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Paul Berman on French Anti-Anti Americanism

Paul Berman is an American intellectual who's generally left-learning, but recently surprised quite a few people by supporting the Iraq war.  He's now returned to less controversial ground with a long, perceptive review-essay on anti-Americanism in the New Republic.  Unfortunately, the essay is behind a paywall, but I will give you generous free excerpts here, because I think he makes some interesting points.  (Be warned: Berman's prose can be a little foggy at points).

Berman focuses on a crop of recent books dealing with French anti-Americanism.  Among them is The American Enemy: The History of French Anti-Americanism, by Philippe Roger (it gets Berman's best marks, "solid and scholarly"), Anti-Americanism, by Jean-François Revel, and Le discours de la haine by André GlucksmannBerman speaks French and Spanish and spends much time on the Continent, so he, like me, has had the experience of seemingly sane people recite the most ludicrous anti-American conspiracy theories: George Bush and the CIA/Mossad staged 9/11, religious zealots are secretly taking over the government, the creeping fascism in America's DNA is about to take over the entire body politic, if it hasn't done so already, etc.:

How seriously did people in France cling to these beliefs? Here is a puzzling question. Modern political life is a landscape befogged with mists and clouds of halfway held fugitive opinions--the kind of landscape that allows an intelligent and well-educated person to say with perfect sincerity, "George W. Bush is a fascist and the United States is on the brink of becoming Nazi Germany," and yet allow that same earnest person cheerfully to acknowledge, in the next breath, that, come January 2009, Bush and his entire fascist crew of Zionist conspirators are absolutely guaranteed to vacate the White House in favor of a new and popularly elected team, who might well be Bush's fiercest opponents.   

The further away from power someone feels himself to be, the easier it is to wander into these foggy zones of half-believed beliefs, freed of any responsibility to subject any given opinion to the simplest of common-sense tests. In France, even the most sophisticated of people have felt themselves to be located ever further away from the power that is American, and triply so after Bush decided, by abolishing diplomacy, to make a public show of his indifference to French opinion; and this has given a powerful allure to the half-believed beliefs. Nor are the French unusual in this respect, by the way. A fairly astonishing number of serious and prestigious journalists and intellectuals throughout Europe harbor a suspicion right now that, in the age of the possibly crypto-fascist Bush regime, America has turned away from civilization--an opinion that I have heard repeated in one country after another, usually in a tone of sad and anxious concern, the way that someone might express worry about a friend with advanced cancer. And, naturally, there are always professors from America at hand [or Michael Moore, as Berman mentions in another passage] to assure their European colleagues that life in America is sheerest hell, and dissident opinions are about to be crushed under the iron heel, and Bush is a sort of Hugo Chávez, if not far, far worse--just to make these fears seem realistic.

As for the less sophisticated European observers, they have, in a staggering percentage of cases, allowed their own beliefs to wander into fields of purest fantasy that, at some level, every reasonable person knows to be untrue but are, even so, wonderfully amusing and satisfying to uphold, and are therefore irresistible. A writer named Thierry Meyssan came out with a book called Le 11 Septembre 2001, l'effroyable imposture (translated into English as 9/11: The big lie)--which postulates that September 11 was a plot by the FBI and other sinister agents, and that no airplane ever did crash into the Pentagon, and the Jews knew in advance about the World Trade Center. Meyssan's book expresses aspects of the paranoid and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that sprouted up instantly in large parts of the Muslim world after September 11. It goes without saying that, in the French newspapers, Meyssan was denounced right away as a sort of Holocaust denier. Libération, the hip left-wing daily, played an honorable role in this regard.

Even so, Meyssan's ideas received a more respectful attention in some places--for instance, in Le Monde diplomatique, which is something like The Nation in the United States. An enormous public read Meyssan's book--read it with raised eyebrows, possibly, but read it. A month after publication, the publisher claimed to have sold nearly 200,000 copies, and the book remained number one on the best-seller lists for many weeks. Meyssan's book served as a freaky counterpart to Emmanuel Todd's saner and calmer After the Empire, with one of those volumes predicting America's impending doom, and the other denouncing the infinitely sinister quality of America's evil conspiracies, and both books reigning in the bookstores--this, in a country of supremely cultivated book-buyers.

Later, Berman emphasizes that this sort of viral, sinister anti-Americanism must be separated from honest critiques of American policy:

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

But how to make such distinctions? The task is rendered doubly difficult by a pro-American demagoguery that is always seizing on silly or hateful comments about the United States and using those remarks to dismiss even the most fair-minded and well-intentioned of criticisms, such that anyone who merely glances sideways at a flaw or failing in the United States can end up getting hanged as an avatar of beastly anti-Americanism.


