SALZBURG:"WHY DON'T YOU HAVE THESE THINGS FOR YOUR PEOPLE?"...Tonight I am giving a talk in Salzburg, Austria, and it is fitting that I should return here since this was the place where I once engaged in an impromptu conversation that opened my eyes about the European Way vs. the American Way. It was one of those conversations that starts out innocuously and in the middle of quotidian musings delivers a sudden epiphanic punch. As Americans, we learn from the time we are in the cradle that the United States is “the best,” whether in the economy, the Olympics or on the world’s stage, and if you believe you are the best you aren’t very interested in learning from others. But in Salzburg I met someone who pushed my reset button, and things haven’t been the same since.
But before I retell that conversation, I should establish the scene for you like a set designer does for a play. Salzburg is the birthplace of Mozart, and a quintessentially picturesque European town with a touch of the medieval and the modern rolled into one. There is a huge castle high on the hill, combined with a rabbit's warren of shops, homes, alleyways, plazas and markets below, packed into fairly compact quarters between the castle’s steep-walled mountain and the nearby river. High narrow houses about six stories tall form a grid of canyons, tucked together amidst colorful courtyards with archways and flower baskets (To discourage sprawling American-type ranch houses, centuries ago many European cities began taxing by the width of the house; thus, the tax-evasive Europeans cleverly constructed their houses tall and thin). It is a feng shui pleasure to walk among the maze of nestled buildings, jigsaw pathways, cobbled streets and tunnel-like alleys that honeycomb through the quaint architecture.
But as a testament to how “the times they are a changin’”, Salzburg’s quaintness masks the fact that historically it has been one of Austria’s and Central Europe’s most important and powerful cities. Salzburg traces its roots back to the Romans, and perhaps even earlier; archaeologists believe there were settlements here in the Paleolithic age. Salzburg’s two palaces are the massive remnants of its seat as a once-mighty Catholic power. The grandest is the Hohensalzburg fortress, the one towering in late Gothic splendor over the city since 1077 and today providing a fairy tale feeling fit for postcards; and the other is the Mirabel Palace and Gardens which in the 17th and 18th centuries was the residence of Catholic archbishops who lived in divinely inspired luxury even as they were busy driving off the Protestants and Jews in brutal fashion. The Salzburg Archbishops derived their power from their control of the salt trade, transporting over a hundred tons of salt every day by boat and cart all over central Europe. In fact Salzburg derives its name from the German word for salt -- “salz.” In medieval times, salt was known as "white gold" because it was so valuable for preserving food in the absence of refrigeration, which in turn eliminated dependency on the seasonal availability of food, allowing travel over long distances. Unlike today, salt was a vital food additive for more reasons than mere pleasure for the palate.
So salt became the subject of political power plays and even war. Roman soldiers actually were paid with salt, which is reflected in the word “salary.” Salt was considered so precious that it was traded ounce for ounce for gold, and throughout Europe the salt routes over which the white gold was transported became the most important trade routes. The names of many cities bear testimony to this time: Salzburg, Salzgitter or Bad Salzuflen, as well as the Celtic word for salt, “hall,” incorporated into names like Bad Reichenhall, Friedrichshall and Hallein, indicating salt deposits at these locations.
So Salzburg is a place where one can contemplate the rise and fall of empires. Throughout history, different political-economic systems have been deployed, whether feudalism, monarchies, tribal societies and now the modern capitalist mass democracies. In the type of Catholic theocracy that once dominated Salzburg, the Archbishops ruled in a cruel fashion and an individual’s success greatly depended on their membership in the correct religion. More recently, communist state bureaucracies ruled, sometimes brutally, over an economic machine where democracy was deemed irrelevant; in China today, democracy still is a sideshow, all emphasis being given to economic output. In social capitalist Europe meanwhile, they have created the most democratic political institutions the world has ever known, and consequently their economy also is more democratic, families and individuals have more support and share in Europe’s great wealth. And the United States? The fact that we have not yet figured out how to extend things like health care and other social benefits to millions of people is a sign of a huge democracy deficit, political as well as economic. Wall Street capitalism has resulted in a trickle down economy that has failed to deliver for everyday Americans in far too many ways.
