Much of the world is likely wondering, “What is going on in America?”
The other day, as I walked down 16th Street toward the newly christened Black Lives Matter Plaza next to the White House to check out the peaceful demonstrators, I had this strange déjá vu feeling. Who can see the demonstrations in America’s streets without thinking about the late Sixties, when young people took to the streets to protest against the Vietnam War and social injustices, demanding civil rights.
But in 1968, I wasn’t in Washington — not even close. I was watching from afar, from the “other side,” behind the Iron Curtain in Budapest, where we were flooded with anti-American, negative propaganda written in Moscow. Still, we youths of Eastern Europe did not buy into the “Marxist dream” that was force fed to us and wasn’t true. The agitprop department could not change our view of America as the country of inspiration and hope. We loved the hippies, and we felt sorry for Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy upon their assassinations, and for America’s Black community in general. But we also loved the country’s skyscrapers, Coca-Cola and Levi jeans. We loved America — and we most certainly did not want America to fail.
Those epoch-changing events in the U.S. coincided with our own elevated hope for change in Budapest, Warsaw and across the Eastern bloc, for the chance to loosen the oppressive system, with a temporary pause in the harshness of the regime. The Prague Spring, as we called it, promised the embrace of human rights, more freedom for artistic expression and closeness to the West, where we felt we belonged. Sadly, our hopes were soon crushed when Soviet-Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia on Aug. 21, 1968. Yet we were inspired to keep resisting, to remain hopeful. In 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall finally opened us to freedom.
The Memorial Day death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and its horrible display of police brutality, on the heels of many other such deaths, sparked demonstrations across the world in solidarity with Americans, including Europe. These demonstrations also bring forth and highlight problems and issues in these other countries. Ironically, yet again, America is showing the way — how democracies need to better themselves. Perhaps it is not obvious, but when young people in Europe are angry about the America they see today, it is very much driven by fear that America might slide back, that the America they love to admire is slipping away. When they worry about the U.S., they are scared for their own future.
Like my generation 50 years ago, today’s European youths want America to succeed.
It is perhaps a twist of fate that the first American I ever met was a Black man — musician Paul Robeson. As a 12-year-old, my best friend was Billy Hanson, the son of a pastor from Minneapolis, whose brother fled to Sweden to avoid the draft. So, I had plenty of firsthand experience and was never naïve about America being perfect. Like many others, I have always understood that it is a work in progress.
No, America is not perfect — will never be. Even from our observation point behind the barbed wire in Eastern Europe, we suspected that the America of our imaginations and dreams never existed. We were well aware that at times the ugly face of America rears itself. But the “American idea” driving this great country is alive and well, attractive and inspiring as ever. Let’s keep it that way. Like then, today where many see failure, we also can see strength. America’s immune system is kicking in.
Critics say, “But it’s a different world.” For sure, it is that, thanks to U.S. leadership in the past. But the present is always a different world from the past, and we should be driven by our belief that the future of our democracies will be different too. Allowing the U.S. and Europe to drift apart is not an option. That our common values of freedom and democracy create the conditions for a life worth living is not just a throw-away slogan.
In the 1960s, rock-and-roll music helped to provide the message of hope and shaped our worldview, on both sides of the Atlantic. In Eastern Europe, when we listened to our favorite bands on our transistor radios, by way of Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, we could imagine ourselves in New York, Boston, San Francisco. We could pull on a pair of tattered Levi jeans and be one with the demonstrators in those cities. Where is that American soft power today? Where are the messengers of hope?
Do not be mistaken, most Europeans look for leadership, and inspiration, from America. This is important, because they know if American democracy goes down, European democracy will go down with it. That is why, in the end, Europeans are rooting for America.
Andras Simonyi is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and now lives in America. He is the author of the book, “Rocking Toward a Free World: When the Stratocaster beat the Kalashnikov.” Follow him on Twitter @AndrasSimonyi.