I believe that it was one of France's contemporary enfants terribles, the author and modern dandy Frédéric Beigbeder, who came up with this simple but compelling distinction between Americans and Europeans: Americans don't do doubt, he wrote in his novel Windows on the World. The events of the past two weeks appear to vindicate Beigbeder's observation.
On one side of the Atlantic, millions of rejoicing Americans witnessed the inauguration of their country's first black president in an atmosphere of renewed confidence and hope. While I have no doubt at all that Obama will translate his moving oratory into meaningful action (he has moved swiftly by ordering the closure of Guantanamo and an unequivocal ban on torture), it is nevertheless astonishing to see how Americans' belief in themselves and in their nation appears to be entirely undampened by their extremely recent history. All the nationalistic rhetoric was out there on display during the inauguration ceremony: pride in the great nation, pride in its founding principles and values, pride in America's achievements, confidence in America's role as undisputed world leader and beacon of hope to millions. And, significantly, confidence that God will always bless America. The source of national confidence, President Obama told Americans, was “the knowledge that God calls upon us to shape an uncertain destiny”. He later added that “we have no time to lose”. The message is clear: let us move on, look forward and start running with that flaming torch. We can't afford to agonise over past mistakes, to reminisce on what could have been and to get bogged down by useless self-flagellation. George W. Bush had only just exited the stage, but America - as a nation - was back on its confident feet. Indeed, it had never really faltered.
Almost 4000 miles away, a small country with a population of just above 10 million people was wearily taking over the rotating Presidency of a closely-knit organisation of European nations. At a meeting which I attended this week, the Czech Deputy Prime Minister, Alexandr Vondra was illustrating his country's national character by means of a joke. One Czech man asks another: “How's this year shaping up?”, to which his friend replies, “It's worse than last year, but better than the next”. Unsurprisingly, these past two weeks have witnessed no references to God, there was hardly a motorcade in sight, things were fairly low-key and it was - give and take a few cosmetic brushstrokes - business as usual for the thousands of civil servants, translators, MEPs and good looking parliamentary assistants who make the heart of Europe tick. Except that one naughty Czech artist had a cunning plan in mind, the result of which stands in the Council's Justus Lipsius building. A plan, it must be said, which lit up the Brussels air with a nice dose of controversy and which has, in my appreciative eyes at least, shown that while Europeans may not march forward confidently, many of them will never stop looking at themselves from awkward (for that read, interesting) angles. Beyond the masterstroke of 'inventing' the 26 other artists and beyond the individual models of congested autobahns (Germany), the Ikea set (Sweden), calciatori carrying strategically placed footballs (Italy), Count Dracula Horror House (Romania) and - last and quite possibly least - our own dwarf elephant, David Černý's European Union meccano kit invites us to think and, importantly, to smile, laugh and frown at ourselves. In other words, Černý is inviting us to doubt.
Doubt, of course, is often uncomfortable. It is far easier to be sure about things. As Michel Houellebecq points out in his recent correspondence with Bernard-Henri Lévy, “A world without God, without spirituality, without anything, can really freak you out. Quite simply, believing in God as our forefathers did, feeling welcome in the heart of your maternal religion presents several advantages, in fact it only offers advantages.But there you have it, the problem is that I still don't believe in God.”
The Pygmy Elephant Votes
If you take doubting seriously, if you've had enough of mind-numbing propaganda and ready-made formulae, I would suggest a little trip to The Malta Chronicle at: http://themaltachronicle.wordpress.com/. The blog is quite possibly the closest you'll get to an intelligent debate on the forthcoming European Parliament elections, so it's certainly worth the detour. Where else would you find a debate on whether the Labour Party's candidates resemble Liquorice Allsorts? On the psychological warfare which the PN's opinion columnists may (or may not) be unleashing on an unsuspecting public? Where else, indeed, would you find the best footballing metaphor ever coined by man which involves the plucky winger S. Busuttil?
David Friggieri kept himself busy following emotional inauguration speeches and taking photos of controversial sculptures. Both activities were carried out in cold, rainy but, apparently, much coveted, Brussels.