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Anti-Americans Abroad

L’Ennemi américain: Généalogie de l’antiaméricanisme français

by Philippe Roger
Paris: Seuil, 602 pp., 26e(paper)

Le Livre noir des États-Unis

by Peter Scowen
Paris: Mango, 294 pp., 17e(paper)

Dangereuse Amérique: Chronique d’une guerre annoncée

by Noël Mamère and Patrick Farbiaz
Paris: Ramsay, 301 pp., 17e(paper)

Après l’empire: Essai sur la décomposition du système américain

by Emmanuel Todd
Paris: Gallimard, 233 pp., 18.50e(paper)

L’Obsession anti-américaine:Son fonctionnement, ses causes, ses inconséquences

by Jean-François Revel
Paris: Plon, 300 pp., 20e (paper)

1.

If you want to understand how America appears to the world today, consider the sport-utility vehicle. Oversized and overweight, the SUV disdains negotiated agreements to restrict atmospheric pollution. It consumes inordinate quantities of scarce resources to furnish its privileged inhabitants with supererogatory services. It exposes outsiders to deadly risk in order to provide for the illusory security of its occupants. In a crowded world, the SUV appears as a dangerous anachronism. Like US foreign policy, the sport-utility vehicle comes packaged in sonorous mission statements; but underneath it is just an oversized pickup truck with too much power.

The simile may be modern, but the idea behind it is not. “America” has been an object of foreign suspicion for even longer than it has been a beacon and haven for the world’s poor and downtrodden. Eighteenth-century commentators—on the basis of very little direct observation—believed America’s flora and fauna to be stunted, and of limited interest or use. The country could never be civilized, they insisted, and much the same was true of its unso- phisticated new citizens. As the French diplomat (and bishop) Talleyrand observed, anticipating two centuries of European commentary: “Trente-deux réligions et un seul plat” (“thirty-two religions and just one dish”—which Americans typically and understandably tended to eat in a hurry). From the perspective of a cosmopolitan European conservative like Joseph de Maistre, writing in the early years of the nineteenth century, the US was a regrettable aberration—and too crude to endure for long.

Charles Dickens, like Alexis de Tocqueville, was struck by the conformism of American public life. Stendhal commented upon the country’s “egoism”; Baudelaire sniffily compared it to Belgium (!) in its bourgeois mediocrity; everyone remarked upon the jejune patriotic pomp of the US. 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.

Like anti-Semitism, to which it was often linked, anti-Americanism was a convenient shorthand for expressing cultural insecurity. In the words of the Frenchman Robert Aron, writing in 1935, Henry Ford, F.W. Taylor (the prophet of work rhythms and manufacturing efficiency), and Adolf Hitler were, like it or not, the “guides of our age.” America was “industrialism.” It threatened the survival of individuality, quality, and national specificity. “America is multiplying its territory, where the values of the West risk finding their grave,” wrote Emmanuel Berl in 1929. Europeans owed it to their heritage to resist their own Americanization at every turn, urged George Duhamel in 1930: “We Westerners must each firmly denounce whatever is American in his house, his clothes, his soul.”1

World War II did not alleviate this irritation. Radical anti-Americanism in the early cold war years echoed the sentiments of conservative anti-Americanism twenty years earlier. When Simone de Beauvoir charged that America was “becoming Fascist,” Jean-Paul Sartre claimed that McCarthyite America “had gone mad,” the novelist Roger Vailland asserted that the fridge was an American plot to destroy French domestic culture, and Le Monde declared that “Coca- Cola is the Danzig of European Culture,” they were denouncing the same American “enemy” that had so alarmed their political opponents a generation before.2 American behavior at home and abroad fed this prejudice but did not create it. In their anger at the US, European intellectuals had for many decades been expressing their anxieties about changes closer to home.

The examples I have quoted are from France, but English ambivalence toward America is also an old story; the German generation of the 1960s blamed America above all for the crass consumerism and political amnesia of their parents’ postwar Federal Republic; and even in Donald Rumsfeld’s “new” Europe the US, representing “Western” technology and progress, has on occasion been blamed for the ethical vacuum and cultural impoverishment that global capitalism brings in its train.3 Nevertheless, anti-Americanism in Eu- rope at least has always had a distinctively French tinge. It is in Paris that European ambivalence about America takes polemical form.

