by David Bentley Hart

Eurotrash: Why America Must Reject the Failed Ideas of a Dying Continent
David Harsanyi
Broadside Books, 320 pp. $28.99

I believe it was in reference to a book by Idries Shah that Gore Vidal once remarked, “That sort of thing is a lot easier to write than to read.” This would serve as a wonderfully apt verdict on Eurotrash. To read it is an ordeal, but to have written it obviously required scarcely anything from its author apart from an aptitude for adolescent polemic and an indifference to fine distinctions. From its first page to its last, it is a tediously predictable tirade, composed in terms it would be charitable to call merely childish, and pitched in a tone of voice that merely oscillates between the truculent and the querulous. All it took to produce it was the method most favored by every “intellectual journalist” with a very blunt axe to grind: rely on statistics, but only the ones that seem to support your argument; never explain those statistics in anything like an adequate context; never cite a statistic that might thwart your purposes or that might introduce a note of ambiguity or nuance into your argument; become indignant or contemptuous at regular intervals, especially where your argument is weak or confused; when posing one social system or historical phenomenon or ideology or culture over against another, treat even the accidental advantages enjoyed by the one you favor as logically inevitable consequences of that system, phenomenon, ideology, or culture, while treating all its disadvantages as wholly accidental; reverse this process in the case of the rival system, phenomenon, ideology, or culture; on noting the straw in your brother’s eye, scream abusively at him, while resolutely refusing to take note of the roofbeam lodged in your own cornea. Above all, refuse to grant that “they” might do anything better than “we” do (even when it is obviously the case that they do), and refuse even more adamantly to acknowledge all the things at which “we” are worse than “they” are (no matter how numerous and conspicuous). For God’s sake, never be sophisticated in your reasoning, deliberate in your judgments, or reflectively self-aware; that will only cause trouble. And write excruciatingly clumsy prose. (Actually, I am not sure that that last is a real rule, but Harsanyi follows it anyway.)

I am not exaggerating. The general quality and (as it were) flavor of the book announce themselves on the first page: “The modern legacy of Europe is one of unregulated and destructive mass migration, overregulated and constrictive economic life, high unemployment, a lack of entrepreneurship, eroding civic society, low replacement rates, creeping authoritarianism, and most devastatingly, a loss of faith in their best ideas.” Ignore the dangling “their” in that last phrase (when a horse is in full gallop, you cannot expect the precision of dressage—even if the horse makes its living as an editor). Do not ignore, however, the sheer vacuity of the generalizations, or the wanton mixture of the impressionistic and the empirical, or the utter lack of precision in talk of “Europe” as a whole. And certainly do not ignore how well much the same description might fit contemporary America in an equally vapid and imprecise way. A book that begins with a sentence like that has very little chance of redeeming itself thereafter; but only a page later things get even worse. There we learn that America is home to a growing number of “Europhile elites” who “are antagonistic toward the societal characteristics embedded in the American psyche that work against the success of contemporary European ideas: our embrace of risk taking, individual liberty, and traditional Judeo-Christian ideas.” (See what I mean about the prose?)

I am not entirely sure what those “Judeo-Christian” values are exactly, I have to admit. When American conservatives use such language, they rarely mean anything so jejune as the moral principles one actually finds in Jewish or Christian tradition (you know, welcoming strangers from foreign lands in need of shelter; ministering tirelessly to the ill, imprisoned, and destitute; an absolute dedication to the needs of the poor above all other goods; a spiritual disdain for the pursuit of money and property; and so on). Instead, they usually mean something along the lines of hard work, devotion to family, lawfulness, neighborliness, casseroles (basically, that is, ordinary virtues that are the universal property of humanity, and that are found in variable local quantities and intensities both here and in Europe), or else they mean our theatrical and fervently “Christian” religiosity, which is real enough in many places, but bizarrely alien to anything known as “Christianity” in the larger world (combining as it does a largely Orphic faith in a “personal Lord and Savior” with a still deeper faith in patriotism, libertarian individualism, laissez-faire economics, gun rights, the guiltless pursuit of immense personal wealth, and a hostility to any prudent concern for the environment. Whatever the case, it is a fatuous remark, one that more or less abdicates all claim to intellectual seriousness before the book has even really gotten underway.

