By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
“Americans are delusional, prudish religious nuts, especially when compared to the rest of the world,” was the headline of an article at Rawstory.com. The author then presents a litany of accusation ostensibly based on a Pew survey. America is “a country that fetishizes violence and is squeamish about sex.” The article claimed that Americans were “religious nuts” compared to the “world”, but the author actually has mistaken “Europe” for the “world,” writing, “Europeans, overall, are less religious than Americans.” Americans were presented as bad for being religious, whereas the best country was France. The author noted that even though 95% of Americans had premarital sex, that 30% claimed it was “morally unacceptable.” The good countries were Germany and France, where it wasn’t viewed as morally an issue. “Plenty of European countries have decided to dwell in reality, providing useful sexual health education to youth instead of lessons in sexual repression.”
Europeans were more likely to believe success was beyond their control, and Americans felt “hard work is very important for getting ahead in life,” a statement only 35 percent of Europeans overall agreed with. Americans were faulted for believing it is “more important that everyone be free to pursue their life’s goals without interference from the state” than to guarantee society’s welfare, and Americans were even problematic for having the highest level of belief “that people should be able to openly criticize the powers that be.” Americans felt free speech was important, “Americans were more tolerant than their European counterparts of speech that would be considered offensive to religions and minorities,” whereas Europeans believed in hate speech legislation most of their countries already have.
It’s hard to go a week on Facebook without seeing some meme that emphasizes the superiority of Europe over America (and the world) in other fields as well. America should learn from Finland’s education system where, supposedly, students do “no homework.”
Europe, all of it apparently, is far superior to America and everyone else when it comes to sex education. A video posted on Youtube claims that in utopian Europe sex education covers “sexual orientation”, pleasure, relationships and protection. Sex education is “mandatory”. In the Netherlands children start sex ed at 4 years old. In Denmark it claims porn is brought into the classroom. The video claims that only 22 states in the US have mandatory sex ed and it shows a teacher telling students they will get pregnant and die if they have sex, as if that is the norm in the US. The video claims most states only teach abstinence. “87% teach abstinence as the most effective method of safe sex.” Therefore America has the “highest rate of teen pregnancy of industrialized countries.” Other articles note that Europe proves “US sex education sucks.” And “sexual prudery makes America less healthy” than Europe. There are many more examples.
When I was in high school, it was a tenant of student belief systems that the US was far worse than Europe. With habitual tradition, I heard from the few European exchange students we had that there was no poverty in Europe. No “trailer parks like you have here.” There was no racism, they said. Europe was open minded on drug laws. They had open minded sex. There was none of the “Christian right” to suppress them in the bedroom. Gun laws in America led to high murder rates, but in Europe there was virtually no crime.
Eventually I was lucky enough to experience European civilization first hand on a study abroad in Italy, a summer spent in the UK and other trips, I came to realize the story of mythical Europe was a bit of a misnomer. In Italy in 2001 there were many Sudanese migrants who used to come begging at restaurants. Italians in Florence resented them. They didn’t want them in the nightclubs. They claimed that Sudanese were responsible for rapes. Then there were the clearances of the “Gypsy camps.” For Italians it was normal to hate Gypsies, or Roma.
Of course it is true there are different views of sex in the US and Europe. In Switzerland, Netherlands or Belgium, women stand in windows in underwear for sale for sex because prostitution is legal. That’s surely different. Perhaps porn magazines are sold openly in some places. There are other differences in Europe. Getting off the fabled metro in Paris at Barbès-Rochechouart station, we found the other Paris, the one that resembles more the banlieues, the poverty-stricken suburbs. Those are the ghettos for African and Arab citizens, some of them several generations in France. But there is no racism in Europe, we had been told. More on this later.
