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Hating America: Continued By: Bruce Bawer
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, November 19, 2004


II

Hertsgaard’s conviction that “foreigners can see things that Americans cannot” is echoed on the dust jacket of A Declaration of Interdependence: Why America Should Join the World.7 “Sometimes,” blurbs Robert Reich, Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, “it takes a non-American to hold a mirror to America and enable us to see what we’ve become.” The non-American here is the British columnist Will Hutton, formerly editor of the Observer. Though Hutton shares Hertsgaard’s tendency to find just about every aspect of American life repellent—and shares, too, Hertsgaard’s unoriginality (in the U.S., he quips witlessly, “worship at church is rivaled only by worship of the shopping mall”)—Hutton insists he loves America. (As proof, he lists his pop-culture preferences: “I enjoy Sheryl Crow and Clint Eastwood alike, delight in Woody Allen. . . .”) Indeed, he claims it’s his “affection for the best of America that makes me so angry that it has fallen so far from the standards it expects of itself.” Yet it soon becomes clear that for Hutton, the problem is not that America has abandoned its founding ideals; the problem is the founding ideals themselves.

The essence of Hutton’s argument is that “all Western democracies subscribe to a broad family of ideas that are liberal or leftist” (note the sly conflation here of “liberal” and “leftist,” which in Europe, of course, are opposites), and that first among these ideas is “a belief in the primacy of society” as opposed to the insidious “American belief in the primacy of the individual.” Hutton traces the prioritization of society over the individual back to medieval feudalism, which he holds up—hilariously—as an ideal. The trouble, he explains, started when Puritan individualists “who passionately believed that they could individually establish a direct relationship with God” emigrated to North America and invented “an explosively new and radical ideology” that justified “an individualist rather than a social view of property.” This led to the American Revolution, which Hutton compares unfavorably with its French counterpart of 1789, since the former put the individual first (bad) while the latter introduced a “new social contract” (good). “The European tradition,” he instructs us, “is much more mindful that men and women are social animals and that individual liberty is only one of a spectrum of values that generate a good society.” Well, he’s right: Europe has been more drawn than America to communitarianism than to individual rights—and it’s precisely this tragic susceptibility that made possible the rise of Fascism, Nazism, and Communism and that obliged the U.S. to step in and save the Continent from itself in World War II. Nonetheless, Hutton has the audacity to insist that “it would all be so much better if the United States rejoined the world on new terms”—if, in other words, Americans exchanged Jeffersonian values for the currently popular European “ism,” statism.

 

Thanks, but no thanks.

 

Hutton is a true statist, the sort of person who feels less than fully comfortable in societies where the government fails to make its presence sufficiently felt: “In a world that is wholly private,” he writes, “we lose our bearings; deprived of any public anchor, all we have are our individual subjective values to guide us.” Part and parcel of this philosophy (which might well be straight out of Mao’s Little Red Book) is an enthusiasm for, as he puts it rather clunkily, “publicly owned TV stations with a mandate to provide a universal public service as guarantors that ordinary citizens will have access to core news and comment delivered as objectively as possible.” In other words, the way to ensure objective reporting is to put the government in charge! Hutton is dismayed that the U.S. spends too little money on public TV and that “only 2.2 percent of viewers” watch it; by contrast, he’s delighted with “European governments and the EU,” because they’re “aggressive in their regulation of broadcasting content” and ban, for example, “racist expression.” He favors, in short, allowing government bureaucrats to decide what is and isn’t racist (or, for that matter, sexist or homophobic) and to punish transgressors. It’s breathtaking to see a writer so eager to quash freedom of speech. “While American broadcasters,” he notes, “plead the First Amendment’s commitment to absolute free speech, making public interest regulation almost impossible”—the knaves!—“Europe acts to ensure that television and radio conform to public interest criteria.” Public interest criteria: Hutton seems enamored of this sinister phrase. Though he admits that a penchant for such regulation once made Nazism “attractive” to “many Europeans,” Hutton is bizarrely confident that Europeans have put behind them their taste for tyranny. Yet his blithe rejection of free speech is a formula for tyranny.

 

At this writing, America’s nonfiction bestseller lists consist largely of boorish polemics from both left and right; The Eagle’s Shadow and A Declaration of Interdependence are meant to be a higher class of book. But Hertsgaard’s effort to convince Americans that they live in an entirely different country than the one they know, and Hutton’s attempt to talk Americans out of their commitment to individual freedom, are, in their own ways, as crude and coarse as anything by Michael Moore or Ann Coulter.

