Friday, April 18, 2014
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The Battle for Hope

PARIS – Since the arrival of President Barack Obama in the White House, there has been an undeniable rapprochement between Europe and the United States. But on the deeper and more fundamental level of emotions and values, is it possible that the gap between the two sides of the Atlantic has widened?

Today, there is much more collective hope and much more individual fear in America in the wake of the global economic crisis. But the reverse is true in Europe. Here one encounters less collective hope and less individual fear. The reason for this contrast is simple: the US has Obama, and Europe has the welfare state.

So what can be done to promote an “Americanization” of Europe in political terms and a “Europeanization” of America in social terms? Comforted by a new President who incarnates a return of hope, who inspires and reassures at the same time, Americans are starting to believe that the worst of the economic crisis is behind them.

What was at the beginning of this spring no more than “a glimmer of hope,” to use Obama’s phrase, has become a more serious and positive trend. Animated collectively by a combination of natural optimism and deep nationalism, Americans have made their president’s campaign slogan, “Yes, we can,” their own.

By contrast, when the personal situations of many individual Americans are examined through European eyes, the extreme individualism that constitutes a key part of American optimism translates into an unacceptable social scandal. “Cities of Tents are Filling with the Victims of the Economic Crisis,” read one headline a month ago on the front page of a mass-circulation American newspaper. Journalists report tragic stories of middle-class Americans losing their jobs and homes, potentially putting their lives at risk without any social protection.

Who will pay for your costly cancer treatment if you lose the health insurance policy that came with your job? It is wrong to assume, as some ultra-free marketers do, that the absence of social protection makes you stronger. The ambition of a country and a society born of the principles of the Enlightenment cannot be to create a people armed to the teeth with guns yet entirely disarmed in the face of illness.

Moreover, in a society that “lives to work,” where one’s job is such a central component of one’s identity, the loss of work is more destabilizing than in a culture where one “works to live,” as in Europe. Americans’ perspective on retirement is highly revealing: they are afraid of it. What will they do?

This perspective is not simply rooted in economics, even if today a large proportion of older Americans are rushing back to work as the downturn wrecks their retirement plans. The geographic separation of families, owing to America’s size and Americans’ mobility, makes the association between retirement and being a grandparent less practicable in the US than it is in Europe.

In Europe, meanwhile, there is undeniably less collective hope and probably a little less individual fear. Perhaps because they are older and more cynical, European societies seem to bask in a “collective moroseness,” from which they have difficulty emerging.

The record level of abstention in the recent European Parliament elections is further proof of that growing cynicism and alienation. Of course, it is neither possible nor desirable to “clone” Obama in each of the European Union’s 27 member states. But what is needed to reduce the deficit of hope that plagues Europe today?

The answer is far from obvious. Europe suffers from a shortage of leaders who can speak in its name; from a shortage of ambition (what, after all, is the collective ambition of Europeans now that the EU is perceived more as part of the problem than part of the solution). But, above all, Europe suffers from an identity deficit, for no one seems to know what it means to be a European nowadays. America, by contrast, seems to have an abundance of all the things Europe lacks.

Formulated in such terms, the European challenge seems even more formidable than the American one. Nevertheless, it is far from clear that the US will find it easier to reform its health and social security system, and thus alleviate the individual fears of its citizens, than for Europe to inspire its citizens with a sense of collective hope.

In reality, Europe and America should represent a source of mutual inspiration that would reduce the human consequences of inequality in the one, and restore a sense of hope in the other.

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