American Apples And European Oranges

The Hill – a magazine focusing on US politics and especially Congress – tweeted the other day:

The countries listed as “better” than the US in 2018 on that annual US News and World Report list are these: Switzerland, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, Sweden, and Australia. Three of those European countries are – for now, at least – members of the European Union, which is often cited as being “equivalent” to the US. Yet notice the EU overall is not here compared directly to the US, only individual EU countries are.

That sort of disconnect is all too common, and creates various perception problems. I find that what often is missed in such comparisons is the US isn’t a country as much as a continent – much like the area that makes up the European Union. The US contains about 325 million diverse people. (That is over ten times the population of Canada – which has a total population equivalent to EU Spain’s – and most Canadians live within 200 miles of the US northern border.) Americans inhabit four time zones, and most types of geography and climates “from sea to shining sea,” so to speak.

[Waiting for a Metro train. Washington, DC. Photo by me, 2017.]

Europeans experiencing the US in person for the first time are often taken aback at the country’s sheer size. “We can’t drive to Ohio [from Windham, New York] and back in one day,” I finally had to tell my mother-in-law, who wanted to do a round trip visit to distant American relatives there without a sleep over. “It’s at least 7 hours, one way…”

[Google driving overview.]

I added in terms I realized she would better appreciate: “It’s like driving to the Alps.”

[Google driving overview.]

A moment later, she replied: “No wonder so many Americans never leave America. Everything is here for them. They don’t have to come to Europe.”

“What do you mean it’s two and a half hours to drive from Newark?” separately my brother-in-law also once voiced, incredulous at the casual way in which my wife had explained how to get from Newark Airport up to our house in the Catskills. “That’s driving [from London] to bl-ody Birmingham!” he laughed.

[Google driving overview.]

Another new experience for Europeans is the continental use of a main single language – and that English dominance goes back of course to when the US consisted only of 13 then hard-pressed states on the Atlantic coast.

Interestingly during the war for American independence of 1775-83, British ministers came to try whenever possible to use German β€œallies,” or β€œHessian” mercenaries as the Americans called them, in the front lines. Not only were they excellent and ruthless soldiers who terrified the Americans, but the deaths of German soldiers were not nearly as likely to turn British public opinion against the war as would the deaths of British soldiers. Eventually they realized also that since the Americans couldn’t communicate with the non-English speaking Germans easily, the Germans were less likely than British soldiers to be able to be induced to desert by promises of a farm and a pretty American wife. The drip-drip-drip of British young soldiers who disappeared into American communities was a constant source of concern in London’s halls of power. The Americans tried German-language propaganda on the German soldiers as well; but mostly it was in Pennsylvania, where there were many German-speaking Americans with, uh, marriageable daughters, that any numbers of “Hessians” tended to desert.

In short, even amidst (sometimes violent) political differences a shared language still creates a commonality of community that nothing else does. The United Kingdom choosing to leave the European Union organization in 2019 is akin to California, Oregon, Washington State, and Nevada leaving the US. Much is said in media of that UK withdrawal being close to suicidal for the UK (and which yet somehow doesn’t drive it to lower than the US in that survey?), but far less is shared about it being a punch in the gut for the EU as well. Not only will the UK’s economic muscle (and monetary contributions) vanish from the EU, but the EU losing the UK’s 70 million people means English will from then on be spoken as a native language by a far smaller percentage of the 300 million EU population – mostly by only some 4.5 million in the Republic of Ireland.

[Excerpt from Passports. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

Indeed English is often spoken between Europeans who do not speak another common language. Leaving aside the matter of Europe’s having arisen as a multitude of small and distinct countries over centuries, the EU has an even bigger problem which it has not been able to overcome since the founding of the Common Market in 1957, and probably never will. The lack of a dominant language makes creating a continent-wide “ever closer union” in fact close to impossible – although that reality doesn’t appear to stop the idea from continuing to drive EU policies.

We know how difficult it was to build even an American union with its common language. Suspicion and fear of ongoing EU attempts to achieve much the same even without one were an undoubted motivation for some here in the UK to vote in 2016 to leave the EU. Obviously many thought: We are an independent country and wish not to be swallowed up, so get out before London is a few decades from now reduced to a provincial “Sacramento” beholden to Brussels (the home of most EU institutions) as a new “Washington, DC,” and we can’t leave.

So comparing US apples and European oranges is often not useful. Shared English language aside, life in Texas in 2018 can in some ways be as different from life in Vermont as life in Spanish-speaking Spain can be different from life in Swedish-speaking Sweden. Parts of the US are certainly far better to live in than are parts of Europe, as parts of Europe are no doubt superior to places in the US.

[Screen capture of US News and World Report.]

Curiously also notice just above that those “best rankings” were arrived at by US News having surveyed “21,000” of what it termed “global citizens.” As a news provider, US News actually wrote global citizens there without any qualification. It did not even place the term within quotes, which usually indicates an admittance of a concept’s subjective nature.

Nodding to that subjectivity would have been journalistically proper because “global citizen” or “world citizen” is merely a romantic notion. In reality there is no such thing as a global citizen or a world citizen, and there is an easy way to demonstrate it. Consider one Lynn Cole, a US citizen resident in Italy, who in 2014 – during the Obama presidency, long before Trump’s – shared this opinion of herself with The Guardian newspaper:

I am not a god-fearing, gun-toting, flag-waving, red-blooded American but a world citizen, and always have been.

Some Americans abroad are apt to voice an attitude like that until they find they need a US local embassy’s help (particularly as if they’ve gotten themselves arrested)… when overnight they turn into the most American Americans you’ll ever encounter.

In any case, as I wrote back then, she would hardly be the first to fancy herself a “world citizen.” To confirm it, my suggestion for anyone who holds that opinion of him or herself is the next time you approach a border officer in airport arrivals in New York, London, Paris, Rome, or wherever globally, that you inform the officer of that status. A US, or other country’s, passport will no doubt not then be required of you as you are warmly greeted, “Welcome, World Citizen.”

[Stock photo.]

By coincidence, we’ll be in Switzerland this weekend. I had not considered this about the trip until now, but if one believes oneself to be a “global citizen,” who needs a passport, right? Maybe I’ll try saying that to the Geneva Airport immigration officer in arrivals who asks why I’m in his/her country and how long I’m staying?πŸ˜‚

I hope you had a good last weekend, all of you other, umm, “global citizens” out there. πŸ™‚