Cultural differences exist across borders, and because monoliths are mostly fantasies, often within them, too. That said, America, in particular, is culturally perplexing, and even confounding, to a lot of the rest of the world. I am not, as Americans are wont to do, laboring under the delusion that people in other places spend all that much time thinking about us. We are all, as a species, just trying to get through this thing called life. The conservative American notion that people with far better healthcare, civil rights laws and gun control “hate our freedom” is a wishful imperialist delusion. Worse, it’s not fooling anybody at this point.
That said, if all the world’s a stage, America is a prime player: a rich, loud, attention-seeking celebrity not fully deserving of its starring role, often putting in a critically reviled performance and tending toward histrionics that threaten to ruin the show for everybody else. (Also, embarrassingly, possibly the last to know that its career as top biller is in rapid decline.) To the outside onlooker, American culture—I’m consolidating an infinitely layered thing to save time and space—is contradictory and bizarre, hypocritical and self-congratulatory. Its national character is a textbook study in narcissistic tendencies coupled with crushing insecurity issues.
How to reconcile a country that fetishizes violence and is squeamish about sex; conflates Christianity and consumerism; says it loves liberty yet made human rights violations a founding principle? In conversations with non-Americans, should the topic of the U.S. come up, there are often expressions of incredulity and bewilderment about things that seem weird when you aren’t from here. Talk and think about those things enough, and they also start to seem objectively weird if you are from here, too.
That perception is held even by countries that share similarities with America. The Pew Research Center rounded up surveys from recent years that point out some of the ways American and European attitudes diverge, not infrequently widely. Obviously, there’s plenty of cultural difference among European countries, and surveys aren’t necessarily nuanced in describing how the citizens of entire countries see the world. But these polls do tell us something about the things large swaths of those countries agree on, as well as how those popular ideas tend to differ from pervasive notions and sensibilities within America.
It’s fairly common knowledge that Europeans, overall, are less religious than Americans. U.S. presidential speeches always end with a perfunctory “God bless America,” our athletes thank a god who apparently prefers rigging sports competitions to curing cancer, and there are odes to the lord on our money (America’s Real Highest Power™). A Pew survey released last year found that almost 75 percent of Americans across denominations say religion is at least “somewhat” important to them, with 53 percent calling it “very” important. That’s higher than in every European country polled, a list topped by Poland, where just 28 percent—close to half America’s total—answered in kind. France, in what we’ll see is pretty consistent, came in dead last in Europe, while Japan and China, to borrow a conservative phrase, are even more "godless."
The U.S. tally is down a bit from 2007, when 26 and 56 percent of people said religion was “somewhat” or “very” important, respectively. In the seven-year gap between polls, there was a 7.8 percent decline in the number of self-identified Christians, counterbalanced by simultaneous increases among other religious affiliations. The biggest leap was among the “unaffiliated,” a group that includes atheists, agnostics and “nothing in particular.” Last year, Pew also found that white Christians are now a minority in this country. At this news, somewhere, a Trump supporter sheds a single tear.
No indicator exists in a vacuum, so it makes sense that America’s religiosity impacts its sexual mores—or its purported ones, anyway. In a 2013 survey, 30 percent of Americans said sex before marriage is “morally unacceptable.” Pretty much every country that placed a lower importance on religion found premarital sex less of an abomination, although Russia’s in a dead heat with us on this one. France, where just 6 percent held this opinion, tied for last place with Germany.
This is pretty much a case of do as I say and not as I (pretend to) do, considering that a 2006 Guttmacher Institute survey found 95 percent of Americans have had premarital sex. It should be noted that this is not a sudden new development. The study indicates that “even among women who were born in the 1940s, nearly nine in 10 had sex before marriage.” Just over 60 percent of American teenagers have had sex by age 19, while another 2011 study found that even 80 percent of unmarried evangelicals age 18 to 29 had indulged their carnal desires.
