BOOKS: Anti-Americanism: An Introduction

by | Feb 27, 2004

In short, the United States I had discovered was in complete contrast to the conventional portrayal then generally accepted in Europe

An excerpt from Anti-Americanism by Jean Francois Revel.

From 1953 to 1969, living in Italy and then in France, I had watched and formed my opinion about the United States through the filter of the European press, which means that my judgment was unfavorable. Europeans at that time saw America as the land of McCarthyism and the execution of the Rosenbergs (who were innocent, we believed), of racism and the Korean War and a stranglehold on Europe itself–the “American occupation of France,” as Simone de Beauvoir and the Communists used to say. And then Vietnam became the principal reason to hate America.

Since the end of the Cold War–with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the liberation of Eastern Europe, and the realignment of a polarized world–it is often said that today’s anti-Americanism derives from the fact that the United States is now the “hyperpower,” a term made fashionable by Hubert Védrine, a French minister of foreign affairs. This interpretation assumes that American hegemony was previously easier to justify, first because it dominated fewer nations and second because it answered to the need to protect against Soviet imperialism. But this doesn’t reflect reality: anti-Americanism was almost as virulent during the period of threatening totalitarianism as it has been after that threat disappeared (in its Soviet version, at least).

Within some democratic countries, a subset of the population, some political parties and the majority of intellectuals, were prone to adhere to Communism, or at least support similar ideas. For this crowd, anti-Americanism was rational, since America was identified with capitalism, and capitalism with evil. What was less rational was their wholesale swallowing of the most flagrant and stupid lies about American society and foreign policy, and their careful spurning of accurate knowledge of the Communist systems. An irrational anti-Americanism, with a blind rejection of factual and verifiable information about America and its anti-democratic enemies, was even more paradoxical among those sectors of Western opinion–the majority, in fact–who feared and rejected Communism. (At the beginning of the twenty-first century, they are rising above the former prejudice.) On the other hand, the ant-Americanism of the Right and even the extreme Right, as blindly passionate as the Left’s though with a different rationale, is characteristically a French phenomenon.

The European Right’s anti-Americanism stems fundamentally from our continent’s loss during the twentieth century of its six-hundred-year leadership role. Europe had been the powerhouse of enterprise and industry, innovator in arts and sciences, maker of empires–in practical terms, master of the planet. It was sometimes one European country, sometimes another, that took the lead in this process of globalization avant la lettre, but all more or less participated, either in concert or by turns. Today, by contrast, not only has Europe lost the ability to act alone on a global scale, but it is compelled in some degree to follow in the footsteps of the United States and lend support. It is in France that this loss–real or imaginary–of great-power status engenders the most bitterness. As for the anti-Americanism of the extreme Right, it is fueled by the same hatred for democracy and the liberal economy that goads the extreme Left.

As the sixties unfolded, I had begun to be invaded by doubts as to the validity of this reflexive anti-Americanism, which indiscriminately condemned America’s “imperialistic” foreign policy–Soviet imperialism, in contrast, was but philanthropy–and American society. When I traveled to America in the early winter of 1969 to research Without Marx or Jesus, I was astonished by evidence that everything Europeans were saying about the U.S. was false. Over the course of a few weeks I went from the East Coast to the West Coast, with a stay in Chicago along the way. Rather than a conformist society, what I found was one in the throes of political, social and cultural upheaval.

The French like to imagine themselves the inventors, in May 1968, of the kind of political protest that had been inflaming American universities and minorities for several years already. Not only had their anti-establishment movement gathered momentum well before ours, but the authorities whose legitimacy was challenged had responded in a far more democratic way than ours. Moreover, their dissidents, while guilty of follies of their own, continued to try out fresh ideas; ours, on the other hand, rapidly lost whatever originality they had, regressing into tired ideological molds of the past–notably Maoism–then sinking to the depths of fanatical and murderous terrorism, above all in Germany and Italy.

