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Europe and the people without culture (?)

Last week, Umair Haque (bubblegeneration) predicted that Europe would prove to be the next innovation leader–not because of any forthcoming shift toward a culture of entrepreneurialism, but because the day is coming when content will be key, and Eurpoeans simply remain more, ah, cultured than Americans. This pronouncement that drew numerous responses (including my own) that ranged all the way from ‘Huh?’ to ‘Excuse me?’ Innovators in Silicon Valley like Chris Yeh took particular exception.

Since then, Haque has taken the debate on the relative values of financial vs. social capital further, yea, invoking the spectre of Wal-Mart:

Let me use an example to illustrate. The cost of Wal-Mart killing your local mom and pop bakery isn’t just terrible food, no more friendly chats, and unemployment. In fact, Wal-Mart offsets your loss in quality with scale economies, creating value.

Actually, the real economic loss is more subtle, and much more pernicious: we lose entire sets of people deeply committed to what they do, which is where real creativity ultimately flows from. We lose people with skin in the game, and replace them with workerbots. The guys at your local bakery were makers of tiny cultures, not just producers of goods. Which do you think will be more valuable in a world of Chinese/Indian/etc hypercompetition – scale economies, or creativity driven by passion and commitment?

The debate on Bubblegeneration is a significant (in that it’s particularly cogent) articulation of the Euro-centric argument for a managed economy – the twist being that the stated protectionist goal is the preservation of ‘culture’ not jobs per se.

But looking closely, Haque’s argument contains the seeds of its own undoing: in the world of hypercompetition he speaks of, it’s true that creativity driven by passion and commitment will dominate – which is exactly what entrepreneurs like Chris Heh and his rather cultured friends in Silicon Valley embody. The truth is that while the world may have fewer (and probably better) mom and pop bakeries moving forward, that level of creative energy is being re-invested in other more dynamic areas of human endeavor and achievement – i.e., the mom and pop software shop.

65 comments to Europe and the people without culture (?)

  • Paul Marks

    There are plenty of supermarkets in Europe – and not just in Britain.

    If people really do not like them they might consider opposing government road building projects.

    Without government provided “free” roads, it is rather unlikely that “out of town” superstores would be so common.

    There would still be roads (just as there would be other forms of transort such as rail), but natural development might well be more of a mix of residential, commercial, and “other” – all much closer together.

    Rather like a traditional town in fact.

    Remember the towns of Britain did not tend to get spolit till AFTER such things as the “Town and Country Planning Act” (with all its “protection”) and the big post WWII road building projects.

  • Bombadil

    … and Eurpoeans simply remain more, ah, cultured than Americans.

    Certainly Europeans still retain their keen sense of absurdist humor.

  • One of the big problems with people who tell us that Europe is more “cultured” than the US is that they’re working from skewed samples – usually some moderately rich kid they knew in college.

    Since I get to meet the rest of the crowd (one of the perils of living and working in Orlando), the idea that most Europeans are “more cultured” is pretty much bollocks.

    Even among the more-educated types who attend professional meetings here, you find that they’re not any different than any normal sample of people from similar economic backgrounds, except that the differences between social groups are much more heavily enforced among many of the Europeans. For example, I never get the “don’t talk to the VP of the company unless they speak first” schtick from Americans, while it’s still very prevalent among most of the European companies.

  • Verity

    cirby – I agree. You’re as likely to bump into a cultivated American with a wide frame of reference, and possibly with a second language, as you are to a “European”. This is a strange canard with amazing tenacity. Even back in Henry James’s time – what? A hundred years ago? – Americans interacting with their own class of English society were every bit as informed, well read, witty and well-mannered as their British counterparts. I don’t know where this strange idea came from.

  • Robert

    If the Mom n’ Pop bakery is producing high-quality bread, then it probably isn’t much threatened when Wal-Mart opens-up nearby. The people who do need to worry are the ones selling indifferent bread at high prices.

    It’s worth noting that the quality of bread has improved out of all recognition since the arrival of the supermarkets. Growing-up in England, in the early 1970s, I remember most bread as being white and tasteless. Nowadays, it’s normal for the larger supermarkets to have an in-store bakery, selling a variety of different breads easily matching that sold by any traditional bakery. And the people baking it are the artisans they always were: it’s just they’re now working for a supermarket, rather than the local baker.

  • John Thacker

    To echo Robert’s point, many of the large, nice supermarkets doing very well in the USA have very impressive bakeries, and their output is considerably superior to what I had growing up. The large supermarkets have brought quality and variety; it’s the tiny groceries of my youth that had a limited selection and sameness, just as the tiny chain bookstores had less variety than a giant Borders or Barnes & Noble.

  • Bill Dooley

    Here in Reno/Sparks, Nevada, downhill from Lake Tahoe, we have two Wal-Mart superstores, with a third on the way if I recall correctly. Nevertheless, the Great Basin microbrewery in Sparks is thriving. Their burgers are nothing to get excited about, but they do make some nice brews. Wal-Mart is no threat to them.

  • fred_says

    More and more I’m beginning to think that there is a place for Wal-Mart and the local shop. The latter can produce quality goods, or provide excellent service. The former can serve as a warehouse of bulk, cheap goods, and have the worst service imaginable because it’s employees are treated poorest. Now all we need to do is get rid of subsidies, corp. welfare, the govt. teat, etc.

  • In my small rural hometown, the Walmart superstore is the only place to find imported European foods like cheeses. The local chains and the small mom and pop places don’t carry them.

    I’ll echo the comments above to the effect that good bread is much easier to find than twenty years ago. Artisan breads were almost unknown outside of ethnic neighborhoods in major cities. Now you find them almost anywhere. Whatever the effect of Walmart and other box stores, decreasing quality of food isn’t one of them.

