Few Signs of Bush Fans in Europe
In working-class and student neighborhoods, Austrians from the left and right have painted banners and made buttons to protest President Bush’s visit here this week.
But after their demonstrations are done, many of those same Austrians will hurry home to catch other American exports: “Desperate Housewives” or “CSI: Miami,” prime-time TV hits here this season.
In Austria, as in much of Europe, enthusiasm for America’s culture goes hand in hand with an abhorrence of its politics and underlines the increasingly complex and ambivalent relationship that Europeans have with the United States.
A survey released last week by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press showed that, with the exception of Britain, attitudes toward the United States were still sinking in Europe, as throughout much of the world. Ever larger proportions of respondents have an unfavorable view. In France, Germany and Spain, favorable views now stand at less than 40%.
“Even though Europeans and Americans have a lot in common in terms of how they look at certain geopolitical problems such as Iran, opinions of America are still very low,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Center.
As the continent begins to face some of the same problems with which America has wrestled for the last several years, such as terrorism and dwindling money for social programs, the European view westward is increasingly personal. Europeans often are asking themselves whether the long-admired American model is the only answer, said professors and pollsters who track attitudes.
“It had been widely assumed that America was the future. You might not like it, but California was the future of America, and America was the future of the West,” said Tony Judt, a professor of European Studies at New York University. “Now there’s a new feeling that there are two kinds of Western liberal democracies, and one is the American model and one is the European social model.”
A rising number of Austrians say they dislike the American way of life, according to surveys by Christoph Hofinger, who runs the Sora Institute polling group here. Those who viewed American life negatively rose from 48% in 2000 to 61% in 2005, he said.
“To some extent, this is influenced by politics, but there are some new things too: Austrians and Europeans see that Americans have to work very hard for their wealth.... You’ve got to have two jobs, or work lots of overtime,” he said. “So Austrians don’t want to become like Americans anymore.”
But at the same time, American popular culture, with its candor and deep optimism, still resonates. In some measure that is part of a long tradition of enthusiasm for Americana, particularly jazz, rock music and blue jeans. But it is also about a certain deep populism that Europe, which has a tradition of elites, especially admires.
“When we first saw ‘Desperate Housewives’ in L.A., we knew it would be a hit in the U.S., but we weren’t sure about Austria,” said Reinhard Scolik, the chief of programming for the ORF, the largest Austrian broadcaster and the one that carries American serials. “But it worked because secrets exist not just on Wisteria Lane but also in Austria, we have to face that, and people want to watch what is hidden.”
But there is something else too, a quality that is quintessentially American, Scolik said.
“In American programs, people have problems, serious problems. In ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ people are dying, it tells you that life will be very, very hard, but at the very end they get a little hope and there is a way to get through,” he said. “In German shows, which we also get on Austrian television, it is mostly a hopeless situation, it is too heavy.”
For decades, the image of America in Europe was shaped by the United States’ role during World War II, the Marshall Plan and the Cold War. Those policies were largely supported in Europe and burnished by admiration for the American way of life.
With the end of the Cold War and the need for American ballast against the Soviet Union, Europe’s relationship with the U.S. began to change. But it was after the Sept. 11 attacks that the U.S. standing took a precipitous dive. Initial sympathy turned sour after the broadly accepted war in Afghanistan evolved into a more sweeping “war on terror.” The invasion of Iraq cemented European opposition to Bush administration policy.
Some of the antagonism arose from the different reactions that Europeans have to certain words, such as “war.” Anneliese Rohrer, a prominent Austrian journalist, recalled being in the U.S. at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. She remembers reading newspaper headlines saying, “This Is War.”
“To my European mind, they were talking about a third world war,” Rohrer said. “War has a different meaning to us in Europe. We think of World War I and then World War II, so when people start talking about war, that is our association.”
Europeans find several post-Sept. 11 developments particularly repugnant: the detention without trial or charges of Muslims at Guantanamo Bay; the practices at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison; the “extraordinary renditions” of terrorism suspects to countries known to use torture.
Little recognized by American politicians was just how much the renditions alienated Europeans, especially some of the newest U.S. allies in the former Eastern Bloc countries. For them, the memory of secret police, political prisoners and men who pounded on the door in the night and took away relatives was still recent.
“To be European meant a belief in rights, in the rule of law, in human rights, and especially to East Europeans, to be European was to be anti-communist,” said NYU’s Judt. “So to find out you’re collaborating with a country that’s doing this generated so much fury.”
Almost nowhere in Europe is disdain for Bush greater than in Austria, where a recent poll by the Vienna-based News magazine found that 72% of respondents said the U.S. president was not likable and a danger to world peace.
Unlike many of the larger European countries, Austria is not a member of NATO. Since the end of World War II, it has prided itself on its neutrality.
“Neutrality means security,” said Karin Hopf, 42, who sells flowers and potted herbs in Vienna. “But it’s also a way to say to the world, ‘We’re neutral, stay away from us, don’t drag us in. We don’t want any more war.’ ”
But she also is an avid watcher of U.S. television programs, especially “CSI: Miami” and other crime shows. The American talent for combining escapist fantasy with a certain realism appeals to the longing of many Austrians for something beyond day-to-day life.
Rheiner Schuster, a Vienna computer student who opposed the war in Iraq, rushes home each week to watch “Desperate Housewives,” he said, “because it looks nice there.”
“I don’t want to watch the German shows, where I see the same subway that I’m going to take when I get up in the morning to go to work.”
He visited the United States last year and liked it enormously, he said. “Anything is possible there.”