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BOOK REVIEW
In defense of the Stars and Stripes
Anti-Americanism by Jean-Francois Revel, French-English translation by Diarmid Cammell

Reviewed by John Parker

All across the globe, from Sydney to Siberia, from Quebec to Patagonia, there is one sporting obsession that unifies the entire human race. Young and old, male and female, black, white and every shade in between, there is one pleasurable activity that unifies them all.

I'm speaking, of course, about America-bashing. (Why, did you think I was talking about something else?) By 2004, any remaining wisps of sympathy for the Americans who were forced to choose between jumping and burning alive in 2001 had long since dissipated, and the globe had returned to its former habit of treating the United States as the official whipping boy for all the world's ills.

Indeed, anti-Americanism has ascended from its former status as the preoccupation of a relative handful of Jurassic Marxists, professional victims, Third World whiners, and Islamo-fascist troglodytes to the level of a major new global religion. Like any religion, it has its saints (which include the likes of Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh), its martyrs (the Rosenbergs, the Guantanamo Bay detainees and Saddam Hussein's sons), its high priests (Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore and Abu Bakar Ba'asyir), and its desperately over-eager wanna-bes (eg, Asia Times Online's very own Pepe Escobar, whose viewpoint on any issue can be predicted with absolute accuracy by simply asking "what interpretation of this situation will put the United States in the worst light?").

Curiously, however, while the religion has a hell (America), and a devil (George W Bush), it lacks both a heaven (the collectivist pipe dream having been found wanting) and a god (since the anti-Americans consider themselves as having evolved beyond the need for a deity - save their Islamist faction, which wants to impose its religion forcibly on everyone else). Still, the anti-American cult provides its legions of drooling adherents with the crucial element of any faith: the illusion of meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence. That priceless psychological salve, in this case, is the comforting delusion that, no matter how hypocritical, backward, bigoted, ignorant, corrupt or cowardly the cult's followers might otherwise be, at least they are better than those awful Americans.

Jean-Francois Revel is a distinguished French writer who has, for nearly all his working life, chosen the rockiest path any intellectual can choose: the path of true non-conformity (as distinct from the ersatz, self-described non-conformists one finds on any university campus in the Western world). Specifically, Revel has chosen to confront directly - not only in this volume, but in several earlier books that touched on the issue - the entrenched anti-Americanism of an entire generation of European intellectuals, particularly French ones. Like his countryman Emile Zola (whose explosive article "J'accuse" attacked French society's handling of the Alfred Dreyfus affair), he has dared to defend an unpopular scapegoat and, in so doing, has probably done more to earn the gratitude of Americans than any Frenchman since General Lafayette, who came to the aid of the American revolutionary cause.

The reason that Revel's attitude toward the US is so strikingly different from most of his compatriots is not difficult to find: indeed, one finds it on the very first page of this book, when the author reveals that he lived and traveled frequently in the US between 1970 and 1990. During this time, he had conversations with "a wide range of Americans - politicians, journalists, businessmen, students and university professors, Democrats and Republicans, conservatives, liberals and radicals, and people I met in passing from every walk of life". This simple action - talking to actual Americans and asking them what they think, as opposed to blindly regurgitating European conventional wisdom about what Americans think - was obviously the critical step in separating Revel from the smug, chauvinistic sheep who predominate in his intellectual class. It was a step that the vast majority of this class, then and now, have been unwilling to take: they simply cherish their prejudice against Americans too greatly to face the possibility that real, live examples might not conform to it.

In Monsieur Revel's case, these conversations led to his first book, Without Marx or Jesus, published in 1970. Thirty-four years ago, Revel was "astonished by evidence that everything Europeans were saying about the US was false"; sadly, this situation has not changed in the slightest in the intervening time. Indeed, if anything, the conventional wisdom about the United States is even more wrong today than it was then. Without Marx or Jesus made two main points: first, that major social/political developments taking place in the US in the late 1960s, such as the Vietnam War protests, the American Free Speech movement, and the sexual revolution, constituted a new type of revolution, distinct from the working-class uprising predicted by the Marxist theories then in fashion. Second, Revel predicted that the great revolution of the 20th century would turn out to be the "liberal revolution" - ie, the spread of multiparty democracy and market economics - rather than the "socialist revolution". The latter point may appear to be almost conventional wisdom today, but it was a bold assertion in 1970. Most of the book consisted of a point-by-point rebuttal of the reflexive anti-Americanism of the day, and correctly identified its main psychological wellspring: envious resentment due to Europe's loss of leadership status in Western civilization during the postwar era.

