Monday, January 9, 2017

Anti-Americans Abroad

This essay by Tony Judt first appeared in the NYRB in 2003 just after the Iraq War had commenced, and I vaguely recall reading it at the time. It is a review of several French books about the United States. Anti-Americanism has a long history in Europe, and Judt briefly recounts it before examining the then-current state of affairs as reflected in these books:

Charles Dickens, like Alexis de Tocqueville, was struck by the conformism of American public life. Stendhal commented upon the country's "egoism"; Beaudelaire sniffily compared it to Belgium (!) in its bourgeois mediocrity; everyone remarked upon the jejune patriotic pomp of the United States. But in the course of the next century, European commentary shifted perceptibly from the dismissive to the resentful. By the 1930s, the United States' economic power was giving a threatening twist to its crude immaturity. For a new generation of anti-democratic critics, the destabilizing symptoms of modern life – mass production, mass society, and mass politics – could all be traced to America.

Judt seems to approve the most of Philippe Roger, who wrote:

What if anti-Americanism today were no more than a mental slavery that the French impose on themselves, a masochistic lethargy, a humdrum resentment, a passionless Pavlovian reaction? That would offer grounds for hope. There are few vices, even intellectual ones, that can long withstand the boredom they elicit. 

His reaction to the other books is mixed. Thierry Meyssan wrote a ridiculous best seller "purporting to show that the September 11 attack on the Pentagon never happened....the whole thing is a hoax perpetrated by the American defense establishment to advance its own interests." Emmanuel Todd "is right to say that asymmetric globalization – in which the United States consumes what others produce, and economic inequalities grow apace – is bringing about a world unsympathetic to American ambition." However, Judt finds poor argumentation and fallacies elsewhere in Todd's book. Jean-François Revel makes too many sweeping generalizations and goes overboard in defending America while pointing out social problems in France.

Judt concludes, somewhat off-topic, that "the Iraq crisis has exposed three kinds of weakness in the modern international system." First, the UN is inadequate for addressing such problems. Second, the EU is divided by "American mischief and European leaders' own incompetence." And third, "President Bush and his advisers have managed to make America seem the greatest threat to international stability....You don't have to be a French intellectual to believe that an overmuscled America, in a hostile international environment, is weaker, not stronger, than it was before."

Of course, Judt was fully aware that he was writing about an unfolding process, and here we are nearly fourteen years later with the situation generally looking worse. Although relations between Europe and the U.S. have superficially improved with the help of Barack Obama, who by European standards has been a more palatable president than George W. Bush, the actual conditions on the ground seem only to have deteriorated. Conflicts are still raging in the Middle East, Afghanistan is still politically unstable, the European immigration crisis is worsening, Russia has escalated its KGB tactics, the U.S. has just elected a president who makes George W. Bush seem thoughtful, and other countries are electing fascists. Unfortunately, I don't think Tony Judt would have the answers if he were still on the scene.

I am particularly inspired by Judt's expression of anti-Americanism, which, though subdued, has often been the only intelligent criticism to be found in the press here. The lack of focus by thinkers such as Noam Chomsky and movements such as Occupy Wall Street has made them seem like hollow echoes of the protests of the 1960's. Equally ineffectual, the publications of the intelligentsia seem to serve no purpose beyond the entertainment and self-aggrandizement of small, well-heeled elitist groups. More widely, in this country there is little awareness of European culture and history beyond Europe's appeal as a tourist destination for those who can afford it. As it is, not many Americans are interested in travel beyond their borders except to resorts in warm climates. The ways in which America remains deficient from my point of view have been voiced by few besides Judt. On the other hand, the outrage spawned by Trump's election and his behavior since may yet provide a solid basis for a new resistance to the crassness, materialism and shortsightedness that have come to dominate American public life. With the election of Donald Trump, the news media may have been sufficiently shamed by their dereliction of duty to work in the public interest again. At the moment he seems to be waging a losing war against the media, though only time will tell.

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