Americans claim that because we have more stuff, we are better than other nations. In my mind, contentment, happiness and fulfilment are the more important measures of achievement.

Yet Americans often miss the strength of Europe because they rarely stray beyond its touristy city centres. Big city Europe is in the process of being smoothed into a generic, boring singular entity. This soulless Americanisation has accelerated dramatically over the last few decades, driven by globalisation, tourism and secular capitalism. The result is McEurope — a chain of big cities where chunks of each are the same. The branding of the franchises might be a tad different, the scenery a little altered, but these chunks serve up the same drab experience.

There isn’t much dignity left in these “historic downtowns”, most of it lost in the rush to monetise the mobs. The Hen and Stag parties flown in on Ryanair. The pub crawls. The cobbled streets lined with the same stores selling trainers, sex toys, raw paninis under glow lamps, absurdly calorific sweets and whatever else tourists splurge on to feel special. Even the cathedrals have been reduced to a check mark on tourist lists to justify a day of binge drinking.

What McEurope is lacking the most is the communalism that’s central to European culture. Thankfully though, McEurope is confined to a few neighbourhoods, and it’s very easy to get away from them. I would always recommend visiting some random mid-sized town in Europe, rather than a capital city. Some place like Valence in France, which like Paris has a long history and an ancient and sublime cathedral, yet hasn’t entirely succumbed to the global forces trying to flatten the world.

In places like this, you can see the care Europeans still give to living: to eating, to relaxing, to being part of a group, to working with a purpose beyond making mint. Here, we find the antidote to the very American ideology of individual liberation. The idea that everyone needs to be emancipated from everything. Everyone needs to find their true self and be it — even if that means severing ties with family, friends, church, nation, anything and everything that came before. Those are provincial, backwards and holding you back.

The purpose of life in America, then, is to be free. Yet freedom is a perverse goal, a broken Telos, that can only be seen as positive if you have an abnormal sense of what it means to be human. To be human is to be social; the ancient Greeks knew it, the medieval Christians knew it and even the early Liberals knew it, but we moderns have somehow forgotten it. Once you understand that, then you understand that the American definition of freedom ends in despair.



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