I was struck by the vast gulf that separated our state-controlled television news services–stilted, long-winded and monotonous, 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. Vietnam was their principal target, of course, and public opinion was turning increasingly against the war, a turnaround the media were largely responsible for. And this was the society that Europeans, looking down from the heights of their uninformed prejudices, described as a society of censorship.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the conversations I had 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. 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.

In short, the United States I had discovered was in complete contrast to the conventional portrayal then generally accepted in Europe. It was the clash between the mental image of the United States I had taken as baggage from France and the reality I encountered that led to Without Marx or Jesus.

Even without leaving France, I realized, it required little investigative labor to demonstrate the falsity of the crudest arguments in the anti-American repertory. Wasn’t it obvious, for example, that it was Americans themselves, led by Republicans, who in less than four years discredited the bothersome Senator McCarthy? And didn’t Soviet espionage in fact allow Moscow to gain several years in the development of atomic weapons? It has been more than amply confirmed–it was already proved in 1970–that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were indeed agents for the Comintern, with the most harmful consequences; and that Alger Hiss, a close advisor to Franklin D. Roosevelt, notably at the Yalta Conference, also worked for the East Bloc and passed information on to Stalin. For a long time whitewashed as martyrs of anticommunist hysteria, these traitors and many others have found the place in history that they justly deserve, at least in the eyes of those who respect historical truth.

Or again, however astonishing it may seem half a century later, Soviet propaganda, thanks to its echo chamber in the free but credulous world, succeeded for years in persuading millions of people that it was South Korea that had attacked North Korea in 1950 and not the reverse. Picasso himself signed on to the swindle when he painted Massacre in Korea, which depicts a squad of American soldiers opening fire on a group of women and naked children–thereby demonstrating that artistic genius need not be incompatible with moral ignominy. (The massacres could only have been perpetrated by Americans, of course, since it was well known that any acts that might jeopardize human life were deeply distasteful to Joe Stalin and Kim Il Sung.) Let me mention also for the record the farcical allegation of bacteriological warfare waged by Americans in Korea, a lie made up on the spot by a Soviet agent, the Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett. The astonishing thing is not that it was cooked up, but that even outside Communist circles it could gain a certain credibility–and this in countries where the press is free and it is easy to crosscheck data. The mystery of anti-Americanism is not the disinformation–reliable information on the United States has always been easy to obtain–but people’s willingness to be disinformed.

Anti-Americanism increased tenfold by 1969 as a result of the war in Vietnam. But Europeans, and above all the French, with remarkable unfairness forgot or pretended to forget that the war was a direct offshoot of European colonial expansion in general, and of the French Indochina War in particular. Because France in her blindness had refused to decolonize after 1945; because she had rashly become involved in a distant and protracted war in the course of which she had, moreover, frequently pleaded for and sometimes obtained American help; because France, humiliatingly routed at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, was forced in 1954 to sign the disastrous Geneva Accords, handing over the northern half of Vietnam to a Communist regime that promptly violated the agreements: it was thus unquestionably only after a long series of political blunders and military setbacks on the part of France and the French that the United States was induced to intervene.

So unfolded a scenario that repeatedly is to be found underlying geostrategic and psychological relations between Europe and America. To begin with, Europeans entreat a reticent United States to rush to their aid and become actively involved in, even sponsor and coordinate, an effort to save them from a desperate situation that they, the Europeans, have created. Subsequently, America is transmuted into the sole instigator of the conflict. Needless to say, should America prove successful, as she did in the all-embracing challenge of the Cold War, she receives but scant acknowledgment. But should the affair turn bad, as it did in Vietnam, America bears all the blame.

In Without Marx or Jesus I spelled out numerous examples of the intrinsically contradictory character of passionate anti-Americanism. In this book I’d like to extend that list, so little has the syndrome changed over thirty years.

The illogicality at base consists in reproaching the United States for some shortcoming, and then for its opposite. Here is a convincing sign that we are in the presence, not of rational analysis, but of obsession. The examples I mentioned were from the sixties, but others can easily be adduced from much earlier and much later, revealing a deeply rooted habit of mind that hasn’t altered in the slightest over the years. The lessons that can be drawn from the last three decades of the century, which hardly reflect badly on the United States, have apparently made no impression.

