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Hating America: Continued 2 By: Bruce Bawer
The Hudson Review | Friday, November 19, 2004


IV

It is not only in the U.S. and Britain that the bookstores have lately been filled with books harshly critical of America—and that responses to these works have begun to appear. France has seen a spate of volumes with titles like Dangereuse Amérique and Après l’empire: Essai sur la décomposition du système américain; Thierry Meyssan’s L’effroyable imposture, which argues that no plane struck the Pentagon on 9/11, was a bestseller. So, however, was Jean-François Revel’s L’obsession anti-américaine, which has now appeared in the U.S. as Anti-Americanism.16 Revel’s earliest opinions of America, he tells us, were formed by “the European press, which means that my judgment was unfavorable”; yet those opinions changed when he actually visited America during the Vietnam War. Decades later, he notes wryly, the European media still employ the same misrepresentations as they did back then, depicting an America plagued by severe poverty, extreme inequality, “no unemployment benefits, no retirement, no assistance for the destitute,” and medical care and university education only for the rich. “Europeans firmly believe this caricature,” Revel writes, “because it is repeated every day by the elites.” The centrality of this point to the entire topic of European anti-Americanism cannot, in my view, be overstated.

Item by item, Revel refutes the European media’s picture of America. Poverty? An American at the poverty level has about the same standard of living as the average citizen of Greece or Portugal. (Indeed, according to a recent study by the Swedish Trade Research Institute, Swedes have a slightly lower standard of living than black Americans—a devastating statistic for Scandinavians, for whom both the unparalleled success of their own welfare economies and the pitiable poverty of blacks in the racist U.S. are articles of faith.) Crime? America has grown safer, while the French ignore their own rising crime levels, a consequence of “permanent street warfare” by Muslim immigrants “who don’t consider themselves subject to the laws of the land” and of authorities with “anti-law-and-order ideologies.” Revel contrasts France’s increasingly problematic division into ethnic Frenchmen and unassimilated immigrants with “America’s truly diverse, multifaceted society,” pointing out that “the success and originality of American integration stems precisely from the fact that immigrants’ descendants can perpetuate their ancestral cultures while thinking of themselves as American citizens in the fullest sense.” Bingo. (Most Americans, I think, would be shocked to realize how far short of America Europe falls in this regard.)

Media? Revel recalls that when he first visited the U.S., he “was struck by the vast gulf that separated our [French] state-controlled television news services—stilted, long-winded and monot- onous, dedicated to presenting the official version of events—from the lively, aggressive evening news shows on NBC or CBS, crammed with eye-opening images and reportage that offered unflinching views of social and political realities at home and American involvement abroad.” (Take that, Mr. Hutton.) He also observed a difference in the populace: “whereas in France people’s opinions were fairly predictable and tended to follow along lines laid down by their social role, what I heard in America was much more varied—and frequently unexpected. I realized that many more Americans than Europeans had formed their own opinions about matters—whether intelligent or idiotic is another question—rather than just parroting the received wisdom of their social milieu.” True: by Western European standards, I’ve come to realize, Americans are very independent thinkers.

 

To Revel, the tenacity of European anti-Americanism, despite historical developments that should have finished it off once and for all, suggests “that we are in the presence, not of rational analysis, but of obsession”—an obsession driven, he adds, by a desire to maintain public hostility to Jeffersonian democracy. The European establishment, Revel notes, soft-pedals the fact that Europeans “invented the great criminal ideologies of the twentieth century”; it defangs Communism (at “the top French business school,” students think Stalin’s great error was to “prioritize capital goods over . . . consumer goods”); and it identifies the U.S., “contrary to every lesson of real history . . . as the singular threat to democracy.” Revel’s vigorous assault on all this foolishness might easily have been dismissed in France (or denied publication altogether) but for the fact that he’s a member of that revered symbol of French national culture, the Académie Française.

