A crucial reading for understanding not only those who hate the US but also understanding the American Left's and some American Liberal Democrats' need and want to have the World's approval.
by Bruce Bawer
I moved from the U.S. to Europe in 1998, and I’ve been drawing comparisons ever since. Living in turn in the Netherlands, where kids come out of high school able to speak four languages, where gay marriage is a non-issue, and where book-buying levels are the world’s highest, and in Norway, where a staggering percentage of people read three newspapers a day and where respect for learning is reflected even in Oslo place names (“Professor Aschehoug Square”; “Professor Birkeland Road”), I was tempted at one point to write a book lamenting Americans’ anti-intellectualism—their indifference to foreign languages, ignorance of history, indifference to academic achievement, susceptibility to vulgar religion and trash TV, and so forth. On point after point, I would argue, Europe had us beat.
Yet as my weeks in the Old World stretched into months and then years, my perceptions shifted. Yes, many Europeans were book lovers—but which country’s literature most engaged them? Many of them revered education—but to which country’s universities did they most wish to send their children? (Answer: the same country that performs the majority of the world’s scientific research and wins most of the Nobel Prizes.) Yes, American television was responsible for drivel like “The Ricki Lake Show”—but Europeans, I learned, watched this stuff just as eagerly as Americans did (only to turn around, of course, and mock it as a reflection of American boorishness). No, Europeans weren’t Bible-thumpers—but the Continent’s ever-growing Muslim population, I had come to realize, represented even more of a threat to pluralist democracy than fundamentalist Christians did in the U.S. And yes, more Europeans were multilingual—but then, if each of the fifty states had its own language, Americans would be multilingual, too.1 I’d marveled at Norwegians’ newspaper consumption; but what did they actually read in those newspapers?
That this was, in fact, a crucial question was brought home to me when a travel piece I wrote for the New York Times about a weekend in rural Telemark received front-page coverage in Aftenposten, Norway’s newspaper of record. Not that my article’s contents were remotely newsworthy; its sole news value lay in the fact that Norway had been mentioned in the New York Times. It was astonishing. And even more astonishing was what happened next: the owner of the farm hotel at which I’d stayed, irked that I’d made a point of his want of hospitality, got his revenge by telling reporters that I’d demanded McDonald’s hamburgers for dinner instead of that most Norwegian of delicacies, reindeer steak. Though this was a transparent fabrication (his establishment was located atop a remote mountain, far from the nearest golden arches), the press lapped it up. The story received prominent coverage all over Norway and dragged on for days. My inhospitable host became a folk hero; my irksome weekend trip was transformed into a morality play about the threat posed by vulgar, fast-food-eating American urbanites to cherished native folk traditions. I was flabbergasted. But my erstwhile host obviously wasn’t: he knew his country; he knew its media; and he’d known, accordingly, that all he needed to do to spin events to his advantage was to breathe that talismanic word, McDonald’s.
For me, this startling episode raised a few questions. Why had the Norwegian press given such prominent attention in the first place to a mere travel article? Why had it then been so eager to repeat a cartoonish lie? Were these actions reflective of a society more serious, more thoughtful, than the one I’d left? Or did they reveal a culture, or at least a media class, that was so awed by America as to be flattered by even its slightest attentions but that was also reflexively, irrationally belligerent toward it?
This experience was only part of a larger process of edification. Living in Europe, I gradually came to appreciate American virtues I’d always taken for granted, or even disdained—among them a lack of self-seriousness, a grasp of irony and self-deprecating humor, a friendly informality with strangers, an unashamed curiosity, an openness to new experience, an innate optimism, a willingness to think for oneself and speak one’s mind and question the accepted way of doing things. (One reason why Euro- peans view Americans as ignorant is that when we don’t know something, we’re more likely to admit it freely and ask questions.) While Americans, I saw, cherished liberty, Europeans tended to take it for granted or dismiss it as a naïve or cynical, and somehow vaguely embarrassing, American fiction. I found myself toting up words that begin with i: individuality, imagination, initiative, inventiveness, independence of mind. Americans, it seemed to me, were more likely to think for themselves and trust their own judgments, and less easily cowed by authorities or bossed around by “experts”; they believed in their own ability to make things better. No wonder so many smart, ambitious young Europeans look for inspiration to the United States, which has a dynamism their own countries lack, and which communicates the idea that life can be an adventure and that there’s important, exciting work to be done. Reagan-style “morning in America” clichés may make some of us wince, but they reflect something genuine and valuable in the American air. Europeans may or may not have more of a “sense of history” than Americans do (in fact, in a recent study comparing students’ historical knowledge, the results were pretty much a draw), but America has something else that matters—a belief in the future.
