Tale of Two Cultures: a London-Barcelona Diary

Morris Berman



t was a dream come true: I had been playing tennis since I was eleven years of age, and always told myself I had to see Wimbledon before I died.  As I approached sixty, a minor miracle made this dream come true, and I unexpectedly came into possession of tickets for Centre Court for the last five days of this year’s championship matches.  And so, on June 28, I flew to London, and then planned to spend the second week of July in Barcelona, visiting friends and walking around the city.  My forthcoming book deals, in part, with urban design, and one can hardly do better than Barcelona as a case study of a city that had turned out right.

As part of my research as well, I had been thinking a lot about the differences between Europe–in which I do not include Great Britain–and the United States.  This might also be conceptualized, at least partly, as a difference between Anglo-Saxon and Latin cultures, or perhaps between cultures still pursuing an imperial agenda (the U.S. being a de facto continuation of the British empire) and those that have long since given it up.  Two years ago, the pro-war neoconservative scholar, Robert Kagan, gave voice to these differences in an essay called “Power and Weakness,” which was subsequently expanded into a book, Of Paradise and Power.  Kagan’s argument–that Europeans could indulge themselves in “feminine” things such as improving the quality of life only because the “masculine” American military was protecting them from an external threat–was one I found misguided and offensive.   What external threat, after all?  Kagan never says; but inasmuch as he was one of the early (1990s) proponents of “regime change” in Iraq, along with American domination of the globe, his writings always struck me as being little more than imperialist apologetics.  “Americans,” asserts Kagan, “are from Mars; Europeans, from Venus.”  (“We are not from Venus,” retorted the German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, before the United Nations Security Council on the eve of the Iraq war; “rather, we are the victims of the war god, Mars”–a nugget of European wisdom that eludes American militarists like Robert Kagan.)

It was, of course, a measure of the U.S.-European difference that Kagan’s ideas were heavily excoriated on the European side of the Atlantic, and regarded as some sort of conceptual breakthrough in the United States.  In fact, the argument is simplistic, part of the ideological justifications then being mounted for aggressive action against a virtually nonexistent enemy, a war that had been predetermined on what one might call “theological” grounds.  And yet, in an odd way, the comparison is apt.  The title of Kagan’s book captures it very well.  Europeans, writes Kagan, live in a kind of paradise, a world of social welfare, reliable pensions, long paid vacations, universal health care, and–not least–gracious and elegant cities.  Americans, on the other hand, live in wastelands such as Dallas and Atlanta, organize their lives around money, power, and competition, and, says Kagan, derive much of their satisfaction in life from “their nation’s military power and their nation’s special role in the world.”  Personally, this so-called “satisfaction” strikes me as being a species of existential fraud; but then I’m not exactly a majority voice on the U.S. scene.

In any case, my arrival in London: the first thing I noticed was the sense of noise and pressure that pervaded the city.  I had lived in London many years ago; in the wake of the “Thatcher revolution,” it had become a very different place.  The British are constantly on the go, heavily stressed out.  It seemed like every other person on the street was talking into a cell phone.  Indeed, these gadgets kept ringing during the match at Wimbledon, occasionally disturbing the players–despite the fact that the announcer repeatedly asked patrons to turn their phones off.  As I looked around the stands, I noticed many people staring at their cell phones or talking on them, instead of watching the match.  Sitting in the lounge of my hotel at night, quietly reading, I was frequently confronted by hotel guests bursting in, flipping open their cell phones, and loudly conducting business as though the place were an extension of their office.  This privatization of public space–the death of the commons, one might call it–is the by-product of a world that privileges individual ambition over communal welfare.  In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher declared that “society does not exist,” and, like Ronald Reagan, set out to destroy it.  (Lewis Mumford once commented that the U.S. goal was to collectively live out a private dream.)  Both of them succeeded, pretty much: it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The cell phone is merely the coup de grâce.