Enter Donald Trump
The rise of Donald Trump in the US has fed fuel to the “Europe is superior” narrative. In a recent spat with David Cameron over anti-Muslim comments, the British Prime Minister was asked if he would retract claims that Trump was “stupid.” The new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said that Trump was “ignorant, divisive and dangerous.” The Mayor of Paris was also applauded for calling Trump “stupid.”
Trump has become a convenient punching bag for any European politician seeking to deflect from their own country’s woes. He’s an easy and deserving target. But he is also a scapegoat. Trump may be a chauvinist, bullying, rude, obnoxious, racist, even fascist, type, but all the European politicians making comments makes one wonder, “they doth protest to much.” It’s not the first time. When George W. Bush was elected, there was a large outpouring of the same “Bush is stupid” views in Europe. That idea, that Americans can be dismissed as “stupid” is ingrained in Europe. It’s the easy go to description and stereotype. Americans are “ignorant.”
Americans are “ignorant” because they ostensibly speak less foreign languages than “Europeans.” By age 9 “many” European children speak two languages. Americans only speak American, well, I mean, English.
Euro-supremacism: How myths are made
The myth of European supremacy is part of an ingrained supremacist narrative that goes back to the colonial era and before in Europe. Today Europeans claim they are superior because of liberal sex education views, or because they are less religious, as if the very fact of believing in a different kind of secular religion is automatically superior. Of course, some kinds of these “superior” traits can be measured. The ability to do basic or complex math. Bilingual education, if you value that, can be measured. The number of doctors per capita, or the number of teachers in the average public school classroom, or literacy rates.
However, some of these “superior” qualities such as whether Americans or other world peoples are more “prudish” is primarily a subjective value judgement. What does it mean to be “prudish”? Why is that worse?
On the 15th of May seventeen women who were current or former government ministers in France signed a declaration against sexual harassment. “Women must be allowed to work, be out in the street, take transport without having to be subject to comments or wandering hands. We shouldn’t have to say it again and again. We shouldn’t have to write this declaration,” they said.
These women, who all reached the height of power in France described oppressive levels of sexual harassment even when they were at the center of politics. “They feel entitled to have a laugh and to make unwelcome gestures such as patting a woman on the buttocks,” Yvette Roudy, a politician, noted. Former culture minister Fleur Pellerin said she was asked by journalists if she got her job because she was good looking. This is evidence of a sick society. A NYT oped by Katrin Bennhold noted “French women may be as sexually liberated as French men. But in power, as in sexuality, they remain deeply unequal, and that can all too easily distort the notion of consent.” It turns out “famously liberal” France, compared to “puritanical” America, only addressed sexual harassment in law in 1992. The US had it on the books since the 1970s.
Is it “liberal” to sexually harass women? Is it “liberal” to have a social regime in which women are grabbed on the behind at work? Is it “liberal” to ask a woman who obtains a high level position if she “was chosen for her beauty”? People say Donald Trump is a chauvinist for doing these same kinds of things. If he had just been born in France he would be a “liberal” apparently. What’s liberal about abusing women? Is that lack of “sexual repression”, or is it an act of repression? Are rape laws a form of “puritanism” or is taking rape seriously a form of human rights?
An American woman in Sweden wrote an oped wondering if she was too much a prude for objecting to having sex so explicitly shown on TV (in someEuropean countries porn is shown on many channels after hours). The Swedish Green party, supposedly a more “open minded” and sexually liberated European style party was recently hit with a religious-sexual controversy. It turns out that some Islamists, similar but far more extreme in their religious views than the American religious right, had been rising up in the ranks. Yasri Khan, running for a seat on the executive board of the party, refused to shake hands with a Swedish TV reporter. “Shaking hands with someone from the opposite sex is to ‘intimate'” he claimed. Prudish, a bit? Or is this part of Europe’s famed “sexual liberation.” Khan later noted, “I think the Green Party needs to work on their inclusive values,” he said. “How do you combine diversity and religion with an ethnocentric and prejudiced idea of gender equality?”
