EDITORIAL: Everything We Think We Know about the US Is Wrong

The fundamental civilizational and cultural differences between America and Europe are a myth. The United States could very well be a member of the European Union.

Of course, this is even less likely than EU membership of the Russian Federation. But it is worth knowing that in every possible aspect, such as attitude to religion, free market, social welfare, public health, wealth indicators, crime, etc., the US have more in common with Western European average than the 28 countries of the European Union with each other.

Prof. Peter Baldwin wrote about it a few years ago in the Prospect magazine. And so, for example, the percentage of wealth concentrated in the hands of the one percent of the richest citizens is the same in the US and in… Sweden (21 percent). A proportion of the poorest larger than in the US can be found in such countries as the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden. Americans, although in Europe considered to be ignorant, statistically borrow, buy, read and write more books than any European nation.

No wonder then that crime in the US is lower than in most Western European countries, including Belgium, France, Denmark, Italy, Sweden, the Netherlands and the UK. The States lead in the inglorious statistics of murders per capita, as well as in the percentage of citizens behind bars, but theft occurs there less frequently than in six countries of Western Europe.

America is regarded as the greatest destroyer of the natural environment. However, fuel consumption per capita as related to productivity is lower in the US than in Portugal, Greece, Belgium, the Netherlands and even Iceland. National parks cover a section of the country which is twice as big as in France, Great Britain and Sweden.

Are Americans religious? Of course they are, but there are less believers in the US than in Portugal or Italy. Nor are they more patriotic than the Portuguese or the Irish, who lead in terms of national pride.

In Baldwin’s text there is a lot of such and similar data. And they come from 2000, that is from before the enlargement of the European Union. Since then, the differences between EU member states have increased (as Baldwin writes: “These new entrants are not just poorer than old Europe. They, like Europe’s many recent immigrants from Asia and Africa, are religious, sceptical of a strong state, unenthusiastic about voting and allergic to high taxes. In other words, from the vantage of old Europe, they are more like Americans”).

Importantly, all the differences notwithstanding, there are more things which Europe and America have in common. And the things they do not share may bring them together. According to Baldwin, one such problem is the legacy of slavery in America which still has not been overcome. If we subtract killings by blacks from the murder rate, American indicators will be better than those in Switzerland; the same applies to infant mortality, which today puts the United States at the level of Third World countries.

However, Baldwin was wrong in thinking that only America had its “ethnically distinct underclass.” To see that, it is enough to look at the position of the Roma in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania, or the situation in the immigrant ghettos of Paris or Rotterdam. The success of anti-immigrant parties in Western Europe and far-right groups such as the Hungarian Jobbik shows that this problem affects election results not only in individual European countries, but also across the continent.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, a Polish bohemist, journalist and author. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel, Bohumil Hrabal, Ota Pavel and Isaac Babel. He won the Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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