At Large

Thinking Outside the Bubble

An expatriate's impressions after his return to the United States.

By 8.31.10

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BOSTON -- Visiting the United States this month after several years as an expatriate in France, I am fascinated to see this giant American bubble inside which live 310 million people, about half of them contented and half of them permanently angry at something.

Of course one must be cautious in comparing civilizations but the peculiarities of the United States leap out at you -- ils sautent aux yeux, as the French say, they jump at your eyes.

I say "bubble" because in three weeks of schmoozing with relatives and friends, most of them accomplished professionals, I sense a drift toward willful isolationism. Iraq and Afghanistan have never come up in conversation without my prodding. Only a cab driver volunteered an opinion and that was on corruption among military contractors. "These thieves make my skin crawl," he said, taking three fives from me for a short ride across town.

The suburbs of Boston are probably typical of the educated U.S. population so I have taken them as representative. One Sudbury matron explained to me her apathy about American wars by the fact that she and her friends know no one personally involved. "It all seems to abstract," she said. She seemed equally unconcerned about the trillions of American dollars poured into the wars although she does hate paying her taxes.

From a visitor's perch, the only people intellectually engaged in the rights and wrongs of the war effort seem to be policy wonks, professional opinionators and NPR junkies.

They should all read Bill Pfaff's latest book, The Irony of Manifest Destiny. He argues that the war on terror is a huge and unnecessary waste more suited to "good police work." Pfaff echoes the sentiments of many expats who believe that Americans, unlike Europeans, love to see their military in action. The New York Times dismissed Pfaff's engaging thesis with a one-paragraph review buried inside a recent Sunday books section.

A related contrast is the volatile national debate on often-marginal issues that surface on cable television and the blogosphere. Europeans enjoy a confrontation too but they are better at marshaling an argument and pursuing a point in depth, sometimes with more courage than bluster. Just before leaving France I was riveted to a discussion between a government minister and a veiled Muslim woman. "How am I to trust you?" the minister asked. "You can see me but I cannot see you." France has since gone on to ban the burqa in public.

A visitor to the United States also notices the zigzags of public discourse here. Subjects surge to the surface, burn brightly for a 24-hour news cycle, and vanish, as in the cases of Shirley Sherrod, the latest hit-Iran predictions, and anything President Barack Obama does or says.

Of all the divisive issues separating the contented from the angry Americans, Islam is the most emotional. One in four Americans persist in believing that President Obama is a Muslim, prompting a general unease throughout the land. Yet France, Germany and Britain all have larger proportions of Muslim populations and seem to have found a modus vivendi. Only in Holland has a backlash formed at the political level.

I tell my European friends to go easy on us, that on a per capita basis we are only averagely crazy. Now I'm not so sure. I dropped in at the Boston Public Library one hot morning and find the place deserted except for the Internet access room. There, 59 of the 60 computers were already occupied at 9:30 a.m. and I got the last one.

Seated next to me in the aisle was a disturbed woman wearing a wooly hat staring straight ahead.

All over Boston and Brookline (where I am staying with relatives) numerous people are wandering the streets unsure of where they are or who they are. Many are carrying large containers of cola or coffee. Hospitals, I am told, hurry psychotic patients back on the street as soon as they are deemed harmless to themselves or others.

Europe's healthcare system, including mental healthcare, is far more measured and compassionate.

Healthcare in Europe is of course an area of sharp contrast with the United States. On a cost basis alone, I'll take Europe any day. Daily blood pressure pills will cost you $1.20 a month in France compared to $56 in Massachusetts. A friend paid $160 to fix his broken elbow in Bordeaux. Equivalent care in the United States would come in at about $700.

But it is the commercialization of U.S. hospitals that rankle most. Hospitals were once services, not businesses, but now even prestigious Memorial Sloan-Kettering buys full-page ads to claim patients "often have better outcomes than those treated elsewhere." Who believes advertising?

The plunge in ratings for television news has broadcasters on both sides of the Atlantic groping for new formats. The French have been highly innovative. I note here that beleaguered CNN is desperate, relying on its "CNN babes" -- the blondes with the buzzsaw voices -- seemingly hired for their ability to punch through the screen. One of them is actually named "Yellin." Pathetic.

Finally, the oily Larry King is finally departing at 78, visibly dying onscreen and not just in the show business sense. Even his staff seems to have walked, leaving him with such swan songs are yet another interview with Snoop Dogg and a drilldown into the question "Texting while driving -- how dangerous is it?"

An expat view of U.S. trends may suffer from a snapshot feel but on the other hand distance can provide clarity, and living abroad provides the basis for comparison. It's always useful, I find, to think outside the bubble.

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.