Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Going out on a line

One of the more exhausting topics of debate is that regarding the merits of the respective ways of life in Europe and the United States.

Not that it's a debate I avoid, exactly, and it's something about which I've got my own strong views.

But I've increasingly noticed that these kind of discussions tend to generate far more heat than light, not least since the notion of what constitutes the 'good life' is a highly personal one.

Moreover, when two people on opposite sides of the issue come to rhetorical blows, the statistics flow fast and furious, regardless of their relevance, comparability, or ability to answer the question of which place is 'better'.

(And there are so many things to pick from: GDP, productivity, gini coefficients, social mobility, homicide rate, trade deficit, currency value, home ownership, health insurance coverage, life expectancy...etc., etc...)

What is more, partisans on both sides tend to exaggerate both their praise and their criticism. Perry Anderson may be right, for example, to puncture the 'illimitable narcissism' and 'political vanity' of some of the more high-flown rhetoric of Europe's recent boosters, even if I think that his recent LRB article is far too nitpicking and gloomy about the EU in general.

But given the volume and venom of its detractors from abroad (particularly by the American right) and the constant jeremiads from within (in Germany anyway), I have to say that I've found at least parts of the more recent wave of pro-European assertiveness to be a very welcome balance.

This has been more the case with Will Hutton's relatively down-to-earth (if dry) analysis than Jeremy Rifkin's more stratospheric philosophising, and in the end it is probably only in some middle ground between The New European Century and Eurabia that we are likely to find that pesky thing known as reality.

However, one of the even more fundamental problems with this discussion is that it tends to go somewhere over the heads of everyday experience--focusing relatively too much on ideological abstractions and large-scale institutional frameworks while giving rather too little attention to life as it is actually lived.

As I've suggested, for those Americans who even think about it (which is maybe a minority in any case), Europe really doesn't exist, except as a blank screen for the projection of their fantasies and nightmares. If you're a liberal, you admire (selected) bits of it; if you're a conservative, you find (selected) bits of it abhorrent.

(Part of this, it occurs to me, might have something to do with the difficulty of translating political language across the ocean. In Germany, for instance, the party which most assertively advocates far-reaching free-market reforms and smaller government is not 'conservative' but rather 'liberal', while conservative parties tend to remain relatively statist and corporatist. For their part, the environmentalist 'greens' have, as far as I can tell, nearly as many conflicts with the left as they do with the right (though they have tended to lean leftwards on cultural issues) whereas greenish Americans are almost certainly to find their home amidst the Democrats.)

A similar lack of understanding occurs when Europeans look at America, of course, as I realised when I taught German university students about American culture in my former incarnation as a language teacher. For instance, I had previously not been aware that America 'has no welfare state' or that 'most Americans have to work 3 or 4 jobs just to get by'. To teach is to learn, as they say. (Of course, there were the opposing views: students who had spent a high-school year in New York City or San Francisco saw 'America' through their own set of utopian goggles...)

With this somewhat elaborate prologue in mind, then, I was pleased to read Georgetown professor Patrick Deneen's positive, clear-eyed and reasonable evaluation of European lifestyles that appeared--and here I was surprised, I must admit--in the Dallas Morning News.

There are several things to like about Deneen's article, 'There's a lesson in Europe's gardens, woodpiles and chickens'. (Via the excellent Atlantic Review; however, you might read the comments section for an example of just how exhausting the debate about the transatlantic qualities of life can be.)

One very worthwhile point is that he eloquently and succinctly sums up what I was saying above, about Europe being effectively non-existent for many (perhaps most) Americans, by noting that views of Europe have become caught up in America's 'culture wars':

According to the progressive left-wing view, Europe is the ultimate "blue state." Progressive in its taxation, generous in its health policies, loose in governing marriage and euthanasia, it is praised as a nirvana of easygoing libertarianism.

According to the right-wing narrative, Europe is in the throes of cultural suicide, a statist nightmare with its churches abandoned and cradles empty, incapable of dealing with the threat of eventual Islamic domination given dwindling birth rates.

Deneen also puts his finger on (and then helps to counteract) a further problem:

According to both narratives, Europe is largely reducible to Amsterdam, Brussels and the Hague.
In facing this view, Deneen usefully draws
attention to a different kind of Europe, the provincial one that most Americans too often overlook.

It also happens to be the one I'm most familiar with, having lived in it for more than the last six years, in various smallish towns (and one small city) in southern Germany.

