A False Sense of Progress

Rebecca Straus gives a glimpse of the U.S. through the eyes of Europe.

“So, what do you think of Obama?”

After the first three days of what would soon be nine months studying abroad at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, I’d been asked this question perhaps a dozen times. My answer was always a hazy sentiment of approval, and an expression of optimism that in eight weeks time he would be reelected. Usually, this would be a sufficient reply, and once my new acquaintance felt assured I was not a Romney supporter or member of the NRA — and when I had agreed that the Tea Party was indeed idiotic — the conversation would move on to other topics.

Those first few days were some of the most surreal I’ve ever experienced.

I was moderately jet-lagged, hopelessly trying to learn my way around Norwich’s winding medieval lanes, and introducing myself to new people every five minutes – or at least what felt like every five minutes. Only the international students had arrived so far, and, after three days, we were all still feeling a little lost and a little desperate to make friends. After inquiring about each other’s nationality and course of study, we would trade stories about our homelands, and as an American, I often felt a bit conspicuous. Though I was completely ignorant of Chinese sitcoms and New Zealand’s politics, these students could always relate to American culture in one way or another. Almost everyone expressed a desire to visit New York City if they hadn’t already been there, and talked to me about their favorite American films and TV shows — “Friends” being the most popular.

And, of course, they’d almost always mention the upcoming presidential election, which, though not as much as in 2008, seemed to be at the forefront of the international news scene.

“So what do you think of Obama?”

This time the question came from a Norwegian girl whose name is long erased from my memory. I had teamed up with her and another Norwegian during a tour of Norwich, and the three of us decided to stay behind to pick up a few items in Wilkinson’s — a homeware store on the order of Target — before we lost it again amidst the tangled streets. We were on the bus back to campus when she delved into U.S. politics. I gave her my standard reply: I supported Obama; I hoped he would win; Mitt Romney was crazy. She gave me a look.

“Well, I don’t think Obama has lived up to his promises. I mean, of course he’s preferable to Romney, but he isn’t as liberal as I thought he would be. He’s practically gone over to the conservatives,” she said.

Had he? I’d heard Obama described as a left-leaning moderate, but to say conservative seemed a bit extreme. Besides, hadn’t he just pushed through a substantial healthcare reform bill? I tried to think about the last time I had read the news, but couldn’t remember it. She continued with her critiques, while I feebly tried to defend my country, but mostly nodded along silently, trying to keep up. She announced she’d never want to live in America because our government is so “oppressive.” I balked at this. She insinuated that she pitied me for having been born into such a backward land. I was indignant. Insulted, almost.

My patriotism began to swell.

Yet at the same time, I felt utterly humbled to think that the “City upon a Hill” and “Land of Opportunity” metaphors about America, which we hear repeated so often in the media and in high-school history textbooks, might sound outrageous to someone from a country with decades of national healthcare and, according to Statistics Norway, a 3.6 percent unemployment rate, which, though it has been rising the past few months, is still much lower than the U.S.’s 7.7 percent. Though I critique the American Dream rhetoric myself, and regularly read articles in The New Yorker or TIME with similar viewpoints, at some level I still retain my American optimism. I believe in the American underdog story, but I also believe the wealthy underdogs have a better chance of success.

When Jens Stoltenberg, Norway’s Prime Minister, delivered his annual New Year’s Day address in January, he made a statement that, while definitely not calling America oppressive, insinuated it has not lived up to the mythology that surrounds it.

“The Americans have their American Dream. We have the Norwegian model. Our model may not sound as exciting, but it makes up for this by providing security,” he said. “It is easier to realize the American Dream in Norway than it is in America … The strength of Norwegian society lies in the fact that everyone makes a contribution. No one can just make demands … If we allow anyone to shirk their responsibility, for example by evading taxes, cheating the social security system or giving themselves huge pay raises while others have to show moderation, the glue that holds our society together will come unstuck, and our trust in one another will be weakened.”

This is a testament to Norway’s achievements, but also clearly a wake-up call to the U.S., telling us that the individualism we celebrate may not always be desirable, that it in fact works against equality of opportunity. He’s telling us to get our act together.

That’s not to say Europeans, and the British most of all, aren’t fascinated with America. My friends are intrigued by the portrayal of American high school mockingly portrayed in films like “Mean Girls” and “The Princess Diaries,” and more than once I’ve been called upon to shed light on the mystifying dichotomy of a corndog. They love our food and our movies, our cities and our optimism, but mention our gun control debate and they – understandably – shake their heads with mixed disgust and bewilderment that any sane civilian would ever want to buy an assault weapon.

It’s true that Europe is always looking west out the corner of its eye, whether it’s to see the drama of the American political system played out in “Lincoln” or in the latest House debate. Obama’s second term might define him as one of the great modern American presidents if gun control reform passes, women’s rights to birth control and abortion are upheld in the ongoing healthcare debates and gay marriage becomes a constitutional reality. But while the reaction from American democrats will be one of celebration, all Europe will be saying is, “It’s about time.”

So, what do I think of Obama? Well, I’ll be keeping an eye on the news. In the meantime, I sit and type in the common room of a hostel in Birmingham — a city I do not recommend visiting, by the way — with a dozen other people of various nationalities, none of whom are American. The thing that has everyone gathered and mesmerized together on the couches?

“CSI: Las Vegas.”

Rebecca Straus is a junior English major studying abroad in Norwich, England. Rebecca can be reached at rebecca.straus@temple.edu.

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