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Thursday, April 29, 2004 11:34 pm

Taking for granted the world’s understanding of the American experience

I've lived in Europe for several years. I find it stimulating, and, despite the fear-borne insularity of America since 9/11, the inexorable march toward a global society continues, even when it crawls. American TV, film, music and business permeate Europe. Yet when I was talking to my Italian friend about a famous American, someone I assumed was at least as well known as Napoleon, I was shocked by her response.

Abraham Lincoln who?

"Oh, c'mon, Daniela!" I mugged. "I know who Garibaldi is -- and he died in bed!" Beside myself, I babbled on about Ford's Theatre and the Gettysburg Address.

Daniela, a native of sunny Puglia now diligently studying English, shrugged.

Cosa?

I retrieved a framed portrait of the great man from my bedroom wall. Sweet-natured Daniela found Lincoln's face strangely arresting. Had he recently been ill, she asked? I explained that, in fact, it was my nation that was ill at the time -- terribly, tragically ill. That conflict, I explained, claimed the life of my great great grandfather, who fought with Grant at Shiloh. Still, Daniela had never heard of Lincoln. She can, however, name the entire cast of Friends and Sex in the City. I was, as my father from Mt. Olive, Ill., used to say, 'cold-cocked.'

Perhaps I suffer the expatriate's disease, a sort of wistful pride. I polled my European friends. Every one of them knew who Britney Spears was. Honest Abe? Two. A Spaniard and a Latvian, and their knowledge was sketchy. I stewed for a day or two but soon questioned my presumption. How many Americans can name the current 15 members of the EU, let alone the 10 nations that will join next month? How many college graduates can locate Austria on a map? We've all heard those dismal statistics, haven't we? Just who, after all, gives a damn in the ol' U.S. of A.? Why should anyone care?

You should, that's who. You must. The current occupant of the White House has admonished us that the War on Terror is a global one. We can't fight this battle alone, he tells us, but we'll go it alone if we have to. Brave words, indeed. Well, since the current administration took office, our credit in the eyes of former friends and allies in the countries of our forebears has virtually disappeared. Captain Bush and his crew have determinedly piloted the ship of state into dangerous new waters. Has our foreign policy ever been more pathetic? And yet, I assure you, the average European can readily distinguish between us as a people and our elected leaders. Oops -- did I say "elected"? Yes, well, explaining the 2000 Presidential election over here was something of a challenge. My friends here ask, shouldn't the candidate with the most votes win office? Weren't Americans insistent on making the world safe for democracy?

So we muddle through puddles of mutual ignorance -- the U.S., guarantor of freedom, and them, those testy, socialist Europeans, always griping and moaning. Except we're the ones who have been pleading "A little help?" lately, quagmired once again, virtually alone, for all practical purposes. Not a day passes that I don't hear of some young compatriot's life disintegrating in another Iraqi roadside bomb and I ache for the family. It's all too familiar, only the places are different. It's Karbala this time, not Khe Sanh, Fallujah instead of Saigon. What would ol' Abe think? What advice would he offer to the present standard-bearer of the Grand Old Party he helped build? I wonder.

And what would our 16th President think of a United States of Europe? That the age-old dream of Gaius Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte has come to pass? Does the farmer outside Springfield care? He should.

By 2007, when the EU will also include Romania and Bulgaria, it will comprise a trading bloc of nearly 500 million people and 27 nations united in a single goal, a stable peace and security. The Poles, the peoples of the three Baltic states, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Hungary are heaving a collective sigh of relief. The Russian Bear is reduced to a mewling cub.

Why should anyone believe the citizens of the EU will keep this Babel together? For the same reason that Americans will learn to extend our ken beyond Fortress America and rectify a flawed electoral process: Because they must.

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