Argument

The Coming Identity War

Dangers lurk beneath the surface in the Euro-American shopping mall.

Twenty years ago the Italian writer Luigi Barzini complained, "Europeans are to Americans what Greeks were to Romans. Educated slaves." He predicted that soon the only available European know-how would be wine tasting. Rested and tanned, then French Minister of Culture Jack Lang declared war on American slang creeping in on the noble language of Molière. It was 1982. Within a decade, he ended up awarding medals to Jerry Lewis and Clint Eastwood. Hasta la vista, égalité.

Nowadays Europe and the United States are "the West" to the rest of the world. Seen from developing countries, the Old and New Continents look like a sparkling shopping mall, separated by a fancy lake called the Atlantic. Same windows, same brands, books, movies, music, food, pop culture.

Is this the case? No. If you manage to look beyond the Internet, Benetton, Nike, Land’s End, and the bottles of Sicilian olive oil on sale at Balducci’s in New York City, you will see a different scenario. Dangers lurk beneath the surface in the Euro-American shopping mall. An identity war may be closer than we think.

We have been alerted to the "clash of civilizations." We know about the melancholic "end of history." We have dutifully read about "jihad vs. McWorld." But the real future battlefield may well be within the West: the war to defend identities, heritages, cultures, and languages. A tattooed teenage girl protesting against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, an Austrian housewife in love with a charismatic right-wing politician, a Montanan militiaman in his best Sunday fatigues, a Parisian scholar protesting the power of l‘Internet, a Milanese milkman dreaming of secession under the Northern League flag, and a crusty Southern U.S. senator voting to cut the United Nations’ budget: Do they have anything in common? No, unless you see them in terms of an identity war.

We are used to the concept of an identity war between industrialized and developing countries. We believe that such conflicts tend to ignite only between strong, opposing identities. Quite the contrary. We may be on the verge of a Euro-American civil war because our identities are becoming softer and more uniform. We will fight among ourselves more out of fear of losing our soul than conviction over having a soul to defend.

A collective apprehension about the United States often seems the only glue that binds Europeans together. Scathing stories about the United States’ death penalty, shootings in high schools, unforgiving market, and lack of welfare abound in the European press. Cross the ocean and you will read about European gerontocracy, high unemployment, and very low defense budgets. There is no sign of a community forming between the two entities that the world insists on branding together as the West. Karl von Clausewitz once wrote that when peace is not nurtured, war looms.

When French antitrade activist José Bové declared his personal war on McDonald’s, he was welcomed by both right-wing French rednecks and baguette-carrying intellectuals from the Parisian Left Bank. British hooligans who treasure their swastikas do so not least because they symbolize anti-Yankee resentment. In 1997, when the American killer Joseph O’Dell was executed, Leoluca Orlando, the mayor of Palermo, had his body flown to Sicily and buried side by side with Catalan dukes and French knights.

Does the United States pay any attention to these grumblings? No. The new energetic European leaders — Prime Ministers Tony Blair of the United Kingdom, José María Aznar of Spain, Lionel Jospin of France, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, plus the Italian on duty that particular year — captivate American elites. Newspapers focus on Versace, the Tour de France, and the travel season. Who wants to deal with a war of cultures? Show me the bargain coupons!

The truth is that geopolitical bonds are not strong enough to anchor together Europe and the United States. While Americans watched the Elián soap opera, European companies were dealing with Castro and European tourists with Havanan prostitutes and cigars. The voters on Main Street ask, "How come Europe is booming and we are still paying for its defense?" The voters on via Centrale ask, "How come an American military jet kills innocent tourists on a cable car in Northern Italy and those responsible get off almost scot-free?" Meanwhile, we have fought over bananas and cellphones, spaghetti and Parmesan cheese, and beef with or without hormones.

Europe and the United States share a ubiquitous mass culture, one powerful enough to link the musical tastes of Japanese teenagers with those of American inner-city youth. But however appealing, movies, fashion, music, and fast food can only create a superficial identity — nothing more.

If defense treaties, pop culture, and the market are the only unifying forces between Europe and the United States, then we should not be surprised by the development of a clash that is no mere transatlantic tiff but a wider, internal rift that threatens global stability. The Net economy may cancel the old welfare system. Resentment will grow among the have-nots. "Les Miz.com" will look for a cause. They may decide that tradition, country, language, and heritage are better than cold, efficient, and distant bureaucracies that seem to put elite, transnational interests ahead of their own.

We are so mesmerized by the Internet revolution that we have forgotten how the Gutenberg revolution worked. Gutenberg printed Bibles because monks used to copy them by hand: new medium, old content. But the print revolution didn’t actually happen until the new medium carried new content. We put on the Internet the same stuff we print and broadcast in the old media. But a revolution is brewing in the new content flashing around the world. Consumers talk of sex, money, and identity in the most narrow and chauvinist terms. Either we are able to develop stronger common bonds or we will look for shelter in our older selves. In the United States, fear and antagonism will grow between the winners of the "new economy" and the losers of the old. And in Europe, the tolerance and common sense preached by leaders such as Czech President Václav Havel and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer will be eclipsed by the vitriol and resentment peddled by politicians such as Austria’s Jörg Haider and Italy’s Umberto Bossi.

People need a community. And if a peaceful one is not available, a ferocious one will do.

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