Generally while I’m at work in the office I like to have something running in the background that is interesting to listen to. Today, for example, I fired up Bill Whittle’s “virtual inaugural address” followed by a few different Uncommon Knowledge interviews of various people. I don’t recall which person said it, but in one discussion, Peter Robinson asked his guest what primary difference he could say there was between Americans and Europeans. His respondent said (I paraphrase) that one major difference was our attitude towards government. When the housing bubble burst and the economy both here and abroad cratered, he said, Europeans were out in the streets protesting for their governments to DO SOMETHING! (I distinctly remember seeing articles about Greek “anarchists” protesting against cutting government.) Only here in America did people spontaneously organize to tell the government to get the hell out of our lives and leave us alone.
I was reminded of a piece written by Steven Den Beste a few years ago, Non-European Country, wherein he said:
It’s true that America is more like Europe than anywhere else on the planet, but it would perhaps be more accurate to say that the US is less unlike Europe than anywhere else on the planet.
Someone pointed out a critical difference: European “nations” are based on ethnicity, language or geography. The American nation is based on an idea, and those who voluntarily came here to join the American experiment were dedicated to that idea. They came from every possible geographic location, speaking every possible language, deriving from every possible ethnicity, but most of them think of themselves as Americans anyway, because that idea is more important than ethnicity or language or geographical origin. That idea was more important to them than the things which tried to bind them to their original nation, and in order to become part of that idea they left their geographical origin. Most of them learned a new language. They mixed with people of a wide variety of ethnicities, and a lot of them cross-married. And yet we consider ourselves one people, because we share that idea. It is the only thing which binds us together, but it binds us as strongly as any nation.
Indeed, it seems to bind us much more strongly than most nations. If I were to move to the UK, and became a citizen there, I would forever be thought of by the British as being “American”. Even if I lived there fifty years, I would never be viewed as British. But Brits who come here and naturalize are thought of as American by those of us who were born here. They embrace that idea, and that’s all that matters. If they do, they’re one of us. And so are the Persians who naturalize, and the Chinese, and the Bengalis, and the Estonians, and the Russians. (I know that because I’ve worked with all of those, all naturalized, and all of them as American as I am.)
You’re French if you’re born in France, of French parents. You’re English if you’re born to English parents (and Welsh if your parents were Welsh). But you’re American if you think you’re American, and are willing to give up what you used to be in order to be one of us. That’s all it takes. But that’s a lot, because “thinking you’re American” requires you to comprehend that idea we all share. But even the French can do it, and a lot of them have.
That is a difference so profound as to render all similarities between Europe and the US unimportant by comparison. But it is a difference that most Europeans are blind to, and it is that difference which causes America’s attitudes and actions to be mystifying to Europeans. It is not just that they don’t understand that idea; most of them don’t even realize it exists, because Europeans have no equivalent, and some who have an inkling of it dismiss it contemptuously.
And that made me think of something else.
After the 1996 school shooting in Dunblane, Scotland, the British Parliament rushed through legislation banning handguns above .22 rimfire caliber, and it wasn’t a ban saying “You can’t have any more,” it was a “Mr. & Mrs. Law-abiding British Subject, we know who you are and we know what you own – turn them all in.” From this 1998 British Home Office report, Firearm Certificate Statistics, England and Wales, 1997 (PDF):
Following the shooting incident in Dunblane, Scotland, in March 1996, changes to the existing firearms legislation were introduced to increase public safety. The resulting Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 banned all handguns over .22 calibre with effect from 1 October 1997. A hand-in exercise took place between 1 July and 30 September 1997 which resulted in 110,382 of these larger calibre handguns being surrendered in England and Wales, while 24,620 smaller calibre handguns were handed in voluntarily in anticipation of further legislation. The remaining large calibre handguns held on certificate include muzzle-loading guns, signalling apparatus, firearms used for the humane killing of animals, war trophies etc. (All handguns were subsequently prohibited from 1 February 1998).
(My emphasis. And how did that “increase public safety” thing work out? Oh, right.)
In the UK, they surrendered guns that were not banned. Here in America when we think something is about to be banned, we buy every one we can get our hands on, and everything we think might get banned along with it.
Steven was absolutely correct – Europeans like Piers Morgan can’t comprehend it. It baffles them completely. And contemptuous dismissal? It’s Piers’ trademark, but he doesn’t hold a patent on it.