Peter Geoghegan

Journalist, author, broadcaster

No Real Case for Continental Drift

This review of Peter Baldwin’s insight new book The Narcissism of Minor Differences: How America and Europe are Alike appeared in The Sunday Business Post a few weeks back:

Last summer, US president Barack Obama announced plans to extend medical cover to more than 31 million uninsured Americans.

To judge by the reaction of certain sections of the US right, you would think the new president was intending to abolish private property and declare a dictatorship of the proletariat. ‘Socialist Medicine’ and ‘Death to Obama’ screamed fevered protesters in town halls across Middle America, some even brandishing posters of Obama sporting a Hitler moustache.

Over on this side of the Atlantic, the US ‘debate’ on healthcare reform seemed to confirm one of our deepest and most fondly held prejudices: that, on everything from social policy to gun control, America and Europe are poles apart. Where they say ‘tomayto’, we say ‘tomahto’.

But is the schism between the old world and the new world really so wide? Peter Baldwin thinks not. In The Narcissism of Minor Differences – a term coined by Sigmund Freud to account for the negative feelings individuals feel towards those they most resemble – the UCLA-based historian explicitly sets out to demonstrate ‘‘that the commonalities across this divide are greater than the differences’’.

The Narcissism of Minor Differences, the author acknowledges in his prefatory notes, is essentially ‘‘an essay in numbers’’. In it, Baldwin marshals reams of statistical data, most of it drawn from the last decade, into some 250 pages of dense, fact-laden prose, with almost every page illustrated by a bar chart.

These are separated into chapters with inspiring titles such as ‘The Economy’, ‘Civil Society’ and ‘Assimilation’, and there are even 50-plus pages of technical information and references at the back, just in case you want to try his calculations out at home.

Baldwin is one of the foremost experts on 20th century European history in the American academy, and among the stats, graphs and pithy one-liners are some genuinely surprising findings.

On climate change, the United States is often characterised as a nation of deniers and sceptics, but a higher percentage of Americans are very worried about the environment than any European nation bar the Portuguese (who, in case you were wondering, are also the most pessimistic people of any developed country).

Elsewhere, Baldwin shows how Sweden, that much vaunted bastion of fair-minded social democracy, has become a nation of malingerers, with women claiming on average 46 sick days per year and almost 20 per cent of the population registered as disabled (twice the US average).

Scandinavia and its putative ‘social model’ is Baldwin’s primary bete noire, followed closely by the Guardian and Will Hutton (many chapters feature anti-American quotes from the Observer columnist).

Baldwin’s writing is crisp, clipped and generally pleasing on the eye – excepting his occasional penchant for substituting impenetrable German sociological terms for plain English. Gargantuan amounts of information are synthesised concisely, often enlivened by a telling observation:

who, for instance, knew that a 10th-century depiction of Christ appears on every Danish passport? I certainly didn’t, and I’ve lived in North Jutland.

The United States is often accused of being ideologically opposed to the welfare state and failing to offer adequate social services to all its citizens.

However, as Baldwin shows, America is within the European range on all measures of social expenditure – thanks, in no small part, to the failings of our own governments.

Ireland ranks lowest on a whole raft of social indices: public spending on childcare; pensions as a percentage of earning income; total social spending per capita; and public social expenditure, both as a percentage of GDP and per capita. How much worse these figures will be in five years’ time scarcely bears contemplating.

America might not be as different from Europe as we are led – and indeed like – to believe. Nevertheless, the United States does have a higher crime rate, prison population and more murders per capita than any country in the developed world.

On income inequality, an area the US is often accused of lagging behind Europe in, lo and behold, it is: the discrepancy between the highest and the lowest earners in society is highest in America, closely followed by Britain. Similarly, the depth and strength of religious belief in the United States sets it apart from most European nations.

Baldwin is no American apologist: his ire is directed at both the US left and its right, which he acerbically describes as ‘‘intellectually of no consequence’’. If, at times, the straw men he knocks down are so thin as to be practically diaphanous ç the Guardian, an organ of the left intelligentsia with a readership hovering around the 300,000 mark, as the voice of the British people? Not unless you mistake Islington for England – overall the book is erudite, cogently argued and remarkably readable.

I’ll certainly think twice before making another glib remark about gun-totting, bible-bashing, hamburger eating Yanks. But, then again, I’ll possibly make it anyway. Human nature, as Freud knew all too well, is easier to understand than to change.

No Real Case for Continental Drift
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