Europe to Americans by Kate Coyer

Europe? Where’s Europe? Diversity, history and nostalgia meets Facebook and reality television in the American imaginary.

By Kate coyer

Popular american commedien steven colbert recently joked that if europe collapses, where will american college students spend a semester abroad learning how to throw up sangria in spanish.

American idol contestant kellie pickler was on a game show where ‘celebrities’ would match wits against a third grader.  The question she was asked: Budapest is the capital of what european country?  Pickler famously replied “Like, I thought Europe was a country.  Buda PEST? They speak French there, right?”  She had never heard of Hungary. The You tube clip has over 2 million hits.

A Google search of the keywords: “image of europe to americans” turns up maps of europe with regions marked as ‘commies’ ‘godfathers’ ‘bjork’ ‘unpronouncable last names’, australia.  other images show the difference as Mr Bean – europe versus Dr House or Hugh Laurie as america – except that he’s english.  Opps.s

But these are the easy things to pick on Americans for.  Especially since we certainly ask for it.  Our  lack of political knowledge, our geographic ignorance, our uncultured selves.  And our us against the world view of international relations and global politics. Coverage of world events in the U.S tends to revolve around the question: “what does this mean for us.”

Take for example american coverage of global events like the olympic games -  I had never heard of any foreign athletes as a child unless they were in competition with americans – and they were the ones keeping america from being great. and american coverage of disasters and crises-  the first question is how many americans were killed.  IMAGES But these forms of benine nationalism  are not limited to the U.S. mind set – national identity looms large in reporting  for other countries as well, but seems especially pronounced in the U.S.

The cause of this is both a myopic view of the world that permeates american culture, and the state of our current media system that fails the american public on many counts – not least of which includes a declining commitment to good foreign reporting, indepth analysis, and context of major world events.

But getting back to american’s view of europe.  In January of this year, the PEW research center -  a well respected research institution – published results of a nationwide poll that found americans consider asia more important than europe by a 47 – 37% margin.  This should come as no surprise, but what is perhaps more interesting to note is that less than  20 years ago, over 50% of americans considered europe more important. When questioned today about their interest in news from various countries, one third say they are interested in news from china, compared with 6% expressing interest in news from france. Other european countries fared only a bit better: 11% for germany and italy, and 17% for our great anglo counterpart britain.

A study conducted for the tourism industry a few years ago found that americans associate europe with history – historical attractions, culture and gastronomy. Europe is also associated with ancestral ties, ease of travel, scenic beauty, and high quality of goods and attractions. It’s highly positive associations, but also ones steeped in nostalgia, and the past – not associated with modernity, or the future.  Words that came up in the survey were things like ancient, old world, medieval, long standing. A sense of a tradition steeped in what’s old and of what’s stood the test of time.  “Authenticity”.  A feeling that europe represents something more genuine – not fake quote ‘like disneyland.’  to which we have to pause for a minute and ask: like america doesnt have its own deep, cultural histories? The native americans – indians?  Except they were nomadic, and destroyed. they didn’t leave monuments behind.  So still, our mainstream emotive ties lie so deeply with europe even as our demographics change.

Europe is seen something that is different – but not TOO different.  Familiar from film and the iconic images of big ben and the eiffel tower and the coliseum, a right of passage to visit.   The fantasy of bearing witness to the images but also the imaginary of the fantasy experience – of walking along the seine or throwing coins in the veritable fountain.

Again, it’s a very romantic image – a part of connecting to one’s roots and ancestory. As a child we would regularly hold ethnic heritage days where  we would come dressed in the costume and eat the food of our so-called homelands – not unlike the potluck from last nite.  Except we didnt come from these places, nor most likely did our parents – or even our grandparents.  For me, I would struggle with whether or not to embrace my irish roots or my germanic ones. One year I pretended I had french ancestory just to be cool. Old ethnic identities are to be embraced at the same time the nation struggles to embrace the new wave of ethnic diversity, when new ethnic groups are seen as threats, the past repeats itself as soon as it forgets itself.

Many Americans worried in the mid 2000′s about whether or not theyr would be welcomed in europe as a consequence of the war in iraq, reflecting awareness that the war was unpopular overseas.  Liberals emphasized that an Obama victory would vastly improve the image of america to the rest of the world.

