Tl;dr There’s a strange sense of superiority that comes from Western Europeans when they discuss US politics. It’s frustrating, misleading, and unproductive.
Ok, folks. This is a hard one. And it has nothing to do with my usual themes. But it’s something I’ve been struggling with for a while, so, strap in, prepare to be a little uncomfortable, be ready to challenge me, and read on.
I’m American. I grew up in the Boston area and then went and spent five years in London, England. As a language student, I’ve also spent a decent amount of time in France and Finland and have a couple of slightly-more-than-acquaintances from that communal experience of spending too much time in a hostel. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that, even though I’m American, my contact with the world has, most recently, been through Western Europe and Western Europeans, including England/the English.
I was in London when Obama was re-elected. I made a pie to celebrate, with a happy face, for one of my new London friends. I argued politics with my flatmate, an American exchange student who had cluelessly voted for Romney. And kind of forgave her? I argued politics with basically anyone in my vicinity. I tried to explain the electoral college (I’m not sure if it’s possible to succeed at that). It was a good time to be an American in London.
The general sentiment I got from the people around me, my fellow Londoners was, “Your country sucks, but hey, glad to see it’s not a huge disaster and will probably not come eat us up anytime soon” and “Your country is not as good as ours in terms of XYZ issue, but it’s going ok at the moment.”
And it was this particular moral superiority that I would get from almost any European when we discussed politics. No matter what, Europe was always slightly better than the US on all issues. I was fine with it, as long as the US was vaguely salvageable, and I was young and overzealous and hated my country, but there were also signs of how this was a problem.
The one moment that still sticks in my mind is a planning meeting for a trans discussion. The trans rep at my school proposed a number of issues to be considered. Young, overzealous me, thinking about two trans women’s hunger strikes in prison that I had been reading about right as I left the US, looked at the list and went “well, what about prisons?” I was assured by everyone present that that was a purely American issue, things like that didn’t happen in the UK. And then, a few years later, names like Vikki Thompson were being uttered around the London trans community, and my heart ached in horror and confusion because I had wanted so much to believe that the UK was better, not just different. I mentioned the original discussion to one of my now trans friends in London recently, and they looked at me in bafflement and more or less said that those people had no idea what they were talking about.
It’s a cover. When someone is too busy going “oh, well, we’re better than over there”, it becomes so much harder to see that the same things are happening around them, just in different ways.
Once it became clear that France’s reaction to terrorism was to increase racism, once political figures in Finland were making openly anti-immigrant comments, once Scotland remained stuck to the UK (poor thing) and the UK itself started hurtling down the path to Brexit, I started to notice how much more this superiority was grating on me.
See, it’s not just that the US is a mess (it is) and a really scary country to have around when you’re not protected by it (because, well, we’re allowed to have nuclear weapons, it’s everyone else that’s not, *sigh*), it’s this sense of “well, at least we’re not that bad” coupled with, “well, you’re American, so you have to be on and prepared to care about this at all times of the day” while they studiously ignore whatever their own country is up to.
The way Europeans talk about the US, it makes their country sound like a utopia. I had someone explain to me once that there was no racism in their country. At all. I found myself (and still find myself) regretting not saving all the articles I had read over the years that told me the exact opposite. And this person then found it completely acceptable to send me pointed facebook messages about American politics in the middle of the night and then be insulted when I didn’t respond.
Some of this, I know, comes from just not understanding the way the US works. States’ rights? The electoral college? The fact that the driving age is different in Every Fucking State? That’s completely baffling for even the best US politics hobbyist. And hell, not even a lot of Americans understand (I wouldn’t claim to understand the whole thing myself).
And news of the US is publicized a lot more readily in Europe than European news is publicized in the US. It’s easy to look at the big, dramatic news coming out of the US and go “yup, it’s a bunch of clueless heathens over there.” Everything looks like a giant disaster when you have oceans and time zones and knowledge gaps in the way, even when it’s the same thing happening in different ways right next door.
Some of this is the Americans’ fault. In particular, liberal Americans that like Europe have a habit of looking towards Western Europe (especially Norda/Scandinavia) and going “oh! They have everything figured out, it’s so much better over there!” (think of how one of Bernie Sanders’ big selling points was Scandinavian-style socialism, or how obsessed we are with Finnish education, when, in fact, some discussions I’ve had with Finnish parents have shown me it might be a good system, but it’s far from perfect). We look at our medical bills and then look at the UK’s National Health Service and go “oh my! Free healthcare! That’s amazing”, completely disregarding the way the NHS has been failing due to lack of funding. So, it’s easy for a European to look at whatever particular thing is not quite working out at the moment, take a look at the Americans talking about how great it is, and go, “well, the Americans are still amazed by XYZ thing, so we might not be doing amazing, but at least we’re doing better than them.”
And it’s hard to fight that. Even now, the first facebook commentary I usually see on American news is from a European, making a pointed, generalized comment about how all Americans aren’t aware enough of their own current events.
Here’s the thing: The US is hard right now. So is Europe. It takes a lot less energy to look at the politics happening an ocean away, process the emotions, make jokes, and have commentary. It was easier for me to process all news when I lived in London because I had physical distance from the US and distance from the UK in terms of not being a citizen. But, especially for any of us that fit one of the groups being targeted by our current “administration”, living this is sometimes enough.
No. The US isn’t perfect. It’s currently a shitshow. But so are a lot of other countries, regardless of amount of shitshow. We all have our own shit to live and deal with and it’s hard. We need to learn from each other’s countries and support each other, especially when things are so hairy. We can’t do that if there’s some kind of unspoken competition to not be the worst.
(I end this by quietly side-eyeing myself and my fellow Bostonians for turning quite similar attitudes towards other states. We’re really not as great as we like to think…I mean, I still like to think it sometimes…)