 

Like Will Hutton, Clyde Prestowitz, a former Foreign Service Officer and international businessman, begins his critique of America by telling us that his reproaches spring from affection, not antagonism, and that, although his book is entitled Rogue Nation, he “in no way mean[s] to equate the United States with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or any other brutal, dictatorial regime.”8 Why the title, then? Because for this ex-diplomat author, it would seem, a “rogue nation” is not necessarily one whose rulers butcher their subjects by the thousands but one whose leaders refuse to play the diplomatic game of pretending that their counterparts in countries like Saddam’s Iraq are something other than butchers. To be sure, Prestowitz has some good things to say about the U.S. (he points out, for instance, that Americans give twice as much to charity as Europeans, a fact that would shock most Europeans), and many of his criticisms (e.g., of American health insurance, oil dependency, and failure to respond more usefully to the fall of the Soviet Union) are thoroughly consistent with a belief that America is, on balance, a force for democracy and justice in the world. But for the most part Prestowitz comes off as agreeing with Hertsgaard and Hutton that America is an outlaw state whose cultural values and political system are fundamentally flawed and whose interactions with the outside world do more harm than good. With Prestowitz, it sometimes seems, America just can’t win: he blames it for interfering abroad and for not interfering; for giving too much money to other countries and for giving too little; for exercising too much control over the world economy and for exercising too little; for protecting U.S. jobs through tariffs and farm subsidies and for not protecting them. By contrast, he adores the EU; several of his blurbs are from top EU bureaucrats.

 

Indeed, I can’t recall when I last saw a book with so many celebrity endorsements (Zbigniew Brzezinski, Wesley Clark, David Gergen, etc.) on the dust jacket; and as if this weren’t enough, Prestowitz keeps reminding us of his high-powered connections throughout the book: “George Soros recently told me . . .”; “As Brazil’s ambassador to Washington . . . said to me . . .”; “As the former WTO chief . . . told me. . . .” The purpose of all this name-dropping, obviously, is to underscore his experience and authority; but one result of it is to paint a picture of a man whose social circle consists almost exclusively of ambassadors, finance ministers, and the like. Needless to say, experience counts; but to spend too much time hobnobbing with the affable subordinates of tyrants is to risk caring too much about the atmosphere at embassy soirées and too little about the quality of life of the people living under those tyrants’ heels. Indeed, Prestowitz, while paying occasional lip service to the notion that democracy matters and that some countries truly are oppressive dictatorships, tends to sympathize with his diplomatic colleagues from oppressive dictatorships who resent the U.S. for acting as if they are, well, oppressive dictatorships. He recalls, for instance, a dinner at which ambassadors from Egypt, Singapore, Nigeria, and other nations griped bitterly about America’s demand that its citizens be exempted from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. Instead of pointing out that these underlings of autocrats have a lot of nerve expecting the U.S. to subject its citizens to a court run by the likes of them, he shares their irritation at the U.S. for not playing ball.

 

Prestowitz (who is a Christian) is particularly uncritical of Arab and Muslim regimes. One of his blurbs is actually from former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who praises his “insightful analysis of how America is disappointing the world by failing to fulfill its own values.” This from a brutal despot who committed human-rights abuses, imprisoned his critics, and made headlines in 2003 with an ugly anti-Semitic speech! Prestowitz gives Saudi Arabia the kid-gloves treatment: ignoring ample evidence of Saudi complicity in acts of terrorism, he insists that the Saudis are our friends and that ordinary Saudis only began to turn against America when Americans, after 9/11, began turning against them. He reports a conversation with a friend of his, the “owner of a leading Saudi newspaper chain,” who said that his son, formerly a student at “a top U.S. preparatory school” and “a leading U.S. university,” was now attending “meetings of radical political and religious figures” and had become “not only strongly anti-American but also anti-Israeli.” Why? According to Prestowitz, the reason was “the sudden reversal of American attitudes” toward Saudi Arabia, as exemplified by post-9/11 media attention to that country’s “Islamic law, its veiling of women, its charitable giving institutions, its school system, its lack of democracy, and its support of the Palestinians.”9 Let’s get this straight: Prestowitz is arguing here that if Saudi Arabians, whose state-controlled newspapers (including, presumably, those owned by his friend) routinely churn out anti-American and anti-Semitic lies, have turned against America, it’s because the independent American press has begun telling the truth about Saudi Arabia. And where is Prestowitz’s sympathy in this case? Quite clearly, with Saudi Arabia—a country where there’s no freedom of religion or expression and where sons may be sent to foreign universities but daughters are not even allowed to drive.10