  • Lizzie

    Haque is missing the fundamental point that if Wal-Mart really did sell terrible food, it wouldn’t have many customers: that’s how business works. I often find that supermarket food is preferable to that bought from local shops – after all, they have the funding for research and development, they can source the best ingredients, and they can still sell at a reasonable price.

  • James of England

    “America is a giant market. But that’s all it is – nothing more.”

    This has to be a candidate for the stupidist anti American statement I’ve heard for a while.

    The argument is that creative industries are more productive in Europe. The obvious difficulty, then, is Hollywood. His answer to that is that they employ foreigners, even some Europeans. He makes the claim that the bulk of Hollywood blockbusters in the last 10 years are European exports, but this is clearly false. Titanic (the biggest) was a mostly US production. Lord of the Rings was mixed, although again, more American than European. Harry Potter heads up the Euro contingent. Star Wars and Schrek come in next in the rankings, both heavily American. Jurasic Park is too old. Finding Nemo is American, as was (duh) Independence day. ET and Spider Man, the Lion King and the Matrix. Counting sequels as separate entries, the highest ranking Euro Blockbuster after Harry Potter was The Chronicles of Narnia, at 21. Wiki only lists them to 42, but out of those, there’s just the 4 potters and a Narnia.

    The next concrete example is fashion design, for which Ralph Lauren and P. Diddy “don’t count”. Again, the creative industries don’t seem to do so poorly, at least not if you accept that stuff that’s purchased by the middle classes is validly chosen.

    His final big example of how the Europeans are going to clean the US’ clock is reality TV. I’m not sure if there’s much of a difference in profit on either side of the pond, but even if there is, I’m not sure that shows the Europeans are particularly culturally impressive. Compare traditional comedies and drama, where US exports have a powerful global presence that Europe just doesn’t.

    Incidentally, the workers at the Wal-Mart I regularly attend are pretty cheerful and friendly. They’re not robots in the sense of not having community. They’re also paid a good deal more than friends I’ve known in ma and pa store employment.

    It wouldn’t just be a ghastly argument if it was true, but it’s also simply objectively false. It’s an argument that relies solely on ugly stereotypes. It literally made me want to shower, which I shall do shortly.

  • BigDog

    Just a thought, but working Americans with a high school education can often afford a trip to Europe at least once in their lives. Could these impressions be made based on comparing American vs European trans-Atlantic tourists?

  • Uain

    I dunno,
    Some of the classiest people I’ve met have been those with High School certificates, while some of the rudest, butt scratching louts have had terminal degrees.

  • BigDog

    lol. well, yes, I shouldn’t denigrate folks by implication.

  • David Crawford

    James of England, another area of creativity that it seems as though the US leads Europe in is television. About the only European country that actually sells it TV shows to the rest of the world is Britain. TV shows from the US? Shown in just about every country on earth where foriegn TV shows are allowed to be shown. And while you can debate how innovative a show like “Baywatch” was, there was always a show like “The Simpsons”. Heck, I bet Brazil sells more of its TV programming than does France, Germany, and Italy combined.

  • James of England

    Fred_says, how often do you shop at Wal-Mart? I’ve never received anything less than superb, attentive, friendly service at any of the numerous Wal-Marts that I’ve shopped at. “the worst service” is a claim that I cannot begin to fathom. They have greaters, staff everywhere who will approach you if you look like you’re failing to find something and take you to it, short queues at the check out, reasonably knowledgeable specialist staff at the appropriate departments… Whole Foods are sometimes as good, but few other supermarkets are (that’s not to say that Ralphs, Trader Joes, Krogers or Vons aren’t great places). Ikea and similar stores are pitifully poor in service comparisons.

    Still, you could shop at Wal-Mart and believe that local stores tend to pay their employees more. However, it’d be tougher for you to be educated and believe it. Wal-Mart pays more than the retail industry average. If you attend union rallies against them, as I have, or read their literature, you’ll often find them accepting that most local stores are inferior employers, but that there’s no point in campaigning against them. The way to get legislative change is by campaigning against the brand name, Wal-Mart. Don’t be taken in.

    In dozens of ways Wal-Mart is a strong candidate for the single most positive force in keeping America one of the world’s most positive places to live. They make everyone in their supply chain a whole bunch more efficient, which efficiency those suppliers then share with their other clients. They shoulder much of the cost of fighting the encroaching forces of government and liberal protesters. They wipe out a lot of rivals not just by being cheaper, but by offering a great experience. If people had a ghastly time shopping there, most Americans wouldn’t do it.

  • Verity

    David Crawford “Heck, I bet Brazil sells more of its TV programming than does France, Germany, and Italy combined.”

    Where would they sell them to? How many countries speak Portuguese?

  • adamthemad

    Where would they sell them to? How many countries speak Portuguese?

    Do subtitles or dubbing ring a bell?

    Brazil is probably a poor example, but his point still stands. France, and partially Germany, have little to export because of their managed economies based on national champions and subsidized media.

    This point is something that the writer doesn’t even realize he’s caught himself in; Wal-Mart succeeded by delivering what the US customer wanted not what the US government wanted. Granted, I have never run a business in Europe, but I believe that if Wal-Mart arrived in Europe only to do the same, short of the EU hindering their formula, Wal-Mart would succeed as well. Contrary, no EU company is going to win over the US consumer by attempting to sell items and services the US consumer doesn’t want.

    I have a hard time believing that the EU will be as successful as the writer hopes while squashing businesses in its ‘enlightened’ economy. It does reek of wishful thinking.

