Wednesday, January 7, 2004

Europeans Don't Understand U.S. System

A curious survey was conducted in Europe by The Economist, using the size of Europe as a starting point for developing the questions.

First, remember that America is a system of "states" with independent central authorities. A common currency and common defense was developed, but each state oversees: education, most welfare, transportation, local security, medical care... et cetera. Even the death penalty is a state-by-state issue at present. In other words, The Economist began with the historical comparison of the US to the EU.

So, we have 50 States. How many were in the EU? I recall, at least at one point, 15 major members.

Anyway, the question then became how many could name the States in the USA, at least two governors, explain the Republican form versus European Parliamentary forms, et cetera.

It turned out most Europeans thought the USA had a single system, one set of standards for education, one national set of laws, et cetera. The results of the survery were quite stark. The Economist rightly pointed out that most Europeans had a very limited understanding of the USA.

(Less than 10% could explain "Balance of Powers" and the "Three Branches" of government under the US Constitution. An equally low number of Americans understood how a Prime Minister takes power. We seem at a loss to understand each other at that point.)

My point isn't that one is or isn't better -- my point is that people know their own little worlds a lot better than they understand the world at large. We tend to isolate ourselves with artificial notions that one system, one country, one religion (or none) is better than all others.

We (humanity) has a lousy track record with understanding each other. We don't learn history -- and what history we learn is always distorted by national pride and biases.

Where I think America is weakest is language. We teach one language, with a little exposure to "foreign" languages in secondary school. However, consider that we touch only two nations with other languages. Those two nations have a great influence on us.

Do Europeans realize out of 35 million Californians, 20 million are fluent in at least two languages and nother five have limited fluency in at least two. OK, so 10 million couldn't read a word of anything beyond English. I admit it... we're isolated.

Islolation is not unique to America. We happen to be more isolated by geography and even our political structure than other Western nations. I think Canada is a reasonable comparison geographically, but not politically -- it's a more "European" system of government.

People love isolation -- and don't even try to tell me Europe is a great example of ethnic and religious mixing. I have seen how France and Germany have radical "right" parties ranting against immigration. No, the world is a lot of people, all trying to maintain group identities for some reason. Separatists in Spain? Ireland's troubles?

Americans look bad because the world looks at us. If we study any Western nation, they are all highly flawed sets of isolated groups. I read Linus Torvald's biography and was struck how language and religion isolated him as a student. I never thought of Finland in that way. How "American" to segregate people!

How can philosophy combat human nature? I don't know. Can we have philosophers as leaders? Existentialism isn't really tied to ending racism or unifying mankind. Camus tried that in his way, Sartre in another. Maybe we are destined to distrust, misunderstand, and criticize each other?

Personally, I think any system developed by mankind is doomed to be a mess with too many flaws to fix. At best, we can try to minimize the mess that is government, religion, and social "order" so the individual can survive with a hint of freedom and free will.

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