Roger in his book cites a number of accusations that make me respond, [Theodore] Dreiser-like, with a rueful feeling that, whatever may be the European biases, certain of those anti-American denunciations touch on something real, and we ought to pay attention and sometimes hang our heads. French writers, Roger explains, have waxed indignant for centuries now over the quality of American city life, sometimes for reasons that will not appeal to us--an outrage at racial mingling, for instance. Céline did not like Jews, and did not like blacks. The Judeo-negroid sidewalks of metropolitan America were not for him. 

On the other hand, some of the classic French indignation will strike us as well-directed. Sartre recoiled at the lack of public places in American cities--the lack of French-style cafés, for instance. What halfway intelligent American, having returned from a week of double espressos in the cafés of France, will think that Sartre was wrong? Sartre observed that European cities benefit from a sharp definition of the city limits, as defined by the ancient bulwarks, and American cities suffer from the lack of anything similar. This remark, too, has its truth. Bulwarklessness has done us in. The plazas and promenades of a thousand European towns offer a public warmth and aesthetic joy that hardly anyplace in America can rival--a chilly reality of American life.

One way to recognize true anti-Americanism, is by its internal logical incoherence.  Beginning with a long quote from Philippe Roger, Berman goes on to list the strangely incoherent threat America poses to just about every admirable human value:

"The logic of suspicion that took hold in the interwar years," Roger observes,

would long govern the collective French discourse on America: a sham democracy and insidious totalitarian state. The devil's last trick, as we know, is making people think he does not exist; the same was true for the American "dictatorship." But the French intellectuals were not taken in. Right when fascism was on the rise and Stalinism was being consolidated, it was America they denounced as the great totalitarian Satan. Among the rubble of cold war Europe, half subjected to the Soviet "liberators," it was still in the United States that they uncovered, beneath the patina of formal democracy, the texture of a "true fascism."

In this fashion, a cultural tradition arose in which America was condemned for every possible reason and its opposite--condemned for being less advanced than Europe, which is to say, geographically and sociologically younger; and also for being ahead of Europe in its social development, which is to say, older. America was a country without values; and appallingly moralistic. Repulsive for being racist; and for mixing its races. America's democracy was a failure and a sham; and America was repeatedly said to have lately fallen away from its admirable democratic past. America was governed by a dictatorship of millionaires; or by a rabble of corner grocers. Worse than Hitler; or Hitler's heir; and either way a threat to humanism. 

America was frightening because it was excessively powerful; and was repeatedly declared to be on the brink of collapse. America was bellicose; and its soldiers, cowardly. America was hopelessly Christian; and, beginning in the 1920s, America was, even so, dominated by Jews. Coldly calculating; and, at the same time, religiously insane. Talleyrand made the complaint about religious insanity at the very start of the American republic (he had fled to America in 1794 to escape the mass guillotinings that were mandated by France's new religion of the Goddess of Reason) in his witty remark that America featured thirty-two religions and only one dish, which was inedible. The remark about food was significant in itself, and suggested, as well, a larger complaint about the unattractive thinness of America's culture--a main theme of the anti-American accusation. And yet America's greatest danger to the world was also said to be its culture, which, despite its lack of appeal, was dangerously appealing, and was going to crush all other cultures.

Later, Berman discusses "The Discourse of Hate," by the French journalist Andre Glucksmann.  [Glucksmann calls himself a philosopher, but I know a guy who really is a French philosopher, and he doesn't fancy it when people call themselves philosophers when they're in fact just writing ambitious journalism with a theorizing tendency. So Andre gets called a jouralist.]  Glucksmann posits that anti-Americanism is in the grand tradition of obsessive human hatreds, preceded by misogyny and anti-Semitism. 

In each case, the intensity of the hatred is explained by the fact that its object is perceived to be not just undesirable but an obstacle to human perfection.  In the case of anti-Americanism, the illusion of perfection is the notion that we could all get along peacefully if it weren't for the Americans: Americans reap a "hatred that arises out of the desire for the perfect international community that would surely exist, if only the Americans stopped being so aggressively hostile."  Berman is not completely convinced by Glucksmann's theory, but it does at least attempt to describe the depth of the hatred.

In the next few days I'll comment a bit on Berman, but I though I'd at least give everyone a nice long look at what he says.  Meanwhile, if anyone's interested in reading the whole thing, please drop me a line and we'll, uh, look into possibilities.


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Marian Wirth

One little correction: The article is not behind a paywall; subscription to is free.


What's "left-learning" ? =)

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