"European morality" is a phrase that should rival "must-see TV" and "government budget" in the Oxymoron Hall of Fame. Yet among American elites there seems to be a consensus that Continental mores are significantly more advanced than those practiced in the United States. This novel assumption raises several questions:
Have circumstances changed so drastically from the time when America’s Founding Fathers looked askance at European decadence and saw in their new nation a city that would serve as a beacon to the rest of the world? More to the point, has Europe changed that much in the last five decades? After all, the continent held in such high esteem by many of today’s politicians and mainstream media types didn’t exactly have a century to write home about.
First there was World War I--a colossal stupidity whose causes are shrouded in national aspiration, colonial competition, and a prolonged history of diplomatic gamesmanship. Only U.S. intervention succeeded in dragging the Euros out of their self-destructive trenches.
Then there was the fascist era--with Mussolini in Italy, Franco in Spain, and Adolf in Deutschland. It must have been a completely different breed of European that cheered il Duce’s invasion of Ethiopia (visions of imperial Rome dancing in their heads) or who dutifully carried out the Fuhrer’s solution to the continent’s "Jewish Problem."
During that period the other side of the political fence was largely defined by two words: "Munich" and "Czechoslovakia." Again, it was American intervention, along with British tenacity, that combined to save the continent from domination by Hitler or his double- crossed Soviet pal, Joe Stalin.
Today’s European apples must have fallen far from that ancestral tree to merit such admiration as they are accorded in the minds of America’s literati. But the closer I look, the more I see the same emptiness in the states of "Old Europe."
Germany, for example, legalized prostitution a couple of years ago--a sign of decadence reminiscent of the Weimar Republic. Elsewhere on the forensic front, a German court recently sentenced a man who killed and ate a voluntary victim to eight-and-a-half years behind bars. (With good behavior this Hannibal Lecterisch connoisseur could be hawking a rare book of Rhineland recipes by the end of the decade.)
Economically, Deutschland’s unemployment rate has grown to 12% amid a population decline projected to reach 10% by 2050. Both these trends spell disaster for generously- funded welfare programs and suggest less-than-vigorous health, culturally speaking.
Next door in the Netherlands, legislators are falling over themselves to draft more inclusive standards for killing sick, old, and depressed folk--with or without the patient’s permission. The protocols of the University Hospital in Groningen represent the cutting edge of progressive thought on this topic--ideas so reminiscent of Nazi justifications for euthanasia, they are verboten in Germany.
Meanwhile, in Sweden (bastion of neutrality in the fight against Hitler) illegitimacy has become the norm. Presently, over half of that country’s babies have parents who find the institution of marriage anachronistic.
Given these considerations, it seems likely that what appeals to Europhiles isn’t the region’s outstanding ethical record but rather its long-cultivated lack of moral conviction. It’s not that the leopard has changed its spots, but rather that American elites now identify with what most Continental intellectuals stood for throughout the last century-- accommodation, acquiescence, and moral lassitude.
Those on the other side of this "sophistication" argument can point to refined aesthetic sensibilities and copious cultural treasures that grace the land mass north of the Mediterranean. They can even tout a collective monetary unit that has appreciated in value over the last few years. The central question, however, is whether these facts represent more than a cluster of attractive specimens amid a moribund species.
My belief is that no European ethical epiphany took place in the last half of the twentieth century--an assessment whose value should become clearer as religiously-motivated immigrants increasingly replace a dwindling population of secularists whose utilitarian ideals inspire neither courage nor admiration.