just think it'll take a while, and I think a number of stupid decisions (some of them made by, yes, the French) are impeding that project.