But I suppose we have to address Harsanyi’s actual argument in something like detail anyway, if only for form’s sake.  So then, moving as nimbly as I can across the mire, it all goes something like this:

In the first chapter, Harsanyi attacks all those Europhiles who pine for “Scandinavian Utopias” and would like to remake America in the image of Sweden. He seems certain that this is a large and influential faction. Here his method is very simple: he calls attention to some inefficiencies and flaws in Sweden’s governing philosophy since the war, overlooks all those benefits of the system that make most Swedes exceedingly satisfied with the balance between taxation and public benefits, and notes (as if nothing could be more shocking) that Sweden is still a capitalist country (though it is never quite clear what point he thinks he is making). The book becomes far more dishonest in the next chapter, which concerns healthcare. Here, as is always the case when some neoconservative attempts to convince Americans that some sort of national health service would be a horrible imposition upon their freedom or their wallets or their wellbeing, Harsanyi is obliged to rely on his reader’s ignorance (as well as his own, I suppose). The argument is preposterous, of course. The American healthcare system is a disgrace, even if the quality of medicine available to those who can afford it is a marvel. Anyone who has ever worked inside the system and who has seen its gross inequities up close (I have a brother who had many years of experience working to help the uninsured) knows how grave its evils are. No electorate from any economically advanced country with publicly provided healthcare—that is, every economically advanced country other than ours—would give up the benefits of their system to adopt one like ours. And any American who has lived abroad and received medical care under such systems (someone like me, for instance) knows that, while no nation’s system is perfect, if you are in real need of medical attention, in almost all cases you would be far better off in France, Canada, Germany, or Italy than you are here. Our medical bureaucracy is no less onerous than any other country’s, but our guarantee of access to the care we seek is far more uncertain. Contrary to the fashionable lies that men like Harsanyi endlessly recycle, choice of healthcare provision is far freer in most other countries simply because insurance companies cannot limit one’s decisions, while costs to those being treated are either minimal or nonexistent, even though the care is as good or better. We, by noxious contrast, live in the only wealthy nation in the world today where someone is likely to be denied necessary care or affordable pharmaceuticals for want of funds. Only here, for instance, can a poor person die for the crime of being unable to afford insulin or dialysis.

Now, it is true that nations that provide either single-payer healthcare (like the United Kingdom) or a well-administered public option (like Germany) do indeed tax their populations for the purpose. But they distribute tax liability far more equitably across brackets than we do and strictly regulate the prices providers may charge. The result is that the cost of healthcare in these countries is roughly half what it is here per capita, and the actual cost for individuals (especially those who are not extravagantly rich) is only a fraction of what we are expected to pay for the same services. And no other wealthy country allows insurance companies to cheat their clientele with armies of adjusters whose job it is to deny the ill the services they thought they had paid for. Medical debt in the United States is one of the most economically debilitating burdens that the middle and working classes have to endure. But Harsanyi ignores all of this—or, rather, misrepresents the facts. And of course there are those damned statistics of his, none of which actually means anything. He notes that in this country care covered by insurance outperforms care covered by Medicaid in results. Well, of course it does. The whole point of Medicaid is that it serves persons and communities that are already at a medical and financial disadvantage; it does so grudgingly, moreover, according to the whims of legislatures; and physicians who do not want to take Medicaid patients, precisely because of the capriciousness and parsimony of the system, do not have to. The scandal here is not public assistance, but government dereliction. Similarly, Harsanyi notes that Britain’s N.H.S. always seems to be in a state of crisis. But that has nothing to do with anything inherent in public healthcare. It is the result of decades of austerity policies adopted by a succession of governments over four decades, all of which have been something of a betrayal of the working taxpayers of Britain. Health care is the one area of public provision where prudent redundancy is required at all times. The balanced German system and the humanely mixed French system, for instance, fare far better because they are better administered. In any event, this is the most contemptible and dishonest chapter in the book.

