Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Waxing Pol-sophical

"The trouble with America is that there are far too many wide-open spaces surrounded by teeth."

~Charles Luckman

I ask myself one question since going to Europe more than any:

What kind of freedom do you like?

This is followed closely with another question:

How much change can you handle?

Like anything, I suppose, I can make this as complex as I have time for. Truthfully, in my mind, it comes down to a simple decision. European freedom or American freedom? I don’t know any other to choose from, so those are what I can think about. And they are similar enough yet different enough in the areas I consider most important that as a result it is worthwhile to consider.

European freedom comes with limitations as does American freedom. The difference between the two seems, at first glance, to be one of perspective. But really, when I consider it more carefully, I think it’s only a difference resulting from leadership, historical choices and practicality. Not a greater moral understanding.

I am initially inclined to think that the Europeans are better than the Americans; that Europeans live the way they live out of a greater sense of self as a part of a whole: A sense of community. I am inclined to believe they make the choices they do solely out of a sense of moral obligation as opposed to self-fulfilling need for consumption, which would be the “American Way”. This was my modality while I was in Europe and I held it mostly until the last couple of weeks -- when I felt a shift in my thinking.

In all honesty I did not feel completely “right” in this rationale for why Europe is the way it is. I liked the idea that Europeans did what they did because they were better. It’s kind of fashionable to like Europe this way. This greater-sense-of-good theory seemed like a nice explanation and made me feel more valid in my dreams of moving there. After returning here, to the US, and living with a new perspective in my old lifestyle, I have had the obligation to rethink this philosophy and it has led to some important changes.

First and foremost, Europeans are no different than Americans are no different than Chinese are no different than Africans, etc. Humans will forever be driven by fundamental needs, requirements and tendencies at their basic, primitive level. I do not need to get into those specifics; I think we are all well aware of what drives humans. Altruism aside, we need to survive. Above that basic level I believe we are subject to forces that transcend the humanistic label of “ethnicity”. It has conditioning and history at its core. “What are you used to?”

Second, Europe is older and more mature than the USA. With respect to the attitudes of a country, I believe it is much like a developing person as an individual. An individual who is 80 and has been through several wars—both losses and victories, lost its family due to disease, traveled by foot for much of its life and had friends come and go will probably have a much different perspective than a 15 year old who was put into a nice neighborhood, given a car with gas and insurance, never seen death (or life, really) and did not witness the creation of a family. The former will have reverence for history and the things that have stood the test of time. The latter will look with impatience upon everything that the former respects, if only for the sake of being impudent. History is not respected by those who do not understand it, and those who do not understand it are usually those who do not know it.

Further, if you lived through two world wars and the industrial revolution you probably respect those things that brought about your survival and success in times like the great depression and the Jewish holocaust a lot more than iPods, having your own car, and what the shirt on your back looks like. And so it is with Europe and the USA. Europe is well traveled and 80, the USA is pampered and 15. It is not a viable comparison when dissecting the values and perspectives of the two based on historical “presence”. I am not using this as an excuse for choices; one merely has only to look at any country such as France or England and see that it, too, has been the USA more than once in its history.

This is also in no way saying that Europe is above consumerism. In fact, I argue that they are more steeped in consumption that Americans. The priority of what to spend money on is merely different. The difference lies in what they are consuming and the global implications of this. I can see, now, that the challenges of the present are the lens through which we judge the validity and philosophy of consumerism by a country and its people.

But back to the point: The maturity of Europe and the USA. Europe thrives within its history; it’s a maturity that comes from experience. There appears to be a sense of obligation to maintain some or all of the layers upon layers of personality derived from the mixing of histories and people over time that created some of the places I was fortunate enough to see. In the USA we are swamped with the idea of progress and NEW and FUTURE. We do not have a history to protect and admire, or so we are taught. Old buildings come down because they are ugly or can’t hold enough stuff or people. The fear of earthquake and death draws new building codes and architectural standards instead of learning to make-do with what was there. Certainly some things are warranted for human safety.

Now, walk three blocks in Amsterdam and then walk three blocks in Seattle. Count how many original ANYTHINGS remain in Seattle vs. Amsterdam. Our original caucasion history is barely 200 years old. Before the white man invaded the natives had their own rich history which has all but been exterminated.

Stand in the way of American progress and you might just be wiped out--whether architectural, cultural or financial.

To be continued…