However, some conservatives argued this was a sign of weakness.  While on the road visiting members of the public, President Obama stopped at a hamburger stand in Virginia and asked for ‘spicey or dijan mustard’. One right wing talk show host commented ‘what kind of man orders a cheeseburger without ketchup but with dijan mustard?’. A Fox news commentator retorted: ‘I hope you enjoyed that fancy burger mister president.”  lest you think I am over playing this example, liberal cable news channel MSNBC actually edited out the President’s request for dijan mustard in their coverage of the burger stop -  knowing the dijan was just asking for criticism of obama.  The whole debaucle made the national news.  The next time the President and Vice President had a public meeting that involved food and drink, Obama ordered a Bud Lite.  Bud Lite is a not a good beer, but it is an all american working class beer.

So where does this leave us? I want to spend my last couple of minutes drawing on the area that I work on primarily – media and communication policy, and if I can make 3 quick points on the impact of these cultural perceptions – and misperceptions – americans have of europe and put them in to context in a few concrete examples from the perspective of media industries.
1) the ubiquity of the english language makes us lazy.  And it limits how often we get to experience cultural products from other countries in our home environment – in the domestic space.  European cinema is ‘high art’, cosmopolitan, liberal, artsy farsty stuff that gets mocked by populist americans that seek to define what it means to be american in very narrow and often zenophobic ways, invoking some mythical notion of ‘ the real america’.

And even if the product is still in english – but is – say – british, there is still a disconnect. british scholar des freedman studied the impact of the rise of television formats – for example, the fact that britain used to export a lot of comedies and period dramas to american audiences – monty python, masterpiece theatre. Now, the bbc and channel 4 especially, make a lot of money selling television formats – who wants to be a millionaire, pop idol – formats that can be easily repackaged  for local audiences- pop idol looks the same but becomes american idol, or superstar in germany.  These shows are where the profits come from. yet one knockoff effect is that british culture  itself – an exportation of britishness – is not shared across borders, even when subtitles are not necessary.

On that subject,  by the way, a judge for a new reality show in america – the X Factor -  cheryl cole – who was wildly popular in britain, hired with much fanfare in america, and fired after a few episodes out of the tv networks fear that no one would be able to understand her newcastle accent.

I know I’m invoking the most base of cultural formats – reality television, but if the subject is about mainstream american perceptions, there is unfortunately no better place to look.

2) Americans dont really understand what it means to have a public broadcaster.  Which is to say we dont really understand public subsidy for the arts and culture.  And we fear the role of government in this arena. The National endowment for the arts struggles, national public radio fights for their modest state subsidies.
Public broadcasting is funded largely in the US by listener donations – direct contributions from the public, and commercial underwriting.

the european democratic model of broadcasting is built on the value of public media, with the commercial sector a kind of belated interloper.  The US had a chance to develop a public broadcasting sector in the 1930s but the commercial lobbies were already too powerful.  In the late 1960s when the first commercial station was introduced in britain, the US was only then creating the corporation for public broadcasting.

and public radio today is seen as among  the most trusted source of news in america.

3) Relatedly, Americans, unfortunately, trust corporations more then governments. And this has a huge impact on the global marketplace because of the dominance of american companies, and the ways in which global corporations compete with the nationstate in terms of power and influence.  People here know far more about this in terms of film and music industries – such as how Hollywood relaied on the US government to press for more free trade and against, say,taxes on foreign cultural imports in other countries, but let me extend this to the new media space – esp social networking – since this sector is wholly dominated by american companies like google and facebook and twitter.  At the same time, its quite interesting to see some of the cultural divides that have emerged over issues such as privacy and data retention by social media companies.  Different laws – eu norms v us policy.  For example, google street view has been highly controversial in germany over concerns of privacy violations.  Gogle cars that capture the images have been banned in greece.  Plans for streetvie to map budapest blocked by previous data protection ombudsman.  Not to say privacy protections dont vary across europe-  but things that were little challenged in the states have met with greater opposition

but what underlies this is but one example of how the US could learn from europe – sometimes greater protections for individual rights, and seeing the state as a necessary intermediary between the potential for commercial excess and the public interest.

In conclusion:  in the study I mentioned earlier, American travel agents struggle with whether or not they should emphasise europe as a whole, or focus on promoting different countries.  It is also, thus, diversity that is also seen by americans as one of primary appeals of Europe.  Diversity of cultures all in reasonable proximity by american standards.  Project europe itself is shrouded with a lot of question marks.  what is european identity?  how can europe compete?    so on one hand, how can americans be expected to fully grasp what is ‘europe’ when what is europe is itself in flux. And when most of us dont know the capital of the state of north dakota, never mind hungary.  on the other hand, americans can learn a lot by paying attention to europe and some of the debates – support for the arts, and film.  and alternative views on issues such as privacy.

Comments are closed.