 

Two books, though at present available only in Norwegian, are worth mentioning here for the light they shed on Western European attitudes. Herman Willis’ Ich Bin Ein Amerikaner caught my eye at an Oslo bookstore with its cover picture of the Twin Towers ablaze.17 “Is there anyone,” asked the jacket copy, “who thinks solidarity [with the U.S.] should wait until the first suicide bomber blows herself up here [in Norway]?” It looked promising. Yet the book Willis has written isn’t a brief for solidarity with America but a brisk, rambling, opinionated, and rather familiar account of the author’s recent travels in the U.S. Its tone—a mixture of chummy irreverence and defensive condescension—is familiar from other European travel books about America, as are its ingredients: Willis eats barbecue, extends unsolicited sympathy to American blacks, enthuses over Elvis, expresses his disapproval of the My Lai massacre; he seeks out the company of rednecks and left-wing intellectuals, which allows him to depict an America torn between racist boneheads and people who think like, well, members of the Scandinavian establishment; and he labors (in precisely the fashion described by Revel in his critique of the French media) to leave the impression that the U.S. has no public schools, pensions, unemployment insurance, or media debate. Willis’ anecdotes range from the funny (he tells us that young Norwegian lawbreakers, who thanks to American TV shows are more familiar with the U.S. justice system than their own, routinely ask their arresting officers: “Aren’t you going to read me my rights?”) to the disturbing (Willis informs us, and doesn’t seem to find it particularly worrisome, that his “Arab friends” in Oslo consider 9/11 a Jewish conspiracy).

 

The closest Willis comes to a thesis is a not altogether tidy theory that he concocts after hearing an American refer to soldiers dying for “others’ freedom.” Like many Europeans, Willis doesn’t get this “very American” thing about fighting and dying for freedom, and he figures that behind all the talk of freedom there must be some other, more comprehensible motive or value. Pondering the insights of a friend who defends the French Empire as an admirable “attempt to spread French civilization and culture” but who condemns American wars as being “only about money,” Willis decides that this business about “freedom” must, indeed, have something to do with money—specifically, with the American drive to succeed. But at this point Willis introduces a twist: deep down, he says—and he plainly thinks this is a major insight—Americans aren’t preoccupied with success but with failure. Why, after all, do Europeans erect monuments to military victories, while Americans build memorials to their war dead and require children to memorize the Gettysburg Address? Because, Willis says, Americans “worship defeat.” Case closed. Likewise, if “the U.S. has never developed totalitarian ideologies,” it’s not because Americans love freedom but, rather, has something (it’s not clear exactly what) to do with our “dynamic of success.”

 

What does it mean when even a relatively America-friendly European writer is capable of such colossal misunderstanding? For make no mistake: as European writers and intellectuals go, Willis is indeed at the pro-American end of the spectrum. He argues, for example, that the U.S. isn’t necessarily “corrupt and/or fanatical” just because it rejects the Scandinavian welfare model (gee, thanks, Herman!). In his closing pages, moreover, he contradicts much of what he’s said earlier by declaring that the U.S. and Europe are, in fact, extremely similar, since they share many things, including “the threat of terror” (which he’s hardly mentioned). The main difference between the U.S. and Europe, he argues, is that America “is miles ahead of us in tolerance and equality.” He’s right—but this statement comes at the end of a book that seems largely intended to suggest the opposite.

 

Though focusing predominantly on Norway, Stian Bromark and Dag Herbjørnsrud’s Frykten for Amerika (Fear of America) does a splendid job of illuminating European anti-Americanism generally.18 The authors begin by examining the geographical distribution of anti-Americanism, which, while low in Asia, South Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and Eastern Europe, is widespread in the Islamic world, is even higher in Western Europe, and is highest of all in France. (53% of Frenchmen “take a negative view of American democratic ideas,” while 64% of Czechs, 67% of Venezuelans, and 87% of Kenyans are positive.) Though fewer than 14% of Frenchmen have visited America, “most have strong views” of it; indeed, “Europeans who have not been in the U.S. . . . have the strongest opinions” about it, and malice toward America is inversely proportional to the amount of time individuals have actually spent there. Another illuminating statistic: contrary to the notion that anti-Americanism is a reflection of opposition to Republican presidents and U.S.-led wars, French sympathy for the U.S. stood at 54% in 1988, during the Reagan administration, but dropped to 35% by 1996, when Clinton was in office. Why the decline? Simple: in 1988 the U.S. was a protector; in 1996, after the Berlin Wall fell, it was a resented “hyperpower” (to employ French politician Hubert Védrine’s gratuitous term).