As an hors d’oeuvre, let me offer a particularly flagrant manifestation of this mentality, on display as I write these lines in September 2001. Until May of 2001, and for some years now, the main grievance against the United States was formulated in terms of the hyperpower’s “unilateralism,” its arrogant assumption that it could meddle everywhere and be the “policeman of the world.” Then, over the summer of 2001, it became apparent that the administration of George W. Bush was less inclined than its predecessors to impose itself as universal lifesaver in one crisis after another–especially in the Middle East, where the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians was heating up alarmingly. From then on the reproof mutated into that of “isolationism”: a powerful country failing in its duties and, with monstrous egocentricity, looking only to its own national interests. With wonderful illogicality, the same spiteful bad temper inspired both indictments, though of course they were diametrically opposed.

This contradiction reminded me of an argument made by General de Gaulle, who, in order to justify France’s 1966 withdrawal from military participation in NATO, adduced the United States’ tardiness in coming to France’s aid in both World Wars. And yet that was precisely the purpose, in the light of past experiences, of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization: to guarantee the automatic and immediate military intervention on the part of the United States (and the other signatories) in case of aggression against one or another member state. Emotional prejudice can blind even a great man to the inherent absurdity of some of his positions. Alain Peyrefitte, in his C’était de Gaulle, quotes the general as saying: “In 1944, the Americans cared no more about liberating France than did the Russians about liberating Poland.” When one knows how the Russians treated Poland, both during the last phase of World War II (holding back the Red Army’s advance so as to give the Germans enough time to massacre the inhabitants of Varsovic), and then after they had made a satellite of the country, one cannot but be dumbfounded by the effrontery of such a comparison, coming from such a source.

But a third of a century later, we witnessed far worse. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the vast majority of French people willingly joined in the three minutes of silence observed throughout the country to honor the memory of the thousands killed. Among those who didn’t were the delegates and militants of the CGT (Conféderation Générale du Travail) trade union during the weekend L’Humanité celebrations of September 15 and 16. Then, during the following weekend, it was the turn of the followers of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, assembled for their traditional Bleu-Blanc-Rouge festival. So, gathered together under the banner of anti-Americanism, whatever their particular ideological mantras–and even, apparently, when antagonists–were all the xenophobes, all the partisans of backward and repressive regimes, not excluding the antiglobalists and pseudo-Greens.

In September 2001, the nadir of intellectual incoherence was achieved. (Let’s not bother with the moral dimensions; we’re too blasé for that.) After the first gushings of emotion and crocodile condolences, the murderous assaults were depicted as a justified retaliation for the evil done by the United States throughout the world. This was the reaction of most Muslim countries, but also of rulers and journalists in some sub-Saharan African countries, not all of which have Muslim majorities. Here we see the habitual escape hatch of societies suffering from chronic failure, societies that have completely messed up their evolution toward democracy and economic growth; instead of looking to their own incompetence and corruption as the cause, they finger the West in general and the United States in particular. Classic displays of voluntary blindness to one’s own shortcomings though these were, they were but overtures; even more remarkable performances were to come. After a discreet pause of a few days, the theory of American culpability surfaced in the European press–in France above all, it goes without saying–among intellectuals and politicians, of the Left and the Right.

Shouldn’t we interrogate ourselves about the underlying reasons, the “root causes” that had pushed the terrorists to their destructive acts? Wasn’t the United States in part responsible for what had happened? Shouldn’t we take into account the sufferings of the poor countries and the contrast between their impoverishment and America’s opulence?

This line of argument was not only made in countries whose populations, keyed up to fever pitch by jihad, instantly acclaimed the New York catastrophe as well-deserved punishment. It was also heard in the European democracies, where soon enough, insinuations were made that–with all due respect for the dead, of course–a careful look at the terrorists’ motives was called for.

Here are shades of elementary Marxist cant, parroted by the enemies of globalization, according to which the wealthy are eternally accruing more riches at the expense of the poor, who are mired ever more deeply in poverty. Thus Marx believed he could predict that, in the industrialized countries he studied, capital was destined to become increasingly concentrated in the hands of an ever-smaller class of super-rich proprietors, who would be confronted by ever-increasing hordes of impoverished proletarians.

