I am American, but have lived in Europe for 10 years. Over the course of that decade one clear thing has emerged: Most people on both sides of the Atlantic have a completely distorted view of what happens on the other side.
To believe the European press, Americans are at risk of being gunned down in the street every time they step outside their home. Meanwhile, reading only the American press one would think that Europeans worry about Islamist suicide bombers hiding around every corner, and that Nazis are on the verge of taking over. Coverage of this week’s attacks in Berlin is a perfect example.
“Across Europe”, The New York Times wrote December 20, “the threat of terrorism is now a factor in daily life.” I live in Prague, and almost never worry about the risk of personally experiencing a terrorist attack. I certainly don’t think about it daily and have a hard time believing any Europeans reading this column do.
In opinion polls, the top concerns virtually everywhere in Europe are things like economics, education and health. When Prime Minister Robert Fico tries to scare people about the threat posed by Islamists, Slovaks vote for somebody else. They did so in the 2014 presidential election and again earlier this year. Slovaks may be concerned about terrorists just not nearly as much as actual daily concerns.
In the same article, The New York Times went on to analyse how the attacks will affect Chancellor Angela Merkel’s reelection chances next year. “The prospect that she could be weakened, or voted out, would be potentially devastating for the [European Union],” they wrote.
The insinuation is that the right wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) is about to take over, but in fact they poll at just 16 percent support. In fact, if Merkel were to lose next autumn’s election, she would likely finish second to Martin Schultz, a Social Democrat and the former president of the European Parliament — not exactly a threat to the European order.
While the American press is willing to call parties like the AfD “extremist”, “far-right” or “populist” they almost never use such terms to refer to presidential-elect Donald Trump. To read the American press quickly, Europeans vote for racist parties because they are racist, but Americans do because they legitimately feel disenfranchised by establishment parties or left behind by globalisation.
Meanwhile, the European press largely presents the reverse. If European impressions of American gun violence, racial tensions and the health care system — all real problems — were fully accurate the country would look like Iraq.
Much like a Rorschach test, one of the best ways to see what worries Americans the most is to look at how they interpret images from Europe, and vice versa.