I was a redneck, but a year in Europe changed my life.
My hometown was Harlan, Kentucky, a coal-mining hub set deep in Appalachia. By 1989, through circumstance and chance, I gained a scholarship to study at a prestigious prep school in Massachusetts. My classmates included a Hilton, a Roosevelt and a son of the King of Jordan. Deerfield Academy offered a career trajectory far higher than I had any right to expect, if I could seize it.
But the initial shock was too much. I grew homesick, and had trouble fitting in. My grades were mediocre. All that changed in 1990.
That year, I spent nine months in Barcelona, Spain, living with a Spanish family. Surrounded by architecture on every city block that left me gaping in wonder, I realized how small my old Kentucky world had been. It was and remains a good world, full of friendly neighbors, gorgeous farms, and middle-class opportunities. But this new world -- what some call Old Europe -- dazzled me with its possibilities for culture, beauty, and personal change.
Back in the US, with new confidence, I improved my grades. After four years at Yale, I gradually found my way back to Europe, and served as a speechwriter for the NATO Secretary General.
Nine months in Barcelona didn't make me a better person. It did make me smarter, more cultured, and in some respects humbler -- mainly because I realized how ignorant I was.
Like me, rednecks could learn a lot from Europe. So it's all the more puzzling why they dislike the continent so much. Maybe it's because angry redneck voices on talk radio blast Europeans as ungrateful free riders of US-provided security, and cable news blowhards spin lurid tales of dark European streets teeming with hoards of gang-raping Muslim maniacs.
I believe rednecks should quit worrying and love Europe, for several reasons.
First, the food and drink, especially here in Brussels.
Oh, the waffles. ("Like I-Hop?" my inner redneck asks. "Tastier," I reply.)
Oh, the chocolate. ("Like them Reese's Pieces?" he asks. "Creamier," I say.)
Oh, the beer. ("Like beer?" he asks. "Beer-ier," I reply.)
Second, the paid leave. Here in Belgium, full-time employees have the right to 2.5 days of paid leave a month, or six weeks a year, and the place doesn't seem to be collapsing into a Ukrainian famine. That's time you could spend fly-fishin', or frog-giggin', or toe-wigglin', or Palin-leerin'. What's not to like?
Third, people are hot. When I went to graduate school in Italy, a good third of the women in the class paired up with local men by the end of the first month. They learned very good Italian. As for me, I learned Italian before dating a local lady, but then I've always been a traditionalist.
But the main reason rednecks would love this continent is because Europe takes care of you.
European nations are a bit like tribes, and a tribe is an extended family. In times of need, family members help each other out, even if there are limits.
Take Denmark, for example. The country consistently ranks among the happiest places on Earth. That's not because it's communist. Companies from Mæsk to Danske Bank to Lego are among the most successful in the world. It's because better-off Danes pony up cash to help take care of poorer and unluckier Danes.
You can see the benefits of this nation-as-family approach. People here usually live longer. Many European countries tend to be happier, although the US does pretty well in that regard. They enjoy more generous benefits at work. They're thinner, and taller. They worry less about getting shot.
Europe isn't perfect, and as Hillary Clinton has reminded us, America isn't Denmark. In downtown Brussels, beggars -- often alcoholics -- ask for loose change. In some ways -- say, if you want to open a business -- you might prefer life in America. And it may be that doing more to help the poor, and the sick, and the unlucky lowers your economy's long-term growth rate a bit. But what good is that extra growth, if more than half the gains go to the people at the very top?
"BUT EUROPE'S A SOCIALIST FASCIST GAY TERRORIST SPIDER-HOLE!" my inner redneck's thick red fingers type in the comment section.
Socialist? I reply. What about Social Security, Medicare, and disability, programs that rednecks love?
"THAT'S NOT SOCIALISM! IT'S CAPITALISM WITH GRAY HAIR, A RED NECK AND A SOUTHERN TWANG!"
At least my inner redneck has a sense of humor.
I understand the redneck view, and by extension the Republican view. They don't want to take care of people who, in their eyes, don't deserve assistance. Maybe like these folks -- those at the bottom of the ladder, sometimes into drugs, fighting for whatever scraps they can find. For reasons cultural and racial, rednecks don't view such folks as real Americans. They're not family, and not worthy of help.
So rather than try to fix our problems with -- for example -- cheaper educational opportunities and better health care, rednecks would rather hunker down in their trailers with dried provisions and shotgun shells.
"Damn right," my inner redneck says, folding his arms over his TRUMP FOR PRESIDENT T-shirt.
But at what point do we realize that all Americans are 'real Americans,' no matter their background or the color of their skin?
This is really to ask: Is America a family, or not?
The United States can preserve its special blend of freedom, fairness, and freaky. But maybe it's time we welcomed all Americans into the family. You could call this a humbler attitude towards our fellow citizens, and towards those who hope to be citizens someday. You could also call it patriotic.
"I don't know," my inner redneck says, his lips curled in a pout. "Say, you got some of that beer-ier beer?"
It's called Duvel, my friend. Sit with me on the Grand Place, have a drink, and admire the hot Europeans.
"Just the women," he growls.