Representative of Prestowitz’s treatment of Israel, meanwhile, is the following comment: “The U.S media are so sensitive to Israeli criticism of their coverage that CNN, in a historic first, actually apologized in response to complaints that its reporting of Israeli-Palestinian battles in the town of Jenin was too favorable to the Palestinians.” The truth behind this statement is that CNN, like other news organizations around the world, repeatedly reported as factual the Palestinian claim that the Israelis had carried out a massacre in Jenin; after it was established that there had in fact been no massacre, CNN admitted its mistake. (Many other news organizations continue to echo this calumny.) For Prestowitz to represent the Jenin episode in the way that he does—and to ignore the strong anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian slant of most European news organizations—seems deliberately misleading. As with Hertsgaard and Hutton, his eagerness to assail America, a democratic nation, on so many counts while defending and/or sugarcoating authoritarian regimes around the world is disgraceful.

III

 

It’s a relief to turn from these writers to young Jedediah Purdy, who in Being America actually presents a recognizable picture of America and the world, conveys a genuine respect for American democracy, and refuses to sentimentalize countries that are rife with beggary and corruption.11 Like Hertsgaard, Purdy begins by asking why foreigners feel as they do about America; unlike Hertsgaard, he makes a serious attempt to answer the question. Traveling the Third World, he interviews religious and business leaders, activists and journalists, ambitious young would-be capitalists, and teenagers hanging out at malls. His conclusion? Quite simply, that the spread of democratic capitalism is essentially positive, though hardly problem-free; that young Third Worlders’ self-contradictions on the subject of America (cheering Osama one minute and Microsoft the next) reflects a simultaneous attraction to both American liberalism and anti-American violence; and that it’s in America’s interest to encourage the liberalism and discourage the violence.

 

Well, fine. But how? Purdy’s advice: America should approach the world with greater modesty, for “what we do well will speak for itself. It is better not to speak too loudly of one’s own principles.” Is it? Surely one of the major problems in intercultural contexts is that actions often don’t speak for themselves, and that if principles aren’t clearly spelled out, motives may be tragically misinterpreted. If Westerners, as Purdy affirms, need to understand better the way people in other cultures think, surely the Muslim world, by the same token, needs an intensive course in the concepts of pluralist democracy and equal rights. Purdy might also do well to recall that modesty in men is often viewed by Islamic cultures not as a virtue but as a contemptible sign of weakness. Every time one of Purdy’s young interlocutors expresses admiration for Osama bin Laden, Purdy tolerantly lets it slide; does he really think that by being passive in the face of such provocations he is increasing his interviewees’ respect for him, for America, or for democracy?

 

But while Purdy may not have a reasonable solution to anti-Americanism, he’s far better than Hertsgaard at explaining why it exists. We’ve seen Hertsgaard approvingly cite an Egyptian’s complaint about the unruliness of American children; Purdy, too, quotes an Egyptian—a Christian, as it happens—who explains, with refreshing honesty, that his own reason for hating America is that it welcomes Muslim immigrants and tolerates homosexuality. Purdy is to be congratulated for not sweeping such attitudes under the rug. (How many such remarks has Hertsgaard heard and chosen not to repeat?) Plainly, Purdy has no delusion that the foundations of anti-Americanism are noble; and he finds it ridiculous to speak of an “imperial America.” Yet he can still see why even highly Americanized foreigners refer to the U.S. as an empire. Why? Because as they struggle to learn and speak English and to find a comfortable meeting place between America’s culture and their own, these foreigners are acutely aware that Americans don’t have to make a comparable effort.

 

English is our language; American culture, our culture. It is our exemption from this otherwise global burden of adaptation, Purdy suggests, that makes us seem “imperial.” He’s right; indeed, an intense consciousness of the imbalance he describes, and the resentment it fosters among non-Americans, is an ever-present factor in the life of any remotely observant American expatriate. “While there is no need,” Purdy adds, “to admire or accept” the notion of American empire, “there is no escaping the need to understand it,” for “the idea of American empire is a part of the world’s imaginary landscape.” Purdy has a sense of proportion that Hertsgaard, Hutton, and Prestowitz lack; when discussing America and the world, his allotment of criticism and praise feels just about right. May his tribe increase.