In this first book, Revel also described the definitive proof of the irrational origins of anti-American arguments: "reproaching the United States for some shortcoming, and then for its opposite ... a convincing sign that we are in the presence not of rational analysis, but of obsession". In the 1960s, the best example of this behavior was European attitudes toward US involvement in Vietnam. A startling number of French commentators developed a sudden amnesia about their country's own involvement in Indochina, and the fact that France, while embroiled in its ugly war with the Viet Minh, "frequently pleaded for and sometimes obtained American help". Thus the same French political class that begged president Dwight Eisenhower to send B-29s to save the Foreign Legion at Dien Bien Phu was only too quick to label the United States a "neo-imperialist", or worse, for subsequently intervening in the unholy mess that the preceding decades of French colonial misrule had largely created.

In Anti-Americanism, which is basically a sequel to Without Marx or Jesus, a more contemporary example of the same phenomenon is given: the nearly simultaneous criticism of the US for "arrogant unilateralism" and "isolationism". As Revel dryly observes, "the same spiteful bad temper inspired both indictments, though of course they were diametrically opposed".

Examples of this psychopathology are almost endless, but the Iraq crisis has certainly provided a profusion of new cases. For example, during the 12 years after 1991, the anti-American press was filled with self-righteous hand-wringing over what was billed as the terrible suffering of the Iraqi people under UN sanctions. But when the administration of President George W Bush abandoned the sanctions policy (a policy that, incidentally, had been considered the cautious, moderate course of action when it was originally adopted) in favor of a policy of regime change by military force - which was obviously the only realistic way to end the sanctions - did these dyspeptic howler monkeys praise the United States for trying to alleviate Iraqis' suffering? No, of course not - instead, without batting an eyelash, they simply began criticizing the United States for the "terrible civilian casualties" caused by bombing.

Innumerable cases like this have made it perfectly clear to Americans that they will automatically be despised no matter what policy option they select. Furthermore, the only rational reaction Americans could have to this situation is to keep their own counsel when it comes to foreign policy, and leave their fair-weather friends - or, more accurately, no-weather friends - at arm's length. Predictably, however, the anti-American cult has a third accusation pre-packaged and ready to go for this very reaction: the inexplicable reluctance of Americans to listen attentively to their perpetually peeved critics is the result of their "arrogant unilateralism"! (Naturally, the possibility that the anti-American cultists' own statements might have played a role in promoting this behavior is never even considered.)

The most notable characteristic of Anti-Americanism, as a text, is the blistering, take-no-prisoners quality of its prose. Even those diametrically opposed to Revel's views would be forced to acknowledge his skills as a pugnacious rhetorician who does not eschew sarcasm as a weapon.

A few examples will suffice: referring to anti-war banners that proclaimed "No to terrorism. No to war", Revel scoffs that this "is about as intelligent as 'No to illness. No to medicine'." Responding to the indictment of the United States as a "materialistic civilization", he says: "Everyone knows that the purest unselfishness reigns in Africa and Asia, especially in the Muslim nations, and that the universal corruption that is ravaging them is the expression of a high spirituality."

Addressing the claim of the Japanese philosopher Yujiro Nakamura that "American culture ignores [the] dark dimension" of human beings, the author observes: "Evidently, Nakamura has never read Melville, Poe, Hawthorne, Henry James, Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, [etc], to mention only a few explorers of the depths." And he is positively withering in his contempt for Japanese intellectuals who, in the wake of September 11, opined that America's wealth disqualifies it from speaking in the name of human rights: "Everyone knows that Japan has always been deeply respectful towards [human rights], as Koreans, Chinese and Filipinos can amply confirm." Revel opens his sixth chapter, "Being Simplistic", by recalling the "pitying, contemptuous sneers" that greeted president Ronald Reagan's characterization of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire", then retorts, "it is not apparent that subsequent progress in Soviet studies gives us grounds to call it the 'Benevolent Empire'." And he responds to the claim of conservative British writer Andrew Alexander that "the Cold War was an American plot" by saying: "Following a similar logic, one might build a case that the Hundred Years' War was a complete fabrication by Joan of Arc, who wanted star billing in a pseudo-resistance against the conciliatory, peace-loving English."