Philippe Roger has written a superb history of French anti-Americanism, elegant, learned, witty. This enjoyable exercise, in the very best traditions of French scholarship, richly deserves to be published in English translation, unabridged. The book’s argument is far too subtle and intricate to summarize briefly, but the word “genealogy” in the title should be taken seriously. This is not strictly a history, since Roger treats his material as a “semiotic bloc”; and he doesn’t pay much attention to the record of French “pro-Americanism” that would need to be discussed to present a balanced account.

Instead, in nearly six hundred pages of close textual exegesis, Roger demonstrates not only that the core of French anti-Americanism is very old indeed, but also that it was always fanciful, only loosely attached to American reality. Anti-Americanism is a récit, a tale (or fable), with certain recurring themes, fears, and hopes. Starting out as an aesthetic distaste for the New World, French anti-Americanism has since moved through the cultural to the political; but the sedimentary evidence of earlier versions is never quite lost to sight.

Roger’s book is strongest on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His coverage of the twentieth century stops with the generation of Sartre—the moment, as he reminds us, when it became conventional for French anti-American texts to begin by denying that they were. That seems reasonable—there are a number of satisfactory accounts of the anti-Americanism of our own times and Roger is interested in tracing origins, not outcomes.4 And by ending short of the present he can permit himself a sardonic, upbeat conclusion:

What if anti-Americanism today were no more than a mental slavery that the French impose on themselves, a masochist 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.

Unfortunately, there is a fresh twist in the story. Anti-Americanism today is fueled by a new consideration, and it is no longer confined to intellectuals. Most Europeans and other foreigners today are untroubled by American products, many of which are in any case manufactured and marketed overseas. They are familiar with the American “way of life,” which they often envy and dislike in equal parts. Most of them don’t despise America, and they certainly don’t hate Americans. What upsets them is US foreign policy; and they don’t trust America’s current president. This is new. Even during the cold war, many of America’s political foes actually quite liked and trusted its leaders. Today, even America’s friends don’t like President Bush: in part for the policy he pursues, in part for the manner in which he pursues it.

This is the background to a recent burst of anti-American publications from Paris. The most bizarre of these was a book by one Thierry Meyssan, purporting to show that the September 11 attack on the Pentagon never happened. No airliner ever crashed into the building, he writes: the whole thing is a hoax perpetrated by the American defense establishment to advance its own interests. Meyssan’s approach echoes that of Holocaust deniers. He begins by assuming the non-existence of a well-accredited event, then reminds us that no amount of evidence—especially from firsthand witnesses—can prove the contrary. The method is well summarized in his dismissal of the substantial body of eyewitness testimony running counter to his claim: “Far from warranting their evidence, the quality of these witnesses just shows how far the US Army will go to distort the truth.”5

The most depressing thing about Meyssan’s book is that it was a best seller. There is an audience in France for the farther reaches of paranoid suspicion of America, and September 11 seems to have aroused it. More typical, though, is the shopping list of complaints in books with titles like Pourquoi le monde déteste-t-il l’Amérique?, Le Livre noir des États-Unis, and Dangereuse Amérique. The first two are by British and Canadian authors respectively, though they have sold best in their French editions; the third is coauthored by a prominent French Green politician and former presidential candidate.

Characteristically presented with real or feigned regret (“We are not anti-American, but…”), these works are an inventory of commonly cited American shortcomings. The US is a selfish, individualistic society devoted to commerce, profit, and the despoliation of the planet. It is as uncaring of its own poor and sick as it is indifferent to the rest of humankind. The US rides roughshod over international laws and treaties and threatens the moral, environmental, and physical future of humanity. It is inconsistent and hypocritical in its foreign dealings and it wields unparalleled military clout. It is, in short, a bull in the global china shop, wreaking havoc.6

Much of this is recycled from earlier criticisms of America. Peter Scowen’s complaints (his chapter headings include “Les atrocités de Hiroshima et de Nagasaki” and “Une culture vide”), like those of Sardar and Davies (“Amer- ican Hamburgers and Other Viruses”) or Mamère and Farbiaz (“L’américanisation du monde,” “Une croisade qui sent le pétrole” [A crusade smelling of oil]), blend traditional themes with new accusations. They are a mixture of conservative cultural distaste (America is ugly, rootless, and crass), anti-globalization rhetoric (America is polluting the world), and neo-Marxist reductionism (America is run by and for the oil companies). Domestic American critics add race into the mix—not content with trampling over everyone else, the US rides roughshod across its own history.7

Some of the criticisms of American policy and practice are well founded. Others are drivel. In their catalog of claims against America, Sardar and Davies blame the US for the cold war, imposed on a reluctant Western Europe: “Both France and Italy had major Communist Parties—and still do [sic]—but with their own very specific histories that owed little to Russia.” “International communism,” in other words, was an American invention. This revisionist myth died many years ago. Its posthumous revival suggests that an older, political anti-Americanism is gaining new traction from the Bush administration’s foreign ambitions.8 Once a rogue state, always a rogue state.

