Well, I’m off to Hamburg on a super-secret mission, so let me give you a nice long post for the weekend.
A while ago I posted a few thoughts on Anglo-American perspectives on Europe. There’s really is a gap — an unbridgeable one, I think — between how Europeans and Americans understand their own, and the other societies. Americans and Britons who visit Europe almost universally condemn European economic policy for denying the talented what they want, and prophesy that this critical social failing spells doom. Europeans who visit the U.S. almost universally condemn American society for denying the poor what they need and — naturally — also prophesy that this critical social failing spells doom. I meandered on about the American –> Europe side a few weeks ago, now it’s time for Part I of the Europe –> America side.
You’ll see more extensive and balanced coverage of poor and working-class Americans on German and French television in one month than you’ll see in years of watching American TV. Just a few weeks ago, for instance, I turned on arte (G) (an arts & documentaries channel co-produced by France and Germany) and watch a French film team travel along the Mississippi delta, visiting black churches, welfare offices, liquor stores, and veterans’ hospitals. At one point, they followed a road until it dead-ended deep in the woods. A few ramshackle houses ringed the cul-de-sac.
There was no grid electricity; some of the people who lived there had their own generators, some did not. The sewage service didn’t work properly, so many of the people there used chamber pots or outside latrines. The water hadn’t been fixed because nobody knew who was responsible for fixing it. About half the people living in this cul-de-sac were unemployed and living on government benefits of one sort or another, but the other half worked at nearby farms or fast-food joints. One black woman, with wide, nervous eyes and orange-dyed hair, seemed to have mental problems. She showed the film team through her house. The roof was full of holes — as she walked through her living-room, she and the film team had to navigate between plastic and metal buckets set up to catch the leaks.
Other documentaries take us into American prisons in the deep South, or to veterans’ hospitals to follow the progress of badly-maimed Iraq war veterans, or to see a few days in the life of some Wal-Mart employees. French filmmakers traveled to Los Angeles to film in the offices of Hollywood production companies, then followed the employees home to show go behind the scenes and offer us an exclusive glimpse of their private lives. The private lives of the janitors, that is, most of whom lived in East L.A. and were organizing a strike (G). And, of course, death-row inmates, the beloved go-to topic for European journalists covering the U.S.A. Whenever they can’t think of anything new to write, it seems, they pile into a car for a road-trip to the nearest Death Row.
European news teams don’t always focus on the dispossessed and marginalized in the U.S., but they do so often enough to send some Americans ’round the bend. To these Americans, the European news crews are propagandizing against the United States; following three main themes. First, there is a large gap between rich and poor in the U.S. The rich, or the upper-middle class, live cocooned in luxurious suburbs, and have no contact with poorer Americans except in master-servant relationships. Second, low-skill workers in the U.S. (like janitors or Wal-Mart employees) live in a constant state of tension, because they make barely enough to live on, have no health insurance, and no job security. Third, Americans who can no longer earn a living (the chronically ill, the mentally ill, criminals) are neglected, or ignored, by a primitive and underfunded social system.
So is the American anger justified? My deeply-nuanced conclusion on Monday!