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October 10, 2003

Typology II : Us/U.S. vs. Them

One month ago I wrote a piece titled The Typological Temptation that focused on the human tendency to classify in a sloppy fashion to throw a negative light on those who you perceive as your ideological enemies. To see the nuance in those you disagree with on point x can be difficult sometimes, and it is easy (conventional) to infer a, b, c... from point x. It is easy because one assumes that they share the same axioms or hold anti-axioms, when in fact the sum totality of the other typology might be more orthogonal than oppositional[1].

This post was supposed to be about the Europe vs. America 'tiff (read: France vs. the American Right). But I realized that that issue was in many ways a symptom of a greater problem. Of course, I have only a certain perspective, that of the American, but I bring to the table neither a hatred for the American Right (in which I generally place myself), nor a disdain for European ways (Europe was the incubator for "Western" values). Additionally, there are other nuances that might be neglected by such a singular focus-expanding the canvas to the whole world is probably most appropriate for a generalized understanding of the issue.

I don't know how many times I have heard from friends and read in the Left press (and yes, sometimes stated myself), "But in Europe...." This extends to other cultures where I see people of a Leftist bent assert "other cultures are more...." followed by praising their traits and denigrating the faults of the United States. The most simple analysis is that it is selective culling of the data-but there is something deeper going on-American liberal intentions are foisted upon peoples that behave the way they do for very different reasons. This extends even to the European context. In the Left's praise of non-America, they often highlight diversity undergirded by a sensibility that assumes that fundamentally those nations are the same and their motives, interests, etc. are congruent with American (or Left American), ones. The same malady seems to afflict the American interventionist Right, as the tendency to impute nefarious motive by contextualizing all actions in the light of American interests, when other nations may have interests of their own, has been on prime display since 9/11 (the Manichaean typology). On particular issue x those interests might be oppositional to the American position, but there is a tendency to inflate this into a general tendency which might not hold[2].

Let me move to some specifics, the good & the bad, the American Left and the Right.

The American Left looks longingly at the social welfare systems of Europe, which are "socialistic," whether that be a nationalized command economy form (which is in disfavor) or a high tax redistributionist regime (which is still in vogue). The Left and the Right fail to distinguish between the two-even libertarian (Old Whig) philospher and economist Friedrich von Hayek acknowledged that the former was far more injurious to a capitalist economy than the latter. Though the German state for one has generous labor protections-it also arose after World War II under the aegis of ordoliberal economists who conceded that the tax rates and state services would be higher and more generous than they wished, but prevented nationalized industries from distorting the rule of law which allowed the competition of private agents in the market. I prattle on about this minutiae because the details matter in these issues in attempting to ascribe intention and motivation. The European socialist economy is seen by the American Right as a warning, a vision of a dystopian future, while the Left views it as a harbinger of times to come. But European "socialism" is a product of its own history[3].

European nations are more racially homogenous than the United States. There is a strain of thinking that asserts that social democracy can flourish only in this sort of setting-where there is enough genetic relationship and cultural affinity that people will tolerate high taxation regimes. It is perhaps coincidental that the fraying of the Cradle-to-Grave Welfare States of Europe is ocurring in an age when their ethnic homogeniety is diminishing. But no one would deny that many of the anti-immigrant parties have emerged precisely because of the perception that those outside the volk are taking advantage of social services that were meant for co-nationals, which in this context might mean co-ethnics. While liberal whites in the United States often have a very positive view of the social amity in European countries and see the race situation in the United States as a sore spot and blight upon our nation-immigrants like me who have relatives who live(d) in Europe tend to be more guarded. Europeans are honest about their feelings, look at surveys (go to page 43, PDF) and you will see that immigrants-which often translates to "people of color" in general-have a lower reputation and status in European nations than the United States. Until recently Germany determined citizenship by blood.

Additionally, many American Leftists tend not to see the downsides of social policies they view favorably. For instance, the idea that higher education should be free (or the charge be nominal) is something that is touted by many Americans, and certain politicians in the United States have come close to this view. But it comes at a cost-to make higher education freely available it must be restricted. Additionally, in places like Britain, all taxpayers fund the education of a small elite. Ideally, this makes sense if the system produces doctors, engineers, etc. who serve the population at large, but I see less justification for producing literary critics, financial analysts, etc. at public expense. The tough labor laws that exist in Europe come at a cost-high youth unemployment and reluctance by employers to hire. The costs might be worth the benefits, but too often people ignore them.

Sometimes the result of importing ideas from another context might be disastrous. The tracking system common in much of Europe for secondary school has been espoused by people all across the political spectrum in the United States. But one result of the tracking system in this country is that black and Latino students tend to fall into lower tracks, while whites and Asians are in the higher tracks. In European countries the same racial segregation was never an issue, at least before the arrival of non-white immigrants. The American educational system, at least at the secondary level, has always aimed to produce citizens. In European nations, where the sense of history and ethnic nation-hood has greater hold, such feelings might be organically produced from the general environment. Ergo, they can afford to do tracking because it does not produce anomie in the society.

Turning to the Right-too often conservatives decry European godlessness, socialism and anti-Americanism. On the first, the United States is a special country. It is wealthy & religious. Though there might be disputes of the level of violence (and the United States is a large country with internal variations that are extreme)-it seems clear that the death of God has not led to amorality[4]. Though socialism has its costs, it has not led to the totalitarian society that Hayek predicted in Road to Serfdom. It depends on how you view the difference principle. Europeans tend to interpret it in a more Rawlsian fashion-they keep a minimum standard of living for the least, while Americans tend to take a riskier stand, assuming that individuals will gamble that they will reap the rewards of unfettered capitalism undampened by a social democracy. Even within the United States, there are differences, Minnesota and Texas might be seen as antipodes in terms of the spectrum of socialism vs. capitalism, and I think one could make and argument that either the former or latter are preferable depending on your axioms.

