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Hardheaded Philosophy

Reflections from Across the Pond

Julia Mulqueen

I have been absolutely blessed with the wonderful opportunity of studying abroad in Salzburg, Austria for the past few weeks. Truly it is incredible visiting a foreign country, especially during the current global climate, and I now have my fair share of stories ranging from absolutely frightening to deliciously hilarious. Certainly, the most political buzz pops up in bars, and in particular, those that are Irish. Despite all of the tense history of strained relations between western European nations, there still exists a deep sense of unity between them.

Perhaps a European would not agree, but to a foreigner the taste of European unity is almost overwhelmingly pungent. It is in these pubs that this unity is quite evident. When our group of slightly rebellious former colonists walks in to a fine eating establishment, every head in the room turns and not just because we smell of deodorant. When we walk up to the bar to order a beer, it seems we first have to prove ourselves worthy.

Our American citizenship makes us at once strangely beloved, but also absolutely different from all others. Immediately, the jokes begin, and we are forced to hear the difference between yogurt and Americans, which by the way, is that yogurt forms its own culture. After the jokes comes a little political banter about oil and Obama, and then we are finally accepted and occasionally offered a round of shots. Our boisterousness seems to make us endearing, but also markedly different from Europeans, who seem quite stoic to us rowdy Americans. We certainly come from two extremely different continents, and this is something no European is quick to forget.

All of these recent observations about Europe have led me to think about what America must be like for a European. Naturally, I found my mind wandering to Alexis de Tocqueville and his thoughts about America as written in his book Democracy in America in the 1830s upon his visit to the United States. De Tocqueville states quite boldly that he knows of no "country where, in general, less independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion reign than in America." When I first read this, I recoiled in horror and remained paralyzed with anger for at least two full minutes. Was de Tocqueville joking? Or perhaps his observations about America could no longer be considered valid because they were made so long ago. As I continued to ponder de Tocqueville’s striking words, however, I began to realize that there is indeed still some truth to them. As I wander around the ridiculously old streets of Austria, I am confronted with an experience of religion juxtaposed to openness about sexuality and alcohol. In the same day that I visited a 1,300 year old Cathedral, I saw women bare all at a family amusement park. In fact, going to the "bier garten" in Salzburg to grab a liter is a family affair, and the seating area underneath the chestnut trees is complete with a jungle gym. Seeing such a site in America would most likely offend our tender sensibilities and leave us emotionally scarred. It seems we pretend to be a fairly liberal society, and yet we censor much of what is written as well as what appears in both television shows and movies.

So touché de Tocqueville, because it seems Democracy in America has retained its meaning even some 140 years after its inception. And indeed America is not nearly as liberal and free as I might have previously been inclined to think. What upsets me most about this revelation from de Tocqueville, however, is not that a Frenchman was right, but rather that once again it seems the government in the United States feels it has to play big brother to all of its loyal citizens. Are we not capable of making morally upright choices without the "right way" being forced down our esophagi? Is it not the role of parents and family to outline proper behavior for their children? As I inch closer to old age, I become ever more frustrated with unnecessary involvement ofgovernment organizations. Again, as with bike helmets, it seems to me that an incredibly large amount of money and time would be saved if disciplinary actions were left solely to the care of parents.

My frustration only mounted as I continued to read de Tocqueville’s writing for he only grows bolder in his reflections about the United States. He details the "tyranny of the majority" in America and its tight grip on public opinion. De Tocqueville complains that despondency awaits the man who writes against the majority’s opinion. Even almost 200 years later, it seems to me that we in the United States are still creatures that flock together. We are uncomfortable being dissenters, and it is this aspect of our lives as Americans that de Tocqueville chronicled so well so many years ago.

With the Fourth of July fast approaching, I encourage each and every citizen of the United States to claim this country’s history as their own. We must remember how boldly our colonial ancestors fought against the Empire in search of what was right. We must remember our Founding Fathers and their courage, and with this awareness we must allow ourselves to be infused with pride in our star-spangled heritage. It is time to stop bleating after majority opinion just because it is the easier thing for us to do. Had our proud founders followed the mass opinion of Britain, we would still be shipping natural resources across the Atlantic under the name of the American colonies.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the somewhat anti-America jokes, inhabiting Austria for these past few weeks has instilled in me an even deeper sense of pride for the United States. I do not think it too bold of me to say that we have a pretty good thing going on in our country, even regardless of our mistakes. Sometimes all it takes to reawaken patriotism in our hearts is a prod from a half-drunk Brit at an Irish pub in Austria. Happy Fourth!

Julia Mulqueen is a senior at the Mount majoring in Philosophy

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