Over time, then, these things came into focus for me. Then came September 11. Briefly, Western European hostility toward the U.S. yielded to sincere, if shallow, solidarity (“We are all Americans”). But the enmity soon re-established itself (a fact confirmed for me daily on the websites of the many Western European newspapers I had begun reading online). With the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, it intensified. Yet the endlessly reiterated claim that George W. Bush “squandered” Western Europe’s post-9/11 sympathy is nonsense. The sympathy was a blip; the anti-Americanism is chronic. Why? In The Eagle’s Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World, American journalist and NPR commentator Mark Hertsgaard purports to seek an answer.2 His assumption throughout is that anti-Americanism is amply justified, for these reasons, among others:
Our foreign policy is often arrogant and cruel and threatens to “blow back” against us in terrible ways. Our consumerist definition of prosperity is killing us, and perhaps the planet. Our democracy is an embarrassment to the word, a den of entrenched bureaucrats and legal bribery. Our media are a disgrace to the hallowed concept of freedom of the press. Our precious civil liberties are under siege, our economy is dividing us into rich and poor, our signature cultural activities are shopping and watching television. To top it off, our business and political elites are insisting that our model should also be the world’s model, through the glories of corporate-led globalization.
America, in short, is a mess—a cultural wasteland, an economic nightmare, a political abomination, an international misfit, outlaw, parasite, and pariah. If Americans don’t know this already, it is, in Hertsgaard’s view, precisely because they are Americans: “Foreigners,” he proposes, “can see things about America that natives cannot. . . . Americans can learn from their perceptions, if we choose to.” What he fails to acknowledge, however, is that most foreigners never set foot in the United States, and that the things they think they know about it are consequently based not on first-hand experience but on school textbooks, books by people like Michael Moore, movies about spies and gangsters, “Ricki Lake,” “C.S.I.,” and, above all, the daily news reports in their own national media. What, one must therefore ask, are their media telling them? What aren’t they telling them? And what are the agendas of those doing the telling? Such questions, crucial to a study of the kind Hertsgaard pretends to be making, are never asked here. Citing a South African restaurateur’s assertion that non-Americans “have an advantage over [Americans], because we know everything about you and you know nothing about us,” Hertsgaard tells us that this is a good point, but it’s not: non-Americans are always saying this to Americans, but when you poke around a bit, you almost invariably discover that what they “know” about America is very wide of the mark.
In any event, The Eagle’s Shadow proves to be something of a gyp: for though it’s packaged as a work of reportage about foreigners’ views of America, it’s really a jeremiad by Hertsgaard himself, punctuated occasionally, to be sure, by relevant quotations from cabbies, busdrivers, and, yes, a restaurateur whom he’s run across in his travels. His running theme is Americans’ parochialism: we “not only don’t know much about the rest of the world, we don’t care.” I used to buy this line, too; then I moved to Europe and found that—surprise!—people everywhere are parochial. Norwegians are no less fixated on Norway (pop. 4.5 million) than Americans are on America (pop. 280 million). And while Americans’ relative indifference to foreign news is certainly nothing to crow about, the provincial focus of Norwegian news reporting and public-affairs programming can feel downright claustrophobic. Hertsgaard illustrates Americans’ ignorance of world geography by telling us about a Spaniard who was asked at a wedding in Tennessee if Spain was in Mexico. I once told such stories as well (in fact, I began my professional writing career with a fretful op-ed about the lack of general knowledge that I, then a doctoral candidate in English, found among my undergraduate students); then I moved to Europe and met people like the sixtyish Norwegian author and psychologist who, at the annual dinner of a Norwegian authors’ society, told me she’d been to San Francisco but never to California.
