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Pride and Resentment By: Robert Howse
Policy Review | Thursday, November 06, 2003


Jean-François Revel.
L’Obsession anti-américaine: Son fonctionnement, ses causes, ses inconséquences (The Anti-American Obsession: How It Operates, Its Causes, and Its Lack of Consequence).
Plon. 299 pages. 20.00 
(Frontpage Editor's note: we have the English translation from Encounter Books available in our bookstore)

f you believed cnn around the time of the Iraq war, marching against the American empire had surpassed soccer as the weekend pastime of ordinary Europeans. Words like tragedy and crisis scream out from the op-ed pages of the “serious” media to describe the supposed breakdown in understanding and friendship between “Europe” and America. But how much of this is the bluster and rhetoric of elites and trendsters, and how much a reality that needs to be taken dead seriously?

Not the least of the merits of Jean-François Revel’s 2002 book — a bestseller in France (!) — is to demonstrate how European anti-Americanism is largely the creation and obsession of the (mostly Marxist or post-Marxist) chattering classes. Ordinary Europeans don’t hate the U.S., it turns out, at least not in large numbers. Indeed, as Revel argues, how in all fairness could they? The prosperity and freedom in Europe today are hardly imaginable without the Marshall Plan reconstruction and the security guarantees that America provided throughout the Cold War; economically and socially, contemporary Europe is the fruit of the liberalism of which, in many respects, according to Revel, the United States is the avant garde.

Now lacking a plausible alternative “projet de société,” the Marxist, or post-Marxist, European left is more and more tempted to define itself in terms of what it is against — America and the globalization of which America and its “empire” are supposed to be the driving forces. At the same time, this “anti-” outlook gets picked up and exploited, as Revel points out, by mainstream political and bureaucratic elites, who are anxious to draw attention away from the foreign and domestic policy failures of Europe itself. Thus, the attack on American “unilateralism” and “imperialism” masks the abject failure of Europe itself to agree on a plausible common foreign and defense policy. In the sense that the Europeans failed to propose any viable alternatives in dealing with terrorism and with Iraq and North Korea, according to Revel, “[American] unilateralism is their doing.” The violence of America’s inner cities, the lack of public health care in the U.S., and the failures of the “melting pot” to address cultural diversity — these are all convenient ways of making Europeans feel less bad about their own stagnant economies, crumbling welfare states, and the woes of managing the tensions in the schools and the streets produced by Western Europe’s large and growing Muslim populations. Citing a wide range of evidence, Revel provides Europeans with a reality check: Just as Europe today is not as compassionate, generous, and tolerant as European elites would like their citizens to believe, nor is the United States as Darwinian or Hobbesian.

ost of this is persuasive and laudable. Yet, like the ideologues that he deplores, Revel himself tends to go overboard with the rhetoric, if in an opposite direction. While the leftists he criticizes are downright paranoid about global liberal capitalism, Revel is simplistic in his unqualified praise for it. At times, he makes the same mistake as the critics — a straightforward identification of the globalization agenda with what America stands for. According to Revel, “what those who are marching against globalization are attacking is, for at least half a century, the most prosperous and creative capitalist democratic society. They are attacking liberalism or simply liberty, from which they are among the first to benefit, since they can move from one place to another on the spur of the moment, as they wish.”

But terrorism itself — on which Revel is rightly very hard — has been sustained by the global networks of information, of movement, and of people that go hand in hand with globalization (as Moisés Naím has pointed out in a recent and provocative article in Foreign Policy, “The Five Wars of Globalization,” January-February 2003). Nor are U.S. critics of globalization all guilty of American self-hatred, à la Susan Sontag. Some, including notable conservatives, are worried about the loss of democratic sovereignty, especially to global economic bureaucracies like the wto.

Another polemical exaggeration by Revel — and a very regrettable one — is the notion that Islam is necessarily radical, anti-liberal, and intolerant. He writes: “What dictates the Muslims’ vision of the world is the notion that all of humanity should respect the imperatives of their religion, while they themselves owe no respect to any of the religions of others.”