And in that rural and small-town Europe, Deneen finds many everyday (and perhaps easily overlooked) things that are worth considering:

Nearly every household seems involved with the land in some way or another, whether through a small garden and wood stand or a larger farm. In the back yard of many homes, one still finds chickens that roam free; fruit trees that are now bearing apples, pears and cherries that will be made into jam; water barrels that catch rainfall with which families water their plants. Nearly every yard has an enormous pile of wood, stacked carefully and in perfect symmetry.

Also in nearly every yard is a compost heap. One pays for garbage by weight, so every incentive is to avoid creating or accumulating trash. Individuals must pay for plastic bags at supermarkets, an expense most people avoid by bringing their own canvas bags.

He concludes:
The Europeans I have seen are light years ahead of us in energy conservation and will weather the storm of rising energy costs better than we in America. Indeed, the combination of local economies, nearby productive farmland outside every town, viable public transportation and widespread use of alternative energies points to a culture that has never abandoned sustainable communities in the way that America willfully and woefully has done over the past 50 years.

There are points at which one might protest that Deneen's vision itself is just a bit too rosy, where it comes across as an almost Walden-esque dream that sees only the green landscape and overlooks the IKEA or hypermarché that blights it. Also, there are undoubtedly rural communities in the US where at least some of these factors are also present.

And that's true.

Still, having read his essay I considered our own provincial European life (that is, the one that The Wife and I share), and it was something like looking into a mirror.

Now, we don't have a chicken running freely in the yard (though I'm now sorely tempted to get one); however, we do have a woodpile (its symmetry rather imperfect, I must admit), a rain-barrel, a compost heap, fruit trees and a small-but-productive garden (this year's highlight--all to the credit of The Wife--several kilos of delicious tomatoes and some excellent green beans).

Moreover, our town is rather densely zoned and there are three supermarkets within easy walking distance and, normally, we do walk. Our rubbish--as elsewhere in Germany--is divided up in half a dozen ways, and thus the amount of Restmüll (i.e., that which cannot in some way be recycled or put in the compost heap) is incredibly small. The bottled drinks we buy come in deposit bottles which are re-used. Although only home to about 25,000 people, the town is well-served by public transit and the winding bicycle paths passing through the vineyards and fields around us, meaning that you could commute rather a long way by bike without having to risk confrontations with auto traffic.

We don't have a clothes dryer (this will become a more significant point somewhat further down), nor do we have air-conditioning and our fridge is (quite literally) laughable by American standards.

Now, don't get the idea that I'm patting myself on the back here as some kind of noble super-green exemplar. Not only would I not do that, it's not the point.

The interesting point is that while a commitment to this kind of lifestyle would likely mark you out as some kind of tree-hugging-hippie-freak in most parts of America, across at least a significant stretch of provincial Europe (at least the German-Austrian-Swiss bit that Deneen notes) it would be considered a normal way of life. It is just assumed that this is a good way to live. And much of that assumption has (relatively) little to do with 'politics'.

As Deneen writes:

In a revealing moment, my father-in-law pointed to the solar panels and the wood piles and the gardens and the compost heaps and told me that they were conservative – meaning that they represented the effort to conserve the goods of life, to preserve a community that can sustain itself and to pass on a cultural inheritance that has been bestowed upon them.

In America, it is our liberals who praise the liberties of Europe while overlooking the conservative impulse of its self-restraint. Meanwhile, our conservatives condemn the statism of Europe without understanding that efforts to conserve – to be conservative – require the active support and laws of government in order to combat the tendencies of markets to produce waste and undermine thrift.

And here, perhaps, is a useful lesson in transatlantic relations.

Now, I could end here...indeed, I intended to.

But then I was plagued by some second thoughts: maybe, I was thinking, just maybe I'm overdoing the European-American differences when it comes to everyday life.

Maybe, just maybe they're not so different after all...

...and then I saw a television report about a struggle being carried on by various people in different parts of America. A struggle for freedom and for energy efficiency. A struggle, indeed, for 'conservation' in the sense that Deneen's father-in-law would understand.

They want to hang up their wash on clotheslines.

Yes. That's it.

If you think hanging up your clothes to dry should probably be the greatest non-issue of all non-issues, then I'm with you.

But, believe me, dear reader, last Sunday evening I was sputtering obscenities at my television screen like I haven't in a long, long time. (A few of which, you might note, have also seeped into this blog.)

Because, dear reader, it seems that there are parts of America where hanging up your laundry is Against the Rules.

I was flabbergasted. Was this some kind of health-and-safety thing gone wild: were they concerned that children (their brains perhaps addled by playing with the latest leaden toys from China) were becoming tangled in the wires? Was there an epidemic of toddlers choking to death on clothespegs?

