A review of The Narcissism of Minor Differences: How America and Europe Are Alike, by Peter Baldwin

In January the new permanent president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, renewed the European Union’s urgent call for a new tax. There was no time to waste: Brussels needed the dough to preserve what Van Rompuy called the “European way of life.” As a statement released by his office last November put it, “The financing of the welfare state…will require new resources.”

As the reaction against Obamacare demonstrated, if the president of the United States said he needed more money to preserve the “American way of life” and then made clear he meant ponying up more money for welfare schemes, most voters would wish him an unemployment check without delay. But they would be shocked to discover in Peter Baldwin’s very amusing book, The Narcissism of Minor Differences: How America and Europe Are Alike, that the “European way of life” pretty much describes how people in, say, Iowa live.

In fact, Baldwin, a professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, reached his conclusion in a distinctly Midwestern way: he harvested. Baldwin’s numbers—fertilized by studies from the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and other international organizations and institutions, where statistics grow as thick and high as Iowa corn—fill his book. They show that despite our assumptions, despite a thousand op-eds, and a couple of centuries of squabbling and bickering, and even wars and revolutions, the statistical differences between Western Europe and America are trivial—in fact less than the differences between various European states. All that stuff about us Americans and them Europeans? Statistically speaking, them is usIncroyable, non?

However, one vast difference between Europeans and Americans is in the mastery of groundless condescension. So this is a great book to take to a dinner party in Paris or to a curb-sweep in Glasgow. What can be more tiresome than meeting a hung-over Brit and waiting for the inevitable jibes about misery and mayhem, poverty and illiteracy in the U.S.A.? Let them eat Baldwin. They’ll be shocked to learn that going by the numbers—on money and work, crime and violence, health care and education, the environment and the family—we’re depressingly alike.

One graph after another in this highly contrarian and entertaining book shows a big black line indicating where America stands in the European tables, and it’s almost always somewhere in the middle, often with Scandos and the make-believe Luxembourgers a notch or two above us, the British and Irish a notch or two below. In common with most other Western Europeans, we give thanks that we’re not Portuguese, who seem to have a hard time with almost everything. The differences are as minor as Baldwin says: generally speaking, to use a term from the ’60s, we are all bozos on this bus. We all work hard, raise families, pay taxes, and die—and we do these things in remarkably similar ways. When Le Monde ran its famous headline, “We are all Americans,” on the morning of September 12, 2001, what they might have meant on any other day was “We are all middle-class people with weight problems who recycle and watch too much TV.”

For those on the American left who love holding up European solutions for American problems, Baldwin’s collection of discoveries will be a blow. Who knew that in the U.S., taxes are more progressive than in all of Europe? Or that American social welfare policies are as generous as Van Rompuy’s cherished continental welfare state? Or that the Germans are even more litigious than Yanks? Or that for education, state spending by Americans and Europeans is about the same and achieves about the same results? Or that Americans have been more successful in reducing carbon dioxide output per unit of GDP than nine European countries, some of them notoriously sanctimonious? Or that the French, Austrians, Swiss, Germans, and Italians—with their expensive public transportation networks—all own more passenger cars per capita than Americans do? Or that New Yorkers are the politest big-city residents on either side of the Atlantic? Fuggedaboutit!Europeans ridicule perceived American religiosity, yet, as Baldwin notes, “About a third of Germans, Austrians, and Irish, and even more French and Swiss, believe that fortune-tellers can foresee the future.”

* * *

Baldwin is a graceful, often invigorating writer, a skill put to the test in a book that is largely commentary on bar graphs. Befitting a volume that looks at “outcomes, more than how they are achieved,” he’s careful to add helpful context to his stat-bound claims, explaining how different methods of data collection or how specific policies can alter or add nuance to the paint-by-numbers conclusions. The Narcissism of Minor Differences is ostensibly a polemic, and indeed the conclusions the book reaches are no doubt controversial. Yet there’s very little rancor in it, almost none of the ideological toxicity that normally runs through books about countries, people, and ideas that are not our own.

As he admits, most Americans (outside the editorial offices of the New York Times) don’t give a fig about whether or not they measure up to European standards on anything, including empathy. Europeans, on the other hand, and especially the European media, are so preoccupied with America that the effect is sometimes comic. So this is an ideal book for certain European readers, including people who for whatever peculiar reason need to cling to anti-American perceptions as if they were accepted wisdom. Ideas that stateside have always been seen as marginalized paranoia—that 9/11 was the work of “Boosh,” for example—do have a widespread following in Europe.

This bizarre obsession with diminishing a bizarre America has been well-documented. In The American Enemy: The History of French Anti-Americanism (2005), Philippe Roger brilliantly archives 500 pages of deranged “differentiation” and outright bigotry by French writers, philosophers, and politicians. Seth D. Armus’s French Anti-Americanism (19301948): Critical Moments in a Complex History (2007) may be more succinct but no less damning. One has the impression that what British journalist Godfrey Hodgson triumphantly calls The Myth of American Exceptionalism (2009) is a straw man. As Barack Obama clumsily pointed out during a trip to Europe last year, “exceptionalism” is hardly unique to Americans. (Even Albanians have a sense of exceptionalism; during my visit a few years ago, I was repeatedly asked, “What do you think of Albania? Pretty bad, huh?”)