Mars and Venus, in any case, showed up with stunning clarity on the tennis court, when (July 3-4) Maria Sharapova defeated Serena Williams for the women’s championship, and Roger Federer defeated Andy Roddick for the men’s.  I was delighted to see Venus (the goddess, not the tennis player) win: in both cases, it was the victory of grace over power (or even rage).  Serena seemed to be bursting with anger; her only goal was to win.  Maria, on the other hand, was quiet and concentrated, to the point of being meditative; her goal was to play well.  Similarly, Roddick’s approach was one of brute force, or controlled fury; he had vowed to “hit the crap out of the ball,” and he did.  At first, Federer was thrown off guard by this, but he finally managed to regain his balance, and to respond to Roddick’s violence with finesse.  I found it weirdly symbolic to see the American tennis players, in effect, mirroring U.S. foreign policy, while the European players were patiently showing the Americans how to live.  ( A lesson lost on them, I fear.)  Back in my hotel room, I listened, that evening, to a recording of Verdi’s opera, Nabucco–“Oh, mia patria si bella e perduta!”–and felt sad.

With Wimbledon over, I spent July 5 at the Hopper exhibit at the Tate Modern.  There are few American artists, or even artists period, whose work is as psychologically haunting as Edward Hopper’s.  In paintings such as Automat (1927) or Nighthawks (1942) one sees quite clearly the dark side of the “American Dream”: the isolation and pervasive melancholy that lurks underneath the surface bombast.  Americans, I thought, must be the loneliest people on earth; they just don’t know it.  Certainly, no one managed to capture the soullessness of a life devoted to power and “success” as well as Hopper did; and if, on an unconscious level, life in the U.S. was this bleak in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, what would his paintings look like, I wondered, if he were alive today?  An article on Hopper in Barcelona’s La Vanguardia Magazine, which I read only a few days later (July 11), makes just this point: “la pregunta pertinente es cómo habría pintado los Estados Unidos más crueles, fundamentalistas y dividados de George W. Bush.”  (The pertinent question is how he would have painted the crueler, more fundamentalist and divided United States of George W. Bush.)  Hopper, the article concludes, was a dissident mirror of a society “en aparienca feliz, pero llena de dudas morales (como ahora), y sobre todo infinitamente sola.” (happy in appearance, but filled with moral doubts (like today), and above all infinitely alone)

Part of the process of Americanization, of course, is giving people the means to hide from the desolation that Americanization leaves in its wake.  Kagan’s comment about U.S. pride in the nation’s military prowess is one example of this; religious fundamentalism is another.  Really, if Hopper were to paint Nighthawks today, the people in the painting would be on cell phones or Prozac, or staring into TV or computer screens, or stuffing themselves with Big Macs from McDonalds.  I never thought much of the politics of Jean-Marie Le Pen (to say the least), but when he warns his countrymen that unless globalization and Americanization are contained, France could wind up looking like Omaha–well clearly, the man has a point.  Mars has its temptations: left to its own devices, America could well turn every face on earth into an empty one, every European café into a scene out of a Hopper painting.

The comparison kept showing up; I couldn’t get away from it.  That evening (July 5), I went to see Patrice Leconte’s new film, Confidences trop intimes.  The night before, in my hotel room, I wound up watching a 1997 George Clooney-Nicole Kidman film on TV, The Peacemakers, a “romantic” antiterrorist bit of fluff that was so stupid as to be embarrassing.  From the first few frames, absolutely nothing is in doubt: the golden hero will defeat the evil enemy threatening the United States and win the pretty girl.  Like most Hollywood stuff, it is as subtle as a train wreck, and utterly predictable; which is what U.S. audiences want.  It made me think of the recent comment of the vice president of a major publishing firm in the U.S., that sales of foreign literature in translation had fallen off dramatically in the United States during the last few years because the U.S. public can’t grasp the nuance involved in the stories, and has no tolerance for ambiguity, which is particularly characteristic of European fiction.  The contrast between Peacemakers and Confidences, in any case, couldn’t have been greater in this regard.  Unlike typical Hollywood fare, Leconte’s film is not a simplistic tale of sex and “romance” (where there is in fact no real romance), with the plot line being a foregone conclusion.  Rather, the direction of the film takes shape very gradually, and even at the end, the outcome is not clear.  It demonstrates that uncertainty and ambiguity–precisely those things that make Americans anxious–are the things that give life its real sparkle.