In general, Revel's barbs strike most accurately when aimed at his own country. For example, responding to the tired claim that the US is "not a democracy" because it has supported dictatorships in Third World countries, Revel notes: "The history of Africa and Asia swarms with dictatorships of every type ... supported by the French and the British ... But it would very much surprise French living [in that period] if you told them that they didn't live in a democratic country."

Another telling denunciation arises from the statements of Olivier Duhamel, a Socialist deputy in the European Union, who responded to the electoral success of French ultra-rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen by complaining that France was "catching up with the degenerate democracies [such as] the US, Austria and Italy". First, Revel comments on the idiocy of Duhamel's insinuation that the United States is degenerate because Frenchmen voted for an ultra-rightist, then concludes: "The strange thing is that it is always in Europe that dictatorships and totalitarian governments spring up, yet it is always America that is 'fascist'."

Of course, the danger of the author's biting approach is that it could alienate, rather than convince, his readers. But given that the hypocrisy of the anti-Americans has piled up so thickly in recent years that one practically needs a chainsaw to cut through it, there may be no other choice.

Many of Revel's observations about the anti-Americans, such as their amazingly recent advocacy (in many cases) of totalitarian communism, or the fact that many intellectuals in failed societies have sought to blame the US scapegoat instead of engaging in self-criticism, have been made before by other writers. He is at his most original, however, when analyzing the cultists' psychological motivations; for example, contrasting the motives of the anti-American left with the anti-American right. To wit, the left essentially regards the United States as a devil figure, one that it has clung to all the more tightly in the years since its former deity, Marxist collectivism, collapsed in an abyss of poverty and repression. The right, by contrast, resents the United States as a pretender to the throne of global leadership that rightfully belongs to Europe - conveniently ignoring the fact that World Wars I and II, communist ideology, and socialist-influenced economic policies, which are, in actuality, the main factors that resulted in US ascension, all originated entirely in Europe.

Revel also breaks new ground when he discusses the striking tendency of other countries to ascribe their own worst faults to the United States, in a curious "reversal of culpability". Thus the famously peace-loving Japanese and Germans excoriate the US for "militarism"; the Mexicans attack it for "electoral corruption" in the wake of the 2000 election; the British accuse it of "imperialism"; Arab writers condemn it after September 11 for "abridging press freedom" (of course, the Arab states have always been shining beacons of that freedom). The gold medal for jaw-dropping hypocrisy, however, goes to the mainland Chinese, whose unelected dictatorship routinely accuses the United States of "hegemonism". Having been the chief hegemon of Asia for most of the past 5,000 years, the Chinese are in a singularly weak position to condemn the practice. What they actually oppose, of course, is not "hegemonism" itself, but the possibility that any power other than China would dare to practice it.

France has been no exception to this universal rule. Former minister of foreign affairs Hubert Vedrine, in his book Les Mondes de Francois Mitterrand, wrote: "The foremost characteristic of the United States ... is that it has regarded itself ever since its birth as a chosen nation, charged with the task of enlightening the rest of the world." Of course, this was a wholly conventional allegation of US "arrogance", delivered to an adoring choir. But then, a discordant note - Revel alone has the temerity to observe: "What is immediately striking about this pronouncement, the obvious fact that jumps right out, is how perfectly it applies to France herself." The Gallic emperor proves embarrassingly unclothed, for virtually every "arrogant" assertion of uniqueness made by Americans has its uncannily similar counterpart made by Frenchmen: if Thomas Jefferson once said "the United States is the empire of liberty", then countless French politicians have asserted with equal megalomania, "France is the birthplace of the Rights of Man." If anything, Revel does not develop this point highly enough. For, to an American observer of countless anti-American diatribes, the most striking aspect of the United States they describe is how little it resembles the actual, physical United States, and how uncannily it resembles a doppelganger of the writer's own society.

