We Are all Berliners
On the Sunday before the U.S. invaded Iraq last year, millions of people in cities across the planet gathered for protests, and, along with a friend and his 18-year-old son, I attended the one here in Berlin. We wandered through the crowd in the Tiergarten, Berlin’s huge central park, checking out the amplified rants of the speakers and the various bands, and, as the thing wound down, we walked back toward home through the Brandenburg Gate. It was there that a young woman in her mid-20s heard us talking and made a shocked noise that caused us to turn and look at her.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, clearly embarrassed. “It’s just that it’s strange to hear people speaking English at this…I mean, oh, dear…” and she fled. We shrugged and laughed, but in the months since, I’ve come to understand what was going through her mind. It was as if, say, one of my American Jewish friends had come to Berlin and found themselves in the presence of a group of Germans who were friendly and knowledgeable about Judaism — not what a lot of them would expect.
Thing is, there’s an image problem I’ve got to deal with here, and it isn’t getting better. And no, it’s not just about the war. But it is about America.
When I moved to Europe eleven years ago, part of my plan was to change my perspective. At first, I was noticing America’s heavy footprint on things: the McDonald’s franchises, the posters for touring bands I could have seen at home, the hip-hop fashions on the teenagers, the Hollywood films outnumbering the local product ten to one. The usual cliches about cultural imperialism went through my head, but as I grew to understand where I was, I realized it wasn’t that easy. By and large, these things were tolerated and accepted for what they were. I can tell you from bitter experience that Germans cannot make a hamburger, to the point where an American fast-food chain really is preferable.
And Americans, well, they were cool in a lot of ways. Not only had they behaved with honor toward a defeated enemy and won the respect of those who really did want to be liberated from the government that had ruined the country, they’d also introduced amazingly neat things like blue jeans and rock ‘n’ roll, Bob Dylan and the Ramones, and perhaps most importantly, a feeling that there actually was unlimited possibility out there. A lot of the Germans I knew had spent time as tourists and exchange students in America and had a clear and nuanced view of what the country was and wasn’t, and what it had to offer.
Which, I began to realize, was more than you could say about Americans. As I began to develop my own clear and nuanced view of Germany, I began to realize that a lot of folks back home couldn’t see past the nazis-and-skinheads stereotypes. “Aren’t you afraid?” they’d ask. Of what? And when I went back for a visit, armed with pictures of my neighborhood and stories of my discoveries, their eyes glazed over quickly. Weren’t they curious?
Well, no. They weren’t. And I began to notice something just looking at the pop music world: more and more, Europeans were declaring their independence from America. France instituted a law that a certain amount of air-time was to be given to French music, and instead of this meaning more incompetent French rock, it gave the ex-colonials, the Moroccans and Algerians and Malians and Congolese, chances to make new and wonderful music based on their traditions and the (American-derived) rock traditions of their new homeland. Germans discovered techno in Detroit, which is more than you can say for Detroiters, and helped make electronic dance music an international language, except in America.
I always thought it was weird that the Love Parade could attract upwards of a half-million people to the streets of Berlin without causing a blip on American screens, even those of MTV, who were for many years a co-sponsor of the event here. More and more, across Europe, native-language music was making the charts, and except for the undeniable rhythmic excitement of hip-hop, which spoke across cultural lines, less and less American music was showing up there.
Turnabout was fair play: Just as they ignored techno, Americans ignored the wonderful fusions coming out of France, which sort of fell under the tent of “world music.” Youssou N’Dour and Neneh Cherry were inescapable throughout Europe for an entire summer with their single “Seven Seconds”, which was on a Columbia album the parent company passed on in America. It was slick, yeah, but it was also roots. Just not roots Americans wanted to know about. Ditto for Manu Chao’s Esperanza album. Damn, I’m tired of that, even all these years later, that “ding” on the beat, that perky reggae shit. You probably don’t even know what I’m talking about.
Almost certainly it will be possible for you to live a long, healthy and productive life and die a dignified death without it, of course, but it’s just one detail of an overarching message that I seem to detect coming from the country in which I grew up: We don’t care. And that bothers me. I mean, I don’t think the folks in Ulan Bator care, either, but the Mongolians aren’t playing much part in anyone’s cultural or political life at the moment. Americans are, and, more importantly, they have for over half a century. People have come to expect something from Americans, something they have a combative relationship with from time to time, sure, but something they’ve integrated into their culture with more than a bit of affection.
