Monday, May 5, 2008

Reading the U.S. As a Text: A Dispatch from Copenhagen

DATELINE--COPENHAGEN, DENMARK. Viewing the United States through the lens of another country's culture is always an enlightening project. A sign of a good reader is the reader's ability not to read a text on the author's terms. And, to be sure, America has done a fabulous job for many years getting people--especially Americans--to see America and its culture on its own terms. This has been particularly true for American popular culture, most notably American movies, who have never been particularly good at realism or critical inquiry. "American cinema," writes Alfred Bazin, "has been able, in an extraordinarily competent way, to show American society just as it wanted to see itself.” Indeed, American cultural production has always been good at dictating the terms by which America gets read and interpreted.

At present, The Weekly Rader is on the road in Denmark, where the Democratic primaries continue to be a topic of international conversation and interest. The campaign--its scandals, and the mainstream media's obsession with making (as opposed to covering) news-- takes on an odd but compelling texture when viewed from the Danish perspective. Known for its progressive social programs, the contentedness of its people (Danes are supposed to be the happiest people on the planet), and its high taxes, Denmark seems an odd place for the world's least cranky populace. And yet, what an interesting context in which to revisit America's unfolding text that is the presidential campaign.

How do our candidates sound in Denmark, the home of worlds happiest people, at a time when Americans are at their unhappiest? Can the U.S. become more line Denmark? Do Senators Obama or Clinton have it in them to transform the American psyche?

Most social scientists cite the lack of an income gap as the main reason for happiness among the Danes. An artist, banker, and garbage collector all earn about the same salary, which creates a sense of equality. When there is a level cultural and financial playing field, there tends to be a lack of unmet expectations. This particular campaign finds the United States experiencing one of the worst income gaps in recent memory. The rich continue to get rich, and the poor continue to go to Wal-Mart.

So much of America's national narrative is about the lacuna between what we think we deserve and what we actually have. So, when news comes out as it did last week, underscorring what Americans already feel--that consumer confidence is at an all-time low--our inability to buy, spend, and acquire can affect how we see ourselves within the American conversation. Listening to Senators Obama and Clinton from Denmark reminds how frequently American identity is tied to economics and how individual happiness seems part and parcel of met expectations.

There are fair criticisms from home and abroad that our two-party system is flawed; that at their core, the Republicans and Democrats are really not all that different, but one difference that being in Denmark throws into relief is how Republicans tend to look for solutions within the American conversation, within American values, while the two Democratic candidates are (in this campaign at least) trying to change the terms of that conversation.

From this perspective, that sounds hopeful.

1 comment:

  1. what are people saying about the election there?