Friday, November 28, 2003

France Falling – André Glucksmann, Part Three of Three

Ouest contre ouest, The Cowboy contre the Tsar

The image of the reckless and lawless cowboy is a favorite among European critics of American adventurism, and with the Texan George W. Bush in the White House, it’s an image that has repeatedly graced the editorial cartoons of a number of Europe’s daily papers. While the stereotypical cowboy is an uneducated, unrestrained and dangerous individualist, the reality is something far more significant. It’s a significance to which Glucksmann dedicates a whole chapter in Ouest contre ouest, believing that the image of the cowboy, contrary to its European critics, is the hallmark of modern enlightened civilization.

The idea that the cowboy, an apparently American icon, would represent the height of modern civility would no doubt shock, and even disgust many in Europe. But it’s an idea that would also illicit an argument from a number of Americans, most notably in the Northeastern universities, such as Harvard, and in the liberal cities of California. Glucksmann takes this fact as evidence that the trans-Atlantic rift is one that pits Europeans against Europeans, Americans against Americans, as much as it pits the United States against the “old continent.” And on this point, Glucksmann remarks that the disputes between the French and American governments, between the slick diplomats and the untamed cowboys are a bit more complicated than we are often led to believe.

Discussing the criticisms leveled against the French by the more militarily aggressive Bush administration, Glucksmann notes that the same barbs could also be launched against the previous Clinton administration and George Bush Sr. An excess of internationalism and unquestioning acceptance of the “end of history” scenario was a fault in the US as well as in France. On the other hand, French arguments regarding American unilateralism seem rather suspect in light of France’s own behavior within the European Union and towards the Eastern Europeans. The difference, once again, lies more in the conceptions of how modern liberal democracy should proceed in the world, or whether it should proceed. Still, some western democracies seem to be at the forefront here, while others trail behind. It is no surprise perhaps that America is tagged with the sobriquet of “adventurism” and that Glucksmann himself turns to the cowboy as the incarnation of modern democratic liberalism. Or, quoting the introduction to a recent translation of Democracy in America, “Democracy is still in America.”

But what does the cowboy represent? According to Glucksmann, the cowboy is the incarnation of modern liberal democracy because he is the pure individual, unhindered by tradition or religious affiliation. At the same time, he is dedicated to certain principles, formal principles that he carries with him and by which he comports himself in public company. This isn’t to say he’s particularly at ease among the refined, but he tends not to stray from his principles when he enters polite society. In fact, he often reforms and remakes that very society through his presence. The cowboy is, in a certain sense, the future.

By comparison, Europe presents us with three distinct types that preceded the cowboy of liberal democracy: the man of power (the ruler, the priest, the tribal chief), the man of war, and the man of simple pleasures and pains (the rustic and the rural peasant). That there exist three distinct groups speaks to the stricter differentiations that pertain in European society. When compared to the cowboy, however, we find that each of these groupings is far more similar, one to the other, than to the cowboy. Their similarity rests in the immobility of membership among groups, along with the necessity to follow distinct and specific rules particular to each group. The cowboy, on the other hand, is the epitome of the free individual. He is bound by no distinctions of class and he is free of the stifling rules proper to each rung of society. The cowboy both transcends and surpasses the old classification.

But this isn’t the entire story. At this point, the European critic is quick to attack this uncouth, ill-educated individualist. It is important to note, however, that the cowboy shares some similarities with his European predecessors. Like the ruling aristocrat, the cowboy is lord of himself and says what he pleases, like the warrior, he defends certain principles and fights to secure an ideal of justice, like the peasant, his lifestyle is unencumbered and straightforward as he lives without pretension and material accoutrements. Of course, he is also not part of a ruling family, nor is he bound to an organized military company and unlike the peasant, he is his own man and free to travel at will, not tied to a small subsistence plot.