* * *

But American exceptionalism, invented or real, has an exceptional usefulness for those tilters in need of a windmill. For a century or so, French, German, Italian, British, and Spanish politicians have all exploited anti-Americanism as a way of distracting voters from failed economic policies and doomed social experiments, just as European philosophers and writers have built careers pointing out American shortcomings from a European point of view, often in personal terms: Americans are fat, racist, uncaring, unfair, violent planetary polluters—all the myths Baldwin seeks to destroy. When Americans have written critically of Europe (and I’m one who has), it has been to point out the consequences of bad policies, especially foreign ones, and rampant hypocrisy. It will be forever before a person of African descent is elected to govern a European democracy, but to Europeans of a certain class and persuasion, American moral inferiority is simply assumed—something everybody just knows. “Today the U.S. is the most unequal of all the world’s developed nations in terms of income and wealth distribution,” a British professor of American Studies wrote, reviewing Hodgson’s book in the Times Literary Supplement. He was apparently citing himself, but may have used Gini coefficients from a 1999-2004 Luxembourg Income Study cited by Baldwin. According to that study, the U.K. is only the smallest fraction off the U.S. numbers for wealth distribution. But if the data from these studies is averaged over the decades 1970-1990, the U.S. actually lags behind countries such as France and Ireland, and the data show that income equality in the U.K. has risen rapidly recently, while the U.S figures are relatively static.

The fact is no matter what variations in domestic policies politicians invent, no matter what rhetorical claims of convenience are cited by polemicists, no matter what books we read, what schools we attend, what cars we drive, what taxes we pay—when it comes to outcomes, we all end up at about the same place at about the same time.

This is especially true when difficult demographic and historical factors, such as the tragic consequences of slavery, are considered. “If we could strip out the urban underclass from the numbers, it seems a fair bet that the United States would be even less statistically distinguishable from Western Europe than I have shown that it already is,” Baldwin writes toward the end of his book. “It might not be Sweden. But it would be like the Netherlands, France, or Germany, and more than hold its own vis-à-vis the Mediterranean or the U.K. and Ireland.”

He doesn’t ignore the differences that exist between the U.S. and some European nations. America’s health care system comes under heavy criticism from Baldwin, for example—not because it performs worse than the European alternatives (although American infant mortality rates, because of a number of complicating factors, are difficult to accept), but because it’s so expensive and inefficient and, he claims, unfair. Still, if you’re stricken by cancer, pray it happens to you in America. After that, the distant second choice is between a number of European also-rans.

Actually, as Baldwin points out early in The Narcissism of Minor Differences, there is a greater differentiation between European states—especially between those in the north and those around the Mediterranean—than there is between America and Europe. Anecdotal evidence bears him out. The 2008 comedy Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis, for example, is one of the most popular French films of the last decade. Its premise: people who live in the Nord-Pas de Calais region of France are simpletons when viewed through the sophisticated eyes of people from Provence just as Londoners laugh at the unfortunate denizens of Leeds, or as New Yorkers ridicule all those Midwestern Republicans out there in “Jesusland” (except when they vote for Democrats). It’s like the old Tom Lehrer song: the Dutch really do hate the Germans, and the Germans really do hate the Poles. Baldwin poses the question perfectly: “Hand on heart, which cities more resemble each other: Stockholm and Minneapolis or Helsinki and Thessaloniki?”

* * *

And this brings us to another point. Distinctions often are more important—and even more appealing—than similarities. Who cares whether Italians watch as much TV as Americans? Celebrating differences is a great, global pleasure. We all define ourselves apophatically; we may not always agree on who we are, but we know who we aren’t, and we aren’tthem, whoever they are, no matter what the outcomes say. Understanding this love of difference makes bearable the disappointment in reading all these figures that prove Baldwin’s point. After all, when we leave the familiar, we want things to be different. Who wants to land in Paris and stop at a McDonald’s on your way into town? We want the natives and their quaint folkways, thank you very much.

Fortunately, the differences are there. Baldwin ably charts the minor ones. But stats can’t effectively demonstrate the major differences, with their paradoxes and pleasures. In the small village in rural western France where I live, the annual Festival of the Bean this year featured a guy dressed as Sinatra singing “New York, New York” in phonetically perfect English. He was followed by a demonstration of Texas line-dancing—an annual festival favorite—performed by Breton and Vendéan women from Nantes dressed in white cowgirl outfits. But it was a purely French event; the associations with the United States were actually very minor. The dancing might have been straight from Texas, but that didn’t make the event an American one, any more than saloon girls dancing a can-can makes a French film out of an American western.

Minor differences test the imagination. Some are slightly absurd. For example, drive just five miles north of the Kansas-Nebraska border, an imaginary line if ever there was one, and talk about the virtues of Jayhawks and many, many Husker supporters will help you discover subtle points of differentiation. And there are minor differences that can make you choke on fear. The distinction between North and South Korea may be laughably artificial, but that makes it no less deadly to the Koreans who stand in towers watching each other through binoculars across another invisible line.

According to Peter Baldwin, Americans and Europeans are cousins, identical cousins. We laugh alike and walk alike, and at times we even talk alike. But the differences that matter most are things that can’t be measured: history, culture, class, emotions, humor, optimism, families. These aren’t found on bar graphs, but are calibrated closely in the mind.