Put to the test, the theory was revealed as incorrect, for class relations within the developed societies simply did not go that way; likewise for the relations between the developed and the so-called developing nations. But inability to explain the facts has never prevented a theory from prospering, provided it is sustained by ideology and shielded by ignorance. As usual, facts are trumped by psychological imperatives.

A further step was quickly taken in the direction of intellectual decline when declarations multiplied demanding that the United States not launch a war against terrorism that could cause the entire planet to suffer. A gang of suicidal fanatics, indoctrinated, trained and financed by a powerful and rich multinational terrorist organization–or organizations–had murdered three thousand people in the heart of Manhattan, yet it was the victim who had mysteriously become the aggressor.

America’s mistake was to try to defend herself and eradicate terrorism, according to the America-haters. Obsessed by their hatred and floundering in illogicality, these dupes forget that the United States, acting in her own self-interest, is also acting in the interest of us Europeans and in the interest of many other countries threatened, or already subverted and ruined, by terrorism.

Inevitably then, today as yesterday and yesterday as the day before, a book about the United States must be a book dealing with disinformation about the United States–a formidable and perhaps Sisyphean task of persuasion, doomed to failure, since the disinformation in question is not the result of pardonable, correctable mistakes, but rather of a profound psychological need. The mechanism of the Great Lie that fences in America on every front, and the rejection of everything that might refute it, evokes the equivalent lie that surrounded the Soviet Union ever since 1917–not to the detriment, but to the advantage of the Communist empire. Here again, among those who fed from the idealized and falsified images of “existing socialism,” a sort of mental flyswatter swiped away at facts that were too threateningly real.

During my time in the United States in 1969, I identified what I believed could fairly be called a revolution. In its narrow sense, “revolution” usually means the replacing of one political regime by another, usually by means of a violent coup d’état accompanied by insurrection–followed by purges, arrests and executions. Indeed, many a revolution conforming to this pattern has led to dictatorship and repression. As I stressed in Without Marx or Jesus, what I meant by “revolution” in the context of America was less a political phenomenon at the highest levels of power than a series of transformations spontaneously occurring within society at a deep level. These radical changes had been born, were evolving and would continue to evolve independently of political transitions at the national level. You can change the government without changing society; conversely, you can change society without changing the government. The American Free Speech Movement sprang forth and continued to grow as vigorously under Republican presidents as under Democrats; it was able to do so largely because it never–or very rarely–regressed into the backward ideologies of the nineteenth century or the Marxist pseudo-revolutionary theoretical straitjackets of the twentieth. In my book, I argued that a revolution in this sense is a phenomenon that had hitherto never taken place, an event that would develop along lines other than the known historical ones and that could not be thought about–or even perceived–in terms of the old categories. It was obvious to me that the real revolution was taking place not in Cuba, but in California.

The side-by-side comparison I had carried out, a stark confrontation between what was everywhere said about the United States and what one actually encountered upon going there, inspired my frontline report, which apparently resonated with many people throughout the world. Without Marx or Jesus was a bestseller in France and in the United States, taking off spectacularly before it came to the notice of the critics and continuing to stay aloft even after lukewarm, even hostile reviews; it was translated into at least twenty languages. This landslide revealed the gulf between the desire to know on the part of the “silent majorities” and the desire not to know on the part of the intellectual and media elites, not only in countries like France, Italy and Greece that were under overt Communist influence, but in social democracies like Sweden that were theoretically opposed to totalitarianism.

