OXFORD, England – In the university town famously described by the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski as an island within an island, I’ve found that the American presidential contest inspires in equal parts curiosity and bemusement.

When the Brits here find out that I am that peculiar creature, the American studying abroad, sooner or later the conversation turns to the election. “Are you for Obama?” some inquire, the most polite mental health-check to which I think I will ever be subjected.

Timothy Garton Ash, the British historian, perhaps best represents the reigning attitude in The New York Review of Books: “I notice that many Americans still suffer from a touching delusion that this is their election. How curious. Don’t they understand? This is our election. The world’s election. Our future depends on it, and we live it as intensely as Americans do. All we lack is the vote.”

And the world, as Garton Ash points out, is rooting for Barack Obama. According to a BBC World Service poll conducted in 22 countries, Obama leads John McCain by a margin of four to one. Here’s a small piece of advice on diffusing anti-Americanism: Show the world you understand what the stakes are.

Everyone here also loves to discuss Senator McCain’s running mate. The question I usually get takes the form of a befuddled “how .?” If Obama symbolizes the American dream, then Sarah Palin espouses that mythical world of gun-slinging cowboys and cowgirls from the Wild West. It really is fascinating and would be quite amusing if not for the fact that, in this case, “Annie, get your gun” means get the nuclear codes.

But perhaps most perplexing to the Europeans I encounter are the culture wars that have dominated this election. It’s just incomprehensible over here how Obama’s intellectual pedigree can be a bad thing. Most of Britain’s ruling class have gone through Oxford or Cambridge, and the current prime minister, the brainy Gordon Brown, has a doctorate in history from Edinburgh.

Similarly in France, the presidential model is still the philosopher-king: Pompidou compiled anthologies, Chirac dabbled in poetry and African art, and even Sarkozy, the self-described political outsider, put out a manifesto about French politics in the 21st century.

Of course, it’s not that America lacks a ruling meritocracy; the issue lies in the fact that a large portion of the country distrusts the establishment, and so the establishment has gotten awfully good at putting on a populist face. The issue with feigning populism, however, is that it becomes a slippery slope to real anti-intellectualism, and that’s certainly the slope the tacticians of the Republican Party have been sliding down for a while. There’s something so strange about Bill Kristol, the perennial Republican insider, opining in The New York Times that time’s come for an “antiestablishment awakening.”

But the wrong response, I think, is the kind of smug condescension that we’re all guilty of on occasion. It’s so easy at a place like Oxford to lapse into a position of moral superiority that denigrates those silly, confused Americans in flyover country just because they don’t “get it.”

But that sort of attitude only leads to its own form of parochialism, a kind of small-mindedness that shuts out a whole fascinating universe of rival takes on the world.

The challenge thus involves stepping outside our comfort zone, suspending our assumptions and engaging the “other” in a mutual spirit of generosity.

To succeed, you first have to get off your island.

Lukasz Swiderski is a junior in the School of Foreign Service and is studying abroad at Oxford University in England. He can be reached at swiderskithehoya.com. UNFOREIGN AFFAIRS appears every other Tuesday.

Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.

Comments are closed.