But it goes even deeper than this.  In the United States, it is hard to argue for quality of life without being attacked as an elitist, or for communal solutions to social problems without being accused of (political) “liberalism” (a word that evokes horror in the hearts of the majority of the population).  I’ve often thought that our motto, “In God We Trust,” should be changed to “What’s In It For Me?”  It will, in fact, take something like an act of God to get Americans to stop using cell phones in public, because annoying the people around you is not something we worry about (there is no society, after all, in our world view–just individual “atoms”).  Collective decisions for the common weal are quite rare in a laissez-faire society.  Some time ago the American author Stephen King made an offer to his readers at large, that he would write his next novel online if 75% of those reading it would agree to download each completed chapter for the nominal fee of one dollar.  If more than 25% failed to pay for the book-in-progress, he would simply quit writing, and everybody would lose out.  It was quite a bargain, given the cost of new hardback books these days.  How did the U.S. public respond?  But of course, you know the answer: nearly half acted out of individual greed rather than community responsibility–i.e., downloaded the book without paying for it–and so King pulled the plug.  The point is that extreme individualism is very powerful, much like an aggressive cancer, whereas communal arrangements tend to be very fragile.  The laissez-faire mentality can invade and disrupt a culture overnight, as it were; after which it becomes very difficult to revert to status quo ante.

In any case, I arrived in Barcelona around 7 p.m. on July 7, and took a taxi to Esplugues, where I was staying.  As I walked the streets later that evening, I turned off Laurea Miro and onto a very long courtyard, tucked away from the main street.  The pavement was done in brick, there were lots of benches to sit on, and to my left was a “center for culture and recreation.”  It was a pedestrian zone, and issued out onto a park.  The first thing I was struck by was the beauty of the design, in a “suburb” of sorts that wasn’t particularly fancy.  The whole courtyard area was oriented to human social life.  The second thing I felt, after a week in London, was the palpable atmosphere of relaxation and friendliness, as people interacted with one another.  Unlike London, and much of the U.S., people here are not alone: they were clustered in groups of six or more, engaged in relaxed or animated conversation.  I suddenly realized how harsh London was, how solitary, how high-pressured.  (And how expensive: the metro fare starts at about four dollars, the same for a cup of tea, and a simple lunch easily goes for about twenty dollars.)    Clearly, the pure laissez-faire life, in which everybody is out for themselves, exacts an enormous toll; but perhaps  there is also something about Anglo-Saxon cultures that is simply unloving, I’m not sure.  I stood at a kiosk, noticing how much was going on in terms of meetings and cultural events.  While I was doing this, two men came up and posted a notice for meetings of the Associació Catalana Contra la Contaminació Acústica (Catalan Association Against Noise Pollution).  Like all the other posters, it was in Catalan; I could read about half of it.  After the men left, I went over to a family sitting on a bench and asked the father if he could translate for me from Catalan to Spanish.  (How easy this–approaching a complete stranger–was to do!)  He said that it was an association dedicated to decreasing the noise level in Catalonia, including scooters, traffic, loud music, etc.  He added that Barcelona was much noisier now than it had been just ten years ago.  As I looked around at the large courtyard and cultural center, I noticed another big difference from London: no cell phones were in use, even among teenagers.  Whereas I would guess that in London, the ratio of cell phone use on the street is one out of every two or three people, in Barcelona it is something like 1:100.  In terms of having a sense of social cohesion–not to mention relative quiet–it makes an enormous difference. 