Can anyone imagine a US politician, say Ted Cruz, claiming that because of his religious views women should not have “gender equality.” In America the country is wrestling with the issue of having transgender bathrooms in public schools and how the military can integrate transgender people. For all the talk of gay rights, Italy and central Europe still lack full equality. So in some European countries women stand in a window and sell themselves for sex, but they can’t marry another woman. In America they can.
As liberal as European countries appear on the surface, even with legalized prostitution, many of these countries suffer extreme abuses of women in sex trafficking and modern day slavery. An Al-Jazeera report was harrowing in its findings. Of course similar things happen in the US, but it shows that behind the “prudish” label, there’s nothing “liberal” about slavery and forced rape of women in sex slavery.
When it comes to immigration and racism, Americans far outpace utopian Europe. “America’s Muslims are better off than their European co-religionists. They are almost as likely as other Americans to report a household income of $100,000 or more,” noted The Economist. The US Census in a special report noted that Arab Americans make a median income of $56,000 compared to $51,000 for all Americans. Arab Americans thus outpace their American peers. Muslims were earning 400 euros less a month per household in France than their Christian immigrant peers. Compared to average white European French, the gap was even larger. Unemployment is higher. Racism is endemic. America, it turns out, is actually far better at integrating minorities and immigrants. It isn’t perfect, it has many problems with racism, but at least it confronts them, and is more self-critical than EU countries.
The myth of European supremacy reflects an unwillingness in Europe to have self-critique and instead to always need a scapegoat of someone else to blame for society’s problems. Cute little Youtube videos celebrating Europe as a land of bilingual dreams where everyone has sex education at age 4 and is open-minded is a misnomer. There are areas in Europe today where sex education is not being taught on this model. There are neighborhoods that produced hundreds of ISIS supporters, in total some 5,000 across Europe. In Denmark those returning from Jihad in Syria after committing war crimes received gym memberships and rehab. That isn’t superior, that is just an injustice.
Now with the massive migration crises in Europe one can see just how hollow is the claim of Europe being superior to not only the world but the US. There is a rise in racist parties. A former MI6 official said there will be “populist uprisings” if the crises is not fixed. Thousands are dying in the Mediterranean. Europeans scoff at Trump’s anti-Muslim comments, even as people are kept in camps in Greece and sent back to Turkey. In Germany refugee centers are being burned every week in arson attacks. How many Mexican immigrants in the US have faced arson attacks? Almost none.
How can countries where there are arson attacks, where thousands join Jihadist groups that have Nazi views, where politicians want to role back gender equality, where it is normal to grope female politicians, where whole parts of cities are abandoned by the state, where immigrants can barely find a job and are often hated for their religion and race, claim to be “liberal” and “superior”. It’s not “puritan” not to grope women, it’s called human rights and equality and respect for women. One can debate whether it is truly liberal to boast of having “mega-brothels“. But in Germany when companies pay for men to go to brothels as part of a perk, that’s not “liberal”, that’s also sexist, chauvinist ingrained discrimination. Americans aren’t more prudish. It’s just as prudish for men to feel entitled to have sex with women as part of a “perk” at work. The cult of European supremacy turns all this into a positive, as if a mark of a superior culture is how many brothels a country has, how many women are sexually harassed at work, how “liberal” they are just because women are seen completely as de-humanized objects. In Europe in some places they re-defined radical right wing religious extremism as “Green party liberal”, but there is nothing so “liberal” about refusing to shake hands with women.
As immigration holds up a mirror to Europe, and as some European countries confront sexual harassment culture, the myth of perfection is cracking. Donald Trump came along at the right time to distract, so yet another “ugly American” could be pointed at. But the more Europeans say “Trump”, the more they ignore the racism at their doorstep. And so long as people are drowning on the way to Europe and there is no policy to deal with them, there’s nothing “liberal”. Finland may be good at math, but it can’t calculate Europe’s way out of the current crises. Can it do the math to end racism? Arson? Groping of women?