 

Asked their view of the U.S. from several perspectives (politics, society, foreign policy, etc.), Western Europeans give a thumbs-up only to American popular culture. Why? Because they’ve experienced American movies and music firsthand and can judge for themselves, whereas their social and political views are based on what they’ve been taught in school and told by their media. This gap between negative views inculcated by educators and journalists and positive views founded on personal experience is perhaps nowhere vaster than in Norway, where school textbooks give bogus “materialistic-capitalistic explanations” for one U.S. action after another—presenting as fact, for instance, that America’s motive for invading Iraq was oil—but where teenagers, according to a BBD&O study, boast Europe’s highest “Americanization index.” (The Norwegian press sneers about Americans’ devotion to McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, but both corporations have bigger market shares in Norway than in the U.S.)

 

To be sure, Western European intellectuals often claim, as Norwegian author Jens Bjørneboe did in a 1966 essay, “We Who Loved America,” that they once were pro-American but, owing to some social change in America or some U.S. government action, have altered their position. The current claim is that Europeans loved America until the Iraq War; before that, it was a truism that they loved America until Vietnam. But Bromark and Herbjørnsrud state flatly that “It wasn’t the Vietnam War that made European intellectuals, authors and academics anti-American. The truth is that they had been anti-American all along.” As early as 1881, the Norwegian author Bjørnsterne Bjørnson argued that Europe’s America-bashing had to stop; even earlier, in 1869, James Russell Lowell complained that Europeans invariably saw America “in caricature.”19 Indeed, nineteenth-century European aristocrats despised America as a symbol of progress, innovation, and (above all) equality, ridiculing it as a mongrel land of simple-minded Indians and blacks; later, avaricious Jews were added to the list. These stereotypes soon spread to Americans generally, resulting in today’s European-establishment view of Americans as materialistic morons.

 

If privileged Europeans of generations ago quaked in fear because they knew that America, and American equality, represented the future, so too did many of the Continent’s leading authors and intellectuals. Bromark and Herbjørnsrud examine the rather sorry Norwegian record (to which that nation’s twin titans, Ibsen and Bjørnson, were honorable exceptions): in 1889, Knut Hamsun denounced what he considered to be America’s sexual equality; in 1951, Agnar Mykle sneered that American mothers “raise children, not as boys and girls, but first and foremost as people who will become adults, with clean souls, well-scrubbed teeth, well-ordered hair, clean hands and a big smile.” (America’s excessive cleanliness was long a European theme: Hamsun whined that in the U.S. you couldn’t “spit on the floor wherever you want.”) But the main flash point was race: in America, complained one Norwegian writer, one “had to fight for one’s blond scalp in conflict with bloodthirsty natives.” Bjørneboe wrote in his teens that the physiognomy of immigrants to America changed after three years (“Northern and Central Europeans become Indian, Southern Europeans become Negroid”); Hamsun grumbled that the U.S., by allowing blacks to work in white restaurants, had created “a mulatto stud farm”; Mykle, spotting a mixed-race couple in New York, had “the same uncomfortable feeling as when you see a bulldog mate with a birddog.” Note that these writers were not marginal cranks: they were major literary figures. Nor were these Norwegian writers very different from their colleagues south of the Skaggerak. For an appalling number of them, America’s supreme iniquity was, as Bromark and Herbjørnsrud put it, its “project of [ethnic] blending.” Such views, which remained in the European mainstream well into the 1950s, had by the 1970s, however, been supplanted by reflexive, supercilious condemnations of American racism, the implication usually being that racial prejudices of the sort found in the U.S. were utterly foreign to Europeans.

 

Envy and insecurity have played a role in anti-Americanism, too. Over the generations, men who saw themselves as metropolitan sophisticates traveled to America and were suddenly confronted with their own provinciality. Mykle, we’re told, “felt humiliated as a Norwegian from the moment he arrived in New York”; days after a customs official asked him how to spell Oslo, the question still rang in his ears.20 The beloved Norwegian author Rolf Jacobsen, who wrote several anti-American poems before finally visiting the U.S. in 1976 (when he was nearly seventy), complained in a postcard home that “There’s not one mountain here—not one mountain ridge.” Away from familiar surroundings, these men felt uprooted, robbed of their souls; this personal disorientation, alas, led not to enhanced self-understanding, but to defensive attacks on America as rootless and soulless (a charge that is now, of course, a cliché).