I guess it all started to bother me the year I went back to the States for a visit and was astonished by how obese Americans — and their cars — had become. Now, I live in a country where beer and pork fat are avidly consumed year-round, so heavy people are no novelty to my eyes. But gasoline’s expensive here: It can cost $35 to fill up your compact car. The idea of owning a SUV just for the hell of it is a fantasy few people can entertain, even if they had a mind to. Not that they do: Here, everyone owns a washing machine, but few indeed own dryers because of the energy they consume. A dryer is the sort of thing that people generally disapprove of. It’s also a country that developed a car called the Smart, which has caught on as a cool lifestyle accessory. It seats two people, gets hellacious gas mileage, and is a bit longer than a bicycle.
And while the stereotype says that fat people are jolly, obese people look unhappy, like they’ve consumed all this stuff and it hasn’t made a difference. Because, well, it hasn’t. I suppose I could relate this to taking the world into yourself instead of putting yourself into the world, seeing the world as something to be consumed instead of experienced. Trying to consume that much will sure bring on the miseries. And overeating — isn’t that a sign of loneliness?
But you know, Americans do seem lonely to me these days. Isolated, that’s another word for it. And, well, I hate to bring politics into it because I know a lot of you have heard this before. Hell, a lot of you already believe it and I’m preaching to the choir. But I just can’t understand why the country that’s given the world so much would want to bring this upon itself. I mean, speaking of obesity, how ’bout them “freedom fries?” Boy, did I cringe when that hit the news, and not just because I know that they’re actually a Belgian invention. “Freedom fries” is worthy of a petulant 6-year-old, not the country I grew up in.
But the United States isn’t a 6-year-old, or at least if it’s choosing to behave like one, it’s big enough to scare the crap out of the rest of us. And it’s going to come home from kindergarten with a mighty low mark next to “Plays well with others.”
Thing is, we all have to play well with others. It’s too late not to; the option ceased to exist long ago, if it ever existed at all. The borders are gone, as the very magazine you’re reading proves: It was inspired, in part, by AOL, and, unlike, say, The New York Times, it doesn’t have a building you can go to and drop stuff off for the photo editor, although it does have a certain physical location on occasion. We’ve come to accept stuff like that. Just as I’ve come to accept that I can sit in Berlin and write for magazines in London and Nashville and wherever this one is at the moment while keeping up with friends in Mill Valley and Bangkok.
And because of this borderlessness, it also means that a small but growing number of Americans have started going online to read the newspapers in Britain and Australia and New Zealand — and, if they have the language skills, elsewhere — and have begun to discover that things out there have changed. And that a lot of this change started not at the World Trade Center on September 11, but in Miami in 2000. Terrorism, which most European nations have lived with for years, wasn’t nearly as shocking as what sure looked like an election being stolen in the country that had perfected democracy.
Democracy, of course, isn’t perfect in and of itself, because the humans who make it run aren’t. It’s come to stand for the best way to deal with the condition of human society that we know of. Much of the world knows this. That’s the good news.
The bad news, for Americans, is this: Because America has become so selfish, so inward-looking, so obese, it’s made other countries look to their own strengths. Yup, the French now have a viable music industry, both economically and aesthetically. Nope, owning an American car isn’t a status symbol in Germany anymore. Yup, we can go our own way a lot of the time. Without you. We’d rather have you aboard — you guys are fun and inventive and capable of a whole lot of things we’re not — but if we have to, we’ll ignore you as much as we can. Play well with others or others will not play with you. And any musician who’s been in a band can tell you that playing well with others is not only a transcendent experience, it’s also a profoundly adult one.
And, as an American — something I can’t and wouldn’t change if I could — I now get to be on the receiving end of a lot of sympathy. It’s not you, people are at great pains to make sure I understand. But…what is it with your country? I have to let them know that it isn’t all of us, and they sort of believe me. They’re nervous, though. Hell, so am I.
We all have a chance to turn this situation around soon. (I say “we” because I’m registered to vote from over here.) I don’t mean to be melodramatic or to scare anyone unnecessarily, but if things keep going as they have been, if those who have been calling the shots in the United States are returned to office, America could become a pariah nation, feared and disliked as never before in its history. As someone whose ancestors fled religious persecution in England, fought in the Revolution and the Civil War — and as someone whose life has found meaning in writing about the sounds and sights of America even as I’ve lived outside it — I would find that inexplicable, suicidal.
The alternative? A whole world of amazing folks to hang out with. The occasional perky reggae shit notwithstanding.