  • veryretired

    This thread seems oddly related to a thread at “Belmont Club” about the future of things, although that one is more about clash, not culture.

    No one knows where the next big idea is going to come from, or what odd looking geek is going to be responsible. Back in 1975, who would have picked Gates, Jobs, Wozniak, or Walton, for that matter, to be who they have become.

    The point that so much of this criticism of Wal-Mart, or Microsoft, or any of the big, scary companies misses is that, in the final analysis, they are every bit as much a niche occupant as some trendy little boutique that does a millionth of their volume.

    Something is happening that has NEVER happened before, in the hundred thousand years or more of Homo Sapiens preeminence on this planet—the entire world is opening up to communication, trade, and cultural contact with all the other parts of the human family. Whether they want to or not, it is happening, and it will not only continue, but accelerate.

    Wretchard, in a slightly different context at Belmont, states that we are in uncharted waters, and indeed we are. And, of course, that will pose some very difficult and dangerous challenges. But when has reality ever done any differently?

    Thomas Jefferson stated that the turmoil of an occasional revolution was good, and necessary for a free people to maintain their freedom. This does not always have to mean a violent, military type revolution, however. It can mean a cultural shift which reinvents and reaffirms the benefits of living in a free society.

    If the mass production corporations and corporate farms can provide the greater mass of humanity with predictable, serviceable, value-added products that suffice to satisfy most people’s everyday needs, why isn’t that a very good thing? Have the peasants and hard scrabble laborers of this world no need of affordable food, clothing, shoes, appliances, and so on?

    Of course the need, and the resultant market, is there for all to see, and many to covet. But, as the Bible says, many will be called, but few will be chosen. Corporate entities will come and go, flourish and go bust, rise and fall. That is the destructive creativity of a capitalist system. Great lessons are learned from those that fail, as much or more than from those that find a successful formula.

    But, look around. The hottest thing in farming right now is organic, free range, natural produce, small farms that observe ertain standards and deliver to a small local market. Microbreweries that serve a local clientele. Custom furniture makers, custom design shops, custom clothes, even custom cars, and of course, custom computers.

    One of the benefits of affluence is the ability to be more selective, more concerned with craftsmanship, more cultured, if you will, in one’s purchases and lifestyle.

    Jefferson’s vision was a nation of skilled artisans and yeoman farmers. Obviously, big commerce isn’t going to disappear, but wouldn’t it be fun if one of the unexpected results was a resurgence of the very craftsmen, artisans, and natural farmers that seemed to be near extinction a short while ago?

    Irony has such a delicious flavor.

  • rosignol

    His final big example of how the Europeans are going to clean the US’ clock is reality TV.

    I am so very glad I swallowed my drink before I got to that.

  • Michael Taylor

    It’s really sad. The Europeans (and I include most Brits in this) have bought into their own consensual hallucination which is there ultimately to reassure them that they do, or (and this is a slight degeneration) should run the world. I suspect none of them have the slightest idea of the forces that are being liberated in China, India and elsewhere in Asia.

    With a bit of luck, the economic vigour of the US, allied with an aggressive immigration policy, might allow that country to hang onto its leading role for the next 50yrs or so.

    But for Europe, the data’s already in. Flagging influence in every field. Oh yes, and youth unemployment at 20%+ in France and Germany. Could these two phenomena possibly be related?

    Tell me again why French students are revolting?

  • jmc

    Whenever I hear Americans pontificate on how superior Europe is, usually in places like Mill Valley and Berkeley, I quickly disabuse them of their simplistic opinions by describing to them what life in Europe is really like.

    Think the French model is so superior? Try making a living there. Did nt go to the right lycee / uni / ecole? Then you can forget any kind of professional career. Decide at the age of 35 that the educational decisions made when you were 13 where wrong, and you want to change to something more suitable. Good luck. You’ll have to bitterly fight the system the whole way and at the end you will be lucky to get a CPF contract.

    Want to set up any kind of creative services company in France? Forget it. It will take you six months (if you are lucky) to get permission from the government and then you will be harassed ( and very heavily taxed) at every turn. So you move to London set up in a week and join the several hundred thousand other French creatives who live the anglo-saxon life-style.

    All those wonderful little artisan shops you see in your favorite French tourist village? The owner make almost no money, are in despair at the future, and their kids want nothing to do with the business. No future you see. That cute patisserie on the main street? Wonderful pastries but the local mostly shop in the local Geant or CarreFour because the patisserie shuts at five, and there is no parking in the old town, all those tourists you see.

    I could write them same kind of story for Italy, Germany and to a lesser extent, the UK and Ireland. The anglo-saxon countries are the least unhappy and most dynamic in Europe but the gloom in most of Europe is very noticable, and the deep fear of the future is palpable.

    The only place that even start to come close to the creative dynamism of the U.S is London, and even then if you are serious about what you are doing you quickly orient yourself on the US, because that’s were the action is, and where the future is.

  • llamas

    I took some time to observe the ‘WalMart displaces small mom-and-pop bakeries’ scenario when our little town got big enough to start attracting the big box stores – not just WalMart but Home Depot, Lowes, Costco, Sam’s Club and so forth. And it’s a crock of crap.

    We now have one of each of these, plus others, all within a 10-mile radius. And downtown has never had so many small, speciality stores. There’s now not one, but two small, speciality bakeries on Main Street. The town’s 100-year-old hardware store (hardwood floors, many, many drawers) has never had it so good. There’s a couple of speciality coffee shops that opened in the last couple of years (NOT the major chains!) as well as a full-size upscale food market where you can buy certified prosciutto di Parma, Beligian chocolates and Heinz baked beans. And it goes on.

