JOHN PEEL/Durango Herald
We Americans are self-centered, monolingual, hegemonic, and historically and culturally bereft.
It’s not our fault. We don’t really need to make excuses for being so selfish and unrefined. We’re at the mercy of geography.
But from another continent, looking toward North America, that’s what you see: an insular country that gives short shrift to the rest of the world. And that’s probably why in recent polls conducted by BBC World Service, Britain’s major media outlet, President Barack Obama is favored over challenger Mitt Romney.
It’s not close. It’s a landslide.
Overall, in the 21 countries where the poll was conducted, Obama won 50 percent to 9 percent. Only in Pakistan, where we snuck in unannounced to take out Osama bin Laden, did more side with Romney. In France, where they’re probably still a little tweaked by the whole “Freedom Fries” thing, the vote was 72 percent Obama to 2 percent Romney.
You can agree or disagree with them, but the fact is the world’s citizens, by and large, are wary of a Republican president unleashing our military might or provoking others to unleash theirs.
During a recent trip to Europe, one goal of mine was to chat with people on their political stances regarding the U.S. election. In reality, the subject doesn’t come up easily in conversation with new acquaintances who may or may not speak good English.
I think maybe the Norwegian I sat beside on an eight-hour flight from Denver to Reykjavik, Iceland, gave me the most level-headed perspective. He and his wife own a hotel near Bergen, a city on the west coast that is Norway’s second-largest.
He appreciates Obama’s diplomatic tact, in contrast to that of the Bush administration. But he believes that a Romney presidency would more likely help the European economy.
In Dresden, Germany, we met a forester, and I asked him if he remembered the communist era. (It’s easier to meet people after you’ve had a nice, tasty hefeweizen.) He said he did, and recalled the excitement of the wall falling, though he was but 6 years old. He asked us to describe Romney, and I’m not sure exactly what we said, but he uttered the word “cowboy” when we’d finished. My guess is that Europeans have watched too many John Wayne movies.
Our campground host in Budapest, Hungary, was so pro-Obama that it might have been dangerous to tell him you were a Romney fan.
But getting a European perspective on the world meant more than just considering current politics. Personally, I’m fascinated by the impacts of World War II and the rise and fall of the communist era. I guess this is similar to not being able to turn away from the awful car crash, but I’m not alone in my curiosity.
Europe has made an industry catering to tourists who want to tour Nazi concentration camps, World War II battle sites, and communist-era torture chambers and relics.
In Dresden, we saw the charred bricks of the Frauenkirche, an old city church bombed to smithereens during U.S. and British firebombing in February 1945. The church was left in rubble until 2004-05, when the reunified and more financially stable Germany reconstructed it, using some of the original blackened bricks.
In Prague, we took a World War II tour during which our guide focused on the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, who was governor of the Nazi-ruled “protectorate” of Bohemia and Moravia. He was also one of the key architects of the holocaust, chairing a 1942 conference during which the “final solution” was laid out.
The story of the assassination is fantastic, but there’s only room here to whet your appetite: Trained paratrooper/assassins, a jammed gun, a wounded Heydrich chasing his killer, doctors straining to save Heydrich, Nazi retribution.
In Budapest we saw a building, the former ministry of defense, shelled near the end of World War II as the Soviets laid siege to the retreating Germans. The pockmarked building was left as is.
We heard stories of the Soviets’ crackdown of the 1968 Prague Spring and 1956 Hungarian Revolution.
Oppression, brutalization, torture, death. What does it all mean?
We all have struggles, but I think we need reminders of how bad it can get: The extermination of Jews. The massive killing and destruction of war. The forced subjugation by governments, such as within the one-party Soviet bloc.
You’re probably reading into this column, that it’s pro-Obama or pro-Romney. It’s neither. It’s just about a realization that freedom isn’t always free.
For me, it has been free. But after a look around Central Europe, I realize that I’m extremely fortunate. My hope is that whoever is elected doesn’t ignore history.
firstname.lastname@example.org John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.