TODI, Italy -- From the window of a farmhouse, high on an Umbrian hill, a summer visitor is entranced by the view of a gentle landscape punctuated with olive and cypress trees, grape vines, lavender and thyme. In the middle distance, Todi, a medieval Italian town frozen in time, invites the contemplation of history.
Visitors like me were once ridiculed as Ugly Americans. In my student days, Europe was forever reminding us that the United States was young, immature and inexperienced. Europe was old, and though a little stodgy, quite grand. We were brash and confident -- and why not? We had won World War II and initiated the Marshall Plan that helped European recovery. But we still suffered a bit of an inferiority complex, aware that the beloved country was loud and slightly vulgar, lacking the rooted traditions of the remnants of the Roman Empire. Ah, youth.
Europeans continue to mock the New World, sneering with condescension whenever the name of George W. Bush enters the conversation, as it always does. Beneath the envy of American productivity and prosperity, the yearning for the goods, the books, the movies and the culture that Europeans affect to loathe and can't get enough of, there's still George W. to deride, to ridicule, to scorn. It's just about all they have left.
Unwilling, unlike some of our politicians who know better, to join the criticism of the president in a foreign land, I listen aggressively and rebut gingerly the arguments of old friends as we sup on the superb pasta and sip the mellow local wine. What becomes abundantly clear is that however fierce the European scorn for everything American, Europeans offer no persuasive defense for their lack of energy and creativity. They're tired. Their ideas, when they offer any, are stale. It's as if they've come to terms with living in a theme park of the Old World.
In "The Last Days of Europe: Epitaph for an Old Continent," Walter Laqueur describes how Europe's promise after World War II, its amazing recovery through the Marshall Plan, led to the belief that its "soft power" would become a unifying force and give birth to common institutions. "The recovery was not just economic," he writes. "Not only were European living standards higher than ever before, but also welfare states were established, providing essential health and other services and free education. No one any longer had to fear disease, old age and unemployment." Europe was not Utopia, but Europeans believed in their future.