Notes from Europe

By William Urban

I was eight weeks in Europe this summer (England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Germany, the Czech Republic and Austria). I read or speak each of the languages of these countries (Czech only so-so, but I have lived there for half a year and visit almost every summer), and I listened to the radio and television regularly. My impression was that the anti-American rhetoric we heard so much about in the spring is far from universal and, in fact, is disagreed with by substantial numbers of natives.

This does not mean that high government officials in France and Germany are ready to retract earlier statements, or that the predictable leftist intellectuals and students will change their attitudes. But it does mean that American tourists can travel without encountering people who blame them for everything the Bush administration does. Perhaps this reflects awareness that less than half of American voters elected the president, and those who are even more sophisticated know that less than half voted for Al Gore. In short, Americans are no more unanimous in their politics than Europeans. Moreover, if the half of eligible voters who did not cast a ballot in 2000 are added to those who voted for Gore, Nader and Buchanan, the odds are very good that the average tourist can honestly say, “I didn’t vote for Bush!”

I couldn’t have said that, but traveling with students I had an additional obligation to avoid provoking a controversy. In fact, I did not read or hear anything which suggested that Saddam Hussein was anything other than a bloody thug. It helps when America takes on enemies with few redeeming qualities.

But there is more to it than that. There is a tremendous reservoir of good will toward America still, and the memory of 9-11 has not vanished. Moreover, Europeans understand that if American power diminishes, or the economy crashes, they may go down, too. Already they have difficulties balancing the budgets (you should see the Socialists and Greens in Germany trying to justify cuts in popular entitlement programs, or the French trying to reform social security!), providing employment, and adjusting to the enlarged membership of the European Union. Moreover, the French seem more interested in strikes than anything else, because it affects their daily life. (It also complicates the life of the average tourist immensely.)

Europeans are generally well-mannered and speak quietly (outside of question time in the British parliament). Near-eastern hyperbole is rare outside some newspaper headlines and editorials. Graffiti is more anti-civilization than anti-US (“screw you” and anarchist symbols outnumber weathering “stop war” or “no oil for war.”). One is more likely to encounter someone apologizing for his government than attempting to harass you.

In short, go ahead and buy some French wine. Even if some bottles from 1998 or earlier may have been processed with cow blood products. You didn’t know that? Well, there is a lot of nonsense in political rhetoric, but occasionally one learns something possibly useful—in this case useful only to people who can afford aged red wines. Do I believe this? Well, a couple decades ago French wines made with reprocessed motor oil won prizes! So, anything is possible. I prefer German white wines anyway, which are produced under “purity laws” which border on the irrational. Or Italian reds, where the government supported Bush but the public polls did not. The same for Spain. And Tony Blair reminded us that there are still eloquent voices willing to speak out on moral issues, and act on principle. Even when it means siding with the US.

The rule should be that nations have to behave like friends. Politics can divide friendships temporarily—you have to do what you think is right—but the issues eventually go away and the friendships remain.

Monmouth Daily Review Atlas (August 25, 2003), p. 4.