Sunday, June 3, 2012

Coming Together

David Brooks’ Friday column attempts to discredit the belief that our world has grown closer thanks to technology, trade, and international institutions. He cites as evidence: the polarization of American politics, reports that 95% of Americans’ news is domestically produced, and the statistic that only 2% of Europeans have left their homelands to live in another country on the continent. In addition these numbers, Brooks offers survey data that reveals differing emphases placed upon work and family life among various EU nations. He deploys all this data to suggest that the European project is an unpopular failure.

Al Smith under the Pope's influence
Political polarization makes a worthy target, but growing divides between parties differ greatly from what has taken place between peoples. Ideas matter far more than identities in our modern political discourse. There are, to be sure, numerous news stories about political candidates’ ethnic and religious identities, but we are nowhere near the uproar that greeted the first Catholic to run for the Oval Office on a major party platform, Al Smith. Today the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, belongs to a church that represents only .019% of Americans, but it is his ideas, not his faith that inspire most of his critics. President Obama, meanwhile, belongs to the 12.6% African American community, but his ideas and identity extend far beyond his own race. Despite the occasional shrill cry from fringe figures, the vast majority of Americans respect the humanity of minorities in ways that were foreign just half a century ago. Prejudices and biases remain, to be sure, but they have less to do with ethnic or racial origins than with the economic and cultural characteristics that sometimes accompany traits such as skin color and ethnicity, which once provided sufficient justification in themselves for exclusion.

One statistic cited by Brooks belies his claim that nationalities haven’t found greater common ground in the past half-century. Brooks calls Angela Merkel, “[t]he most popular major European politician,” and goes on, “[s]he has 80 percent approval in Germany, 66 percent approval in Britain and 76 percent approval in France.” Can anyone imagine, much less recall, a German politician who was broadly popular in Britain and France before 1945? Prior to the late 20th century, successful foreign leaders were to be feared as potential conquerors, not admired as talented statesmen. Brooks misses the forest for the trees when he cites the 25% greater preference for work amongst the French as compared to the Danes and neglects to remind readers that the countries share a currency, have no visa requirements, and lack frontier posts, let alone armies, on any of the borders between them.

Integration, peace, and cooperation do not require cultural uniformity. Diverse social preferences and national characters were never the intended victims of internationalism. Rather, political solidarity and shared prosperity helped exorcise the old European poltergeist of nationalism. Rivalries once tested in blood are now tried on the football pitch, the European Athletics  Championships, and even the Eurovision Song Contest. Despite the recent advances of far-right parties during hard economic times, national hatreds remain buried beneath half a century’s progress away from the bloodshed of centuries past. Far more important and relevant to this discussion is the reality of a Europe that stands committed to commonly held principles of human rights, shared security, open borders, and cultural exchange.

The “unification of mankind” that Brooks discounts is not equally distributed throughout the world. Many borders remain hostile, many cultures alien, many peoples jingoistic. Apart from these hotspots, though, the past sixty years are characterized by the greatest expansion of international trade and intercultural communication in human history. Although most Americans may watch the local news rather than Al Jazeera Arabic, millions of Arabs enjoy Hollywood films. Never have more works of literature, art, and music been translated, shared, and embraced by people around the world. Surely this global flowering cannot wholly be the “illusions” of liberal humanists.

Our ever-thickening web of connective technologies make communication and shared experience the norm rather than the exception. Witnessing the struggles of citizens in Cairo, Moscow, and Wukan, China, is no longer the sole preserve of foreign correspondents and international aid workers. Today, civilians around the world can tune in and reach out, through the phones and cameras of local activists, to the human rights movements of our age.

European unification has come a long way since the Third Reich.
Brooks is wrong to say that, “Europe continues to suffer from the same problem that has plagued it for the past half-millennium. There are too many nations in too small a space. There are no historical trends or technocratic schemes that are altering that basic flaw.” To be sure, Europe has problems that are complicated by its dense fabric of different nationalities, but Brooks’ problem has changed dramatically since the early 20th century. There are no dictatorships in modern Europe, no pogroms, no wars. When violence or authoritarianism most recently broke out, in Milosevic's Serbia, the rest of the continent joined to extinguish it and to preserve the peace that emerged.

The Social Animal, Brooks’ 2011 bestseller, belies his column’s narrow focus on pessimistic statistics. Before he condemns European unity to the dustbin of history, he should return to his own assessment of what he labeled, "the urge to merge." Europe faces immense challenges to its political and economic institutions in the months and years to come. But Brooks is wrong to associate these challenges with half a century’s growing “segmentation.” In doing so he ignores the immense convergence in democratic and economic institutions that took place in the past half century. Going forward, leaders would do well to scrutinize apparent similarities, but beneath these differences they can take comfort in the common foundations that have been built since the end of the last World War.

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