As we become increasingly dependent on the currencies of strangers, certain anxieties bubble to the surface. Even the least economics-minded among us is now being reminded that while individually each of us is a peripheral character in the drama of international market forces, collectively we're stuck in the cast whether we like it or not.
The particular anxiety most interesting to me is certainly not premised on xenophobia or defensive jingoism; instead, it stems from being shamefaced by our new national poverty and grim economic prospects. And as parents have told naughty children for centuries: We have no one to blame but ourselves. We've overspent and overreached, and the world knows it. We can't afford to run the enormous, gas-guzzling, environment-savaging cars we can no longer afford to manufacture; our houses are being foreclosed on in swaths; and frankly, it's damn humiliating.
But the shame goes deeper than that. Even with America's centrality in world affairs for the past century, we've harbored something of a hidden cultural inferiority complex. Ours is not an ancient society; we've never been especially known for our cultural sophistication or outward-looking curiosity. Comparatively, we are not well-traveled, and most of us struggle through high-school French and leave it at that.
Yet somehow through the end of the 20th century, we could hide from any feelings of inadequacy by hiding behind the protective shield of our economy. If, by contrast, other nationals found us ham-fisted and naive, it never really mattered because our country was rich and theirs was usually dependent on ours in some way. When in Europe, we admired their lifestyle and intimidating sophistication, but we never would have swapped our bullish work ethic or earnestness for their double-digit unemployment or sclerotic bureaucracies.
But these days, we're being humbled on a world stage. Perhaps—in addition to our more overt financial and military embarrassments—we fear that our European counterparts believe the dollar's decline is symbolic, that the world really is in a post-America stage and doesn't care about us anymore except as a bargain bin. We're finally being unmasked as the hunky-dory, cultureless brats they've always assumed us to be: that we have nothing left to give.
Which makes the subtext of their conspicuous consumption in Midtown a knowing acknowledgment of our comeuppance. We're not only inferior on their turf, we're feeble on our own.
Ah, well. Since Americans will be doing a lot less globe-trotting (or even nation-trotting) this summer, we've got spare time on our hands. Why not use it to develop attributes that might impress our wealthy visitors? Here's one that might come in handy, one of the most time-hallowed benchmarks of European sophistication: gallows humor.