One of Hertsgaard’s main interests—which he shares with several other writers who have recently published books about America and the world—is the state of American journalism. His argument, in a nutshell, is that “few foreigners appreciate how poorly served Americans are by our media and educational systems—how narrow the range of information and debate is in the land of the free.” To support this claim, he offers up the fact that “internationally renowned intellectuals such as Edward W. Said and Frances Moore Lappé” signed a statement against the invasion of Afghanistan, but were forced to run it as an ad because newspapers wouldn’t print it for free. Hertsgaard’s acid comment: “In the United States, it seems, there are some things you have to buy the freedom to say.” Now, I didn’t know who Lappé was when I read this (it turns out she wrote a book called Diet for a Small Planet), but as for the late Professor Said, no writer on earth was given more opportunities by prominent newspapers and journals to air his views on the war against terror. In the two years between 9/11 and his death in 2003, his byline seemed ubiquitous.
Yes, there’s much about the American news media that deserves criticism, from the vulgar personality journalism of Larry King and Diane Sawyer to the cultural polarization nourished by the many publishers and TV news producers who prefer sensation to substance. But to suggest that American journalism, taken as a whole, offers a narrower range of information and debate than its foreign counterparts is absurd. America’s major political magazines range from National Review and The Weekly Standard on the right to The Nation and Mother Jones on the left; its all-news networks, from conservative Fox to liberal CNN; its leading newspapers, from the New York Post and Washington Times to the New York Times and Washington Post. Scores of TV programs and radio call-in shows are devoted to fiery polemic by, or vigorous exchanges between, true believers at both ends of the political spectrum. Nothing remotely approaching this breadth of news and opinion is available in a country like Norway. Purportedly to strengthen journalistic diversity (which, in the ludicrous words of a recent prime minister, “is too important to be left up to the marketplace”), Norway’s social-democratic government actually subsidizes several of the country’s major newspapers (in addition to running two of its three broadcast channels and most of its radio); yet the Norwegian media are (guess what?) almost uniformly social-democratic—a fact reflected not only in their explicit editorial positions but also in the slant and selectivity of their international coverage.3 Reading the opinion pieces in Norwegian newspapers, one has the distinct impression that the professors and bureaucrats who write most of them view it as their paramount function not to introduce or debate fresh ideas but to remind the masses what they’re supposed to think. The same is true of most of the journalists, who routinely spin the news from the perspective of social-democratic orthodoxy, systematically omitting or misrepresenting any challenge to that orthodoxy—and almost invariably presenting the U.S. in a negative light. Most Norwegians are so accustomed to being presented with only one position on certain events and issues (such as the Iraq War) that they don’t even realize that there exists an intelligent alternative position.
Things are scarcely better in neighboring Sweden. During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the only time I saw pro-war arguments fairly represented in the Scandinavian media was on an episode of “Oprah” that aired on Sweden’s TV4. Not surprisingly, a Swedish government agency later censured TV4 on the grounds that the program had violated media-balance guidelines. In reality, the show, which had featured participants from both sides of the issue, had plainly offended authorities by exposing Swedish viewers to something their nation’s media had otherwise shielded them from—a forceful articulation of the case for going into Iraq.4 In other European countries, to be sure, the media spectrum is broader than this; yet with the exception of Britain, no Western European nation even approaches America’s journalistic diversity. (The British courts’ recent silencing of royal rumors, moreover, reminded us that press freedom is distinctly more circumscribed in the U.K. than in the U.S.) And yet Western Europeans are regularly told by their media that it’s Americans who are fed slanted, selective news—a falsehood also given currency by Americans like Hertsgaard.
No less regrettable than Hertsgaard’s misinformation about the American media are his comments on American affluence, which he regards as an international embarrassment and a sign of moral deficiency. He waxes sarcastic about malls, about the range of products available to American consumers (whom he describes as “dining on steak and ice cream twice a day”), and about the fact that Americans “spent $535 billion on entertainment in 1999, more than the combined GNPs of the world’s forty-five poorest nations.” He appears not to have solicited the opinions of Eastern Europeans, a great many of whom, having been deprived under Communism of both civil rights and a decent standard of living, have a deep appreciation for both American liberty and American prosperity. But then Hertsgaard, predictably, touches on Communism only in the course of making anti-American points. For example, he recalls a man in Havana who, during the dispute over Florida’s electoral votes in the 2000 presidential contest, whimsically suggested that Cuba send over election observers. (Well, that would’ve been one way to escape Cuba without being gunned down.) Hertsgaard further sneers that for many Americans, the fall of the Berlin Wall proved that they lived in “the chosen nation of God.” Now, for my part, I never heard anyone suggest such a connection. What I do remember about the Wall coming down is the lack of shame or contrition on the part of Western leftists who had spent decades appeasing and apologizing for Soviet Communism. In any event, does Hertsgaard really think that in a work purporting to evaluate America in an international context, this smirking comment about the Berlin Wall is all that need be said about the expiration of an empire that murdered tens of millions and from which the U.S., at extraordinary risk and expense, protected its allies for nearly half a century?