    I don’t pretend to understand the dynamics of how this works, but the fact appears to be that the big box stores do not displace small, locally owned stores that are prepared to move with the times. My theory is that the presence of a WalMart or a Lowes allows smaller stores to ditch the low-margin, high-volume products that the big stores offer at prices they cannot compete with, and instead concentrate on the high-margin, speciality and ‘niche’ items that the big boys can’t or won’t offer.

    If I want bulk drywall screws or 2×4’s, I go to Lowes – the hardware store can’t compete, and doesn’t bother trying. But if I want just 2 of a particular hex nut, or a replacement cartridge for the kitchen faucet, I go to the hardware – they’ll have what I want, in the quantity I want it, and I’m happy to pay their prices to get it just that way.

    If I want bologna for a sandwich, I’ll buy it at Costco. If I want some of that nice dry soppressata for the walnut and raspberry salad, sorry, Costco can’t help me, but there’s a market right down the street (that wasn’t there 10 years ago) that will sell me what I want precisely because they don’t need to fill their shelves with Oscar Meyer bologna anymore.



  • Dale Amon

    The world is changing. Places like the US are making more and more of the levels in the hierarchy of values cheap and widely available. As nanotechnology/fabricators and robotics really kick in a few decades hence, gross good prices will drop and jobs in those fields will go away. What do people turn to when they have all the basics easily and comfortably taken care of? The artistic. The different. The unusual. The handmade. The social.

  • Verity

    jmc is certainly correct about France. And the patisserie/boulangerie doesn’t just shut at five. It also shuts at noon until 2:15. Then opens for two and three-quarters hours to shut again at five sharp. If you didn’t keep your eye on the clock – and why should you have to? – you miss the bakery and go buy your bread from the supermarket, which stays open 12 hours a day. What’s more, if you dash up to the boulangerie just as the clock strikes noon, they’ll be locking the door. When they see you, they point at their watch and shake their heads. Oh, and then they close for all the public holidays. And they close down completely for a month during August. The French business ethic is hysterical.

  • llamas

    mrs llamas just reminded me –

    we were driving home from the gun club a couple of weeks ago, and she complained that she was really having a hard time focussing on the long birds at trap. “They go all fuzzy”, she said.

    ‘Well, that’s not right,’ I said. ‘Perhaps you need your eyes checked.’

    This is at 8.30 on a weekday evening.

    So we pulled into our local WalMart. Which, it has an ‘eyecare center’.

    90 minutes later, after a complete eye exam from a licensed doctor of optometry, we walked out with new lenses for her existing glasses. Cost? $123.

    Try THAT in the UK. Or – heaven forbid – in France. Or about anyplace else in Europe. The eyeglasses may be free, but the inconvenience and hassle of getting them is not.

    There’s more to ‘culture’ than paintings and opera. Part of what makes a ‘good’ culture is the ease and convenience with which one can do the mundane, the trivial and the time-consuming – and free up one’s time to enjoy the pleasures of ‘real’ culture. And, for that, the US is streets ahead of anywhere in Europe.



  • David Crawford

    Verity, regarding TV shows from Brazil, the following was in an UNESCO report:

    “The biggest production companies–in Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela–present their work at international television trade fairs and have sales offices in Miami and Europe which distribute their products over two-thirds of the globe.”

    Somebody somewhere must be buying them.

    (Soaps with a Latin scent)

  • veryretired

    I was under the impression that Ireland was doing fairly well over the last few years—opened up to investment and reduced some of the roadblocks to everyday business. Has that turned out badly, or not as good, after all?

    Llamas can see how things work. I just wish every time I saw his name I didn’t start singing “Qui dado, qui dado, qui dado, qui dado, e’ llamas.”

    The Python fans will get it. As for the rest, well, you don’t really count anyway.

  • ak

    When and where I grew up, mom-and-pop operations dominated. Some were excellent, and their shops were part of neighborhood life. But they weren’t all like that. Some were pretty run of the mill, and their owners certainly never struck me as being joyful or passionate about what they were doing. A good example is the candy and comic book store owned by a couple who by all measures appeared to hate the sight of children.

    No doubt there have been some small stores put out of business by big chains. But now, it seems, a lot of small neighborhood shops are owned by people intent on selling special products or services. As others here have said, the small shops don’t exist to compete with big-box stores, and vice versa.

  • llamas

    Oh, I never heard that one before!

    But I don’t care. When I get home tonight, I get kisses from all my llamas. I feel so sorry for the rest of you poor deprived souls.



  • Millie Woods

    This delusion a lot of Europeans have about their superior cultural status doesm’t just apply to those of us in the New World. Shortly after WWII tjere was a French novel La silence de la mer about a German officer billeted on a French professor and his daughter. To cut a long story short, it was the barbaric German officer who was cultive and not the poseur prof and his hoity toity daughter.
    I used to run into the all new worlders are knuckle dragging lowlifes when I lived in the UK. I was frequently told by the natives that they couldn’t live in the new world because they’d ‘miss the culture’. My breezy reply which usually left them gobsmacked was ‘well you’ve missed it here so of course you’ll miss it there.”

  • Verity

    It is strange that people who know the names of all the characters in Eastenders and Coronation Street, and all the contestants of every reality show, “don’t really reckon to” Americans as they “don’t have much culture”. They also have the chippie attitude of “Americans think they own the world, innit?”