The last issue, anti-Americanism, is a tricky situation. I believe some of the problem lay in the fact that Americans tend to cast our foreign policy in moralistic terms, that we are the City set upon the Hill in Puritan terms, but our actions tend to evince a more conventional realism. If American interests are congruent with democracy, republicanism and freedom, anyone that opposes America by definition opposes these values, no? Well, that I doubt, because I think it is clear that the United States works in its own interest. Once you subtract the moral dimension, on both sides of the Atlantic, you then enter a much more rational game of Great Powers, and mysterious enmity transforms into opposing interests.

To move to a greater world stage, let me address the issue of other cultures & nations. Anti-globalists on the Left often make the case that the farmers and villagers of the Third World, who live without electricity, use local organic farming methods and exist in an economic mode close to subsistence uninformed by transnational trade are somehow more virtuous and closer to authentic human modes of life. To the latter point, our evolutionary background is as hunters and gatherers, not peasant farmers. To the first point, this is an attribution error, the lack of modern amenities is surely situational, those who live "close to nature" often wish to have the fruits of modernity, and it is rare that I see anti-globalists moving to Kenya to live in an unelectrified village. Again, there is an ignorance and willfull blindness to local conditions set by historical context that produces the situation that it does, and a projection of outside sensibilities.

Let me go to an even more bizarre example. Americans often scoff at the puritanical nature of our society. I scoff quite often as well. But look at the natives of the Amazon, many of whom go about naked, are they less puritanical? In some ways they are, but I remember reading that women always sit in a fashion so that their labia are not exposed.

And so is exposed the paradox. Humans are both the same and different in ways that are often juxtaposed by the conventional preconception, both high and low. All peoples have elements of puritanism-though the mode of expression varies! All nations have interests, but the path to achieving the ends of national interest may be very different! Instead of acknowledging the complexity spawned by the truth of this, there is a flipping of reality. When Americans see a naked Brazilian tribesmen, they might conceive that these are people who live in a "state of nature," untouched by conventional sensibilities. They see their nudity, and presume that they are untouched by shame. The reason is that from their own perspective, those who are nude are by definition shameless! Of course, the concept of shame exists in the almost all cultures, it is simply manifest in different ways.

Back to the First World. Americans of all states, Europeans of all nations, have certain universal needs and wants. These wants lead to higher level of conceptual organization, and so forth. By organizational level n they are literally a thousand flowers. Socialism, nationalization, capitalism, Thatcherism, communism, the social market, etc. They are all ways of arranging human affairs to achieve social harmony. Whether it is church, kirk, kirche, temple, mosque, etc. They all worship something, and come together to perform rituals. And yet the worshippers of other gods are always worshippers of devils, and the reverse of course! Again, you see the inability to move beyond personalized (and culturally conditioned) axioms, to universal axioms.

Ultimately perhaps our public discourse, world-wide, needs to go back to first principles, and frame questions of difference and convergence of values in such a fashion[5].

What is a good life?

What is moral?

What is a community?

What is necessary?

What is a luxury?

etc. etc.

fn1. The most obvious example of this is the American political scene. For instance, as a libertarian, I have often been cast as oppositional by both liberals and conservatives (as they emphasize the differences between my position and theirs) rather than orthogonal-which is most accurate I believe.

fn2. France for instance is a power that wishes to maintain its independence from transnational interests when those interests diminish the relative power of France. In the long run the United States and France might once again become allies against the pressure of smaller more self-effacing powers who wish to embed themselves into transnational institutions and drag the greater ones in as well.

fn3. The socialist moment in Europea may already reached its high water mark.

fn4. One thing to note-high levels of out-of-wedlock birth in many European nations (especially Scandinavia) are not the same the pattern in the United States-rather, adults tend to stay unmarried and "co-habitate," rather than it being teenagers that is more often the case in the United States. Also, I ignore intra-European differences in religious devotion, which are wide-but I see no general trend that more religious = more social harmony, etc.

fn5. The question "Why do they hate us?" has been too often been answered by American guilt (we wronged them) or greatness (they envy our freedom). The answer is is probably textbook sized, not Nightline friendly sound-bites, and too often the focus is upon America, as if other peoples have no motive uninspired or uninflamed by American action and ideal. One legend goes that the September 11th bombers referred to the victims on the planes as "animals" in their correspondence-and one of the first things you learn in cultural anthropology is that a tribe often define themselves as "people" and others as "not people."

Posted by razib at 02:46 PM

Totally off topic... but do y'all know any masochists from talk.origins who might want to bang their heads against this particular bit of idiocy?


Posted by: Kathy K at October 10, 2003 04:46 PM

kathy, i responded to the genius.

Posted by: razib at October 10, 2003 04:50 PM

And (more) on topic (for this blog). I'm sure it's occured to you that some of the European vs American (and Australian) disagreements might be due to a form of natural selection? It's the most individualist and determined individuals who will tend to migrate to a totally new environment.

I am not implying that we are different species (yet) but if we could continue that process for enough generations (expanding off earth would be necessary), I suspect we would become such.

Posted by: Kathy K at October 10, 2003 04:58 PM