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Right, Left, and Wrong About History

So I was reading this article about how Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the coming of the End of History when the Berlin Wall came down is something that seems, retrospectively, naive and totally mistaken. The article is called Why History Has No End by Victor Davis Hanson and it’s online over at City Journal. Never mind that, in my opinion, one shouldn’t have need of hindsight to see that statement was very foolish. No, I read on anyway… here’s a snippet:

European animosity toward the U.S. also has a snobbish component—an anti-bourgeois disdain that is the dual legacy of Europe’s socialist Left and ancien régime Right. Notice how the latest “nuanced” European criticisms of America often start out on the Left—we’re too hegemonic and don’t care about the aspirations of poor countries—and then, in a blink of an eye, they veer to the aristocratic Right: we’re a motley sort, promoting vulgar food and mass entertainment to corrupt the tastes of nations that have a much more refined tradition. That Europeans now eat at McDonald’s and love Hollywood trash—that’s simply the result of American corporate brainwashing.

Well, I read this and then I think hard. I mean, there is a sense in which I have some eympathy with this apparently European elitist view. Why?

Because of the many things that I can criticize about America and Europe alike, there is one thing I must give Europe: it seems at least to know that there is such a thing as culture. Not all Europeans are cultured, but most Europeans I’ve met seem at least to have some idea that culture does exist. Frenchmen may eat at McDonald’s but they also crave a good brie and some really fine red wine. I think in North America, that other thing is… well, maybe we had it once, but now it’s long gone.

See, I am of the opinion that culture in America has in large part been cannibalized by enterprise. There is no traditional diet left… not like how French people lust after cheese when they can’t get it, like the Frenchmen I know in Korea; not perogies, which not only in Saskatchewan but in Eastern Europe are a staple of many a houseold. (Not to say Canada’s far from America, or like Europe… we have more in common with the USA, but in our small towns you can sometimes escape the influence of the megacorporations a little more… because those places are barely worth investing in.)

Sure, there are great and impressive buildings in North America. There’s even a wonderful cathedral in New Yourk I saw a documentary about. And the Church of St. John the Baptist in Montreal is stunning. But these seem to me to be isolated examples in a wasteland of post-culture. I haven’t gone to Europe but it seems to me the world of the European mind is one with a long history, suffused with events and places of the past as well as of the present. The American imaginary landscape seems to have changed little in the last few hundred years… still boundless vistas and freedom and virtue. Well, for people who are writing about it, anyway. They’re elites themselves, not stuck in mining and steel-towns, and I think theytend to negate the views of many Americans by ignoring them altogether… but that’s for another post.

Anyway, Korea has been a place where I have seen the line more clearly drawn. People have a strong (although sometimes mistaken) sense of what is Korean food, and what is foreign. They tend to be very interested in who among foreigners likes what kind of Korean food. I noticed once when I went to a fast food joint, that there were many many young Koreans there. A friend explained that this was their treat, a way to have something different from the Korean food they always eat at home. I don’t see quite the same distinction in the average North American diet. That food, diet, culture, economics, and power are all tied up together is something I think is more clear to me, though I think most of my Korean friends would not explicitly state the connection. (Most of my Western friends wouldn’t either, unless they were reading Francis Moore Lappé at the time.)

In the novel I am working on, one character simply states her opinion as follows: “People are always whining that Westerners want to kill our Arabic culture and replace it with Western culture. But the fact is, there is no more Western culture anymore. Western culture was just the first to be completely killed off and digested and shat out as consumer culture. The fact that it’s happening to our culture now is a matter of our own choice.” The character, a female Arab student living in the year 2035, is right in her observation that the great Western culture of Europe before the 20th Century is dead… there is nobody now who could be cited as being as stunningly brilliant as Bach or da Vinci, although we’d likely know of him or her if he or she was around, thanks to the speed of telecommunications and the way word spreads these days.

But more important, it’s the way we value—or don’t value—things of culture that make all the difference.

It does not follow in my mind that the EU’s assumption

…that a 35-hour workweek, retirement at 55, ever-longer vacations, extensive welfare benefits, and massive economic regulation can go together with swelling prosperity…

is actually, as Hanson claims, against all economic reason. Rather, I think it stems simply from a rather different experience and understanding of war, of history. American rugged individualism seems to have been suited to a world where history began with the Boston Tea Party. But Europe remembers war, remembers how clearly dangerous and how deeply damaging it is. The German psyche is still scarred, even to the young generation. Buildings all over the continent are defaced by miles of endless scaffolding. Farmers still find detritus of long-long battles in their fields. America, having none of this history, has so much economic impetus to wage war that nothing sways it.

I remember a series of articles I read once, written by Sartre during the War (World War II, that is). Before the conclusion of the war, he was invited to America and toured various places. The first article, written after a tour of a factory and the factory-owned hospital, was titled something like, “The American Worker Is Not Yet the Proletariat”, and while one could simply view this as ideological blindness to a difference in American culture, I prefer to see it as beffudlement as the way Americans thought.

The French remembered a long history of serfdom under illegitimate rulers who used claims based on bloodline, on religion, and on naked force, to safeguard their ownership of France and all within its borders, including the lives of all the people. They remembered that even the French Revolution did not really succeed in destroying this form of rule, but rather fomented the supplanting of old oppressors by new ones. And they remembered the long battle against the new oppressors. They learned that by banding together, they could survive and fight back against exclusion, manipulation, and being taken advantage of.

Sounds familiar, as it sounds like the situation in Saskatchewan of what would later become the mainstream socialist party in Canadian politics, the NDP (New Democratic Party). While these people did not have a history to draw on, they did have a hard situation in the thirties, and they realized that using a kind of institutionalized form of the very natural interdependence which was so central to their lives as settlers and farmers only made good sense, as an ignored and irrelevant group on the periphery of their nation.

This is not to valiantly defend all that the NDP, or the French (and other Europeans) do. It is to question how sincere, aware, and informed the opinions are of someone who thinks that a 35-hour workweek, retirement at 55, and other quality-of-citizens’-life goals in the EU are “utopian”.

It would do us all well, if we think these goals are utopian, to ask ourselves what the most important things in life are. Time, family, friends, and personal happiness come in at the top of my list. Making shitloads of money for an ungrateful employer isn’t even on the list. And I think the EU’s goals are therefore much more humane. America’s goals are great if you don’t mind living without much of a culture beyond that available in the venues of consumption, without any personal engagement with politics to speak of, without in fact much of anything besides work and the ubiquitous drugs of the modern world: alcohol, mediated experience, and the myth of fairytale love. But that, again, is for another post, on another day.

In any case, I would like to echo Swedenborg in saying that The End has already come, for us Westerners, anyway, and nobody saw it happen. It happened long ago, and we’re living in the time after the end. Western civilization is in the main dead, and what we’re living in is some kind of new society, slapped onto the ruins of Western society but made of gyprock instead of marble. It’s Consumerist Society, and like it or not, the rest of the world seems to be choosing it too, for better or worse, at a frightening pace. And for me, those humanist goals of the EU aren’t utopian, any more than life in a nation like America is a utopian goal for someone stuck somewhere in the North Korean countryside. Both goals are realizable, with enough struggle, intelligence, and sacrifice.

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