Europhobia Is Only Getting Uglier

What's so bad about Europe? Consider: the EU has a lower infant-mortality rate than the U.S., with France among the lowest. The life expectancy for a boy born tomorrow in the United States is 78; in most of the European Union, he will live an extra year, and he gets another two if he is lucky enough to be born in France. As that boy becomes a man, he is more likely to spend his days in happiness, according to data collected by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. His education, from grade school through university, will be essentially free. When he begins a job in allegedly socialist Europe he can work at one of the world's leading firms, including three of the top oil companies (BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Total), two of the top telecom companies (Nokia and Ericsson) and four of the world's 10 biggest firms, as measured by sales. He will get more vacation, and have more time off to deal with medical issues and for paternity leave. Europeans report a lower rate of mental illness than Americans, and statistically speaking, those who become ill, whether physically or mentally, stand a greater chance of receiving treatment in Europe. As that man becomes elderly, his pension will be taken care of, too, by a state-funded program.

Yet ever since Barack Obama moved into the White House, the American right has accused him of turning the United States into Europe─a dangerous road considering that Europe, in this view, is full of "cowards" (Bill O'Reilly). Obama's stimulus package was "the European Socialist Act of 2009" (Sean Hannity). Those who favor a new model for health care are part of an all-but-treasonous anti-American conspiracy to transform the United States into a "European social welfare state" (Rush Limbaugh).

Of course, this is not the first time Europhobia has reared its head. Justin Vaisse, a French scholar at the Brookings Institution, traces American Francophobia (Europhobia's cousin) to the French Revolution. In a fascinating paper several years ago he described how the revolution "gave birth to the stereotype of an unstable and illiberal country and of a quarrelsome and restive people." From there, Vaisse observes, Franco-American relations were marked by a series of turns that forever embedded in the American imagination the idea of France as "immoral, venal, anti-Semitic, arrogant, insignificant, and nostalgic for past glory. It is also elitist, dirty, lazy, and it is anti-American." More recently, around the start of the Iraq War, the writer Timothy Garton Ash helpfully compiled a short list of all the terms used by right-wing commentators and politicians in the United States to describe Europe. "Eurinal," "Euroids," "Euroweenies," and "Peens," were among some of the choicest phrases.

Now Europhobia seems resurgent and stronger than ever. There is virtually nothing Obama can do these days that doesn't inspire one right-wing pundit or another to suggest he is really a European in disguise. In May, he and Joe Biden went out for a bite to eat at Ray's Hell Burger, a Washington, D.C., hamburger joint. The vice president ordered a cheeseburger with jalapeño peppers; the president ordered his with mustard─and not just any mustard. He asked for Dijon, an unpardonable sin that to the right reeked of effete European elitism. Soon after, Hannity and others attempted to smear the president as something less than a full-blooded American man for having the audacity to order something that originated in France and then popularized with a British voice in the famous commercials for Grey Poupon. Radio talker Laura Ingraham mused, "What kind of man orders a cheeseburger without ketchup but Dijon mustard?"

It is getting much, much uglier. Perhaps realizing that Europe in fact has something to offer the United States─and recalling, perhaps, that the EU, whatever its flaws, remains the United States' greatest ally─Limbaugh is taking things a step further, back to a time when parts of Europe really were the enemy. On his radio program last week, Limbaugh compared all the ways Obama is like Adolf Hitler. "Obama is asking citizens to rat each other out like Hitler did," he said. "Adolf Hitler, like Barack Obama, also ruled by dictate," he said. And so on. On Aug. 11, Fox News talk-show host Glenn Beck rolled footage of Nazis on the march and started tearing up when he compared America to Weimar Germany, arguing that with the United States on the way to economic collapse, the time could soon come when the government will decide that it can no longer afford to provide health care for the elderly and disabled. Just as the Nazis did.

All this obscures what's really under debate here: what kind of health-care system─and what kind of policies─will make America a stronger, more resilient, more prosperous nation. America is not going to become Europe, much less a fascist dictatorship. It will do things its own way. But dare anyone say there is virtue in at least considering how our allies do things─and even cherry-picking and adapting from the best that others have to offer? Earlier this year, the scholar Charles Murray gave an address to the American Enterprise Institute, in acceptance of the conservative think tank's most prestigious award, in which he warned that "the possibility that irreversible damage will be done to the American project over the next few years is real." His argument was that "the European model is fundamentally flawed because, despite its material successes, it is not suited to the way that human beings flourish─it does not conduce to Aristotelian happiness." That may be, but the demagoguery from many of his compatriots on the political right risk ignoring what modern Europe has to offer, all for the sake of some sort of ideological je ne sais quoi.