June 4, 2013
I was about three sips into the margarita I ordered at Chipotle when it dawned on me: America, at long last, is becoming Europe, something those of us who spent time abroad in college have fantasized about and dreaded for years.
I specify "three sips in" so you don't think intoxicants influenced this thought. Chipotle, in a new menu item, makes a margarita that would be respectable at a cocktail bar and is pretty much amazing at a fast-food joint, but it hadn't had time to alter my mood.
What it did do was get me to think back to how surprised I was, during a mid-1980s sojourn in Paris, to see that the McDonald's there, or maybe it was Burger King, or both, sold beer. When — I wondered from the high horse that everybody in college sits on for four straight years — is our backward society back home going to become similarly adult about things?
The answer, apparently, is, "In 28 years, when Chipotle has been invented and then starts serving margaritas." But there are a whole host of other proofs that our country is becoming Europe, marching inexorably down the path that leads to bathing infrequently and bailing out Greece.
Across the nation, our rules about marijuana, gay marriage and gambling are relaxing. There is backlash, to be sure, but the old Puritan norms are slowly fading, giving way to an Old World tolerance. Things have gotten so lax that I can now envision a day when we are able to buy a car on a Sunday.
The health care program known as Obamacare has pushed the U.S. one tentative step closer to socialized medicine, the way most Europeans do it. The American way had been to spend much of your 20s hoping you didn't get sick and then, when you finally got health insurance in your 30s, buying new filing cabinets to deal with the monthly correspondence. Simply having insurance as a given seems a better route.
Like our heathen friends across the pond, Americans no longer profess belief in a higher power or identify with religion in the numbers they once did. In 1972, 7 percent of Americans said they had no religious affiliation, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Last year, it was 20 percent. Five percent now identify as atheists, up from 1 percent less than a decade ago. And another Pew survey last year found that one-third of Americans 30 and younger sometimes doubt the existence of God, a 15-point increase in the last five years.
It's not that atheism and agnosticism are winning, exactly, but they are at least on the field now. Politicians who hope to be elected still can't say they're atheist (except, perhaps, in Vermont), but regular people, increasingly, can. Europe, despite all those churches we trudged through, is much more secular, or at least more open about it.
A dominant feature of Europe, back in the day, was the really crappy technopop that would bang away at your cerebellum any time you dared to enter a place of business. America resisted for a long time, but now we, too, have crappy technopop. Exhibit A: the musical genre known as "electronica." Exhibit B: the DJ stage at Lollapalooza, already like 1,000 Euro-cafes mashed into one and said to be expanding for this year's festival. This is not, mind you, a good thing, but it is a European thing.
Then there are the brightly hued pants. You used to be able to spot a European tourist in Chicago by the color of his jeans. If they were red or green (or sometimes yellow!), then he or she was probably a German but surely a European. Have you been to the Gap lately? It's a rainbow coalition of denim. Americans, apparently, are getting all expressive via their choice in casual slacks. And now we have to work harder to spot the Euros among us. Weird backpacks are one remaining tell. Socks with sandals. Couples in their 50s dressed with casual elegance, at least one of them smoking.
Youth soccer participation — exotic in my childhood — is virtually epidemic and approaching European levels. Pretty much every child in my suburb plays in the rec league run by the American Youth Soccer Organization and so, come fall, our town spills out into surrounding ones to find enough field space. On one level, this is great. Soccer is excellent exercise, and kids can contribute to a team just by trying hard, no matter their skill set. On another level, this is Europe, except that we will never, no matter how logical the term, start calling it "football."
To be sure, there remain significant differences between the U.S. and Europe. Our economic crisis is different from their economic crisis. We haven't elected a female head of state yet (although "Hillary 2016" bumper stickers have been spotted).
We don't tolerate mistresses (or the male equivalent) in quite the same way the Euros do. And we still prefer beer to wine (but not by as wide a margin as we once did).
The key on our slow crawl toward secularism and social maturity, if not outright ennui, is to embrace the advances of Europe while avoiding some of its pitfalls.
I think we all can agree that we do not want a monarchy or Peugeots. One is inbred; the other just drives like it. I have owned a Peugeot, from back when they used to be sold in the U.S. Remember how people said that Fiat stood for "Fix it again, Tony"? Peugeot stands for the French phrase for "Fix it again, Tony."
If there's anything Tony should be fixing, it's another margarita.
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