July 8.  I buy a copy of El País.  On page 6, there is an interview with Patrus Ananias de Souza, Brazil’s “Ministro del Hambre Cero” (Minister of Zero Hunger)–can one imagine such a cabinet post in England or the U.S.?–who is quoted as saying, “El desarollo económico no es suficiente para promover la igualidad.” (Economic development is insufficient to promote equality.)  Neoliberal globalization, he went on to say, is merely financial in nature; authentic globalization, on the other hand, is about human rights, management of the media, the Kyoto Protocol, ethical values, building peace... Tell it to the Bush administration, I thought; although the Democrats, it must be said, are only slightly better.  Neither of the two major parties envisions a truly different way of life beyond that of corporate consumerism, and that way of life is in the process of destroying all other ways of life.  A poster for the Forum, a five-month-long conference on cultural diversity, sustainability, and peace, proclaims in Catalan: “A Barcelona volem canviar el món” (In Barcelona we wish to change the world); and I thought: good luck!  I suspect that the U.S. will Americanize Barcelona long before this great Catalan city can even hope to Barcelonize the U.S.  After centuries of tumult and torment, the Spanish have become a practical people.  After March 11, with nearly two hundred dead and the threat of terrorism hanging over them, they did the sensible thing: got rid of the toady who hitched his career to George W. Bush and the phony war in Iraq, and voted in a democratic socialist government, the only type of government that is reasonable for the Western industrial nations, in my opinion.  If an al-Qaeda attack had occurred in the U.S. prior to the November 2 election, Americans, being a “theological” people rather than a practical one, would surely have clung to Bush; nor will they ever consider electing a democratic socialist government–this would be beyond the pale.  As the U.S. historian Richard Hofstadter once put it, “It is America’s fate not to have ideologies, but to be one.”

July 13: I open the London Guardian and read that the Bush administration and the Department of Justice have been exploring ways in which the presidential election in November might be legally postponed, in the event of a potential terrorist threat.  For the first time in the history of the U.S., the government is actually talking about canceling a presidential election.  Is this really happening?

Two weeks later, I’m back home in Washington, DC.  It’s about 9 a.m., and I get on the elevator in my building.  There are three other people there, and I say, “Good morning!” as I walk on.  They just stare at me, as though I had spoken in Urdu, or was initiating the opening phase of some bizarre and dangerous ritual.  Normally, I just give up; nonresponse is pretty common in the land of Edward Hopper, where the citizens are so stressed out that they wall off the world as a reflex.  But this morning, still carrying the glow of “Venus” inside me,  I don’t want to throw in the towel, I don’t want to accept this profoundly antisocial value system.  “What?” I exclaim; “nobody says ‘Good morning’?”  Embarrassed, they fall over themselves now to reply to my greeting.  For a brief moment, I shocked them into base-level civility.  But as I and they well know, it’s not going to last.

There is no doubt about it: I am home!


Postscript, June-July 2005:

I returned to Barcelona almost exactly a year later, to complete a certification program I had been working on to teach English as a second language. My fears that the United States would Americanize Barcelona proved to be disturbingly well founded, though I never imagined that the process would happen so quickly. In the preceding twelve months, it seemed as though there was a tenfold increase in the use of cell phones. Suddenly, Barcelona was noisy as hell. As in London–not quite as bad, but almost–people were walking down the street, oblivious to their surroundings, mentally removed from the physical and social environment, and yelling into their phones. The din was incredible, and the city now had a distinctly American commercial flavor to it. I reflected that the combination of extreme individualism and endless high-tech innovation (toys for adults, when you get right down to it) was a lethal formula, virtually irresistible, moving through the world like a cancer, and destroying silence and society in its wake. But the sense of Spanish grace, much to my relief, wasn’t completely gone. If you are sitting at a café with a stranger (or are together on an elevator), they will say goodbye as they take their leave. Sales personnel still make eye contact and smile at you as they hand you your change, a dramatic difference from the sullen indifference of their counterparts in DC. On the metro with two friends, I was amazed as one woman, sitting in one of three seats in a row, got up and moved across the car, gesturing for us to sit down, having moved so that the three of us could sit together. I read an article in La Vanguardia about a social experiment being conducted in Catalonia, of putting young people in their early twenties together with elderly folks in their late eighties, as roommates–an experiment that was proving to be remarkably successful. So Spain is not America yet, not totally globalized and homogenized; but given what happened in one year, I shudder to think of what will happen in five. The American goal, then: life without love, without community, and above all–without a moment’s peace.



Morris Berman is a cultural historian and social critic living in Washington, DC, and since 2003 a Visiting Professor in Sociology at the Catholic University of America.  His published works include The Twilight of American Culture, named a “Notable Book” by the New York Times Book Review, and Dark Ages America, being released by W.W. Norton in 2006.