Not every psychological trait of the anti-Americans is discussed by Revel. He does not go far enough, for example, in delineating the fundamentally onanistic character of their rhetoric; it is difficult to explain the obsessive, droning, almost pornographic quality of the criticism, and its deliberate ignorance of easily obtained contrary facts, without understanding that the primary motive of the critics is to obtain pleasure. After all, hasn't the main purpose of bigots and bullies since time immemorial been to build themselves up by tearing down their victims?

Another unmentioned aspect is the sheer adolescent pettiness of the criticism. This can be seen most clearly in international press coverage of the United States, which scarcely ever misses an opportunity to America-bash, even when reporting on areas that are in essence non-political, such as economic statistics and scientific discovery. Revel discusses the typical example of a story in the economics journal La Tribune, which gleefully announced "The End of Full Employment in the USA" when the US unemployment rate climbed to 5.5 percent in early 2001 (at the time, the French government was congratulating itself for reducing French unemployment to only twice this level). More recently, the British Broadcasting Corp gave exhaustive coverage to a technical problem with the US Mars Spirit Rover, but barely mentioned the successful effort to solve the problem. This spiteful editorial decision, and countless others like it, was typical of an organization in which balanced, accurate news coverage has become secondary to the holy task of denouncing Uncle Sam.

Finally, one must mention the increasingly ill-disguised anti-Semitism of many America-bashers. Of course, such toxic ideas are to be expected of reactionary Islamist fanatics, who are so profoundly ignorant that they practically regard Americans and Jews as synonymous. But one increasingly hears grumbling about "neo-conservatives" from non-Muslim critics who really want to say "scheming Jews", but dimly sense that this choice of words is not permissible. How delicious the human comedy is - that European elites, whose greatest crime, the Holocaust, has not even passed from living memory, should begin to re-enact that demagogic crime in their increasingly poisonous anti-American rhetoric, as though absolutely nothing had been learned in almost 60 years of postwar struggle to advance freedom, human rights and democracy! It may be that those who don't learn from the past are doomed to repeat it; but the apparent inability of Europeans, and others, to avoid such self-destructive cultural patterns raises the question of whether learning from the past is even possible.

Without a doubt, however, the defining trait of the cultists is their moral (if not physical) cowardice. While using Latin Americans as an examplar of this quality, Revel quotes the Venezuelan writer Carlos Rangel: "For Latin Americans, it is an unbearable thought that a handful of Anglo-Saxons, arriving much later than the Spanish and in such a harsh climate that they barely survived the first few winters, would become the foremost power in the world. It would require an inconceivable effort of collective self-analysis [emphasis mine] for Latin Americans to face up to the fundamental causes of this disparity. This is why, though aware of the falsity of what they are saying, every Latin American politician and intellectual must repeat that all our troubles stem from North American imperialism." In fact, the Latins are hardly unique in cowering tremulously at the prospect of "collective self-analysis": with minor changes in specifics, Rangel's fundamental point could apply equally well to most of Africa, the Slavic societies of Eastern Europe, the nations of the South Asian sub-continent, and last (but definitely not least) the benighted Arab world, which has repeatedly shown itself to be the global champion of finger-pointing and denial (as if that could make up for its glaring backwardness in virtually every other respect).

It is ironic, however, that so many East Asians would be drawn to the cult, since they, out of all the regions of the developing world, have the least reason to feel inferior to the United States (after all, many societies in the region have already surpassed the US by various objective criteria). It may be that in the Asian "school" of anti-Americanism, a different psychological dynamic is at work: since Asians are as convinced of their innate cultural superiority as all the other critics (though with infinitely more justification than most), it must make them very uncomfortable that, in almost every case, their societies' escape from thousands of years of static, inward-looking despotism only began when US, or British, influence arrived. In addition, of course, need one really point out the massive, obvious US influence on the postwar economic development, political evolution, and even the popular cultures of Asian societies? Or the fact that virtually the entire governing class of the most successful Asian economies was educated in the United States? It appears that some Asians feel subconsciously belittled by how much they owe the US, and respond by petulantly attacking their historic benefactor.

