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July 2, 2009
America; Take That, Europe!
Happy birthday, America — really happy birthday.
an immigrant, I can say that with an authenticity and sincerity I would
not have had if I had been born on this blessed piece of real estate
with its spirit of possibility. I came here because I am of the last
generation that was — perhaps globally – pro-American.
Yes, after World War II, the United States was admired the world over. I
grew up in Africa where American education, American technology and
American goods (from cars to radios) were venerated.
When Coca-Cola was introduced into Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), there was
practically a national holiday. The company’s employees – with the
blessing of the authorities and government departments — flooded the
schools with vending machines. This was not because local soft drinks
were not refreshing. No, it was a kind of homage to the United States:
We wanted a sip of the American magic. As a colony, we wanted less of
London and more of New York. We believed Americans were invincible. In
our eyes, they were superior because they had smarter government, better
laws and more entrepreneurial people.
course, in that faraway place, we idealized all things American and
sometimes we were wishfully wrong. For example, we believed that the
United States had solved its race problems – hardly in the 1950s – and
that the more we followed America and broke with our mother country,
Britain, the better.
was the American example that led Prime Minister Ian Smith to
unilaterally – and disastrously, as it turned out – declare independence
from Britain on Nov. 11, 1965.
1959, I moved to Britain, where admiration of the United States was more
tempered: There was a much greater sense of competition across the
Atlantic, more resentment of America climbing as Britain was sinking.
Also, there was resentment of America’s abandonment of the Anglo-French
invasion of the Suez Canal in 1956. It was a period of adjustment.
was also a wrenching time in European intellectual life. The Hungarian
uprising of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968, both followed by brutal
Soviet repression, undermined European intellectuals’ faith in
communism, but they did not switch to untrammeled support of capitalism.
Wary of the politics of the right, they were looking for gentleness and
an indigenous way forward.
Europeans wanted a future that would allow for their historical
experiences but would not sweep them into the sphere of influence of the
Soviet Union or America. That way forward was democratic socialism,
embraced by all European political parties except the extreme
nationalistic ones of the right and the communists – still found on the
extreme left in France, Italy and other countries.
Europe moved into its democratic socialist future, anti-Americanism
grew. It was based on economic resentment, fear of American foreign
policy and anger over the difficulty of penetrating the American market.
Appreciation of American sacrifice in World War II was laced with
resentment that the United States did not join the war until the
Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Some blame for anti-Americanism lies with the European newspapers of the
time. They seized on crime; the oddities of American life (like the
shoe-shaped house); the size of American automobiles; and, of course,
the cavorting of Hollywood stars. While American media portrayed Europe
as Disneyland for grownups, Europeans were led to believe that American
life was brutal and freakish.
Serious chroniclers like Alastair Cooke – an Englishman who gave his
life to telling Britain, on the BBC and in The Manchester Guardian,
that America was a wondrous place – failed to arrest the rising tide of
That had to come later, after Vietnam and Iraq wars, and with the
election of Barack Obama to the presidency. None of our carping European
friends could pull off such an historical first in their own countries.
No matter what you think of the man, Obama’s election as the first
African-American president is a very American triumph. The world has
applauded the system that could produce this result and the people who
made it possible.
Only in America. Happy birthday.
© 2009 North Star
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