It is one thing — and quite correct — to counter the illusion that the current leadership of Islam is primarily moderate and responsible, despite a few “bad apples” whipping up the crowd. It is quite another to make generalizations about a religious faith that has taken many social and political forms — including the Islam of the medieval philosophers, influenced by Plato and Aristotle — over very many centuries.

Here Revel’s mistake comes from a deep flaw in his view of progress in human history. Perhaps even more so than the Francis Fukuyama of the “End of History,” Revel tends to see the global future as the American version of liberal capitalism — which is pragmatist, materialist, and hyper-individualist when viewed as a pure “ideal-type.” He thus tends to view any opposition to the predominance of this model as irrational resistance by fanatics or leftist “poor losers,” and, in comparison to America, Revel sees Western European societies and economies as imperfect and arrested versions of the liberal capitalist “ideal-type.” But, instead of linear progress, fast or slow, towards an American-style “ideal type” of liberal capitalism, might we not be witnessing important and defensible variants of liberal capitalism, and indeed compromises between capitalist or bourgeois liberty and socialist equality?

he french-russian philosopher Alexandre Kojève thought in those terms; it was his Hegelian idea of the end of history that led to Fukuyama’s speculations in the first place. According to Kojève, had liberal capitalism not adopted social welfare policies that were at first struggled for by the workers and the left, it might well have met the fate predicted by Marx himself. It is certainly questionable whether, as Revel sometimes suggests, the social welfare state built in Europe after the war reflected the difficulty that mainstream Western European politicians had in getting Marxism out of their systems and Communist Party ministers out of their cabinets. Rather, it could well have been a necessary and successful bulwark against the kind of social and economic instability that might have been disastrously exploited by Moscow. Revel suggests that Western Europe’s political leadership “never understood communism” and the threat it posed. But this is not warranted by the actual history of nato. Europeans deserve more credit, and ought to be prouder than Revel would suggest, for having resisted successfully the Marxist temptation, preserving the nato alliance, and integrating each others’ economies based on the ideal of a regulated and socially just market system.

To return to Kojève, writing at the end of the Second World War in his “Esquisse d’une doctrine de la politique française” (“Outline of a French Policy Doctrine,” forthcoming in English translation by Erik DeVries), he predicted not a linear progression to American-style liberal capitalism but a long period of empires, one being the Soviet Empire, and another the Anglo-American Empire (which would include Germany as long as it depended on the U.S. for defense against Soviet Russia). As for continental Europe, it wouldn’t be able to rival the military power of the Anglo-Americans, but, led by the French, it could, he thought, express a different sensibility, a way of life rather different from that adopted by the materialist, pragmatist, individualist Anglo-Americans.

Some of what Revel characterizes as anti-Americanism could be better understood as the search for such an alternative. The rejection of genetically modified (gm) foods, the “slow food” movement, even the much-reviled four-day work week suggest a (modestly) different set of value choices, a social model that is less driven by work, less concerned with savings of time and crude efficiency, more open to beauty, charm, and friendship.

To my mind, these differences, far from threatening to America or to the West, actually display the falsity of one kind of anti-American and anti-globalization prejudice — the notion that the Occident is a monolith, ideologically blinkered, and incapable of encompassing dissenting views about the best way of life. And this cannot be reduced to a left-right divide, either: American social conservatives cannot but be concerned, for instance, about the effects on family life of the obsession with work and more work among much of the U.S. middle class. In Europe, feminism has made as many or even more gains in achieving justified equality of opportunities as in the U.S., but without being nearly as culturally and socially divisive; generally speaking, European feminists have stayed away from misandry and have been less prepared to see differentiation of gender roles in the family and private life as threatening to equal respect between men and women. As the conservative Catholic communitarian Mary Ann Glendon has suggested in Abortion and Divorce in Western Law (Harvard University Press, 1989), some Western European societies have mapped out an approach to the issue of abortion that avoids (in Laurence Tribe’s words) the “clash of absolutes” that has characterized that controversy in America. In sum, one should not jump easily to the conclusion that the values of liberal capitalism have always been better or more adequately implemented in America than in Europe, and this is true whether one is on the left or the right, or neither.