So is anti-Americanism just an exercise in onanistic hypocrisy, or does it have a real-world cost? It does, but the cost is not primarily the hurt feelings, or terrorist-caused deaths, of Americans - even if this was the main consequence, no one would care, since most of the world (to judge by their own words) already regards Americans as a non-human species, somehow introduced, one assumes, to North America by alien spacecraft. (Of course, this calculated, malicious demonization of Americans as "the other" is hugely ironic, since the US, due to its diverse ethnic composition and immigrant origins, arguably represents the entire human race more fully than any other single nation-state.) For decades, the anti-Americans have compared the US to the Roman Empire in the fond hope that a similar "decline and fall" would someday materialize (given that what followed the Roman collapse was centuries of war, ignorance, and barbarism, one questions their motives). Regrettably for the cultists, though, the US is large enough, is self-assured enough, and its political stability and economic momentum are great enough, that it will only continue to prosper regardless of their actions. To illustrate, countless commentators have parroted the cliche that the "war on terrorism" is unwinnable, but how many have noted the obvious, undeniable corollary that Osama bin Laden's self-declared war on the United States is equally unwinnable?

Therein lies another exquisite irony: the costs of anti-Americanism will be borne not by Americans, but by others. And their numbers are vast: Cubans, North Koreans, Zimbabweans, and countless others suffer and starve under their respective tyrannies because the democratic world's chattering classes, obsessed with denouncing the United States, can't be bothered with holding their criminal regimes to account. Meanwhile, in Iraq, fascist rabble, with no discernible political program save a pledge to kill more Americans, try desperately to extinguish the slightest hope of democracy, economic growth, and stability for that long-suffering land; but the world, instead of helping to beat back the wolves at the door, basks in anti-American schadenfreude. How countless are the political problems, cultural pathologies, and humanitarian disasters that fester unnoticed, all over the globe, as the anti-American cult, wallowing in ecstatic bigotry, desperately scrutinizes every utterance of the Bush administration for new critical fodder.

Indeed, it is not the slightest exaggeration to say that in 2004, anti-American sentiment has become the biggest single obstacle to human progress. It sustains repressive dictatorships everywhere; excuses corruption, torture, the oppression of women, and mass murder; provides ideological oxygen for vile, stupid "revolutionary movements" like the Maoist insurgents in Nepal; and has even promoted the spread of disease (as when, for example, Europeans haughtily dismissed Bush's AIDS initiative as insincere - God forbid that they should concur with any policy of the wicked Bush, even at the cost of a few million more African lives). By focusing monomaniacally on "why America is wrong", instead of asking "what is right", the global anti-American elite has massively failed to fulfill the most fundamental responsibility of the intellectual class: to provide dispassionate, truthful analysis that can guide society to make proper decisions. And it has contemptuously cast aside the irreplaceable, post-Cold War opportunity to irreversibly consolidate the "liberal revolution" praised by Revel - in which inheres the only true hope of lasting, global peace and development - all in the name of redressing the gaping psychological insecurities of its members.

None of this is to say that criticism of specific US policies, or aspects of US culture, is not entirely legitimate (and of course, inside the US, the ability to speak out publicly against such things is a cherished, constitutionally guaranteed, and frequently exercised right). Indeed, one is struck, when reading this book, by Revel's repeated emphasis of this very point. The author is hardly a universal apologist for US actions; in fact, he gives many examples of areas in which he disagrees with US government policies. However, Revel's critiques of the US, especially for American readers, can be easily differentiated from those of the anti-American cultists: his criticisms are reasonable, fair-minded, and based on accurate information; whereas those of the professional anti-Americans are unreasonable, unfair, and based on the willful disgregard of all contrary evidence. Rather than legitimate criticism, what Monsieur Revel, and I, deplore is the quasi-religious, obsessive, fanatical brand of anti-Americanism: the kind that blames the United States for every problem, everywhere, first, always, and forever; the kind that automatically identifies with, and supports, any criminal political thug anywhere on the globe, just because he happens to declare himself opposed to the United States; the kind that in essence has no other values or priorities at all, save the insatiable need to denounce the United States; the kind that is congenitally incapable of self-criticism, but searches endlessly, with inexhaustible creativity, for additional evidence that it can use for its interminable, tendentious show trial of the US.