  • I’m a certified pro-Walmart Walmart hater. People keep referring to Walmart’s great service. I haven’t seen it except for possibly the 60 year old door greeter who hands you the cart. My wife says to me “we need to go to Walmart and pick up a few things” and I hear “I need you to staple cardboard to your head.” Its a lousy experience. Too many cars, too many people. Often times messy shelves and outside Electronics and the Pharmacy, no employees to be found for help. But you know what? 90% of the items I purchase (and probably most people) are items where price and convenience is the top factors in your purchase. I need lunchmeat, new boxers, and a new video game. I can get all those at Walmart. For the best price. I’ll take crowds and bad customer service for that. Walmart knows this of course which why effiiciency in the supply change is business goal number one. Walmart has accomplished more innovation in the delivery of retail goods than any other single company.

    Most of the comments regarding Walmarts positive impact on the economy (not to mention its employees) are all true. The only thing I’d note is Walmart is one of the single biggest abusers of zoning law lobbying and imminent domain. They have created many a dead shopping center by moving (like locusts) into bigger and better stores. They have gotten more city councils to do there bidding than any other entity save housing developers. Still, they are a net positive. Most of the anti-Walmart vitriol comes from coastal elite snobs who wouldn’t want to be caught dead in the same checkout line as a Mexican family or a guy wearing a Cowboy hat and a confederate flag. Hey, you want culture? You can get all that at Walmart, believe me. It just may not be of the stale French museum sort.

    And ditto on the supermarkets and the selection of breads. The single best deli you will find in the Georgia or Florida is at the Publix supermarket, no matter how many New York transplants have moved down here.

    Lastly, I totally second commenter, llamas. I live in the middle of suburban Atlanta sprawl, and while Walmarts, Home Depots, and Publix’s abound, the downtowns of most of the local communities are all thriving with boutique shops, restaurants, non-chain coffee and chocolate shops. Even playhouses (in my formally small podunk burnt-to-the-ground-by-Sherman town, we now have a playhouse!). This could only happen by the fact that we now have densely populated neighborhoods where people shop for the household goods at the big stores, but like the niche stuff at these small downtown places in buildings that are over 100 years old. It’s called mass disposable income that allows these downtowns to revitalize and thrive. Something that occurs because of all those big cheap super chains selling the necessities at dirt cheap prices.

    Viva Walmart!

  • Midwesterner

    It makes absolute sense that small upscale retails thrive near Walmarts. The less you spend on basic essentials, the more you can spend on luxuries.

    Even so, I agree with Russ Goble. I detest Walmart, but I shop at other big boxes. Shopko or Target.

  • Nick M

    A lot of Europeans I’ve met – and I’ve met a fair few being one myself – frequently cite the fact that 90% of US citizens don’t have passports as evidence of their lack of culture and insularity.

    It amuses me. They have a larger area to tourist than the whole EU, and if they want to go to Mexico or Canada isn’t a driving license sufficienct?

    When I’ve mentioned this point to a lot of Eurosupremicists they’ve rapidly shut up. Or at least the ones who think they’re cultured but have never been through customs beyond the EU “blue lane”.

    Anyone who says the USA lacks culture (or history) is pig-ignorant. They’ve certainly never seen the top of the Chrysler building at dawn, the Met in NYC, Appalachia, Memphis, Preservation Hall in New Orleans or the art deco grandeur of Miami. I feel sad for them, the idiots…

    They certainly never saw the Chicago Symphony Ochestra, or tasted the food…

    The USA has culture as a living, breathing thing. It is real and what Americans just do. It is real in a way that Europe isn’t. Too many Europeans look at America as a theme-park and ignore the fact that they have turned their own culture into a heritage industry.

    Nashville is still the home of country music, Stratford is “Shakespeareland”.

    I love America because when I first visited it it was everything I’d always expected. I suspect other people hate it for the same reason. America is so various (that’s a Huck Finn-ism) that everyone’s view on it is coloured by what they expect.

    I fell in love with the United States of America.

    And I always will love it. Always.

  • Nick M


    Missed your post. My ex’s family shopped at the local Target. They had a family in-joke of pronouncing it “Tar-jay” (c.f. the French) to give it extra “class”. My ex bought a stunningly cheap black bikini there and looked gorgeous round the pool at a rather odd bris party on Christmas Day 1996, in Boca Raton, FLA, 1996. It was quite a day, and I haven’t said the quarter of it.

  • Midwesterner

    Well, Nick, I don’t think I dare ask for the other three quarters.

    For myself, I love the classical culture of Europe. From Mozart to Mahler, Tchaikovsky to Grieg. The sculpture, paintings, literature. It is truly great.

    You mentioned the Chicago Symphony. When I was in high school band, the Chicago Symphony performed matinees just for school music students. The musicians took these performances very seriously and after hearing a concert from about the 30th row, my friends and I went down to the front and spoke with the musicians. WOW! This was when Sir Georg Solti was the music director. A cello player in our group spoke with the principle cellist. I think it was Frank Miller.

    But now, back to the present, when I hear about Europe’s cultural supremacy I hear different music in my head. It’s Janet Jackson’s ‘What Have You Done For Me Lately?’

    But not to fear. If pain and suffering make for great art, maybe Europe is about to get artistic again.

  • lucklucky

    Hmm. The same Bakery family that dispised his own bakery “culture” and sent their kids to the University learning Derrida and Chomsky?
    The same Bakery that needs to hire someone for 3 months in the Summer and can´t because it is too much paperwork?

  • rosignol

    It amuses me. They have a larger area to tourist than the whole EU, and if they want to go to Mexico or Canada isn’t a driving license sufficienct?

    Until the end of the year, yes. Before 9/11, the only questions I was ever asked at the Canadian border is “ID, please”, and “Do you have any alcohol, tobacco, or firearms in the vehicle”?

    The routine was “show the driver’s license, shake your head, and get waved through”. Passport? Ha!

    I suspect people who smelled of patchouli oil or drove vehicles that didn’t have border-state plates were checked more rigorously, but they were pretty easygoing back in the old days.