That’s what I realized as a result of this momentous conversation in Salzburg. It was the spring of 2003, and I was relaxing in a platz surrounded by leisurely people settled at tables with festive sunbrellas and colorful tablecloths. Accordion music was wafting through the air along with the sounds of glasses clinking, and the sunlight was streaming through the many pints of different-colored beers and ales, ruby and amber reds, dark rooty browns, and hefeweizen yellows. On this particular day I was seated in Salzburg’s Hagenauerplatz, gazing contemplatively at Mozart’s Geburtshaus—birthplace—a short distance away, mulling over history, music, the history of music, the wonder of a three-year-old wunderkind playing the harpsichord and composing by the time he was six . . . when my reverie was interrupted by an older, dark-haired gentleman with a Ronald Reagan haircut, slight paunch, big St. Bernard eyes, perhaps in his early sixties.
“American, right?” he said to me in his thick, German-tinged English.
How do they always know, I wondered. I nodded and smiled cordially, hoisting in salute my glass of hefeweizen with a lemon wedge. He was friendly in a gruff sort of way and within minutes had offered his opinions on all manner of subjects. Since this was May 2003, only a few weeks after the U.S. invasion of Baghdad, the conversation soon drifted there. In fact, I had the feeling that’s where he had intended it to go all along.
“Who could object to getting rid of Saddam?” he said. “And a half-dozen others like him? But U.S. cannot do it alone. Big mistake.”
He puffed on a cigarette with a heavy, curling lower lip. It turned out his name was Matthias. His English was halting but good, and I was later to find out he had learned a lot of his English growing up close to a U.S. military base near Frankfurt, interacting with the soldiers who shopped in his family’s store. The conversation soon moved on to other topics, steered by me and my perennial probing of all things European. I was in a philosophical mood, spurred in part by the splendid afternoon, with its sunlight reflecting off the bright yellow of Mozart’s house at Number 9 Getreidegasse and glinting off the fashionable patrons strolling along the bustling alleyway that makes the Hagenauerplatz a great place to people-watch. I tossed Matthias the big question.
What do you think, I asked him, is the main difference between Austrians and Americans?
He kind of laughed, a thick guttural snort. He pulled on his cigarette, his lips gripping the filter, pausing thoughtfully before he responded.
“You know what the difference is, the main difference?” he said. “Between you Americans and Austrians, and Germans and French and Italians too?” He paused dramatically, again drawing heavily on his cigarette.
“As an American, I wonder if you can even imagine what it must be like to live in a country where every person has health care. And a decent retirement. And day care, parental leave, sick leave, education, vacation, job retraining. For every plumber, carpenter, taxi driver, waitress, executive, sales clerk, scientist, musician, poet, nurse, of all ages, income, race, sex, whatever, not worrying about those basic arrangements. Can you imagine what that is like?”
At first I didn’t see where he was going with this. He spoke with such passion to point out the obvious. But then suddenly the light bulb went on. I had never really thought about it before: what impact does it have on an individual’s psyche—and by extension on all of society and our feeling of extended family, which is after all the “sticky glue” that holds us all together—to know that certain basics will always be taken care of because you are a stakeholding member of that society, entitled to certain benefits? Certainly it is hard for an American, raised as an atomized individual in the “ownership” (i.e., “on your own”) society, to step into the shoes of a European and imagine what that sense of security must feel like and how it affects your overall outlook.
Matthias squinted his eyes and nodded his head.
“In America, you are so rich,” he said. “Why don’t you have these things for your people?”
He stared at me with his big St. Bernard eyes, and I suddenly felt defensive. I searched for a response, muttered something about Americans being against big government. But in truth, I didn’t have a good response. I often wondered that same thing myself. But Matthias’s next point was even more profound.
“Don’t you think this has something to do with why America is so violent?”
My blank stare caused him to laugh.
“Look, when everything is taken care of, don’t you see how that decreases each person’s anxiety and aggression? And how that has an overall effect on all of society?”
