By Mark Mellman - 07/08/08 05:53 PM EDT
America has long endured the scorn of Europeans who see our president, and by extension our country, as arrogant, ignorant, narrow and largely uncivilized.
One European opined in an essay in Time that America’s “vision has been eclipsed by a suspicious, introverted America, a country-sized version of that peculiarly American form of ghetto: the gated community … Designed to keep the ‘others’ out … It turns paranoia and isolation into a lifestyle.”
A British newspaper columnist put the case more crudely: “America may have given the world the space shuttle and, er, condensed milk, but behind the veneer of civilization, most Americans barely have the brains to walk on their back legs”; while novelist Margret Drabble was more succinct in an article titled in part “I Loathe America.” “My anti-Americanism,” the author confessed, “has become almost uncontrollable.”
Just after Sept. 11, 2001, even the French were declaring “We are all Americans now.” Since then, George Bush has done everything possible to squander that good will — from his anti-diplomacy to his disregard for core international issues like global warming and his disdain for world public opinion.
Perhaps I’m moved by the Fourth of July spirit, but while I can identify with some of the critiques, I’m weary of smug Europeans whose vision is acute when diagnosing America’s failings, but who cast a blind eye to their own.
A Cambridge-educated attorney seated next to me on a recent flight lamented seeing Pakistanis and Africans throughout Europe. Of course, “it’s not racism,” she insisted, “but as a European you just like to see European people in European cities.”
Italy’s highest appeals court gave legal force to my seatmate’s dubious logic, authorizing discrimination against Roma people, known as gypsies, on the grounds that “all the gypsies are thieves.” Even Roberts, Scalia and Thomas would likely recoil from such a racist ruling.
One of those exonerated in the case was the head of the anti-immigrant Northern League, since elected mayor of Verona. It’s as if David Duke had won an election as Louisiana’s governor instead of being soundly defeated.
Violating civil liberties to a degree not even contemplated by the Patriot Act, Prime Minster Silvio Berlusconi’s government announced it was fingerprinting all Roma citizens in Italy — and only Romas.
Some Italians took it all to heart, burning Roma camps in Verona and elsewhere to the ground. Mississippi stopped burning decades ago, but the flames of bigotry still burn bright in Italy.
Italy is not alone, nor are Roma the only continental victims. One-third of the French admitted to pollsters that they were at least “somewhat racist.”
Too few Americans (nearly 80 percent) told Harris that it is possible to be a good American and a Muslim, but just half of Britons said the same about Muslims in their country.
Willie Horton represented a racist low in contemporary American political campaigns, but the Swiss People’s Party trounced it with an ad last year depicting a group of white sheep kicking a black sheep off a Swiss flag. The party was rewarded with more votes than any other.
America has a long way to go in healing the scar of race, but we are hardly alone.
While we can applaud ourselves for nominating an African-American to be president, we should remain painfully aware that his elevation to the White House would again leave us with precisely zero blacks in the U.S. Senate.
Yet, with all the work yet to be done, all the steps yet to be taken, all the battles yet to be won, our strides have been longer than those of some who find no greater joy than looking down their noses at our failings.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.