It has been two months since I came back from my GMF Marshall Memorial Fellowship to the United States, an experience that brought me to Washington, D.C., Memphis, Tennessee, Miami, Florida, and Bismarck, North Dakota. The memories and impressions of this trip are still very fresh in my mind, and I wish to write them down a few of them while they are still vivid and new.
The greatest lesson I have learned is that the cultural difference between the U.S. and Europe is bigger than I had anticipated. The different history and nation-building processes of the U.S. and Europe have led to a very different understanding of the role of the state and society. In Europe, the people are more supportive of a strong state: the role of the federal government is perceived as vitally important. Therefore, many European states offer a wide range of benefits, from a strong social security system with a public health care system, to an emphasis on public education. The individual citizen does not feel responsible for the society or for people in need. In the U.S., however, the opposite is the case.
I was deeply impressed by the American people: their commitment, friendliness, and diligence. I met a lot of people who work more than one job, who take care of their families, and still find time to work for their community, their church, or their social welfare organisation. One very interesting aspect for me to learn was how strong and important a role that religion plays in American society. The church not only has a spiritual role, but also a very practical one in informing the people in its community about certain aspects of their daily life or about current political and social topics.
But Americans’ involvement with religious and volunteer organizations in their community illustrates a different view of involvement than that in Europe. While Europeans expect a large state to provide for the welfare of their citizens, Americans often take it upon themselves to address social ills. When I am asked about my peak experience in America, I have to mention my visit to the Memphis St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which treats children who are suffering from cancer. It was an emotional visit. It was surprising to witness what a positive atmosphere St. Jude was able to create and to learn that it is possible to run a modern hospital almost entirely from private donations. Such a level of support for private social foundations is not possible in Europe.
But reliance on private initiatives has its drawbacks; in Miami it was particularly interesting to see the big gap between the rich and the poor. We met immigrants who lived the American dream, as well as immigrants who have no legal status and live in absolute poverty without any social security or health care.
In terms of my profession in the publishing business, I was very surprised about how hard the media landscape in the U.S. has to struggle. There are basically only two serious newspapers left: Washington Post and the New York Times. In some states and cities there are no longer daily newspapers and almost no investigative or truly informative journalism left. Because television plays such a significant role in American media, especially during elections, information and messages are generally short and cursory: only limited background information is offered. The time I spent travelling was especially fascinating because there were only four weeks left until the presidential election. For me, it was very striking to see how elections work in the different political system of the U.S. compared to that of Germany or the EU. The election campaign in the U.S. is entertainment; there is not much space left for political issues and serious political solutions.
Finally, I would like to describe the biggest similarities and the biggest contrasts I experienced.
First of all, I discovered how dependent the U.S. and Europe are on global economic development, as well as on each other. Both have to find ways to deal with the consequences of the financial crisis, and both are discussing similar solutions such as stronger regulations of the financial markets and banks as well as greater transparency in financial business dealings.
The biggest contrast I like would like to point out is that that people in Europe often claim that the average American does not know a lot about other regions of the world, especially about Europe, politics, history etc. When Europeans travel to the U.S., they often get the impression that they have a broader general knowledge than the average American. This impression might not be entirely wrong, but there is an explanation for the divergence, and it is primarily a geopolitical one. Most Americans live in a state that is several times larger than even the largest European nation. Many Americans work two jobs, have a family, and are highly involved in their church and social projects in their community. With such commitments, Americans do not have much time to spend looking up information on the internet on a regular basis or to travel the world. The opportunities for Europeans to travel, to live and learn in another European country are much more present in Europe than in America. European countries are so small that dependence and interaction among Europeans is an unavoidable fact of life. The everyday American does not face this dynamic, and therefore, has little desire, or need, to be as internationally focused or informed.
Being a MMF Fellow will always be a very special experience to me. Now, when I read about the U.S. or watch news about the United States, I better understand the American way of decision- and policy-making. I will definitely stay in touch with the great people I met in the States, the other fellows, my city coordinators, my host families, and the GMF staff. I am sure I will always stay part of the GMF network and activities. I met great people and made great new friends. I now will travel to European countries I have never been to before to visit the people I travelled with in the States, and perhaps, such connections will lead to professional development and opportunity in the future.
Nicole Stelzner, Head of Strategic Corporate Development and Sales, is a Fall 2012 European Marshall Memorial Fellow.