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Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
George Bernard Shaw once famously remarked that the British and the Americans were two peoples divided by a common language. We use the same words, but the meanings and nuances we associate with them are often radically different. In today’s complex world, the “post-9/11 world” as it is too often called, Shaw’s observation is applicable to relations between the USA and Europe. Europeans and Americans use the language of democratic pluralism and human rights, the market economy and free trade, equality before the law and social justice. Yet the way in which we interpret and apply these concepts can vary radically.
European electorates and governments tend to attach a greater importance to the role of the public sphere, namely the state, in promoting social cohesion. There are exceptions to this rule – Americans can be remarkably “statist” in their approach to public schooling and certain aspects anti-discrimination law. However in general they regard social solidarity as something that arises from voluntary activity, the private sphere, and regard government as a potential threat. Like Europeans, indeed more so in some ways, Americans believe in equality of opportunity. But they are ready to tolerate far greater inequality of outcome than even the most market-oriented nation in Western Europe. Many Americans regard property rights as the guarantor of human rights, indeed their basis, whilst Europeans balance them more evenly against economic and social rights. Americans instinctively distrust big government. Europeans instinctively distrust big business.
These are, of course, generalisations. Europe contains a sizeable band of economic libertarians who wish for a more American “approach” to the economy and society. There are also many Americans, perhaps a majority parts of New England or the San Francisco Bay Area, who believe that the USA can learn something valuable from European social democracy. Nonetheless, there are some broad cultural differences, which are becoming more apparent as Europe struggles to establish its identity as a Union and America experiences extremes of power and vulnerability. America’s ambiguous status in international affairs finds expression in a combative Republican administration, replete with frontier imagery, that seems to place a form of national property rights above international solidarity or even the consideration of other points of view. Europe’s ambiguous status expresses itself often in prickly rhetoric and self-absorption. European hostility to the USA is exaggerated by the American media, although throughout Western Europe, the Bush administration is a source of deep unease. The impression of negativity is created by the absence of a coherent European alternative to President Bush’s “war on terror”, despite the European Union’s claims to be a power in its own right.
In this issue of New European, Karl Pagac seeks to reconcile European and American aims. He argues convincingly that the two sides of the Atlantic need each other at least as much as they did during the Cold War. Rather than setting themselves up as rivals, they should search once again for a common language and focus on those interests and values that unite them, accepting and valuing the differences. On both sides, this requires flexibility. It requires the USA to move away from trigger-happy unilateralism and back towards a consensual approach to international relations. It requires Europe to be less defensively critical and more constructive in its trans-Atlantic engagement. Such outward changes are likely to be part of a wider shift of emphasis, affecting internal politics. In the USA, this means a greater focus on the social dimension, and in the EU it means decentralisation and respect for diversity – the Europe of overlapping circles, not the homogenous “Brussels model”. On both sides of the Atlantic, the inadequacy of simple rhetoric is increasingly apparent.
Simple rhetoric is not a fault that could be ascribed to either John Ruskin or Marcel Proust, whose work is the subject of Cynthia Gamble’s article. Both writers, one English, one French, addressed the complex issues of their age, many of which have changed little except that the cast of characters has changed. They also address more timeless questions, from artistic creativity and passion to the smaller scale, but just as intricate human interactions. Proust is remembered primarily for his novels, Ruskin for his artistic and social commentaries. Both men exerted, and still exert, great influence over their respective cultures. Indeed we can view Proust and Ruskin in part as symbols of unity in diversity. They are profoundly European writers, in the broadest sense, as well as being distinctively English and French. Dr Gamble, a distinguished scholar of both writers, presents the contrasts and continuities between them with imagination and clarity.
Joseph Conrad was a contemporary of Ruskin and Proust. He wrote at a time of widespread social optimism, and so his radically pessimistic vision of humanity failed to resonate with Edwardian England. Indeed it would seem to have more relevance today, when so many notions of human perfectibility have been discredited and the very idea of progress is called into question. How much Conrad’s Polish origins influenced him is a matter for debate, but he was deeply influenced by his experience of Africa, by the vicious immorality and hypocrisy of whites there as much as by the supposed “savagery” of blacks. His “heart of darkness” is not specifically African, but human. Nonetheless, his use of Africa and its people as a metaphor for darkness has aroused a justifiable anger in black people, with which white Europeans would do well to come to terms. Zenga Longmore, a London-based writer who is half-Nigerian, expresses this anger in a bitingly satirical attack on Conrad that makes bracing and salutary reading. Ms Longmore uses this satire wisely to raise some very serious points. Chief among these is her idea that Heart of Darkness, published in 1902, is symptomatic of a shift in European attitudes towards race. In the early twentieth century, there was a growing tendency in Europe to view people from other cultures as not merely “inferior”, but in some way “sub-human”, a sinister Other. This view later extended to European Jews by the Nazis and to “class enemies” by the Communists. Ironically, an element of this attitude towards human beings persists in modern “political correctness”, which treats black people – along with others including Jews, homosexuals and even women – as members of nameless, faceless groups instead of living, breathing, feeling individuals.
Ms Longmore’s thought-provoking piece leads logically to John Coleman’s review of Defying Hitler, by Sebastian Haffner, a memoir of the Third Reich published posthumously by Haffner’s son. It is a story of patriotic idealism and justified national grievance exploited by a demagogue and turned into something evil and dangerous. And yet the story is full of optimism, because it shows the ability of some human beings to stand out against darkness and nihilism. Ronald Butt, an early supporter of New European, used his column in The Times to stand out against destructive libertinism, our contemporary heart of darkness. His Obituary, also written by John Coleman, depicts a keen historian of the Parliamentary system and an exponent of the civilised, thoughtful school of journalism of which we see too little today.