According to Emmanuel Todd, however, there is no need to worry. In his recent book, Après l’empire (also a best seller), he argues that the sun is setting on imperial America. We are entering a post-American age. America will continue to jeopardize international stability. But Europeans (and Asians) can take some comfort from the knowledge that the future is theirs. American military power is real, but redundant; meanwhile its tottering economy is vulnerably dependent upon the rest of the world, and its social model holds no appeal. Between 1950 and 1990 the US was a benevolent and necessary presence in the world, but not anymore. The challenge today is to manage America’s growing irrelevance.

  1. 1

    Emmanuel Berl, Mort de la pensée bourgeoise (Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1929, reprinted 1970), pp. 76–77; André Siegfried, Les États-Unis d’aujourd’hui (Paris: Colin, 1930), quoted in Michel Winock, Nationalisme, antisémitisme et fascisme en France (Paris: Seuil, 1982), p. 56. See also Georges Duhamel, Scènes de la Vie future (Paris: Mercure de France, 1930); Robert Aron and Arnaud Dandieu, Le Cancer américain (Paris: Rieder, 1931); and my own Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944–1956 (University of California Press, 1992), Chapter 10: “America Has Gone Mad: Anti-Americanism in Historical Perspective,” pp. 187–204.

  2. 2

    For Simone de Beauvoir, see her L’Amérique au jour le jour (Paris: Morihien, 1948), pp. 99–100. Sartre was commenting on the trial and execution of the Rosenbergs. Vailland’s thoughts on refrigeration, from his article “Le Ménage n’est pas un art de salon” (La Tribune des nations, March 14, 1952), are discussed by Philippe Roger in L’Ennemi américain, pp. 483–484. And see the editorial “Mourir pour le Coca-Cola,” Le Monde, March 29, 1950.

  3. 3

    For German representations of the price of Americanization see Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Marriage of Maria Braun (1979); or Edgar Reitz’s Heimat: Eine deutsche Chronik (1984), where the American impact on “deep Germany” is depicted as far more corrosive of values than the passage through Nazism. And it was Václav Havel, no less, who reminded his fellow dissidents back in 1984 that rationalism, scientism, our fascination with technology and change, were all the “ambiguous exports” of the West, the perverse fruits of the dream of modernity. See Václav Havel, “Svedomí a politika,” Svedectví, Vol. 18, No. 72 (1984), pp. 621–635 (quote from page 627).

  4. 4

    See Philippe Mathy, Extrême Occident: French Intellectuals and America (University of Chicago Press, 1993), and L’Amérique dans les têtes: Un Siècle de fascinations et d’aversions, edited by Denis Lacorne, Jacques Rupnik, and Marie-France Toinet (Paris: Hachette, 1986).

  5. 5

    Loin de créditer leurs dépositions, la qualité de ces témoins ne fait que souligner l’importance des moyens déployés par l’armée des États-Unis pour travestir la vérité“; see 11 septembre 2001, p. 23.

  6. 6

    See also Clyde V. Prestowitz, Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions (Basic Books, April 2003).

  7. 7

    According to Mark Hertsgaard, in The Eagle’s Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), Americans have long been in denial about their constitution’s origins in the practices of the Iroquois League, to which we apparently owe an unacknowledged debt for the concepts of states’ rights and the separation of powers. So much for Locke, Montesquieu, English Common Law, and the Continental Enlightenment.

  8. 8

    We are back in May 1944, when Hubert Beuve-Méry, future founder and editor of Le Monde, could write that “the Americans constitute a real threat to France…. [They] can prevent us accomplishing the necessary revolution, and their materialism lacks even the tragic grandeur of the materialism of the totalitarians.” Quoted by Jean-François Revel in L’Obsession anti-américaine, p. 98.

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