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Anti-Europeanism in America

This year, especially if the United States goes to war against Iraq, you will doubtless see more articles in the American press on “Anti-Americanism in Europe.” But what about anti-Europeanism in the United States? Consider this:

To the list of polities destined to slip down the Eurinal of history, we must add the European Union and France’s Fifth Republic. The only question is how messy their disintegration will be.

(Mark Steyn, Jewish World Review, May 1, 2002)

And:

Even the phrase “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” is used [to describe the French] as often as the French say “screw the Jews.” Oops, sorry, that’s a different popular French expression.

(Jonah Goldberg, National Review Online, July 16, 2002)

Or, from a rather different corner:

You want to know what I really think of the Europeans?” asked the senior State Department Official. “I think they have been wrong on just about every major international issue for the past 20 years.”

(Quoted by Martin Walker, UPI, November 13, 2002)

Statements such as these recently brought me to the United States—to Boston, New York, Washington, and the Bible-belt states of Kansas and Missouri—to look at changing American attitudes toward Europe in the shadow of a possible second Gulf war. Virtually everyone I spoke to on the East Coast agreed that there is a level of irritation with Europe and Europeans higher even than at the last memorable peak, in the early 1980s.

Pens are dipped in acid and lips curled to pillory “the Europeans,” also known as “the Euros,” “the Euroids,” “the ‘peens,” or “the Euroweenies.” Richard Perle, now chairman of the Defense Policy Board, says Europe has lost its “moral compass” and France its “moral fiber.”1 This irritation extends to the highest levels of the Bush administration. In conversations with senior administration officials I found that the phrase “our friends in Europe” was rather closely followed by “a pain in the butt.”

The current stereotype of Europeans is easily summarized. Europeans are wimps. They are weak, petulant, hypocritical, disunited, duplicitous, sometimes anti-Semitic and often anti-American appeasers. In a word: “Euroweenies.”2 Their values and their spines have dissolved in a lukewarm bath of multilateral, transnational, secular, and postmodern fudge. They spend their euros on wine, holidays, and bloated welfare states instead of on defense. Then they jeer from the sidelines while the United States does the hard and dirty business of keeping the world safe for Europeans. Americans, by contrast, are strong, principled defenders of freedom, standing tall in the patriotic service of the world’s last truly sovereign nation-state.

A study should be written on the sexual imagery of these stereotypes. If anti-American Europeans see “the Americans” as bullying cowboys, anti-European Americans see “the Europeans” as limp-wristed pansies. The American is a virile, heterosexual male; the European is female, impotent, or castrated. Militarily, Europeans can’t get it up. (After all, they have fewer than twenty “heavy lift” transport planes, compared with the United States’ more than two hundred.) Following a lecture I gave in Boston an aged American tottered to the microphone to inquire why Europe “lacks animal vigor.” The word “eunuchs” is, I discovered, used in the form “EU-nuchs.” The sexual imagery even creeps into a more sophisticated account of American–European differences, in an already influential Policy Review article by Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace entitled “Power and Weakness.”3 “Americans are from Mars,” writes Kagan approvingly, “and Europeans are from Venus”—echoing that famous book about relations between men and women, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.

Not all Europeans are equally bad. The British tend to be regarded as somewhat different and sometimes better. American conservatives often spare the British the opprobrium of being “Europeans” at all—a view with which most British conservatives, still mentally led by Margaret Thatcher, would heartily agree. And Tony Blair, like Thatcher before him, and Churchill before her, is cited in Washington as a shining exception to the European rule.

The worst abuse is reserved for the French—who, of course, give at least as good as they get. I had not realized how widespread in American popular culture is the old English pastime of French-bashing. “You know, France, we’ve saved their butt twice and they never do anything for us,” Verlin “Bud” Atkinson, a World War II veteran, informed me at the Ameristar casino in Kansas City. Talking to high school and college students in Missouri and Kansas, I encountered a strange folk prejudice: the French, it seems, don’t wash. “I felt very dirty a lot,” said one college student, recalling her trip to France. “But you were still cleaner than French guys,” added another.

Two prominent American journalists, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times and Joe Klein of The New Yorker, back from extensive book tours around the United States, separately told me that wherever they went they found anti-French sentiment—you would always get a laugh if you made a dig at the French. The Na-tional Review Online editor and self-proclaimed conservative “frog-basher” Jonah Goldberg, who also can be seen on television, has popularized the epithet quoted above, “cheese-eating sur- render monkeys,” which first appeared in an episode of The Simpsons. Goldberg told me that when he started writing anti-French pieces for National Review in 1998 he found “there was a market for it.” French-bashing became, he said, “a shtick.”

1.

Clearly it will not do to throw together neoconservative polemics, Kansas City high school students’ prejudices against French bathroom behavior, remarks of a senior State Department official and senior administration officials, and then label the whole bag “anti-Europeanism.” As a European writer, I would not want to treat American “anti-Europeanism” in the way American writers often treat European “anti-Americanism.”

We have to distinguish between legitimate, informed criticism of the EU or current European attitudes and some deeper, more settled hostility to Europe and Europeans as such. Just as American writers should, but often don’t, distinguish between legitimate, informed European criticism of the Bush administration and anti-Americanism, or between legitimate, informed European criticism of the Sharon government and anti-Semitism. The difficult question in each case, one on which knowledgeable people may reasonably disagree, is: Where’s the dividing line?