“This is reality-check research,” study author and Guttmacher domestic research head Lawrence Finer said. “Premarital sex is normal behavior for the vast majority of Americans, and has been for decades. The data clearly show that the majority of older teens and adults have already had sex before marriage.”
Finer points out the results prove we should stop kidding ourselves and pouring government dollars into abstinence programs when “it would be more effective to provide young people with the skills and information they need to be safe once they become sexually active—which nearly everyone eventually will.” Plenty of European countries have decided to dwell in reality, providing useful sexual health education to youth instead of lessons in sexual repression, with the end result that most European countries have teen pregnancy rates at a fraction of our own. (Britain, which sits on the pruder side of the European sex continuum, comes closest to us in teen pregnancy numbers, but still falls far short.) In fact, the U.S. maintains the highest teen pregnancy rate among all wealthy countries.
America’s original Protestant invaders, who sought salvation through wealth accumulation and believed selfishness was next to godliness, exert an enormous amount of cultural influence in other ways, too. Most obviously, in the very existence of the U.S. capitalist state. What other country’s preachers could have come up with the prosperity gospel, which never giveth, but taketh hand over fist? More than any European country, Americans, at 57 percent, said they disagreed with the idea that “success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control," though Britons, for shared historical reasons that aren’t hard to guess, came closest, at 55 percent. In general, wealthy nations were more likely to disagree with the statement than poorer countries, with a few notable exceptions. Venezuelans actually disagreed more than anyone, at 62 percent.
The notion of hard work as a primary predictor of life success—another Protestant hand-me-down—remains big with Americans. Seventy-three percent of U.S. denizens polled by Pew in 2014 agreed that “hard work is very important for getting ahead in life,” a statement only 35 percent of Europeans overall agreed with. While no one’s denying that hard work contributes to doing well, the American version of this idea—a Horatio Algerian fantasy that involves strapping on your proverbial boots and climbing corporate and class ladders—is both naive and empirically, factually and statistically wrong. Americans work the longest hours of those who inhabit the richest countries, but for all their diligence, the wealth gap in this country is now the widest it’s ever been and growing. The 400 individual Americans at the top of the wealth pyramid have more money than the 61 percent of Americans at the bottom. The Nation notes the 20 richest Americans, who could comfortably “fit into a Gulfstream G650 luxury jet,” possess more wealth than the 152 million poorest Americans. Turns out what you really need those boots for is wading through the thick swamp of bullcrap that is the myth of the American Dream.
It’s fairly ironic that Americans, far more than Europeans, so steadfastly believe in the idea of work as a panacea for poverty, since the average American worker is particularly unlikely to strike it rich. Following the conclusion of four studies on this topic by the University of Illinois in 2014, researchers concluded:
“[P]articipants overestimated the extent that Americans can move up or down the social class hierarchy. In terms of upward mobility, participants overestimated, over a ten-year period, the extent that working 1,000 extra hours would improve their income standing, the number of individuals who would move from the bottom 20 percent to the top 20 percent of income, the amount that some college would move people out of the bottom 20 percent of income, and the number of students from the bottom 20 percent of income families at top universities. Participants also underestimated the extent that students from the top universities are from the top 20 percent of income families, suggesting again that participants overestimated the extent that universities are open to Americans from lower income levels.”
Rags-to-riches stories do happen, but they happen less in the U.S. than in many other countries. A 2012 Economic Policy Institute study found there’s far less class mobility in America than in other wealthy European countries, as well as Canada, Japan and Australia. Business Insider cites a Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco study that concluded a lot of us are essentially walled in by the class barriers that surrounded us at birth. Researchers note that “45 percent of American adults who are in the bottom 20 percent in income were born to parents who were also in the bottom 20 percent; nearly half, 45 percent, of adults in the top 20 percent had parents who were also in the top 20 percent. Most Americans who were born in the middle 60 percent had parents who were also born in the middle 60 percent.”
