As an American who has lived in Europe now for over half her life, I read Jeremy Rifkin’s book The European Dream with mixed feelings.
On the one hand, of course it is music to my ears. When I came to Europe after college I could feel the difference: a different pace of life, a less martial attitude towards leaders and towards authority in general, an attachment to things not only material, an understanding of the importance of time off, an approach to building cities that made them both dynamic and livable. All these things and more changed the course of my own life.
On the other hand, I am an American. That means that in spite of myself, I worry that Rifkin may indeed be right. It is there for all to see that the American Dream is languishing. In a recent piece in The Guardian the historian Timothy Garton Ash compared the US to “a weary Titan” and stated that the end of the American century that began in 1945 “can already be glimpsed on the horizon”.
Sad to say, for the majority of Americans, ‘rags-to-riches’ in a land of ‘limitless possiblities’ where you can always walk off into the sunset and reinvent your upwardly mobile self, is now an unattainable dream, a marketing concept rather than a feasible reality. No wonder that one out of four americans now sees violence as an acceptable way of getting what he wants. The amazing thing about the American Dream is its tenacity: two thirds of Americans still say they believe in it, even while they struggle to make ends meet in spite of holding down two jobs, with far too little time for their children and their friends and two weeks vacation a year if they’re lucky. And what do they do with that itty bitty time off? Come walk around the open air museum that much of Europe has become and marvel at how beautiful and how livable it is over here.
Rifkin’s visit here at the John Adams Institute couldn’t have been better timed. Europe is sorely in need of some encouragement after all the depressing news of this week. Yesterday in Brussels Barroso admitted that there would not be a European constitution for two to three years to come. Last weekend the Germans held elections that only deepened the rifts and political muddle (‘Germans bring chaos upon themselves’, was the headline in one of the papers here). And this week the Dutch heard that Holland’s contribution to Europe is going up yet again. For what?, many people wonder.
(Having said that, what with John Roberts, Irak and Katrina, the news from the US was at least as bad if not worse. Fortunately for George W., hurricane Rita is blowing another chance his way to show how capable he really is.)
Rikfin sees the European Union as an emerging superpower of a new kind. The american dream is slowly being eclipsed by its counterpart, the European dream, which focuses on sustainable development, quality of life and the nurturing of community. The European dream, he says, is ,,the first truly global vision befitting a globalizing economy”. The Old World has brought forth the new vision.
There are many voices out there saying similar things. The ranks of Europe’s passionate defenders are swelling. The New York magazine Village Voice recently chronicled the wave of young Americans moving to Europe for affordable housing and education. The State Department estimates that 3 million americans are living abroad, a number that has doubled in the past 30 years.
In an interview just last week in NRC Handelsblad, the 31-year old Englishman Mark Leonard, director of the Center for European Reform, talked about his book with the title ‘Why Europe will Run the 21ste Century’. ,,The freedom, stability and wellbeing make the european way of life irresistible”, he says. The Dutch author Donald Kalff, who is with us here this evening, published a book on a similar theme last year called ‘Beyond American Capitalism. The Rise of the European Enterprise Model’, in which he predicts the demise of the short-sighted American approach to business and its adulation for shareholder value. Kalff is a staunch believer in Europe’s ability to create a business model that is based on trust and cooperation. He even believes that Europe can break America’s hegemony in the world economy. We’ll hear more from Mr. Kalff later.
But there are equally passionate detractors, or rather: sceptics. John Vinocur, columnist with the International Herald Tribune who will never pass up an opportunity to say something snide about Europe, wrote this week that the German elections ,,are a blow to Europe’s hopes of economic and social renewal anytime soon’. Even Holland’s own fervently pro-European minister of Economic Affairs Laurens-Jan Brinkhorst frets in public about the slow economic growth, the high unemployment, the aging population and the competition from India and China.
And last week columnist roger Cohen devoted a thoughtful column in the Herald Tribune to the future of America. “Is America at or past its apogee?” he asked rhetorically. “Nobody knows, but I think not. The 21st century is more likely to be American than anything else.”
So who is right? Jeremy Rifkin has provided Europe with a rejuvenating elixir in book form, that’s for sure, blam for a wounded soul. But is it more than a peptalk for the tired Old World? Is it an exercise in wishful thinking? A encouraging chirp from cloud cuckoo land? Or a simple ineluctable statement of fact?
Read, listen, and judge for yourselves.
Mr. Rifkin, the floor is yours.