  • Michael Taylor

    The other cover for Europeans’ cultural defensiveness about the US, is “but look, they simply don’t have the history. They’ve only been around for a couple of hundred years.” Then they look smug.

    I like this one. I’m English, and as such, feel fairly confident that our history can be traced back to . . . around 1066 actually. So we’ve got roughly 1,000 years on us.

    Not bad eh? Not bad until we start thinking about China (5,000 yrs and counting) and India (5,500 yrs if you count the Harappans).

    Yes, it’s definitely the history that makes us Europeans some culturally superior.

  • Nick M

    Michael Taylor,
    Yes, it’s definitely the history that makes us Europeans some culturally superior.
    But grammatically inferior?

    Georg Solti, I’m turning green with envy!

    The problem with the arts in Europe is that it is totally ruled by the state in a very PC manner. Sussex University is closing it’s undergrad chemistry degree and halving the size of the department. This is a top-notch chemistry department and the place that bucky-balls (fullerene carbon, C60 allotrope) were discovered a few years back and won a Nobel for Harry Kroto. At the same time the university (as part of it’s commitment to “diversity”) is sponsoring “Vagina Week” including poetry readings and a “Vagina Painting Workshop”. I’m going to desist from making some appallingly crude comments about the sort of people behind this, please feel free to supply your own.

  • Verity

    Midwesterner writes: maybe Europe is about to get artistic again.

    Look – “Europe” – by which I assume you mean the 20 nations that make up the continent of Europe – has never been “artistic”. There was never some sunny age when Mme DuBois vivaciously discussed Chopin’s latest with the butcher and the finer points of Anna Karinina with her gargage mechanic. Europeans and British people have never been any more “artistic” than Americans or Australians. It has always been one strand of society that took an interest in the arts – in Britain, all over Europe, the United States and elsewhere. The people who go to the Houston Ballet are the same people who go to the Royal Ballet and the Winnipeg Ballet and the Danish Ballet companies.

  • James of England

    Russ: I’ve had many great experiences in San Diego and Orange County, and some in Houston. I’m sorry to hear that the stores in Atlanta are less impressive.

    Midwesterner: I’m fond of Target, too, and have also known people to call it tar-jet, or rather “chez tar-jet”. I presume that the competition between them, particularly, is good for us all.

    Nick: I’m totally with you, and have had the same conversations many times. The numbers of Californians and New Yorkers who’ve travelled 2500 miles are pretty high, the numbers of British relatively small. From a slightly different angle, there’s a lot more Americans who can name the 50 states in their union than Europeans who can name the 25 in theirs.

    Michael: I’m always doubtful about the history angle. I don’t think that a course that teaches you the medieval millenium in a semester imparts any more culture than one that teaches about the year of the four emperors. The cultural quality of history isn’t about the time it took to make, but about what it can teach us and how it impacts us in other ways. That the reign of Edward IV took place in our country, and one of his bigger battles was somewhat near one of my friend’s houses, did nothing to make that friend more cultured, nor anyone else in the country (except inasmuch as it helps them to become educated regarding the history of Eddie 4). It arguably helps our claim to historical greatness, since Shakespear was inspired to write Henry VI, but it doesn’t make us more cultured today. Philadelphia and New York seem, to my mind, to have more history to them than Birmingham, Manchester, or Newcastle. I’ll accept that Bismark, North Dakota may have less, but few Americans come from there. 😉

    As Mark Steyn occasionally notes, “The U.S. Constitution is not only older than the French, German, Italian, Belgian, Greek and Spanish constitutions, it’s older than all of them put together.” It’s also much better understood by its citizens than the continental constitutions tend to be. A large part of the way that American politics run is historical, particularly on the right. I’ve sat in on many, many debates about how Jefferson would have felt about the political topic of the moment. No one would have these discussions about how Walpole would feel about British political developments. The beliefs of Lincoln and FDR are still vibrant topics of political debate in a way that equivalent figures simply aren’t in the UK. Americans treat the declaration of independence with tremendous respect, learn and care about their state histories, and view moral judgments to a considerable extent through the lens of historical debates on subjects. The present day impact of American history on America, and hence on the world is, in my view, greater than the present day impact of European history on the world (obviously the historical impact of European history, particularly colonial history, on the world is much greater).

  • rosignol

    I’ll accept that Bismark, North Dakota may have less, but few Americans come from there. 😉

    I’d like to point out two things-

    1) Bismarck, North Dakota really is named for Otto von Bismarck,


    2) The top six ancestries in the city are: German (57.9%), Norwegian (18.2%), Russian (7.7%), Irish (7.2%), English (5.0%), Swedish (4.3%).

    [source: Wikipedia]

    IMO, making broad distinctions between ‘European’ history and ‘American’ history is more than a little silly. It’s not like Americans sprang from Zeus’ head fully formed a la Athena- most of us came from Europe (possibly a few generations removed), frequently as a direct result of events in that ‘European’ history you’re talking about.

    Seems to me that what happened there at various points had fairly direct consequences here, and vice-versa. So who’s history is it?

  • Verity

    I should have mentioned the Sydney Ballet. Apologies to any miffed Ozzies.

  • As a teenager in Great Falls, Montana, (pop. 67,000) in the 1960s, I was astonished to learn it had a resident symphony orchestra and hosted international stars on tour. It has three colleges and several art museums. The oldest building in Great Falls is a church whose cornerstone is dated “1910”. I had just moved there from England and had no idea there was so much culture in the “empty West”. I wonder how Slough, for example, compares?

  • Richard Easbey

    Robert Speirs:

    You lived in Great Falls, Montana? I was born and raised about 90 miles south of there–in Helena! It really IS a small world, isn’t it?

