December 20, 2009 5:58 pm

Martian myths that flatter Europe

The Narcissism of Minor Differences: How America and Europe are Alike
By Peter Baldwin
Oxford University Press ($24.95, £14.99)

The United States of America is one of us. It is, on a remarkably large range of indices, more like European countries than these individual countries are like each other. This finding from Peter Baldwin’s meticulous, insistent and elegant book may be shocking to those who, like the English writer Margaret Drabble, are rendered nauseous by contemplation of the monstrous country. Certainly, it is a corrective to the bien pensant European opinion that saw in Barack Obama a proto-European – and who are discovering, especially after his remarkable Nobel acceptance speech in Oslo, that he is, after all, an American leader.

See, especially, that passage in which the president said he could not act in the spirit of a Gandhi or a King. “As a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation,” he said, “I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world.” This placed him closer to Ronald Reagan (“the evil empire...”) and George W. Bush (“the axis of evil”) than to his hosts. No degree in political science was necessary to read between the lines of that speech for Mr Obama’s own belief: that this was a frivolous award given for frivolous reasons, based on a misreading of both him and his country.

The misreading so rigorously tested here is that which insists on the US as – in Baldwin’s caricature – an amalgam of “rapster ghetto chic laced with urban poverty or trailer park Appalachia, contrasted with gated-community golf links iced with calorific surfeit and seasoned with prison brutality”. Baldwin overplays his hand a little: this year, BBC series by the historians Simon Schama and David Reynolds have been largely admiring. As Baldwin admits, European working classes like the US, both as a holiday destination and for its popular culture. But his larger point is right.

To prove it, he douses us with data. Americans are less enthusiastic about free trade than Europeans, and their enthusiasm for free markets is at the European average. US workers strike at about the same rate as the Italians, but they are much more highly paid. To be sure, they can be fired more easily, but there are European levels of regulation on hiring them, and their workplaces are safer.

Americans take fewer holidays but it seems not to affect the national mood, for they commit suicide less frequently than most Europeans. That may be because they are generally prouder of their country. US tax, which is on the low side by European standards, is more progressive than the European norm, and tax revenue per head is higher than Ireland, Greece and Switzerland.

Health outcomes are not good, especially given the huge amounts spent. People live shorter lives (though not much – three years less than the Euro leader, Italy) and more infants die. On the other hand, cancer cure rates are generally higher and the billions spent on medical research has benefits worldwide. Crime is high, especially the murder rate, and the prisons bulge more; but there are fewer police per head than in Italy and fewer guns per head than in Finland.

The good universities are very good, with high private spending; schools are middling, as is the number of public libraries. Americans vote less, trust government more, volunteer and give to charities much more. They have more faith in God but less in astrology and homeopathy; and they are more welcoming to immigrants. At the same time, they have more gay experiences, more gay marriages and more three-in-a-bed sex than almost all Europeans.

One fact stalks these figures: it is that the black underclass accounts for many of those few areas where a stark difference exists between the US and Europe: “Take out black homicide and the American murder rate falls to European levels. Child poverty rates...fall to below British, Italian and Spanish levels if we look at the figures for whites only.” Baldwin’s conclusion is that what most distinguishes New World from Old “is not a grand opposition of worldviews or ideologies...it is the still unresolved legacy of slavery and its tragic modern consequence of a ghettoized and racially identifiable underclass”.

We Europeans care a great deal about the US; the Americans much less about us. For European intellectuals the US has become – as the German journalist Josef Joffe put it – “less a country, considered soberly in its own right, [than a] canvas, a continent-size Rorschach blot, on which to project their own preoccupations”. Baldwin’s cold shower of statistics should puncture some of these.

The writer is an FT columnist

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