What Can We Learn From America: The American Dream Considered from a Dutch Perspective

Wat Wij Van Amerika Kunnen LerenA funny thing happened when I published my last book in the Netherlands this September. It’s a 140-page essay titled Wat wij van Amerika kunnen leren, which translates as What We Can Learn from America. I had been prepared for negative reactions, people denouncing the book on title alone. “Learning from America? A country torn apart by gun violence, income inequality and contentious race relations? Why would we?”

There were indeed a few reactions along those lines: one critic in a leading liberal newspaper said he had written “Drumpf???” on several pages when reviewing my book. Drumpf’s ascendency, he argued, epitomizes everything that’s wrong with the United States in European eyes. What could we in the Netherlands possibly learn from a people supporting such a candidate for president?

Truth to be told, I had expected people to be critical, and perhaps even get angry at the idea that we should “Learn from America.” I had explicitly picked a title which, I hoped, would start a debate about the perception of American society in the Netherlands. Because that perception, which is based on heavy media coverage of the U.S., is not good.

Many column inches in Dutch newspapers and minutes on TV-news channels are devoted to events in the United States. The presidential elections (including the nasty campaigns and debates), white cops shooting young black men, constant political bickering over Obamacare: they all get a lot of play in Dutch media. And the constant repetition of negative stories such as these leads to the impression among many that the U.S. is a country on the brink of disintegration.

As someone who studied in the U.S., visits the country at least once a year, and spent the summer of 2016 in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights, I know America is of course hardly disintegrating. Rather, my impression of the U.S. is still very much that of a dynamic, optimistic, can-do society in which problems are first discussed, then solved. Of course, lots of things go wrong in America: movements like Black Lives Matter are born out of justifiable frustration, President Obama has a reason to be moved to tears after yet another mass killing of innocent kids, and college has become insanely expensive. But America is still the country of wild optimism and limitless possibility. (If you don’t believe me, come spend a few months in Europe. Now there’s a continent where the mood has soured to an unprecedented level of bitterness.)

So the funny thing that happened, is that the Dutch public seems to agree with me. America has always had a special place in the hearts of the Dutch. We watch American movies and TV-series, eat American-style fast-food, wear American brands on our feet and bodies, and we love to visit the U.S. A stunning four percent of Dutch citizens visit America every year.

My secret hope is that we in the Netherlands will borrow some of the positive vibe that always infects me whenever I enter the U.S.

So perhaps it’s not that surprising that Dutch readers are willing to learn from America after all. And there is much to be learned. From the civilized way in which Americans behave toward each other, for instance, with their tremendous kindness and generosity. Or from the way in which ethnic minorities succeed in integrating in the larger fabric of American society. (One in 10 marriages in the U.S. is now ethnically mixed. In Europe we still struggle with the integration of third-generation immigrants.) Or take the entrepreneurial and innovative spirit you find in garages and on campuses across the country.

My secret hope is that we in the Netherlands will borrow some of the positive vibe that always infects me whenever I enter the U.S. That the American Dream becomes the Dutch Dream. If the first reactions to my book are any indication, thankfully there are quite a few Dutchmen who seem to agree.

Rick Nieman is a Dutch journalist, author and TV-presenter.

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