 

Even in Revolutionary times, fear of America meant fear of the modern. Throughout the twentieth century, many Europeans regarded technological progress not as a natural development but as Americanization and considered such phenomena as canned food to be symbols of American dehumanization. Even Sigmund Skard, Norway’s leading postwar “expert” on the U.S., who was instrumental in shaping the way Norwegian students were (and are) taught about America, admitted that “the modern scares me” and projected this fear onto the United States. “Consumer civilization,” he charged, threatened “our old civilizations . . . the roots, the simple, classic life.” As distorted as Skard’s account of modern America, note Bromark and Herbjørnsrud, is his sentimental idealization of “traditional Norway,” whose history of grim poverty, isolation, and deprivation he turns “into something . . . exclusively positive.” It would appear, then, that when the Norwegian media, in June of 2001, chose to represent my rural experience in Telemark as a face-off between homely, traditional Norwegian virtues and American “McDonald’s culture,” it was only following in Skard’s footsteps.

 

New wrinkles were added in the 1960s, when, bizarrely, the longstanding reactionary critique of Americans and American popular culture was supplemented by, and combined with, socialist vitriol about the U.S. political system and the American state. Americans were now not only stupid and vulgar; they were also arrogant, power-hungry imperialists. The terms of this new critique, of course, were lifted largely from America’s own counterculture; as Bromark and Herbjørnsrud succinctly put it, “American artists’ imaginations, knowledge, and quality . . . have seduced Europeans into thinking that Americans have no imagination, knowledge, or quality.” This practice has continued to the present day, when major European newspapers eagerly fill page after page with nonsensical anti-American rants by the likes of Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky.

 

When European journalists and intellectuals aren’t relishing the latest windy jeremiad by one of these cranks, they’re busy congratulating themselves for their appreciation of nuance. That’s their term of choice for what they have and America doesn’t. Americans, they argue, are possessed by naïve, simplistic ideals, while Europeans are more aware of real-world complexities. Actually the opposite is closer to the truth. Yes, America is built on an idea, namely liberty; but far from being divorced from reality, it is an idea that Americans have realized, developed, and successfully exported for more than two centuries. We have demonstrated the depth of our commitment as a people to this idea by waging a revolution, a civil war, two World Wars, several smaller wars, and the Cold War in its name. It is, in short, an idea that is utterly indissoluble from our own living, breathing, everyday reality. By contrast, much of Western Europe is founded on an idea of itself that is significantly, and dangerously, divorced from reality. That idea, as Robert Kagan explains so adroitly, is that the world has moved beyond the necessity of war. It is a pretty fiction, but a fiction nonetheless. And keeping it alive requires that one ignore dangerous realities—such as the growing problem of militant Islam within Europe’s own borders.

 

Europeans mock American religiosity. But American religion, for all its attendant idiocies and cruelties, has never prevented Americans from acting pragmatically. Secular Western European intellectuals, however, have their own version of religion. It is a social-democratic religion that deifies international organizations such as the Red Cross, Amnesty International, and, above all, the U.N. Not NATO, which is about waging war, and which has for that reason been the target of much European criticism in recent years; no, the NGOs are about waging peace, love, brotherhood, and solidarity, and, as such, are, for the elites of Western Europe, beyond criticism, for they embody Western Europe’s most cherished idea of itself and of the way the world works, or should work. The elites’ enthusiasm for these institutions, whether or not they are genuinely effective or even admirable, is a matter of maintaining a certain self-image and illusion of the world that is intimately tied up with their identity as social democrats; America’s unforgivable offense, as Kagan notes, is that it challenges that image and that illusion; and the degree to which the reality of America is distorted in the Western European media is a measure of the desperate need among Western European elites to preserve that self-image and illusion. It sometimes seems to me a miracle, frankly, that America has any friends at all in some parts of Western Europe, given the news media’s relentless anti-Americanism. There is no question that the chief obstacle to improved understanding and harmony between the U.S. and Western Europe is the Western European media establishment. It is an obstacle that must somehow be overcome, for Western civilization is under siege, and America and Europe need each other, perhaps more than ever. More sane, sensible European books along the lines of Revel’s L’obsession anti-américaine and Bromark and Herbjørnsrud’s Frykten for Amerika can help.


 

1 Besides, European multilingualism is overstated and very unevenly distributed. Some indications of relative comfort levels in English: American TV shows are subtitled in Scandinavia and the Netherlands but dubbed nearly everywhere else on the Continent; a Canadian friend in Amsterdam was denied a job as a KLM flight attendant because he was fluent only in three of the required languages, Dutch, English, and French, but not in the fourth, German (how many American Ph.D. programs require fluency in four languages?); on the annual Eurovision Song Contest broadcast, twenty-odd countries report their votes in English and one (ahem) reports in French.

