I recently visited France and Spain, which like most of Western Europe are not strangely alien to an American, but are definitely different from the United States. The Western European approach to organizing society, along with the pace of life there, is fascinatingly distinct from that of the United States. Europeans seem to be more relaxed, more courteous (even in Paris), and less harried than are most Americans. In France, every encounter begins with a polite “bonjour, or bonsoir monsieur or madame”. Practice that, and even most Parisians will respond agreeably.
The economies of Western Europe are a mix of free-market capitalism and a sturdy welfare safety net. The latter, typically demonized as “socialist” by certain ideologues here in the United States, appears to work well in most of Western Europe, although it is struggling in some nations, notably Greece, Spain and Portugal, where people may have taken abusive advantage of the welfare safety net. Other nations, particularly Sweden and Germany, have periodically and sensibly adjusted their welfare systems to curtail drifting into excess.
For most western Europeans, a decent standard of living is assured by the free market/welfare mix. Health care and higher education are not the wrenching concerns that they are in the United States. And, although there is economic stratification in Europe, (they too have a 1 percent), economic cannibalism in the pursuit of wealth and competitive displays of affluence are not the obsessions that they are here in the United States. Most Western Europeans, regardless of their place on the economic food chain, seem content with their lifestyle and level of material comfort.
Maybe the horrors of the French Revolution endure in the collective European psyche, and so liberty, equality and fraternity are maintained at safely acceptable levels. So, cake for everyone!
The European experiment in economic unification, the European Union, is fragile, especially against the lingering affects of the Great Recession. Why do the French and especially the German governments continue to devote huge sums of money propping up the weaker EU nations to sustain the union? Perhaps it is because of Europe’s bellicose history.
Geographically, Europe is about the size of the contiguous United States, but contained in that space are a multitude of divergent cultures, languages and ethnicities — all proudly protective of their individual identities.
For example, in the Basque region of southwest France and northern Spain all the signage includes the Basque language along with French or Spanish. While there, I was firmly reminded by the locals that I was not in France or Spain but in Basque Navarre — even though Navarre has long since officially disappeared.
Europe always seems to be breaking up along cultural-ethnic fissures into smaller sovereignties: Yugoslavia into Bosnia, Slovenia, Serbia, et al. Czechoslovakia into Slovakia and the Czech Republic; now Scotland wants to be free of the United Kingdom, Catalonia to be free of Spain, and Belgium has begun bifurcating. Switzerland, exceptionally, keeps itself together in spite of four official languages and various ethnicities.
The history of Europe is one of bloody conflicts among geographically close but diverse neighbors. World War II was the conflagration that convinced Europeans to try something else. And so, European unification is so very important, especially to France and Germany, who since Roman times have repeatedly battled each other.
What threatens a unified, peaceful Europe is the same thing that makes it so charming — the close proximity of so much diversity. Now, the huge influx of Muslim and Eastern European immigrants into Western Europe aggravates that threat. France, the UK, and recently Sweden, are suffering increasing social upheaval and domestic violence from this influx. Because the Muslim populations tenaciously cling to their religious-based culture, they do not readily assimilate into the mainstream. The French people I had occasion to chat with fear that the Muslim situation will not resolve itself peacefully.
There is a lesson here for the United States.
In recent decades, elements of the U.S. intelligentsia have made persistent efforts not only to tolerate diversity but also to celebrate and encourage it. California is effectively a bilingual state now. What made America great was the melting pot, not the stew pot. It is fine to have St. Patrick’s Day parades, Cinco de Mayo celebrations, and to recognize that our ancestors came from somewhere else, but it is not conducive to national unity to promote and sustain separate languages and cultures as equivalent to the common language and common culture of America.
There is much to admire and emulate about the European approach to organizing society, sharing the wealth and enjoying life, but overemphasis on diversity and what separates people is not something we want to copy. Unlike Europe, struggling for the social-economic blessings of unity among its diverse peoples, the United States is united. Let’s not blow it by promoting differences and tinkering with immigration policy so that the nation is flooded with people whose attitudes and beliefs are inimical to e pluribus unum.
— Randy Alcorn is a Santa Barbara political observer. Contact him at email@example.com, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.