In his thought-provoking article, “The Myth of Europe,” (Foreign Policy, Jan/Feb 2012) Gareth Harding discusses what ails the EU. One of the big issues, he argues, is that it is difficult to answer the question, “What is a European?” Part of the problem there, he writes, is that there are not any sort of defined values that Europeans can say, yes, these are European values. In contrast to Europeans, however, we Americans apparently know what our values are and have even defined them in our founding documents (he gives the Bill of Rights and the Constitution as examples. It is this part of his essay that I wish to address.
First, the authors of our founding documents (I’m going to add the Declaration of Independence to the two that Harding gives) were heavily influenced by European thinkers and documents. John Locke argued in Two Treatises of Government (scroll down to Sec. 87) that the natural rights of man are life, liberty, and property. Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Another European thinker, Baron de Montesquieu, influenced the framers of the U.S. Constitution with his ideas on the separation of powers, from his work, The Spirit of Laws. Finally, the influence of the English Bill of Rights can be seen in the U.S. Bill of Rights, most notably in the clauses dealing with fines and cruel or unusual punishment.
Second, Harding argues that American values are “clearly and succinctly defined,” yet he never tells us what they are; so, I took it upon myself to see if I could find out what they might be. In googling the phrase “American values,” I got about 4.5 million results. Many of the results were organizations claiming to represent and fight for American values- Institute for American Values; American Values; The American Values Network; Center for American Values. Interestingly enough, each of these organizations had different values. Another result was an essay listing eighteen values. Perhaps the most interesting of the results on the first page, however, was an essay by L. Robert Kohls titled, “Values Americans Live By.” Kohls opens his essay with the following statement, “Most Americans would have a difficult time telling you, specifically, what the values are that Americans live by.” Is it safe to conclude then, that even America does not have defined values? And if that is the case, then does that mean that there quite possibly could be a Myth of America?
If America has values, as Harding states that it does, those values came from Europe, which means that Europe has values. If Europe has values, then can we say that there is a European identity? I’ll leave that for a future post.