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Saturday, November 27th, 2004


The European Dream

by Jeremy Rifkin

A review by Jill Owens

Jeremy Rifkin's contrast of the European and American dreams is an optimistic -- sometimes overly optimistic -- reflection of how we've gotten where we are and what might be the most viable direction for the future. Although certain sections seem more fantasy than reality (for example, the discussion of immigration and diversity, particularly in light of the recent murder of Theo Van Gogh and the French ban on religious symbols in the public schools), Rifkin clearly and accurately describes Europe as at least partially embracing a direction we should be moving toward for a sustainable future.

Rifkin describes the European Dream in opposition to the American Dream -- necessarily, because of their origins -- on almost every point. European governance is secular, community-oriented, and concerned with universal rights, primarily because of the continent's long history of religious and nationalistic warfare, while Americans are more concerned with privacy, ownership, and individual success, in part because of the evolution of the United States from a vast frontier to a nation tamed by religion and autonomous hard work (homesteading). Although parts of this evaluation might be contested, most people -- on both sides of the political spectrum -- would agree with the general gist.

Rifkin's thesis is that the goals of human rights and the flexibility afforded a post-modern, network- and community-based system of government found in the EU experiment is the better contender for success and progress in the global world order -- a compelling, if not revolutionary, idea. But his major achievement in The European Dream is to draw together and cohere the complex historical, philosophical, and theological forces that have created such very different worldviews for shaping the future for us and our neighbors across the pond. Rifkin's enormous scope and clarity of vision is fascinating exploration of all sides of the equation, and his engaging and intelligent prose is a welcome vehicle for these ideas.

One example is our different concepts of space and time, as Rifkin takes us through the invention and practice of modern time. In Europe, hours were introduced to most citizens by giant town clocks (many of which still exist today), which became a centerpiece of city life, a mechanical and secular replacement for the church bell. In America, where the concept of efficiency had been formed by the roots of Calvinism (efficiency, and using time wisely, was and still is seen as a moral value), the stopwatch and timeclock became the ultimate expression of our relationship with time. Rifkin details how and when the ideas of community and efficiency diverged and brought us to our current priorities of "work time" versus "leisure time." (Rifkin points out, interestingly, that there's no equivalent of the term "quality time" in Europe; Europeans are puzzled by the implication that we schedule time separately for our quality of life.)

Rifkin discusses an enormous range of such historical issues and connects them to our present attitudes, from the Enlightenment to the Reformation, from the civilizing influence of table manners to sleeping arrangements in medieval Europe. Much of this is among the strongest material and argument in The European Dream; his exploration of market economy and the EU as a post-modern governing body -- one that tries to satisfy the maxim of "act locally, think globally" by taking into account direct advice from local governments and acting as a larger conscience for the nation-states of Europe -- is also valuable, but more often feels like wishful, or at least futuristic, thinking.

As an adviser to Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission (the governing body of the EU), Rifkin's voice carries greater weight than most in designing and implementing the European dream. But even if some pieces of his vision are still a long way from reality, the direction is one that we should indeed strive toward as a part of the next stage of global history. Some of Europe's most admirable contributions, through the EU and through the legislation of individual nations, are its records on human rights (including the abolition of the death penalty), and environmental sustainability. The EU guarantees its citizens rights beyond those granted by their individual countries, paving the way for rights to be seen globally, by detaching rights from a particular territory and declaring them the birthright of any and all human beings. In terms of environmental legislation, Europe's continuing fight against genetically modified food comes from a precautionary principle of asking for evidence that new technologies will do little or no harm before putting them on the market (the reverse of the American approach, as has been evidenced by the recent recalls of widely prescribed prescription drugs, amongst other examples). Europe has also been at the forefront of animal rights legislation and research and is committed to creating a green hydrogen economy (hydrogen produced from renewable sources, instead of by coal and nuclear power, as America has proposed) by mid-century.

Rifkin does detail several problems with the European Dream -- the aging and shrinking population, especially combined with Europe's generous retirement programs, will have to be dramatically supplemented by immigration to keep Europe's working population even remotely stable. Europe's military, including both its individual armies and the EU's military force, is weak and ineffective by American standards, and therefore is extremely dependent on "soft power" (negotiation) and American cooperation. And as more immigration floods into Europe with religious fervor, secular Europe is increasingly caught between its tolerance of other cultures and enforcing strict separation of church and state.

It is hard to believe, currently, that just because the market has evolved towards a global economy and postmodernism has changed European and American societies to include, at least, a multicultural outlook that rejects one larger metanarrative, that nationalism will fade so quickly. Most Europeans are still strongly attached to their individual nation's histories -- indeed, perhaps because of postmodernism, they're clinging all the tighter. One of the most fundamental problems we must face in the coming age may be whether or not it is possible to reconcile exclusionist narratives -- including some branches of Christianity, Islam, and nation-state patriotism -- with our places in the larger world. Rifkin offers the idea that human frailty and vulnerability in the age of global, not national problems -- terrorism, global warming, human rights violations -- can serve as an agent to generate empathy and unite humanity. Thus far, however, it seems that the opposite -- nations and humans becoming more survivalist and fearful of "the other" than ever -- is far more prevalent.

But Rifkin is certainly hopeful -- and although he freely admits that a global consciousness of human rights may not be the direction the world ends up going, he makes a valid case that it just might. Full of fascinating (and enviable) statistics about paid vacation, health care, property ownership, and human and animal rights legislation, Rifkin delves into these opposing worldviews to claim that Europe's vision will be the one to guide our future, and it is hard not to hope that his optimism will pay off.

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