Not that there is not competition for that distinction. The next chapter complains about the intrusive E.U. “superstate” (which, to be honest, is neither more nor less intrusive than the American federal government). Yes, the E.U. is always in need of reform. All large government structures are. It has also at times increased European prosperity, instituted ameliorative environmental regulations, co-ordinated fiscal crises that otherwise would have been more destructive, and so forth. At other times, it has failed miserably to be of help and has interfered in local affairs that have no need of close invigilation. Life is never perfect; neither is government. Harsanyi notes that the E.U. has often hypocritically betrayed its own high principles by consorting with tyrannical and brutal foreign powers, something “we” would never do, certainly not in Yemen or Saudi Arabia. The next chapter argues that America is actually far more tolerant of ethnic minorities, different races, and different religions than “Europe” is. At least, there is “plenty of evidence” to that effect. Well, yes, to some extent this is true, and to some extent it is exorbitantly false. As in the States, so in Europe, some peoples are more tolerant than others, some regions are better than others where race relations and religious conflict are concerned. Interracial marriage is very rare in some places, utterly routine in others. Evidences can be adduced from either side, depending where one looks for it. Europe is large; so is America; and Harsanyi seems not to have traveled extensively in either. Again, having lived abroad, I find these generalities simply vapid. And, until there are a great many more incidents in Europe like, say, the mass murder of Latinos in El Paso in 2019 by a crazed Trumpista with access to semi-automatic weapons, I think it better to avoid any very great claims on behalf of American tolerance as compared to the curious provincialisms of the Old World (or, at least, to advance those claims hesitantly, somewhat sotto voce, and with a self-mockingly ironic wince).

The chapter on immigration is, of course, worthless, since there are few meaningful analogies to be drawn between European and American immigration, or between the differing ways in which American and Europe have failed to institute humane and prudent policies. Certainly our frequently and needlessly cruel practices at the southern border and our ever more brutal deportation system should be models for no civilized society. The following chapter on national wealth is even more worthless. It notes that America ranks very high in median income as compared to European nations; but, as the joke goes, whenever Jeff Bezos enters an Amazon plant the median income there rises to roughly one hundred billion dollars. As a matter of simple fact, actual wealth—which includes civic services provided by the taxes one pays, as well as personal savings, benefits, wages that keep pace with inflation and the cost of living, job security, an absence of exorbitant debts, accumulated equity, access to healthcare, and a host of other factors—is far, far worse for working and middle-class persons in much of America than in all of Western Europe. Harsanyi is not even willing to note—let alone grant—how egregiously American tax law continues to redistribute civil wealth upward, and how callously it refuses to return the wealth taxed from the lower income strata in the form of basic public services that (as, again, anyone who has ever lived in Western European countries can attest) often make life more humane and pleasant than is the case here. He does observe correctly that America has many of the finest and wealthiest universities in the world; would that he were more forthcoming about the dreadful public education that has turned much of the undergraduate curriculum of even very fine universities into what is little more than remedial educational programs.

Europe, Harsanyi then goes on to tell us, is suffering from a decline in faith, and this is sad because a religious people is a patriotic people. This latter is neither necessarily true nor necessarily laudable. And, anyway, it is as true as it is false. America’s white Evangelicalism often so thoroughly and dangerously conflates loyalty to Christ with loyalty to America that no actual Christian content remains in the faith it promotes; at the same time, where America fails in the concrete to match the fabulous image this weird religion generates, these same good patriots are as likely to throw in their lot with Putin as with the constitution. But it hardly matters: faith in institutional religion is declining in America too, a little belatedly by Western European standards but relentlessly even so, because that is simply the reality of late modern capitalist culture. In many ways, however, Europe remains more Christian than America has ever been (vide infra). And, really, given that Harsanyi is so little acquainted with the actual content of religious culture that he thinks the King James Bible is actually the “Saint James Bible,” I am not sure he has all that much credibility in this sphere. Harsanyi may be right—again, allowing for regional variations—that Americans give more in charity than most Europeans do; that is often as much a matter of America’s greater social neglect as anything else.

Harsanyi is right, I admit, that Americans enjoy greater legally protected freedom of speech than most other peoples. Would that our miserable educational system and the absence of standards in our mass media did not conspire to make that a very mixed blessing. Still, score one for Harsanyi.

His criticisms of Europe’s demographic decline seem oddly pointless, inasmuch as the situation here is not much different. Something similar is true of his assertion that Americans have a higher regard for the sanctity of life than do Europeans. For one thing, he fails here—as he does everywhere else—to take account of regional differences in both Europe and the States where these things are concerned. After all, his principal concerns are the legal toleration of euthanasia and abortion rates, which vary vastly across both continents. (Compare, for instance, New York State to contemporary Germany on both issues.) For another—is Harsanyi mad? American reverence for the sanctity of life? A nation that is so obsessed with absolutely untrammeled access to firearms that even the routine slaughter of schoolchildren cannot shake us from our bizarre and nihilistic love of lethal weaponry? A nation that continues to allow and even to exult in the barbarism of capital punishment, and this despite decades of overwhelming evidence that the innocent are regularly put to death by the state? A nation that provides less real public assistance for endangered children in poor areas than several “Third World” nations?