My Swedish publisher, a bon vivant and crawfish connoisseur, invited me to help with the book’s launching in Stockholm. He wasn’t able to get a single television appearance for me, which evidently didn’t hurt sales in the slightest. In Finland, I was confronted by two delegations of apparatchiks–psychologically rigid Communist “intellectuals”–one from Romania, the other from Poland. The German author Hans-Magnus Enzenberger, trying to maintain the debate at a civilized level, spoke supportively on my behalf, even though his own contributions were violent critiques of American “imperialism.” My Greek publisher was masochistic enough to compose (without, by the way, consulting or notifying me) a preface in which he begged pardon from his compatriots for having published in their language such a farrago of errors and imbecilities. When I ventured a timid protest, he called me a bigot. The Corriere della sera, while bestowing qualified approval on me, reported on the indignant brouhaha in France and Italy that my thesis, so outrageously unfashionable as it was, had caused. And my Italian translator sprinkled his version with footnotes reproving my ideas. I had fun congratulating him in an article I titled Il traduttore bollente (“The Enraged Translator”). To judge from the international success of my book, one must conclude that some attacks seem calculated to win readers rather than frighten them off. Their curiosity aroused, readers say to themselves that the author must be getting something right or he could never have provoked such a panicked, over-the-top response.

The Left saw clearly what was at issue: my book was less about America and anti-Americanism than about the epic twentieth-century struggle between socialism and liberal democracy, and they feared that chances for victory might be starting to lean in liberalism’s favor. The principal function of anti-Americanism has always been, and still is, to discredit liberalism by discrediting its supreme incarnation. To travesty the United States as a repressive, unjust, racist–even fascist–society was a way of proclaiming: Look what happens when liberalism is implemented! And when I described the United States as not only a classical democratic system that worked rather better than any other, but as a society undergoing a revolutionary mutation upsetting its traditional values, the message was interpreted as an annoying wake-up call for the elites as they slumbered in their ideological easy chair–including those in the United States, where anti-Americanism continues to flourish in university, journalistic and literary circles. The Blame America First reflex to each and every problem has for long been instinctive among the cultural upper echelons.

When, on November 7, 1972, Richard Nixon was reelected president, crushing George McGovern, his left-of-center, “liberal” Democrat opponent, I became the target for various sneers: This triumph of a Republican–reputed to be of the Right–didn’t it make my entire thesis utterly ridiculous? So much for my American revolution. Yet the central thesis of Without Marx or Jesus is this: The great revolution of the twentieth century will turn out to be the liberal revolution–by 1970 it was already patently obvious that the socialist revolution had failed everywhere. A series of chapters in the book establishes this failure in the countries of “actually existing” socialism (only too actual, alas); in Third World countries, which had believed that the key to development lay in socialist/interventionist recipes; and in the industrial democracies, where state control over the economy, under the pressure of reality, was being rolled back as the century closed and beyond.

The American liberal revolution was becoming the driving force behind what was to become known as “globalization” (or in French, mondialisation, which in my opinion is the more accurate term). Indeed, the subtitle of the French edition of Without Marx or Jesus is From the Second American Revolution to the Second Global Revolution. This liberal invasion of the world, which would triumph resoundingly above all after 1990 and the disintegration of Communism, is what Francis Fukuyama would call the End of History, an expression that has come in for some criticism because it has been poorly understood, especially by people who think they have read a book when they have only read its title.

So Without Marx or Jesus focused chiefly on the United States as a laboratory for the liberal-democratic solution. In each period, or at least in each period that is marked by progress, there exists what one might call a “laboratory society” where civilization’s great inventions are tested. Not all are necessarily blessings, but they irresistibly prevail. Other nations have to adapt to these innovations, whether they like it or not. Athens, Rome, Renaissance Italy, eighteenth-century England and France–all were societies of this type, not as a result of some abstract “process,” but because of human deeds. In the twentieth century, it was the turn of the United States. Hence it is not without reason, even if obviously overblown, that for billions of people the spread of the liberal economy is synonymous with Americanization.

It is the advent of this historical development that I attempted to describe in Without Marx or Jesus. To what extent is its flowering attributable only to America and her “hyperpower”? Was her role as “laboratory society” voluntarily or involuntarily assumed? Does she owe it to her “imperialism,” her “unilateralism,” or her vigorous capacity for innovation? Has the American solution created–or at least to an equal extent been created by–a universal need? These are the questions I shall try to answer.

Excerpted from the Introduction to Anti-Americanism by Jean Francois Revel.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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