Wednesday, March 21, 2007

What Europeans hate about America and why

Just this morning, an American expatriate sent me a link to a site called "Take Me Back to the Sixties". I was enchanted to hear songs that I hadn't heard in years -Percy Faith's "A Summer Place", Elvis' "It's Now or Never", The Animals? "House of the Rising Sun", the Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer in the City", and Buffalo Springfield's "For What it's Worth". Like Thomas Wolfe, abroad back in 1926, I was very nearly overcome by a flood of impressions and memories, some vivid, some only half recalled but felt. (See: The Story of a Novel, Thomas Wolfe, The Creative Process, Brewster Ghiselin) I grooved with the head phones on. At last, sadly, the music turned out to be a right wing come on. Sacrilege.

Earlier, I had witnessed an angry protest of Bush's aggressive war against Iraq. It was a considerable crowd with banners marching peaceably just outside the Palais des Nations. But, again, I had seen a much bigger protest -some 5,000 to 10,000 -in the belly of the beast, Bush's "hometown" of Houston. And, as if to underscore the point a couple of hours later, a BBC program lampooned the growing rift with America. To be fair, the British comics singled out things that even Americans can't stand. I wish I could recall them.

While I admire Voltaire, the spirit of the "Enlightenment", French art, wine, as well as Edith Piaf, it must be pointed out that the French are not always right. French philosopher Jean-Francois Revel, for example, sounds like a NEOCON when he writes: "Democracy may, after all, turn out to have been a historical accident, a brief parenthesis that is closing before our eyes." Hasn't Dick Cheney said something similar of late? Indeed, Revel is considered to be one of the most important conservative thinkers in France. Like the "neo-conservative" movement in America, Ravel saw in America's left wing a threat to what he would call "...the foundations of democracy". Naturally, I see it the other way 'round. It's just as wrong as if Dick Cheney had said it. And he probably did. You shouldn't be surprised if I should tell you that Revel is quoted in The Free Republic.

I've also been channel surfing. Not having counted, I hesitate to say that most of the programming comes from America, specifically Hollywood. But, certainly, much of it consists of US stars dubbed in French. I have seen as many car chases, blonde bimbos, and gangster rappers as I saw in America. If Europe is as appalled by American culture as it claims to be, then why does it insist upon importing the very worst that America has to offer? For example, I have yet to see a Ken Burns documentary on the BBC, though I had seen many BBC programs on American TV. It occurred to me that perhaps I could do both America and Europe a service by enumerating some of the better things about American culture.

At this point, I have only random flashes of American excellence that are too often ignored by the merchants of crap back home and the buyers of crap in Europe. From time to time, however, I will see, on TV, someone of the stature of John Coltrane, Roy Orbison, or Gerard Schwarz. Musicians, whose stock and trade is a universal language, fare better than those whose greatness is language and speech. Even the American intellectual has a bit of metaphorical prairie dust on him/her but, sadly, that is all lost in translation.

I found just such greatness in the works of a lesser known writer, J. Frank Dobie

James Frank Dobie (September 26, 1888–September 18, 1964) was an American folklorist, writer, and newspaper columnist best known for many books depicting the richness and traditions of life in rural Texas during the days of the open range. As a public figure, he was known in his lifetime for his outspoken liberal views against Texas state politics, and for his long personal war against what he saw as bragging Texans, religious prejudice, restraints on individual liberty, and the assault of the mechanized world on the human spirit. He was also instrumental in the saving of the Texas Longhorn breed of cattle from extinction.
J. Frank Dobie, a self-made man, a gentleman, a scholar, may have been the first Existentialist Cowboy.

Dobie is provincial, to be sure, but his writing is universal as is his wit, his widom, his empathy. And, unlike the phony cowboy who presumes to rule, Dobie was a thorough-going liberal. Nevertheless, he will remain virtually unknown in Europe though he conducted classes at Cambridge during World War II. (See: A Texan in England) His Cambridge students asked him: "Do we sound as strange to you as you sound to us?" It was Dobie who wrote movingly of British honor during that time of war. He said of life at Cambridge: "Three thousand young men, all of whom would rather lose a game than win it unfairly".

Despite the fact that Dobie was of another generation, I share a certain "base" with him. Dobie writes of a Texas that was unspoiled as it very nearly was when I was a child. His sweeping vistas were my sweeping vistas. His stories of lost Spanish gold became my mythology and I often saw, in the distance across the dusty plain, the very sprawling mesas where Maximillian's Gold might have been buried. When I read Dobie today, I hear my father's voice reading from Coronado's Children (Dallas: The Southwest Press. 1930) by the light of a Kerosene lamp.

I have no quarrel with European critiques of American culture. In fact, in most cases, I share them. I disdain Bush and his stupid, tragic war. But Bush is not, in fact, representive of American values. He is a perversion of them. The same is true for most of the GOP. Here's a clue. Bush is no cowboy. He's a poser and fraud and, as such, he is symbolic of what often passes for American culture abroad.

I would say this to interested Europeans who would see American culture for what it was and might yet be again. Stay tuned. Even Rome fell. And so too will American imperialism.

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