And that may make a difference in how Americans ought to respond to European criticism, an issue not addressed head-on by Revel because his book is really pitched at a French audience. Writing in the New York Review of Books (February 13, 2003), Timothy Garton Ash has recently bemoaned the crude anti-Europeanism of some conservative pundits and activists in the United States.

Anti-Europeanism is a silly answer to anti-Americanism for a number of reasons. One, which goes to a central finding of Revel’s study, is that despite being bombarded with anti-Americanism by their elites, ordinary Europeans are really not that anti-American. So why turn them into enemies by blaming them for animosity that they don’t actually possess? Second, as has just been discussed, some criticisms of America by Europeans may represent a respectable and justified pride in doing certain things better and differently than they are done on the other side of the Atlantic. Such a pride in difference is part of the psychology of the collective self-respect of any society, including a liberal democratic one — it becomes pathological when it spills out into hatred and jingoism, but it need not do so. Dealing with transatlantic differences can be exasperating, true, but it is wrong to view such differences as necessarily a threat or an act of hostility to America, as for example does Andrew Sullivan, writing in the New Republic (June 16, 2003): “France’s intentions, as we now know from bitter experience, are essentially hostile to the United States, culturally, economically, diplomatically.” In contrast, a more subtle and balanced view of American-French differences is offered by a recent Merchant/Ivory movie, Le Divorce, which portrays the differences as a source not only of frustration and heartache, but of fascination, humor, and even self-discovery for Americans.

Finally, there is a degree of anti-Americanism that simply goes with the role of being the world’s only superpower. And indeed this is one of Revel’s most keenly observed points.

In Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War, the Athenians with brazenness or honesty — depending on one’s point of view — admit that it is natural for the governing elites of the lesser cities to resent their imperial power. But the Athenians also believe that those same elites should be grateful that the Athenians’ imperialism is gentle and brings benefits for all. When gratitude is not forthcoming, the Athenians are piqued, despite the law of human nature about resentment of power that they themselves acknowledge, and such pique leads to misjudgments of strategy and interest.

Americans, even (and much) more than the ancient Athenians, want to be popular. But popularity may not always be easy to square with the role that the U.S. is now fated to play in the world. Americans should accept a certain degree of unpopularity as at times inevitable. This means, above all, not trying to be popular at the cost of failing to do what is right (the typical argument of the kind of American left-liberals who think we should panic about irritating the French over Iraq).

At the same time, Americans should be dispassionate and clear-headed enough not to resent others who fail to welcome the U.S. with open arms, even if those others themselves stand to gain from America’s global role. We should remember that the French and the Germans and most other peoples with a strong self-concept aren’t mostly interested in being popular — respected, feared, admired, deferred to, envied, yes, but popular, hardly.

Contrary to one fashionable narrative, America was not attacked on September 11 because it was unpopular, but rather because it was seen as vulnerable. Bin Laden hit the nail on the head in one of those taped monologues. If there is a strong horse and a weak horse, people will bet on the strong horse (or the horse that looks strong, one should add). That isn’t some verse from the Koran; it’s more or less a translation of Machiavelli’s dictum that it is better to be feared than loved; love can go hand in hand with contempt, and contempt can lead to one’s enemies being emboldened.

Perhaps the most important failure of Revel’s book is to explore the role of contempt, or the idea of America’s weakness, in anti-Americanism, especially that of Islamic extremists living in Europe. This is the notion that, for all its apparent economic and military might, America is a nation of decadent, hedonistic cowards who scare easily. Now, this is one anti-American prejudice that does have consequences, but ironically, Revel is ill-situated to rail against it. For it was Revel himself in How Democracies Perish (Doubleday, 1984) who warned that Western societies, including and especially the United States, might not have the backbone to stand up to anti-liberal, anti-Western extremism. I wonder whether he is aware of how he played into the one kind of anti-Americanism that we really have to worry about.

Robert Howse is professor of law at the University of Michigan and coeditor (with Kalypso Nicolaidis) of The Federal Vision: Legitimacy and Levels of Government in the United States and the European Union (Oxford University Press, 2001).




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