  • veryretired

    Richard—you were born in Montana? Wow. I drove through there in 1969 at about 95 mph. You didn’t have a dog run over about then, did you? Little brown dog, kinda flat looking?

  • Richard Easbey

    was that YOU who ran over my dog, veryretired? You should have been able to avoid him at that slow speed…LOL

  • RAB

    The whole of the western world sings to the same hymnsheet.
    Blues , Jazz and Rock N Roll!
    All American! Culturally inferior my ASS!!
    This cultural sneering mainly comes down to the French, who have had little to say culturally for over a hundred years and hate it.
    I see a thread has opened up on Chirac flouncing out of an EU meeting because the speaker was speaking English.
    I am going to the Land of mist and mysteries across the Severn to visit my mum this weekend so will be out of contact.
    Stick it to the bastard! and I’ll catch up sunday.

  • Verity

    Actually, RAB, the music you named is not just exclusively American, but all of it has black African roots. American music is African music.

  • Midwesterner

    American music is a hybrid of two different music traditions. One is of mostly English, Scots, and Welsh music forms and derivatives, and the other is of mostly sub-saharan African music forms and derivatives.

    “Blues , Jazz and Rock N Roll!” did not originate in Africa any more than in Europe or GB. The meld occurred in the US. To say American music is African music is as wrong as saying it’s European music. Blues, jazz and rock and roll does not occur in Africa or in Europe except where it was imported.

    While some notable developments were made, particularly in British rock, the artists went to America for inspiration, not Africa.

  • RAB

    Shit no fooling Verity!
    I have been many things in my life
    One of them is a rock Journalist.
    Ask John Lee Hooker or B.B.King who kept the blues alive in the 60s- 70s and they’ll tell you the Brits like Mayall and Clapton and the Stones and the Beatles.
    I live in Bristol remember? We invented WOMAD.
    Music is a collective understanding and borrowing of influences from all sorts of places and times.
    I have yet to see Africa market anything it has produced on its own without enthusiastic outside help and assistance.

  • James of England

    rosignol, I do think that a case can be made for visiting historical sites being a culturally enriching experience. I’ve spent a bunch of time doing it, so I have a slightly vested interest. I don’t think it’s a strong claim to European superiority, but think it’s one of the best.

    Incidentally, I think that the most satisfying sense of culturally enriching place I’ve had in a long time was during a week long course on the influence of natural law on American lawyers when we had the lecture on Virginia’s Bill for Religious Freedom in the room where it had been debated and signed. Theology at St. Andrew’s was in a place with history(St. Mary’s), but I don’t think it ever added much in a similar way.

  • Verity

    RAB – John Lee Hooker did not invent jazz, the blues and rock and roll. We are speaking of a somewhat longer time frame. As in, back to the 1920s or earlier.

    Even if jazz, blues and rock ‘n’ roll are melds, Midwesterner, they was developed by Afro-Americans. And RAB, Africa is producing some really stunning music today. Unfortunately, I’ve lost the link that Perry pointed us to – it was a single name, I think, Perry, if you’re reading this and still have the link – but it was just outstanding.

    C&W was developed by white, though, and I like that, too.

  • Midwesterner

    Verity, don’t do a Euan and backpedal from your statement which was “American music is African music.”, not, ‘American music is African/American music. Which would have been a pretty silly statement in itself, when you think about it. Might as well say blue is red/blue. Furthermore, pre European influenced African music bears very little resemblance to ‘American’ music.

    If it was your intention to introduce the ancestry of black Americans artists into the discussion, then I say you are mistaken and remind you that not only our music is a meld. I don’t buy into race arguments no matter which way they cut. If you think that it was slavery and it’s aftermath that created the music, you’re getting a lot closer but there were African slaves in Arabia, where’s their music?

    I think you need to accept that America is no one of it’s heritages, it’s all of them.

    And if you like white country music, you should really enjoy this guy(Link). ‘Hick’ Hop at it’s finest.

    Can there be any doubt that American music is a tapestry of different traditions?

  • James of England

    I was just having a conversation the other day about the idea that Rock “‘n” Roll was about freedom. Old professor, really believes in this stuff. I suspect that the cliche is exaggerated, but it’s probably true that it makes a lot of sense that the music would appear for the first time in the US.

    Although I’ll accept that the roots of the negro spiritual are outside the US, I find it very difficulty to believe that the advances of the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s were made by anyone other than Americans, with a little support from the rest of the Anglosphere, and the luft balloons, of course ;-). Was there an “African Invasion” that I’m unaware of?

  • Verity

    Midwesterner – Jazz, rock and roll and the blues were developed by American black musicians. (Maybe the Arabs didn’t – don’t – let slaves sing, and Americans did.) Also much of the style of singing of pop music today stems from black gospel singing. Unfortunately, the only people who can pull this off in a pop song are black Americans. The Brits and everyone else (including Mexicans) who copy it give that old fingernails-down-the-blackboard sensation. And Africa today produces some simply beautiful pop music.

  • Verity

    Midwesterner, that link was as funny as a broken toe, although I do like the term hick-hop.

    I like my C&W of the achy-breaky heart variety. And I still love Willie singing in yet one more benefit to help him pay off his taxes.

  • Midwesterner

    First, Verity, that link was not intended for your amusement. Hick Hop is a new type of music that is uniquely American. I encourage anyone who is interested in hearing a culturally amazing meld of ‘cowboy twang’ and ‘projects hip hop’ to check out the audio available in the upper left corner of the linked page(Link).