A light bulb went on again. It made complete sense. All these supports aiding individuals and families would lessen not only inequality but also individual anxiety and aggression and, sure, the anxiety and aggression of the overall society as well. And a society in which more individuals have a stake, an investment in its future, is a society in which nonviolence is logical. A society in which so many are not stuck on the lower rungs, and in which individuals on the middle rungs don’t have to constantly scamper so fast up the ladder to maintain their place in the world, is a society that can be built more on cooperation, nonviolence, and solidarity. That psyche becomes the foundation for a more consensual society instead of the winner-take-all, “if I win, you lose,” dog-eat-dog society we have in the United States.
Not surprisingly, the United States has become plagued by the steady corrosion of its unequal society. Various studies have demonstrated that unequal societies tend to result in more violence, lower levels of trust, less involvement in community life, and more racial and gender discrimination. No wonder America is the world’s leader in murders and other violent crimes, suicides, and imprisonment rates (the U.S. imprisonment rate is seven to ten times higher than the rates of European nations, depending on the nation). We spend more money on constructing prisons than we do on universities. In the United States, violence of all kinds—street violence, domestic violence, entertainment violence, official state-sanctioned military violence—has become a way of life, the sea in which we swim.
Later when I reflected on this conversation, I realized what an epiphanic moment it had been. That’s when it really struck me what a failure the American Way is. Here we are, the lone remaining superpower, the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, with the most powerful military the world has ever seen, and yet we have not figured out how to ensure that the lives of Americans are not so filled with anxiety and fear. Despite all our wealth and military power, for too many Americans there is no security.
Europeans, meanwhile, have a more stress-free attitude that perhaps can be summed up best in one word, a Danish word—hygge (pronounced hooga)—which describes a relaxed state of conviviality that involves close friendships and family bonds. One American expat who has lived in Denmark for more than thirty years tried to explain the sentiment. “The gist of it is that you are not supposed to have anything to do except let go,” she said, describing a nearly zen timelessness where the present doesn’t worry so much about the future. Wrote another American who had been living in the Netherlands, “To comprehend this system is to enter a different state of mind.”
Matthias crushed out his cigarette, as if to underscore his final words: “Europe has the right system for its people . . . it’s what all nations should strive for . . . to take care of its people. Isn’t that obvious?”
His point had penetrated deeply. He had touched on the core of something important, but my defensive comments only served to absolve the United States of any responsibility for having failed to live up to this European standard. In truth, whether and how to take care of its people is a fundamental choice about values and budget priorities that every society has to grapple with. The fact that we have not yet figured out how to extend things like health care, child care, paid parental leave, adequate retirement benefits, paid sick leave, sufficient vacation time, and free (or nearly free) university education to tens of millions of Americans is a sign that something is very askew about the American dream. It shows something warped about our idea of “family values.” And when you factor in that Europeans really don’t pay more than Americans to receive all of these benefits—and that only the president, members of Congress and their families, and employees of the most prosperous U.S. businesses receive the full range of European-level workfare supports—the tragedy becomes perverse. Just a fraction of the bloated U.S. military budget would pay for all of this. Why is this so hard? What’s an economy for, anyhow?
So now, whenever I am in Europe, whether in Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Stockholm, London, Rome, Prague, Oslo, Berlin, Vienna, Barcelona, Ljubljana, Budapest or elsewhere, at some point in my journey I always make a point to stand on a street corner and stop and look around me at all the people milling about. I watch them for a few minutes, take a deep breath, and, remembering Matthias’ words I think to myself, “Everyone I see, all those people walking by, no matter their age, gender, religion, or income, has the right to go to a doctor whenever they are sick. They have a decent retirement pension waiting for them, and parents can bring their children to day care, or stay home to take care of themselves or their sick loved one, and get paid parental leave and job retraining if they need it, and an affordable university education.” Of course I realize that not every European country, or every region or city within each country, lives up to every aspect of this menu 100 percent of the time, particularly since economic fluctuations will always result in contractions and expansions of the social agenda. That’s to be expected. But all of them, even the poorer countries among them, achieve a far higher level of success than the United States can muster.
That is the “concept” of Europe, the social contract between all of the European peoples and their governments. It’s worth contemplating as I stand on street corners in Europe, with the memory of Matthias’s words ringing in my ears: “In America, you are so rich—why don’t you have these things for your people?”
—Steven Hill 3:57 AM
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