Do They Speak Belgish There?
Why Americans Should Care About European Affairs
K ings and queens who ride in large, open carriages with stern livery boys at their side, stone buildings covered in soot, ground beef served spicy and raw in sidewalk cafes, insane drivers who aim directly for tourists. This is Europe--at least as seen from the perspective of much of America, not excluding our cloistered campus. Many Harvard students, who usually swim valiantly upstream against the flow of conventional ideas, allow themselves to float comfortably along on the current of public opinion when it comes to the Old World.
Americans in Europe are too often like Alices tumbling down the rabbit hole and encountering the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire cat and a deck of living cards. To them, Europeans live in a magical land that warrants a glance--perhaps even a visit--but not serious study.
The Ameri-centrism of the Harvard campus--and of America in general--became startlingly evident to me when I first arrived at college from my home in Brussels, Belgium. Carrying my life across Harvard Yard in four small suitcases, I eagerly searched for students who had visited the city in which I grew up and who, by sharing their recollections with me, could assuage my pangs of home-sickness. Instead, I heard such questions as: "Do they speak Belgish in Belgium?," "Belgium borders Italy, right?"
Naively, I expected more from Harvard. During the summer before I left Europe, I nervously anticipated returning to a culture that I had left six years before, a culture that originally had been my own. I thought that students here would accept differences of race, religion and sex as well as nationality.
But I soon discovered that liberalism is selective. While Harvard students do rightly welcome diversity of color, talent, sex, religion and countless other characteristics, international students are left out in the cold. Harvard students properly turn out in droves to hear panelists discuss, for example, the plight of farm workers in the United States, but few can take time out of their busy schedules to hear, for example, the president of Finland talk about changes in the European Union and their effect on the global economy, or to hear vice president of the European Commission Sir Leon Brittain discuss its work.
Students have provided their own answers for why Europe means so little to the United States. They claim that European news is far removed from their lives. America, they say, has enough to do to take care of its own people, produce its own exports and defend itself. But while America's first responsibility should be to its own people, it can't survive on its own. The U.S. depends on Europe politically and economically. Europe is America's closest ally. It is also the largest customer of American businesses. America cannot bury its head in the sand and hope to survive.
Still, the fact remains: too many Harvard students are unconcerned about Europe. Perhaps their indifference stems from fear of the unknown, fear of admitting ignorance and learning from it, fear of a continent that for centuries Americans regarded with awe. Perhaps it stems from simply not making an effort to understand Europe.
Most likely, though, the lack of interest and patience for European affairs is ingrained in Americans from childhood. Americans have always been proud of their culture, and they indoctrinate their children with patriotism. Before they can speak, American children, unlike Europeans, learn to stand at the first notes of the Star Spangled Banner. Why search beyond this overwhelming culture for more, say the parents? Why bother to learn about Europe? Children grow up assuming that the world revolves around America. After all, America is already a productive country full of enthusiastic and ambitious citizens. Why should Americans reach beyond their borders?
First, out of neighborly devotion. With air travel, e-mail and global markets, Europe is at America's doorstep. Second, for America's own economic protection. While America turns a blind eye, Europe is gathering strength. Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Helmut Kohl and the other European leaders are not waiting for America's balance to tip toward Europe but are shaping their own future. And 11 of the 15 European Union countries have qualified to participate in the new common currency of the European Union, the Euro, which will become the currency of Europe next Jan. 1.
European artists created architectural wonders that shame America's cities. European politicians are setting agendas for welfare reform that will dwarf what the Clinton administration has accomplished in its six years. And Europeans have preserved the safety of their cities, where crime rates are lower than those in the U.S. by orders of magnitude. In short, the Europeans already have much of what Americans would like to have.
Europe is unifying and Americans have a choice: they can allow the Mad Hatters of Wonderland to climb out of the rabbit hole and become part of their world. Or they can wake up one day to find that Wonderland no longer needs them.
Jenny E. Heller, a Crimson editor, is a first-year in Canaday Hall.