November 21, 2005

HARDLY AMORPHOUS:

The Anti-Anti-Americans: FRANCE'S FAILURES, HATREDS, AND SIGNS OF A NEW LOOK AT AMERICA (Paul Berman, 11.21.05, New Republic)

[T]he French watched aghast as, post-September 11, Bush and the Texas barbarians brushed aside the Geneva Conventions and other aspects of normal legality, and the obscurantist Christian bigot John Ashcroft took charge of American law, and the widely predicted American crimes of war did in fact get underway in several parts of the world, quite as if Bush were striding the globe with his six-shooter, dispatching prisoners at random with a cheerful yippee-yi-yo.

The French began to hear about an oppressive political atmosphere in America--the sort of atmosphere in which American magazines and newspapers could shortly expect to be crushed under Washington's iron heel, and political dissidents could expect to be violently suppressed, and power would fall into the hands of a tiny sinister clique. And this most sinister of anti-democratic cabals--who were its members, exactly? Here followed the murmurings about neoconservatism and the heavy hand of Israel on the American steering wheel.

Nor was America's lurch into a post-democratic, ultra-montane, and crypto-Zionist authoritarianism going to bestow upon the world any of the benign effects that might be expected from a well-administered dictatorship--a reliable sense of security, for instance. On the contrary! [...]

What, after all, is this amorphous thing, anti-Americanism? A reasonable person might even wonder if such a phenomenon actually exists. In our modern world, hardly anyone outside of the fervid ranks of the most extreme Islamism and movements of that sort will acknowledge harboring any kind of top-to-bottom contempt or hatred for America at all--only a mix of yay and nay on American themes, as with any country and its failures and achievements. Emmanuel Todd, in his After the Empire, goes so far as to emphasize that he has an American ancestor, who was Jewish to boot.

Here is our problem, though. If a popular doctrine or bias that could be described as anti-American does, in fact, exist, the doctrine or bias could only resemble, in this respect, racism and anti-Semitism in their modern-day versions--attitudes that not one person with a cosmopolitan or sophisticated outlook will ever acknowledge harboring. Yet if no one admits to holding any such opinions, how can we possibly even begin to identify or to define the attitude in question?

People criticize the United States for all kinds of reasons, and anyone who wanted to provide a definition for anti-Americanism would have to begin by distinguishing very carefully between one criticism and the next--between indisputable criticisms (which nobody could regard as anti-American); and certain kinds of disputable ones (which, no matter how outlandish, might nonetheless be honestly arrived at, betraying no hint of ideological hostility, and therefore should not seem to us anti-American); and criticisms that do, in fact, reflect a hidden system of bias and contempt.

But how to make such distinctions? The task is rendered doubly difficult by a pro-American demagoguery that is always seizing on silly or hateful comments about the United States and using those remarks to dismiss even the most fair-minded and well-intentioned of criticisms, such that anyone who merely glances sideways at a flaw or failing in the United States can end up getting hanged as an avatar of beastly anti-Americanism. In order to make sense of anti-Americanism, we would have to find a reasonably reliable method of sorting out the possible criticisms, and sorting out the criticisms of the criticisms, too--a hugely complicated business, awash in the murks of subjective judgment, where no two people are ever going to agree, nor even any one person, given that everybody has his moods. It is hard to know even how to begin. [...]

The era of modern European states got started with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which proposed a newly secular vision of the perfect society--a society in which every state was going to live in tranquility behind its defined borders and respect the borders of every other state. But the Jews scattered themselves (and were scattered) all over Europe, regardless of borders--in plain demonstration, once again, that the vision of universal perfection stood at odds with the human reality. And hatred poured down once again upon the living examples of human imperfection. Today we have moved into a new era, post-Westphalian, in which, now that France and Germany have made their peace, people look on national states no longer as the source of perfection but as the source of evil. Today the fashion is to imagine that a perfect society can only be a global community, superseding the traditional states--an international community in which no one is going to be the enemy of anyone else.

And yet, in the face of this new vision of the perfect world, the Israelis keep on behaving as if they do have enemies, and decline to entrust their fate to their neighbors or to the international community. And so, once again, out of love for an ideal, people end up gazing upon the Israelis, or upon Israel's supporters in other countries, and seeing in those people the horrid sign of the human condition--the retrograde Israelis and their supporters whose behavior attests to the lack of human perfection. And hatred pours down, just as it has always done.