 

The fact that Richard Crockatt is an academic (he teaches American history at the University of East Anglia) comes through clearly on every page of America Embattled: September 11, Anti-Americanism and the Global Order.12 In a plodding, prudent, professorial prose, Crockatt first sums up “how America sees the world” and “how the world sees America,” then offers a potted history of political Islam, of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, and of the war on terror, all the while patently seeking to strike an inoffensive balance, as if such a thing were possible with such a topic. Crockatt’s book has a cultivated colorlessness: he seems incapable of making the blandest assertion without qualifying it to death or using the word “arguably” (which recurs here with the frequency of expletives in a rap lyric). Whether the issue is globalization or the role of Israel, Crockatt painstakingly outlines the arguments for almost every imaginable position, only to move on, once that’s done, to the next issue, leaving the reader baffled as to where the author himself stands. To be sure, we’re given hints now and then: Crockatt seems more favorably inclined toward the U.N., NGOs, and the BBC than toward NATO, the IMF, or CNN; he tiptoes gingerly around the issue of European and Muslim anti-Semitism; he pays more attention to the purported U.S. mistreatment of prisoners at Guantánamo than to all of Saddam’s atrocities; and he is capable of stating, absurdly, that Le Monde cannot “be regarded as . . . anti-American.” But for the most part his book is a tame, toothless summary, a tissue of self-evident points (“An understanding of Islam must surely play a part in explaining the events of September 11”) that ends in conclusions whose obviousness (“September 11 brought terrorism to the forefront of the global agenda”) defies parody.

 

Dinesh D’Souza seeks not to encourage or explain anti-Americanism but to counter it by answering the question posed in his book’s title: What’s So Great about America?13 D’Souza, a former Reagan aide and longtime fixture at right-wing think tanks, reminds us that many of the Third World societies that leftists such as Hertsgaard and Hutton affect to admire are (hello!) fiercely reactionary. Indeed, D’Souza makes it clear that his own conservative moral perspective owes much to the traditional cultural values of his native India. “The critics of America,” he asserts—referring not to European socialists but to reactionary Muslims—are “onto something.” Their critique, he says, is moral in character, and D’Souza (a Catholic) gives little indication of disagreeing with their moral criteria, including their equation of morality with religious orthodoxy. “The West,” he proposes, “is a society based on freedom whereas Islam is a society based on virtue.” How about: Islamic societies enforce stifling Koranic notions of virtue, and punish infractions with brutal Sharia justice, while democratic societies do not presume to dictate individual moral convictions? D’Souza shares the Islamic view that “there is a good deal in American culture that is disgusting to normal sensibilities.” (He never tells us what he means by “normal”—and one is not sure one wishes to know.) Muslims, he notes, “say our women are ‘loose,’ and in a sense they are right.” (Yes, if by “loose” you mean that they have the same sexual freedom as men; it’s called “equal rights.”) The father of a young daughter, D’Souza says he has “come to realize how much more difficult it is to raise her well in America than it would be . . . to raise her in India.” (Yes, if by “raise her well” you mean—oh, never mind. You get the idea.)

 

Despite America’s lack of virtue, however—all the “crime, drugs, divorce, abortion, illegitimacy, and pornography” (given his track record, the omission of homosexuality from this list is surprising)—D’Souza chooses the U.S. over India. Why? Because “I know that my daughter will have a better life if I stay. I don’t mean just that she will be better off; I mean that her life is likely to have greater depth, meaning, and fulfillment in the United States than it would in any other country.” For he’s come to see that there’s “something great and noble about America”: namely, the fact that in the U.S., you’re “the architect of your own destiny.” He tries, not with undivided success, to distinguish between the founding American principle of self-determination (good) and the narcissistic do-your-own-thing mentality of the 1960s (not so good). As an example of the former, he movingly describes how his talk of feeling “called to be a writer” and of wanting “a life that made me feel true to myself” baffled his Indian father; as an example of the latter, he unfeelingly mocks a young man with “a Mohawk, earrings, a nose ring, tattoos” who waited on him at a Starbucks and whom D’Souza dismisses as “a specimen.” Not a pretty performance.