We also need to keep a sense of humor. One reason Europeans like to laugh at President George W. Bush is that some of the things he has said—or is alleged to have said—are funny. For example: “The problem with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur.”4 One reason Americans like to laugh at the French is that there is a long Anglo-Saxon tradition—going back at least to Shakespeare—of laughing at the French. But there’s also a trap here. Conservative writ-ers such as Jonah Goldberg and Mark Steyn make outrageous statements, some of them obviously humorous, some semi-serious, some quite serious. If you object to one of the serious ones, they can always reply “but of course I was only joking!” Humor works by exaggeration and playing with stereotypes. But if a European writer were to describe “the Jews” as “matzo-eating surrender monkeys” would that be understood as humorous banter? Of course the context is very different: there has been no genocide of the French in the United States. Yet the thought experiment might give our humorists pause.

Anti-Europeanism is not symmetrical with anti-Americanism. The emotional leitmotifs of anti-Americanism are resentment mingled with envy; those of anti-Europeanism are irritation mixed with contempt. Anti-Americanism is a real obsession for entire countries—notably for France, as Jean-François Revel has recently argued.5 Anti-Europeanism is very far from being an American obsession. In fact, the predominant American popular attitude toward Europe is probably mildly benign indifference, mixed with impressive ignorance. I traveled around Kansas for two days asking people I met: “If I say ‘Europe’ what do you think of?” Many reacted with a long, stunned silence, sometimes punctuated by giggles. Then they said things like “Well, I guess they don’t have much huntin’ down there” (Vernon Masqua, a carpenter in McLouth); “Well, it’s a long way from home” (Richard Souza, whose parents came from France and Portugal); or, after a very long pause for thought, “Well, it’s quite a ways across the pond” (Jack Weishaar, an elderly farmer of German descent). If you said “America” to a farmer or carpenter in even the remotest village of Andalusia or Ruthenia, he would, you may be sure, have a whole lot more to say on the subject.

In Boston, New York, and Washington—“the Bos-Wash corridor”—I was repeatedly told that even people who know the Continent well have become increasingly indifferent toward Europe since the end of the cold war. Europe is seen neither as a potent ally nor as a serious potential rival, like China. “It’s an old people’s home!” said an American friend who attended both school and university in England. As the conservative pundit Tucker Carlson remarked in an exchange on CNN’s Crossfire:

Who cares what the Europeans think. The EU spends all of its time making sure that British bologna is sold in kilos not pounds. The whole continent is increasingly irrelevant to American interests.6

When I asked a senior administration official what would happen if Europeans went on criticizing the US from a position of military weakness, the gist of his response was: “Well, does it matter?

Yet I felt this claim of indifference was also overstated. Certainly, my interlocutors took a lot of time and passion to tell me how little they cared. And the point about the outspoken American critics of Europe is that they are generally not ignorant of or indifferent to Europe. They know Europe—half of them seem to have studied at Oxford or in Paris—and are quick to mention their European friends. Just as most European critics of the United States fiercely deny that they are anti-American (“don’t get me wrong, I love the country and the people”), so they will almost invariably insist that they are not anti-European.7

Anti-Americanism and anti-Europeanism are at opposite ends of the political scale. European anti-Americanism is mainly to be found on the left, American anti-Europeanism on the right. The most outspoken American Euro-bashers are neoconservatives using the same sort of combative rhetoric they have habitually deployed against American liberals. In fact, as Jonah Goldberg himself acknowledged to me, “the Europeans” are also a stalking-horse for liberals. So, I asked him, was Bill Clinton a European? “Yes,” said Goldberg, “or at least, Clinton thinks like a European.”

There is some evidence that the left–right divide characterizes popular attitudes as well. In early December 2002, the Ipsos-Reid polling group included in their regular survey of US opinion a few questions formulated for the purposes of this article.8 Asked to choose one of four statements about American versus European approaches to diplomacy and war, 30 percent of Democratic voters but only 6 percent of Republican voters chose “The Europeans seem to prefer diplomatic solutions over war and that is a positive value Americans could learn from.” By contrast only 13 percent of Democrats but 35 percent of Republicans (the largest single group) chose “The Europeans are too willing to seek compromise rather than to stand up for freedom even if it means war, and that is a negative thing.”

  1. 1

    The Guardian, November 13, 2002.

  2. 2

    Jonah Goldberg believes he coined this term, and relates it etymologically to a wiener sausage—as a metaphor for the European spine. However, an earlier coinage seems to be P.J. O’Rourke’s Rolling Stone essay “Terror of the Euroweenies.”

  3. 3

    Policy Review, No. 113 (June/July 2002). A book-length version will shortly be published as Of Paradise and Power (Knopf).

  4. 4

    Attributed to him by the London Times, July 9, 2002, quoting what someone told the Times journalist that Shirley Williams said that Tony Blair said that President Bush said to him. Blair’s spokesman, Alastair Campbell, denied that Bush said anything of the sort.

  5. 5

    Jean-François Revel, L’Obsession Anti-Américaine (Paris: Plon, 2002).

  6. 6

    June 12, 2001. For an Englishman this does raise an urgent question: What on earth is “British bologna”?

  7. 7

    Jonah Goldberg was the only person I met who was prepared to accept that he was “anti-European,” so long, he explained, as one means by “European” a certain kind of know-it-all, bureaucratic, liberal internationalist in Paris or Brussels.

  8. 8

    IPSOS US-Express, December 3–5, 2002. I am most grateful to Michael Petrou for arranging this.

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