In Glucksmann's picture, the Americans reap a very similar hatred--a hatred that arises out of the desire for the perfect international community that would surely exist, if only the Americans stopped being so aggressively hostile. This desire, in regard to the United States, has passed through two phases in the last sixty years, each time with the same outcome. In the earlier phase, the perfect world was pictured largely in communist terms--a world in which a healthy and prosperous "peace" was imagined as the Soviet goal, and "imperialism" as the American goal.

It was the United States that disrupted this version of a perfect world by pursuing its imperial ambitions--the United States, therefore, that merited a genuine rage, whether in regard to the Korean War (which sparked massive protests in Paris), or fifteen years later in regard to the Vietnam War, or another fifteen years later in regard to Ronald Reagan's arms race against the Soviets. Then communism, having turned out to be the actual example of odious imperialism, collapsed, and a certain kind of left-wing hope evaporated. Even so, a new vision of world peace emerged, and once again the United States loomed as the principle threat.

The perfect society, this time, was pictured as the rueful progeny of Europe's failures of the past--a new international system that arose out of the recognition that Europe needed to come to grips with its own disasters. In this new and modern idea, modesty reigned as the highest of virtues, and a peaceful and prosperous world was pictured as on the brink of emerging, if only everyone would accept the new spirit of ruefulness. And yet, the United States demurred once again, and, after September 11, went about behaving as if global perfection were not at hand, and things ought to be shaken up, and tyrants overthrown.

And so, like the woman whose human qualities mark her as the enemy of amorous bliss, and like the Jew who is imagined as the betrayer of one version after another of the perfect state of grace, the Americans come to be seen as the people who keep destroying the perfect world of peace that would otherwise prevail--the peaceful world that communism claimed for itself long ago, and that, in the post-communist era, is claimed by the rueful opponents of all communist-like projects to re-make the world. And hatred pours down--a hatred in the name of love for a perfect and peaceful world that is actually a hatred for the human condition. A hatred of the imperfect self. Or so argues André Glucksmann.


Mr. Berman, as is his wont, tiptoes so close to a great insight here but misses it because of his residual Leftism. It's all just about the French Revolution's promise of absolute security (state-guaranteed egalite) vs. the American Revolution's promise of relative freedom (Created Equal by God). Bad enough that our vision is in direct conflict with theirs, even worse that ours is true and universally applicable, while theirs an unrelenting failure everywhere it's obtained.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 21, 2005 5:36 PM
Comments

"Then communism, having turned out to be the actual example of odious imperialism, collapsed, and a certain kind of left-wing hope evaporated. Even so, a new vision of world peace emerged, and once again the United States loomed as the principle threat."

It didn't passively fold, Reagan stove it in when he abandoned the Nixonian "peace" goal and substituted the wholesome and traditional goal of Freedom.

Bush II is guilty of the same crime.

It's a pity for someone to be made a slave, but disgusting for someone to want to be one. Let France and the New Republic wallow.

Posted by: Luciferous at November 21, 2005 6:14 PM

Luciferous:

Always important to keep reminding folks that the same lot who want to end the democratization of the Middle East now were opposed to the democratization of Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa then.

Posted by: oj at November 21, 2005 6:19 PM

Anti-Americanism is jealousy, pure & simple. Made even more infuriating by the fact that those who hate us know they can't compete with us without becoming more like us, as oj notes...

Posted by: b at November 21, 2005 6:43 PM

Balance, boys, balance. Do not make unnecessary choices when a blend is so obviously the optimal path. Your women would make the opposite choice anyway. Compromise is the ticket.

Posted by: ghostcat at November 21, 2005 7:22 PM

Can anyone really read Mr. Berman's piece as anything but a satiric treatment of anti-American writing?

'Nor was America's lurch into a post-democratic, ultra-montane, and crypto-Zionist authoritarianism going to bestow upon the world any of the benign effects that might be expected from a well-administered dictatorship--a reliable sense of security, for instance. On the contrary! [...]'