Anyway, this is becoming tedious. The truth is that adult minds do not produce books like Eurotrash. A serious writer approaching a comparative evaluation of the two societies with anything like a fair mind would have discovered that America and Europe have much to learn from one another, much to lament about themselves, and perhaps many defects in common. There is, it is true, a very great deal to criticize about the nations of contemporary Europe, and even to some extent of Europe in general (though the latter is a perilously imprecise course to pursue). But, then again, what of us? A near perfect mirror inversion of Harsanyi’s book would be so very easy to write. There are so many “leading indicators” by which we trail not only almost all the European nations, but all other economically developed nations worldwide. For instance, the percentage of American workers who enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining is minuscule by world standards, while the number earning less than two thirds of the national median income is positively vast (almost twenty-five percent). Tax laws here favor the wealthy over the working poor to a degree unknown in most functioning economies. Consequently, the gap between the income and savings of the lower and middle classes (on the one hand) and the rich (on the other) is larger here than in any of those damned European nations. So is our real poverty rate. Benefits for those in lower income brackets here fall far below the levels maintained in all the other advanced economies of the world, as do worker benefits (as a percentage of median disposable income) in general—including living wage standards, vacation time, and worker protections. Ours is a debtor economy on a scale that beggars the imagination of most nations. By some estimates, as much as forty percent of the population is one paycheck away from an economic crisis. And health emergencies here destroy personal wealth at a rate unknown in civilized lands.

And do we really need to rehearse our social pathologies at length to realize that our way of life is not obviously superior to European practices in any number of areas? Our withering middle class, our opioid crisis, our uncontrolled pharmaceutical and health insurance costs? Our monstrously cruel penal system, our mandatory sentencing laws, our militarized police forces, our ludicrous war on drugs, our inconceivably virulent epidemic of gun violence? Our miserable educational systems, our rapidly decaying infrastructure, our extraordinarily poor public transport? For that matter, the still poisonous water in Flint, Michigan? Our weak unions, our indifference to working conditions for whole classes of laborers, our empty savings accounts, our exploitative credit industry, our failure to create the genuinely desirable jobs that the new global economy was supposed to deliver? Our tolerance of armed militias populated by deranged simpletons, our ever more extreme social divisions, our ever greater enthusiasm for civil violence, our newly racialist politics? The looming specters of a period of chronic political violence and of the collapse of our constitutional order in all but name?

Post-war Western Europe made a series of decisions about democracy and about social welfare. The best of those decisions were reached because European culture—for all the gales of secularizing modernity that had been blowing across the continent for a century and a half (and more)—retained habits of thought and shared moral expectations grounded in a long Christian past. Needless to say, many of those values existed in a laicized form; but they were not necessarily diluted as a result. In the attempts of several nations to create not merely electoral but also social democracies (or democratic socialisms, in some cases) there remained some real vestiges of an ancient virtue ethics and an inherited recognition of the necessary interdependence of personal and social virtue. In America, however, Christianity was never able to establish itself as a genuine cultural grammar; instead, an entirely different set of religious habits of thought—grounded in individualism, libertarian ethics and economics, effervescences of private emotional transport, and so on—was adopted in Christianity’s stead, and then dissembled under its name. Hence, in America’s post-war period, there were some movements in the direction of a fuller vision of the country as a moral community, but almost never in the most important areas (such as assured affordable healthcare).

The sequel of the story, of course, is that both America and Europe failed in many of their social aims, and both in recent years have exhibited any number of social and political problems that seem to be the inevitable result of the economic and social systems both have adopted. The perilous disaffections and disillusionments pervading the late classical liberal order are simply an overwhelming fact of the present historical moment; and the gravitation toward authoritarian politics in many of the societies fashioned by that order is very much the great problem of our time. There is much, therefore, that needs seriously to be thought out and thought through again. The successes need to be sorted out from the failures, the just practices from the unjust, the wise decisions from the foolish. This is a burden that needs to be shared by the whole late modern world, and it requires a willingness in good faith to attend to the details of our common situation, recognizing that all our societies have perhaps reached a moment of crisis as far as the liberal consensus (of both right and left) is concerned. Set over against that serious and necessary labor, a cartoonish tantrum like Harsanyi’s book is just a squalid appeal to our most foolish, paralyzing, and destructive impulses. In an hour that requires prudence, charity, wisdom, and balance, it is nothing but a call to self-aggrandizing stupidity.

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