I am reluctant to point out the weaknesses of Anti-Americanism, since I am in such profound agreement with its basic thesis. Nonetheless, in the interests of balance, there are some weak points.

First, the book is somewhat repetitive. The chapters are largely devoted to rebutting particular claims of the anti-Americanists - eg, that the United States promotes the allegedly nefarious globalization process (Chapter 2), that US culture is "extinguishing" others (Chapter 5), that US government policy is "simplistic" (Chapter 6), or that the United States is just about the worst society that has ever existed anywhere (Chapter 4). Partly as a by-product of this organizational scheme, similar types of material, eg denunciations of Islamic extremism, reappear in several different chapters.

Another problem is that, since the book was written in French primarily for a French audience, many of its specific examples refer to domestic French political figures and situations, which may not be familiar to international readers.

Finally, this reviewer noted at least one factual error. In a discussion of European reaction to the contested US presidential election of 2000, Revel asserts that no presidential elector has selected the minority candidate in its state since the beginning of the 19th century. (The US constitution provides for an indirect "electoral college" system for presidential elections, such that when an individual voter selects, say, the Democratic candidate for president, he or she is not actually voting for that candidate directly, but rather for a slate of "democratic electors" who, if the candidate wins a plurality in that state, are supposed to cast all the state's "electoral votes" for the Democrats.) In fact, there have been seven cases of "faithless electors" since 1948, most recently in 1988, when a Democratic elector in West Virginia selected vice presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen for president, and presidential nominee Michael Dukakis for vice president (presumably, he thought Bentsen would make a better president). However, this error does not contradict the author's point, which is that incidents of this type have been rare. Also, European critics of the electoral-college system are somewhat tardy: Americans have been arguing for electoral-college reform for at least 200 years, and recently, 75 percent of Americans, or more, have expressed in polls a desire to elect the president directly.

These admitted flaws do not reduce the importance, and value, of Anti-Americanism as a necessary antidote to the poisonous torrent of crude, atavistic anti-US hatred that spews forth daily from newspapers, magazines, and websites around the world. In the introduction, Revel recalls how Without Marx or Jesus, 34 years ago, was also greeted with strident denunciations from the baying jackals of the anti-American cult. But predictably, this hysterical response (Revel's Italian translator even attempted to rebut the book's arguments in his footnotes) only served to pique the public's interest: ordinary readers were quick to sense that any writer who had struck such a nerve obviously had something important to say, and Without Marx or Jesus became a smash hit.

It is hardly surprising that this pattern was repeated with Anti-Americanism, which has topped the French best-seller list. (Curiously, and completely contrary to what foreign stereotypes would lead one to expect, the book has been much less successful in the US - this is primarily because the anti-American obsession is entirely one-way; most Americans are barely even aware the cult exists.) The book's success shows conclusively that at least some Europeans sense the hypocrisy and intellectual vacuity of the anti-Americanists, and are once again developing an appetite for a balanced, truthful depiction of the US, as opposed to the spurious fiction they have largely been spoon-fed thus far.

Clearly, this book will not reach the committed fanatics. However, one hopes that at least a handful of fair-minded, reasonable people in Asia, Europe and elsewhere, who have the requisite moral courage to consider contrary views, will read it. I have really only scratched the surface of I>Anti-Americanism's virtues in this review: for example, Chapter 2, which critiques the anti-globalization movement, is probably the most devastating indictment of that incoherent, infantile crusade ever committed to paper.

In our time, anti-Americanism has become a crushing, Stalinist orthodoxy, an ossified system of bigoted dogmas that ruthlessly ostracizes all who would question it. It has become boring, even to the French. In this atmosphere, Monsieur Revel's book is truly a breath of fresh air. I only wish I had written it.

Anti-Americanism by Jean-Francois Revel, French-English translation by Diarmid Cammell. English edition copyright 2003 by Encounter Books. ISBN: 1893554856, 176 pages, price US$25.95.

John Parker (BS, MS) is a freelance writer based in Vietnam.

(Copyright 2004 John Parker.)


Apr 3, 2004



 

 
   
       
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