2 THE EAGLE’S SHADOW: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World, by Mark Hertsgaard. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23.00; Picador, $14.00.

3 According to an April 2003 poll, 69% of Norwegian journalists are socialists, compared with 43% of the general population; the Progress Party, the social-democratic establishment’s only serious challenger, is supported by 22.5% of Norwegians, but only 3% of journalists (and most of that 3%, I’d wager, work for local weeklies, not national dailies).

4 What is striking is that the Scandinavian countries, despite the subsidized newspapers and media watchdog agencies, routinely rank highest on earth in press freedom (which suggests, of course, that the rankings are in fact measuring something else).

5 Hertsgaard’s most pro-U.S. moment is probably the paragraph in which he admits that Americans saved Bosnians while Europeans engaged in “pious hand-wringing.” Yet he ruins even this by introducing it as follows: “Nor have all of America's overseas military interventions been on the side of darkness.”

6 Similarly, Hertsgaard holds up the Muslim world as a model, quoting an Egyptian’s complaint about American individualism: “Parents [in the U.S.] don't know much about their children, and if they tell the kids not to do something, it doesn’t matter; they do it anyway. Here, family is more important.” Yes, Muslim children are indeed expected to obey absolutely. This is especially true of Muslim girls, a high percentage of whom are subjected to forced marriages and who, if they resist, risk an “honor killing” at the hands of their fathers or other male relatives. Is this Hertsgaard’s idea of admirable family values?

7 A DECLARATION OF INTERDEPENDENCE: Why America Should Join the World, by Will Hutton. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. $27.95. (Original U.K. title: The World We’re In.)

8 ROGUE NATION: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions, by Clyde Prestowitz. Basic Books. $26.00.

9 The innocuous-sounding mention of “charitable giving institutions” here refers to the discovery that Saudi “charities” fund terrorism.

10 Prestowitz’s selective approach to truths about the Arab and Muslim world is also exemplified in his reference to Charles Freeman, whom he quotes approvingly to the effect that “we need a war on arrogance as well as a war on terror.” Prestowitz identifies Freeman simply as “a longtime State Department official and former ambassador to Saudi Arabia”; one would never know from this that Freeman is an intimate of the House of Saud and head of the Saudi-funded Middle East Policy Council, and is, in the words of Matt Welch, one of “the rancid crew of non-Arabic-speaking ex-ambassadors to Saudi Arabia” who serve as apologists for Saudi leaders (a service for which, it is widely assumed, they are generously compensated).

11 BEING AMERICA: Liberty, Commerce, and Violence in an American World, by Jedediah Purdy. Alfred A. Knopf. $24.00.

12 AMERICA EMBATTLED: September 11, Anti-Americanism and the Global Order, by Richard Crockatt. Routledge. $90.00.

13 WHAT’S SO GREAT ABOUT AMERICA?, by Dinesh D’Souza. Penguin. $15.00p.

14 OF PARADISE AND POWER: America and Europe in the New World Order, by Robert Kagan. Alfred A. Knopf. $18.00.

15 Typical of this reflexive attitude was a December 2003 editorial in which the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet—dodging the controversial question of whether public schools should prohibit the wearing of head coverings by Muslim girls—made the ludicrous statement that the only solution to the conflict lay in taking the girls seriously as “partners in dialogue.”

16 ANTI-AMERICANISM, by Jean-François Revel. Trans. by Diarmid Cammell. Encounter. $25.95.

17 ICH BIN EIN AMERIKANER, by Herman Willis. Schibsted. 298kr. (Yes, the title is in German, but the book is in Norwegian.)

18 FRYKTEN FOR AMERIKA: En europeisk historie, by Stian Bromark and Dag Herbjørnsrud. Tiden. 329kr.

19 Similarly, Crockatt cites a 1928 British essay by C. E .M. Joad, “Does England Dislike America?” (Joad's answer: yes) and a 1930 French book entitled The American Cancer. (Plus ça change . . .)

20 In Ich Bin Ein Amerikaner, Willis meets a Southerner who doesn’t know where Norway is; Willis chooses to interpret this—with a vengeance—as proof not of his own country’s obscurity but of Southern feeble-mindedness.


Bruce Bawer’s book While Europe Slept is now in paperback. His website is at www.brucebawer.com.


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