 

In Of Paradise and Power, Robert Kagan, who like Prestowitz worked for the State Department during the Reagan administration, serves up a dispassionate, definitive account of the current transatlantic strategic relationship. The book reminds us of some plain, but often obscured, facts.14 For one thing, America’s Cold War strategy of risking nuclear attack to protect Western Europe was “extraordinary”—a “historically unprecedented example” of “the most enlightened kind of self-interest.” For another, European history is not a cozy chronicle of congenial community, as Hutton and others would have it, but a long, grim tale of corrupt, power-mad kings and pointless, protracted, bloodthirsty wars. Europeans, Kagan points out, “invented power politics”; by contrast, “Americans have never accepted the principles of Europe’s old order nor embraced the Machiavellian perspective.” Far from evolving naturally out of the community-minded premodern Europe of Hutton’s (and others’) fantasy, moreover, the EU was the product of “an act of will” by “born-again idealists” set on “the integration and taming” of Germany. And why have these Machiavellians become idealists? Because they no longer have power —and, being powerless, they resent U.S. power, even when it’s used not to conquer but to help.

 

Which brings us to the thesis of this compact, meticulously argued work: that the “paradise” of peace and prosperity Europe now enjoys is made possible, quite simply, by American power. Provided with “security from outside,” Europe requires no power of its own; yet protected “under the umbrella of American power,” it’s able to delude itself that power is “no longer important” and “that American military power, and the ‘strategic culture’ that has created and sustained it, is outmoded and dangerous.” European leaders, says Kagan, see themselves as inhabiting a post-historical world in which war has been rendered obsolete by the triumph of international “moral consciousness”; yet most of them do not see or do not wish to see the great paradox: that their passage into post-history has depended on the United States not making the same passage. Because Europe has neither the will nor the ability to guard its own paradise and keep it from being overrun, spiritually and well as physically, by a world that has yet to accept the rule of “moral consciousness,” it has become dependent on America’s willingness to use its military might to deter or defeat those around the world who still believe in power politics.

 

In short, though the U.S. makes Europe’s “paradise” possible, “it cannot enter the paradise itself. It mans the walls but cannot walk through the gate . . . stuck in history, [it is] left to deal with the Saddams and the ayatollahs, the Kim Jong Ils and the Jiang Zemins, leaving most of the benefits to others.” And when it does address those threats, furthermore, it feels Europe’s wrath, for “America’s power and its willingness to exercise that power—unilaterally if necessary—constitute a threat to Europe’s new sense of mission.” If Europe’s intellectual and political elite was briefly pro-America after 9/11, it was because America was suddenly a victim, and European intellectuals are accustomed to sympathizing reflexively with victims (or, more specifically, with perceived or self-proclaimed victims, such as Arafat). That support began to wane the moment it became clear that Americans had no intention of being victims.

 

Of Paradise and Power (which the popular media have summed up by quoting Kagan’s memorable statement that “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus”) has drawn both praise and condemnation. In this reader’s opinion, it’s simply a straightforward, incontrovertible description of reality by an author whose eyes are wide open. To be sure, the Europe/America opposition appears at this writing to be somewhat less black and white than Kagan, writing prior to the invasion of Iraq, may have recognized. An attack on Iraq, he says, would be “an assault on the essence of ‘postmodern’ Europe . . . an assault on Europe’s new ideals, a denial of their universal validity.” Yet much of Europe, as we know, ended up endorsing that assault. In January 2003, leaders of Britain, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Hungary, Poland, Denmark, and the Czech Republic urged Europe to join the U.S. in opposing Saddam; in February, ten Eastern European nations issued a similar statement; in March, British, Danish, Spanish, and Polish troops took part in the invasion alongside Americans and Australians. There is, then, considerable resistance on the Continent—especially in former Iron Curtain coun- tries—to “postmodern Europe,” a concept intimately tied up, one might add, with French and German ambitions.

If America is founded on liberty—and on the idea that its preservation is worth great sacrifice—those who steer the fortunes of Western Europe have no strong unifying principle for which they can imagine sacrificing much. Their common cause is not liberty but security and stability; the closest thing they have to a unifying principle is a self-delusionary, dogmatic, indeed well-nigh religious insistence on the absolute value of dialogue, discussion, and diplomacy. This dedication has its positive aspects, but it can also make for moral confusion, passivity, and an antagonism to the very idea of taking a firm stand on anything.15 If, in the view of many Americans, a love of freedom and hatred of tyranny provide all the legitimacy required for taking actions like the invasion of Iraq, European intellectuals, having no such deeply held principles to guide them, turn instinctively to the U.N., as if it existed, like some divine oracle, at an ideal, impersonal remove from any possibility of misjudgment or moral taint.

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


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