The victory over Soviet Communism is not the only honorable chapter of American history that Hertsgaard trashes. World War II? Though he grants that the U.S. saved Western Europe, he puts the word “saving” in scare quotes and maintains that “America had its own reasons” (economic, naturally) for performing this service. September 11? Here, in its entirety, is what he has to say about that cataclysmic day: “Suddenly Americans had learned the hard way: what foreigners think does matter.” The Iraq War? An atrocity against innocent civilians—nothing more. There’s no reference here to Saddam’s torture cells, imprisoned children, or mass graves, no mention of the fact that millions of Iraqis who lived in terror are now free. Instead, Hertsgaard cites with approval a U.N. official’s smug comment that Americans, who never understand anything anyway, have failed to grasp “that Iraq is not made up of twenty-two million Saddam Husseins” but of families and children. For a proper response to this remark, I need only quote from an address made to the Security Council by Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari on December 16, 2003. Accusing the U.N. of failing to save Iraq from “a murderous tyranny,” Zebari said: “Today we are unearthing thousands of victims in horrifying testament to that failure. The United Nations must not fail the Iraqi people again.”5
Hertsgaard compares America unfavorably not only with Europe but—incredibly—with Africa. If “many Europeans speak two if not three languages,” he rhapsodizes, “in Africa, multilingualism is even more common.” So, one might add, are poverty, starvation, rape, AIDS infection, state tyranny and corruption, and such human-rights abominations as slavery, female genital mutilation, and the use of children as soldiers and prostitutes. Hertsgaard contrasts America’s “frenzied pace” with the “African rhythms” that he finds more congenial and notes with admiration that “Africans live in social conditions that encourage inter- change, discourage hurry, and elevate the common good over that of the individual.” In response to which it might be pointed out (a) that those “social conditions” generally go by the name of abject poverty and (b) that Hertsgaard fails to cite such recent examples of benign African “social . . . interchange” and expressions of concern for the “common good” as Mugabe’s terror regime in Zimbabwe, ethnic clashes in the Central African Republic, Somali anarchy, Rwandan genocide (800,000 dead), prolonged civil wars in Sudan (two million dead), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1.7 million dead), Liberia (200,000 dead), the Ivory Coast, and elsewhere, not to mention massacres of Christians by Muslims in Sudan and Nigeria. To recommend Africa to Americans as a model of social harmony without a hint of qualification is not just unserious, it’s hallucinatory.6
Every nation requires serious, responsible criticism, particularly if it’s the planet’s leading economic power, the arsenal of democracy, and the center of humanity’s common culture. But Hertsgaard’s criticism of America is neither serious nor responsible. Though at one point (apropos of American medicine and science) he concedes, with breathtaking dismissiveness, that “We Americans are a clever bunch,” he usually talks about his fellow countrymen as if they’re buffoons who have mysteriously and unjustly lucked into living in the world’s richest country, while most of the rest of the species, though far brighter and more deserving, somehow ended up in grinding poverty. For him, Americans’ intellectual mediocrity would seem to be a self-evident truth, but his own observations hardly exemplify the kind of reflectiveness a reader of such a book has a right to expect. For example, when he notes with satisfaction that the young Sigmund Freud “complained . . . incessantly about [America’s] lack of taste and culture,” Hertsgaard seems not to have realized that Freud was, of course, comparing the U.S. to his native Austria, which would later demonstrate its “taste and culture” by welcoming the Nazi Anschluss. One ventures to suggest that had Freud—who escaped the Gestapo thanks to intervention by Franklin D. Roosevelt—survived to see the liberated death camps in which his four sisters perished, he might well have revised his views about the relative virtues of American and Austrian culture.
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.
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.
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.
The Hudson Review Vol. LVII, No. 1 (Spring 2004)
Copyright © 2004 by The Hudson Review
June 13, 2003