Posted by: Kurt Brouwer at November 21, 2005 7:38 PM

Mr. Brouwer:

His insincts are excellent. His fear of his peers holds him back.

Posted by: oj at November 21, 2005 8:45 PM

His instincts may be good but if he is so in tune with his peers that he does not trust himself, then he has more problems that just his fear of the peers. The man has a major problem in even believing himself. He starts out OK but when it comes to reaching his conclusions he is so programmed that he cannot do it. That is not the sign of an intelligent man; that is the sign of an ideologue who cannot even believe that which he professes but is too afraid to do or say anything else. I pity him.

Posted by: dick at November 21, 2005 9:40 PM

In short, we're right.

Posted by: Sandy P at November 21, 2005 9:47 PM

The September 11 attacks of four years ago ignited in France a burst of ardent solidarity with America, but also a series of chillier responses, which can be described and classified.....

Horsehockey about the ardent solidarity.

Must not have read Le Monde.

Posted by: Sandy P at November 21, 2005 10:01 PM

Berman's summary of Europe's past was so full of egregious errors I could hardly believe this was the same Berman who has written quite sensibly elsewhere.

"America in the modern age had ceased being the benign and generous power that so many people flattered themselves on remembering from the glorious days of Franklin Roosevelt..."

Duh! This is a distinctly rose-tinted rear view mirror. In fact the French left was fiercely and consistently anti-American before, throughout and after WWII.

"The signs of America's transformation had already begun to appear during the Clinton years--most horrifyingly, during the struggle against Milosevic's Serbia and the NATO air campaign, which in some people's estimation already suggested an eerie parallel between modern America and Hitlerian Germany."

In fact the left in France loved Clinton, and never concerning themselves with the visible lack of UN authorization for the US's activities in Serbia.

"Then Clinton's successor ascended the White House, and everything about the new president, each strange tic and motion--the street thug's swagger, the inability to compose his face into a civil expression, the problem with alcohol, the apparent lack of formal education, and so forth--conjured in Europe the worst of clichés about Texas barbarism."

In fact, the history of the postwar period establishes with 100% certainty that the only thing necessary to conjure clichés of American barbarism and comparisons to Hitler is that the US president be a Republican.

All this before we get past Berman's second paragraph! In his next paragraph we find possibly the most fantastic illusion in the whole piece:

"France during the last sixty years has achieved a gigantic victory, and this has been to make peace with Germany... A century and a half of catastrophic wars were brought to a pleasant and profitable end--an occasion for quiet joy and perpetual self-congratulation... France's achievement was undeniable and vast... The French put an end to 150 years of war with Germany"

Excuse me? France's victory? "An occasion for... self-congratulation"? "Undeniable"? "The French put an end to 150 years of war with Germany"? I don't think so.

In this article Berman does a good job of depicting the fantasy life the French have been leading for the better part of a century, but that's about it.


Posted by: ZF at November 21, 2005 10:23 PM

ZF's comments are fair, but it still overall an interesting article. At times it is hard to know what are Berman's views and what is just his take on French views. He certainly shows his leftist colours when he agrees with Sartre's critique about the lack of cafes in America. Quelle horreur!

There is more than one anti-Americanism out there and they can be quite different. With China and Russia, it's just a function of your presence and consequent challenge to Slavic irredentism and celestial harmony--if it weren't you it would be someone else. Within the Anglosphere, it's more like a family feud--you have countries like Britain trying to hang on to an aristocratic-based self-esteem you keep mocking by your successes and Canada, which needs a psychological trick to justify our neurotic efforts to distance ourselves from the huge neighbour we ape so enthusiastically. Comes and goes.

But as Hollander's excellent book shows, there are three countries where anti-Americanism is deep, timeless, hateful and intractable---France, Germany and the United States.

Posted by: Peter B at November 22, 2005 7:10 AM

Peter B:

Don't forget, that book has a chapter on Canada as well.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at November 22, 2005 8:16 PM

Biases or not, I thought it was a priceless read. Managed to articulate some answers for me which have only been partly formed and muddled. All the spleen-filled polemic I've heard for the last few years just kept me wondering "what the hell is WRONG with those people?" Now I've got a partial answer.

Posted by: Sam_S at November 23, 2005 10:44 AM
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