No. It turns out it is a lot...weirder...than that.

I'll let the hippies at the Wall Street Journal explain it (emphasis added):

To Susan Taylor, it was a perfect time to hang her laundry out to dry. The 55-year-old mother and part-time nurse strung a clothesline to a tree in her backyard, pinned up some freshly washed flannel sheets -- and, with that, became a renegade.

The regulations of the subdivision in which Ms. Taylor lives effectively prohibit outdoor clotheslines. In a move that has torn apart this otherwise tranquil community, the development's managers have threatened legal action. To the developer and many residents, clotheslines evoke the urban blight they sought to avoid by settling in the Oregon mountains.

"This bombards the senses," interior designer Joan Grundeman says of her neighbor's clothesline. "It can't possibly increase property values and make people think this is a nice neighborhood."

Yes. A clothesline 'bombards the senses'. That's very interesting Ms. Grundeman. (Knowing that you think that, I'd be interested in seeing what kind of 'interiors' you 'design', actually.)

Now...I like to think of myself as a sane, tolerant and reasonable person. But, really, what kind of over-sensitive, arrogant, puritan, yuppie bullshit is this? I'm sorry, anybody who thinks that way--even an interior designer who just wants to live in a 'nice neighborhood'-- is a complete and utter fuckwit.

'Urban blight'? What has happened in America?! No, really I want to know.

Listen, I grew up in a Chicago suburb that, while far from posh, was definitely respectable. My parents, like most of our neighbours, were certainly house proud: the lawn was regularly mowed (didn't I know it...), the garden was well-maintained and the house regularly painted.

And, twice a week, like clockwork, the laundry was done and, if the weather was right (and even when it was kind of iffy) that laundry would go 'out on the line' in the backyard. Back in the 50s my father had even sunk posts in cement in an ideal, sun-bathed spot to make this possible.

But my own memories do not stretch back to some forgotten era: I'm not even 40 yet, and it was often one of my chores to hang up the wash. That might be the reason that this whole thing gets me so much.

You see, we had a dryer. We were not in the ghetto.

It was just that my parents (people who --growing up on different sides of the Atlantic--remembered the depression and had been old enough to participate in winning the Second World War) thought that it was better to have all that fresh air out there drying our clothes. Why use the dryer when you have the sun? For free. This involved saving energy, of course, but, more importantly for both of them probably, also saving money. And they just thought the clothes and sheets smelled better.

They would have seen the point that something like 6% of household energy usage goes to drying clothes, but for them--Reagan voters...Nixon voters...Goldwater voters for christ's sake --this was just a sensible thing to do.

To save. To conserve.

And this is where I think this issue returns us (at least those of you who are still along for the ride) to the 'lesson' in Deneen's article.

Across the street from our house here in Germany, for instance, is an old (1930s) apartment complex, and during the summer we regularly have our senses 'bombarded' by our neighbours laundry hung up to dry.

Do you think that I have ever, once, even for a fraction of a moment given this a second thought? No. People who do worry about such things have way too much time on their hands and/or too few problems in their lives.

A person, perhaps, like one of the figures in the television report I saw: Penny Lewis, from Poughkeepsie NY, where you can be fined up to $100 for hanging out the laundry. Having taken it upon herself to enforce the rules of her community, Lewis regularly drives around (yes, of course she drives...and as it turns out, I think she was driving some kind of enormous fuel-guzzling truck...) to look for people to report, even heaping verbal abuse on those she happened to find in the process of hanging up their laundry.

What is somehow so galling to me is not just the energy issue, or a lack of respect for a certain kind of sensibly traditional, even 'conservative' way of life. (Even if those do bother me.)

No, it's also what seems to be a growing trend in American life. The WSJ:

Nationwide, about 60 million people now live in about 300,000 "association governed" communities, most of which restrict outdoor laundry hanging, says Frank Rathbun, spokesman for the Community Associations Institute, an Alexandria, Va., group that lobbies on behalf of homeowners associations.

'Association governed' has a nice kind of 'town-hall democracy' ring to it, but in some ways, it seems to me that they have mainly served to create a small-minded tyranny of the majority via a suburban commissariat whose main goal is to enforce conformity to ridiculous rules.

Curiously, I have no doubt that many of the people living in those communities would bellow rather loudly about their American 'freedom', while at the same time threatening their neighbours with legal action for violating 'covenants' (are they really called that?? Jesus...) stipulating that no toys are left in the front yard of all those houses that must be painted in matching 'medium to dark tones.'

Call this what you like, but the American spirit (at least as I understand it) it ain't.