    To the larger point, I see you are still distancing yourself from that ludicrous statement “American music is African music.” You are also ignoring the reality of ‘Black’ America. Sally Hemings was three quarters European ancestry. Yet she was ‘black’ and a slave. Thomas Jefferson’s children with her were seven eights European ancestry. Yet they too, were ‘black’ and slaves. ‘American Black’ and ‘African’ are not synonyms.

    I’ve said it before in other contexts and I’ll repeat it here. Race is essentially meaningless. What matters is culture. And if you believe that American ‘Black’ culture is somehow exclusively African, you are totally clueless. American Black culture is unique. Your efforts at segregating it from the rest of American culture are unfounded and a part of our legacy we have fortunately left behind.

    And, finally, the statement that “Africa today produces some simply beautiful pop music” ignores the question of whether this African pop music benefits from European or American music traditions. For that matter, it’s not even relevant to your case for the purity of Black music or this entire thread in general, for that matter.

    (Achy breaky heart? Shades of 1984!)

    The tune had been haunting London for weeks past. It was one of countless similar songs published for the benefit of the proles by a sub-section of the Music Department. The words of these songs were composed without any human intervention whatever on an instrument known as a versificator.

  • Verity

    Achy-breaky heart’s a generic term in C&W as far as I can see.

    I’m not going to argue with you because I don’t care enough, Midwesterner. You are a very intense fellow. As far as I know – and I haven’t studied it because, as I said, I’m not interested enough – jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and the blues were developed by black people who, whether you like it or not, in the early 1900s, did have a culture of their own. All the early great artists were American blacks.

    It is all mainstream America now and everyone shares the same culture, but back then, according to everything I have read, black people did have a separate, parallel culture.

    If that’s not correct, fine.

  • Midwesterner

    You say “Europe – has never been “artistic”” and claim art is all produced by the artistic class of people. A magnificently sweeping assertion for which you totally fail to provide evidence.

    You say “Europeans and British people have never been any more “artistic” than Americans or Australians” , apparently ignoring the entire 19th century and before.

    You say “Achy-breaky heart’s a generic term in C&W as far as I can see.” Actually, it is the first #1 hit by Billy Ray Cyrus. It is sometimes used to describe cliché music. Hence, the reference to the versificator.

    You say “American music is African music.” and then totally abandon that statement, pretending you never said it.

    You say “I’m not going to argue with you because I don’t care enough”. If you don’t care enough to get it right, or at least to substantiate your statements, then keep your great wisdom to yourself. You came into the topic contradicting people.

    And calling me “intense” is amusing coming from someone who routinely greets newcomers with the linguistic equivalent of a left to the jaw and a haymaker to the solar plexus.

  • RAB

    Hi All Yes Had a great weekend thanks, after the near death experience we had on the M4 on friday night which put the whole thing back by a day.
    Verity you are trying to teach grandmothers to suck eggs here.
    Basically you are talking bollocks. African Americans didn’t arrive in Alabama with a banjo on their knee- they arrived in chains without a pot to piss in.
    They had music in their head just like the Welsh, Scots, Irish and English but they had no instruments to play.
    So they picked up those that were available to them when they could and made music .
    That music was as Midwesterner rightly says, was a meld of what they heard around them ,various folk musics and their own unique contribution.
    The fact that it was segregated, well not even segregated , because anyone with a pair of ears and a radio could hear it, was because of the racism of American society of that time.
    Elvis heard it. Hayley heard it, a whole lot of people like me heard the Beatles and the Stones and went down the record shop to check out who this C Berry character was who had written something as great as roll over Beethoven.
    Music is theft. Any musician will tell you that, and I can get a whole bunch of testimonials to that fact as a lot of my friends may be in your record collection at this very moment.Everyone steals from everyone else.
    There is no question as to whether Blue men can sing the whites. They, if they are musicians, then they certainly can.
    Mozart and Beethoven didn’t spring from the ground perfectly formed they stole from every influence they could lay their hands on that they thought was any good from centuries before them.
    America, God bless it, was the conduit for the music we hear today, whether they meant to be or not.
    I’m just bunging on Charlie Mingus’s Sketches of Spain.
    Get the idea?

  • Verity

    RAB- this is the first time I have found you insulting. “African Americans didn’t arrive in Alabama with a banjo on their knee- they arrived in chains without a pot to piss in.”

    “without a pot to piss in” is about white folk in the Ozarks, or Texas, AL, OK, etc who at least were free, you uppity moron. I am absolutely appalled by your chippy, insulting ignorance. How dare you make light of the experience of people captured (often by their own people) and sold in chains to slave traders? And sent in chains across an ocean? And families separated and sold off seperately?) How dare you speak of “a banjo on his knee”?

    This is one reason I don’t like the British any more. They’re facile and dismissive and deeply ignorant. “A banjo on his knee?” “Without a pot to piss in” about poor whites, in a completely different contex and melding the two together because you are absolutely ignorant of American history. Your chippiness chills the spine.

    No wonder GCooper doesn’t come here any more. Moi non plus.

  • RAB

    Oh Verity! I love you to bits, but your capacity to get the wrong end of the stick is truly phenomenal sometimes.
    There must be a load of Ozarks round my way because that expression is very common here and means flat busted broke or penniless.
    You have misunderstood the thrust of my post and obviously know very little about the history of music and appear to have little appreciation of it. If I had gone into the NME offices whistling Achey Brakey Heart, I would have been tossed out of the goddam window!
    I havent got a racist bone in my body and your dismissal of the whole British race with one broad brushstroke borders on the insane. Er you ARE British remember!! Self loathing is a sad thing.
    I make it a point not to comment on things I know little about. You wont find me arguing with Dale about the thrust capacity of rockets for instance. I advise you to do the same.