Thursday, September 22, 2005

The maturity of "Old Europe" and real "Western Values"

You often hear people talk about “western values”. The phrase is usually used in relation to all those values that we in the western/European world have in common. We don’t give it much thought. It rolls in and we accept the concept without critically thinking about if there is any logic behind it. The idea being that western values includes Europeans and us and the connection being that our country was founded on European enlightenment principles. So therefore we must share some progressive European idea about how the world is and how humans should interact. European democracies and the United States share a value of freedom and liberties but clearly that is where those similarities end.

I would posit that the way Americans and Europeans view liberty and freedom are different. Americans prize above all else the individual liberties, the right of each person in the United States to self-determination. In Europe the emphasis of liberty and freedom is a societal belief that freedom isn’t truly achieved if it isn’t shared equally by all in society. There are subtle variations from country to country in Europe on how this is played out, but the common theme is the importance of the society. Europeans, conservative and progressive alike, take great pride in the social welfare of their people.

Some in American society value individual liberties more than others, libertarians being the extreme example, but all Americans prize individual opportunity. Our society holds entrepreneurial spirit above all else. Look at who we covet in our country; Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Mark Cuban and others. Our nation reveres the entrepreneur, the self-made man who amasses great wealth and/or economic power.

The dollar is the singular driving force behind most all decisions. That is not to say that other things are not valued on an individual basis, but you would have a difficult time convincing me that anything is more important in our society then money. Look at the indicators that we use to measure the strength of our society. They are economic indicators; economic growth, new home sales, the purchase of durable goods, the performance of stocks and bonds. You rarely see headlines touting how many people have been lifted out of poverty or how many uninsured people have been transferred into the ranks of those with health insurance. Likewise the economic indicator of consumer confidence is not held as particularly important by our Federal Reserve Bank.

I know this sounds a lot like America bashing, but tough luck. You’ll get no apology from me. You’ll have to sit there in the ring, like Sonny Liston and take the beating that Cassius is handing out. I am not apologizing. To me there is a difference between patriotism and nationalism. People who unquestioningly accept all facets of their country as inherently good are not patriotic, they are nationalistic. Not unlike the Germans who sat on their hands as the Jews in their neighborhoods were packed in freight trains and driven off. Patriotism is something less superficial. When one is a patriot, one loves their country. It does not preclude them from seeing inherent faults. In fact, patriotism drives one to make their country all that it can be, including addressing its weaknesses.

European societies also value liberty and freedom but the emphasis is not placed on the individual but on society. Obviously individual freedoms such as free speech and religious choice in Europe are important and valued as well, but there are limits to the lengths that Europeans will go to protect these freedoms. A case in point is the fact that hate speech is not protected in Germany and in fact, fascist parties are barred from participating in the Bundestag.

You can see that in how fiercely people in Europe protect their welfare states. Of course Europeans value resources and wealth. There is a great entrepreneurial drive in Europe, but it is different. There is a far smaller percentage of mega-rich, but there is also far fewer mega-poor. Societies in Europe have made a decision, conscious or otherwise, to care for all members of society.

I have this notion of societal maturity that is spinning around in my head. Perhaps Donald Rumsfeld hit on something when he referred to Old Europe and the United States’ closeness with the new nations in Eastern Europe. Europe is old, but with that age comes a maturity which America is not yet capable of. We are, in many ways, like the nations of Eastern Europe; immature and unsophisticated. Perhaps when we have been around the block as many times as “Old Europe” we will have matured to the point where we see the value in societal strength as opposed to individual strength. Until then we are doomed to suffer growing pains.