Consider the case of Susan Taylor, reported in the Journal article and also featured in the Weltspiegel report I saw on Sunday:

Ms. Taylor in Bend had always used a clothesline before moving to the subdivision in 1996. Awbrey Butte's Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions, established by local developer Brooks Resources Corp., require that "clothes drying apparatus...shall be screened from view." Not an easy task in a community where fencing is also "discouraged" in the covenants.

The clothesline ban gave Ms. Taylor pause when she moved here, she says, but she and her husband decided they could live with it. Then, in May, she heard an environmental lawyer on the radio who "talked about this narrow window of opportunity for us to respond to global warming," Ms. Taylor recalls. "I said, 'Dang it, that's it. My clothesline is going up.' "

Then the trouble started. One neighbor asked if it was temporary. Next came a phone call -- and then a series of letters -- from Brooks Resources. The first letter, dated June 12, warned that "laundry lines are not permitted in the Awbrey Butte Subdivision," adding that "many owners in Awbrey Butte take great pride in their home and surrounding areas."

Ms. Taylor responded two days later with a letter asserting that the rule is "outdated." She requested a change in the rules to "reflect our urgent need and responsibility to help global warming by encouraging energy conservation."

The Awbrey Butte Architectural Review Committee "appreciates your desire to make a difference for the cause of global warming," responded Brooks Resources Owner-Relations Manager Carol Haworth. But she pointed out that homeowners agree to the rules before they buy their homes, "and therefore the ARC is required to uphold those guidelines as they now exist."

The letter more sternly asked "that you discontinue this practice by July 9, 2007, to avoid legal action which will be taken after that date."

Ms. Taylor responded by pointing out that the subdivision is "blatantly full of noncompliant owners" who display everything from plastic play equipment to exterior paint colors that don't meet the requirement of "medium to dark tones." She added: "Who am I hurting by hanging clothes out to dry?"

Brooks Resources repeated its threat of legal action, and then advised Ms. Taylor to "develop a plan to screen your outdoor laundry and submit the plan to the ARC for review." It also suggested the possibility of formal proceedings to get the rules amended, which would require 51% of homeowners' support in writing.

The following month, Ms. Taylor constructed a fabric screen to conceal her clothesline. The committee, which included Brooks Resources Chairman Michael P. Hollern, gave it a thumbs down. "It doesn't blend with the home or the native surroundings," says Ms. Haworth.

Mr. Hollern says, "Personally, I think people probably ought to screen their laundry from other people's view. If you feel differently, you should probably be living somewhere else."

Perhaps she should.

All of this bodes rather ill for the future.

Think about it: if tens of millions of Americans are so aghast at the merest possibility of catching a glimpse of their neighbour's underwear fluttering in the breeze that they're willing to pass ordinances and enforce 'covenants' against one of the most simple, traditional and pleasant means of saving energy, what chance is there for them making any other, more onerous efforts in the same direction?

Moreover, I find something worrying in the trend toward 'association governance'. One of the much storied American ideals--indeed, one of the ones that I feel I've absorbed and continue to admire--is that of living in a place where people leave you basically the fuck alone and allow you to do your own thing. But it seems that although my countrymen and women will immediately fly off the handle at the very thought of the guv'ment telling them what to do, they are increasingly happy to let their neighbours ('housing associations') and private companies ('HMOs') do exactly the same.

Sad, really.

Well, I've got some laundry to do. And some freedom to express.

Note: Patrick Deneen blogs at What I Saw in America. And for your radical and socially subversive laundry efforts, The Clothesline Shop seems to cater to every conceivable need.


KB Player said...

Lovely piece. And flabbergasting. So if you went to some parts of the USA and started hanging out clothes in the back garden, they would treat you like someone who was trying to raise pigs on the balcony.

The tyranny of the community or small town can be a good deal worse than that of the government since it meets you in every day, petty things. However it is usually an unspoken thing, with the social pressure of what the neighbours will say and looking askance at offenders. Backed up with legal covenants it sounds appalling.

I shall hang out my own sheets and add weeds to the compost and pick cut and come again lettuce with a new sense of dignity.

R. Sherman said...

The problem on both sides of the pond, as you point out, is that the common people know nothing about what life is really like. For most Americans, Europe is Neuschwanstein -- which they can see if they go to Disneyland on vacation.

Europeans thinks of America as "New York, Los Angeles, Grand Canyon." As far as middle America is concerned, that's nothing but cowboys, shootouts, buffalo shit and barbed wire fences.

I'm not sure what the answer to slapping the simplicity out of our societies' views on each other, short of having a big picnic or something.