The study concluded that “if you were born in the bottom 20 percent, your chances of ending up in the top 20 percent are about one in 20: 5 percent. If you were born in the top 20 percent, your chances of ending up in the bottom 20 percent are about one in 20: 5 percent.”
Truth and fantasy have a fraught and difficult relationship, though, and perception often supersedes reality in the public mind. In a country that believes it manufactures self-made (mostly) (white) men with enviable regularity, anything is possible, including mass delusions that cast blue bloods as salt-of-the-earth everymen. George W. Bush is remade a down-home average Joe, instead of the scion of a long line of plutocrats; Donald Trump becomes a model of entrepreneurism and not a trust fund kid with a penchant for pissing off creditors. The consequences of this misguided thinking, as we are seeing again in horrifying real-time, are positively dangerous.
If in America’s collective vision, getting ahead is mostly a result of getting the most done, falling behind is the deserved consequence of not working hard enough. Therein lies the root of American ideas about the poor being lazy, shiftless do-nothings. Throw a bit of racism in the mix and you have the perfect toxic fertilizer for growing policies and practices that openly flaunt hostility for the poorest and most vulnerable U.S. citizens. And in a country where everyone believes they’ll be rich someday—an opinion many Americans hold despite every contradictory indication—inequality becomes someone else’s problem. The social safety net be damned: nearly 60 percent of Americans told Pew it is “more important that everyone be free to pursue their life’s goals without interference from the state [than] the state play an active role in society so as to guarantee that nobody is in need.”
This is good news for the rich and bad news for common sense, as well as everyone else. Red states, the poorest and neediest in the country, are the recipients of the most federal dollars. Those conservative sections of the country vote overwhelmingly for politicians who want to cut Medicare and Social Security or who believe we should increase the retirement age, a craven work-around for screwing over people who already work too much for too little. A sizeable portion of working-class Americans oppose higher taxes on the rich and their corporations, funding education programs that would keep America competitive, and “socialist” institutions such as unions, the slow demise of which has greatly contributed to income inequality. Only in America could politicians convince so many poor people that universal healthcare—which isn’t “free” since their own hard-earned tax dollars would largely underwrite it—is some sort of Soviet takeover.
Perhaps the one way in which much of the world is united, based on Pew’s polling, is in support of the right of citizens to speak out against their governments. In every country surveyed, a majority of respondents agreed that people should be able to openly criticize the powers that be. That was true for 95 percent of Americans and people from Tanzania (80 percent) to Chile (94 percent) to South Korea (70 percent) to Spain (96 percent).
Americans were more tolerant than their European counterparts of speech that would be considered offensive to religions and minorities. When asked if “people should be able to make statements that are offensive to your religion or beliefs publicly,” 77 percent of Americans responded affirmatively. A majority of the UK, France and Spain agreed, while Poland, Germany and Italy did not. When Pew asked respondents if “people should be able to make statements that are offensive to minority groups publicly,” 67 percent of Americans said yes. Again, majorities of France, Spain and the UK co-signed the opinion, while Poland, Italy and Germany—the historical reasons being blindingly obvious here—said no.
Most Americans fall far short of being constitutional scholars, but everyone is fairly well acquainted with, and supportive of, the First Amendment, so these answers seem pretty self-explanatory. In many European countries, hate speech can earn you legal rebuke and a fine, as it did John Galliano for his disgusting, drunken anti-Asian and antisemitic tirades, and Brigitte Bardot for her Islamophobic remarks. It’s illegal to go around waving the Nazi flag in Germany, and if you’re an up-and-coming neo-Nazi in places like Canada, you’ll have to get your hate materials from groups in America. No need to shove, we’ve got plenty of them here.
In America, say all the hateful stuff you want and invoke the First Amendment while you're at it; if you can’t be legally implicated for inciting violence, you're in the clear. Just remember that the First Amendment makes no guarantees you’ll get to keep your lucrative cable TV show or movie career. But if you do decide to take it one step further, we’ve got almost no regulatory gun control to aid you in your mission. That’s the American way!