But, by the same token, the cowboy is not the noble savage of romanticized American and European tales. In fact, he is, as Glucksmann notes, quite civilized. He sticks to a certain rational and universal code of honor, and he imposes this code on a lawless nature. Moreover, he acts alone when he is unable to obtain the assistance of those less stolid than himself. On this point, we should note that, in the United States, some of the most solidly Republican states and greatest supporters of George W. Bush are the western mountain and plain states – the home of the cowboy. While Bush’s other most loyal constituency is the South, which has absolutely no traditional cowboy mentality. What the South does have, however, is an aristocratic heritage more European than American in many respects. The memory of this heritage suggests a link between the honor and independence of an aristocrat and the freedom of the cowboy, demonstrating that even the cowboy isn’t entirely at odds with certain elements of the old European classifications.

Yet, as Glucksmann notes, and here he repeats a theme we saw with Baverez, the Europeans have not adopted the cowboy. Rather, the modern ideal in Europe is the state bureaucrat and the radical revolutionary. Where the cowboy represents the primacy of the modern individual, though one connected to a particular notion of nature, the bureaucrat and revolutionary stand for the supremacy of the modern collective, the submission of the will to a formalized and rationalized goal, but one whose substance is completely indeterminate. In other words, while the cowboy holds to a certain code of honor because it is his own individual honor at stake, the bureaucrat and revolutionary eschew all codes and seek only to implement the goal by any means because no personal good is involved - the will of the collective excuses all evils.

This modern anti-type, if you will, also has its links with the past, but, whereas the cowboy repeats the independence of the aristocrat, the honor of the warrior and the simplicity of the peasant, the revolutionary and bureaucrat connects to the worst in the past. He incarnates the authority of the ruler without any of the limits placed on him by propriety or class, he wields the weapons of the warrior without his discipline or respect for civilians, and his version of peasant simplicity is that of the jealous and suspicious villager hostile to all outsiders.

Key to the difference between the cowboy and the bureaucrat/revolutionary is the individual element vs. the collective. The cowboy is an individual modernizing force, sometimes successful and sometimes not. The bureaucrat/revolutionary seeks to modernize by employing the coercive power of the modern state, but once again, this is a state fully mobilized under the control of the bureaucrat/revolutionary. And according to Glucksmann, the model here is that of Voltaire’s enlightened and philosophic despot who, like Peter the Great of Russia, resorts to the most barbaric of means to “civilize” his country.

In the modern world, Glucksmann sees this contrast playing itself out in the radically different ways in which Russia has dealt with Chechnya and the manner in which the United States has behaved in Afghanistan and Iraq. Glucksmann, in fact, has been one of the most persistent French critics of the Russian presence in Chechnya. While he accepts the need to deal with terrorism, he points out that while the Russians have leveled Grozny, Baghdad remains largely intact. And while the Americans have been as careful as possible to avoid civilian deaths, the Russian forces have acted with impunity in Chechnya, raping, stealing property and killing civilians.

And yet, it was in alliance with Russia (not to mention still-communist and repressive China) that France and Germany sought to veto Anglo-American efforts to deal with Saddam Hussein. But as Glucksmann points out, the Europeans have been active on many fronts attempting to court the Russians: in energy development, nuclear arms agreements, monetary union. This isn’t to say the US hasn’t done the same in the past, but what is important is that Europe, and France most notably, is willing to ally itself with Russia against the US, continuing to believe in the myth that one super-power is no more laudable than the other.

And behind this geo-political play is the continuing willingness on the part of some French intellectuals, journalists, politicians and bureaucrats to demonize the American cowboy while celebrating the blood-soaked revolutionary – today the hero for many Europeans is Che Guevara. This, however, is not new behavior. The notion that civilization, even French civilization, is decadent and must be purified by eastern hoards of barbarians (usually Russians, but increasingly Arabs) is a romantic fantasy of long duration. Even de Gaulle engaged in this policy to a degree, most notably with his Phnom Penh speech and his ill-advised “Vive le Québec libre.” For Glucksmann, this behavior, this anti-civilization obsession still infects many in France, Europe and even the US. It is a form of nihilism that fails to make distinctions. Today, it is the essence of what anti-Americanism is, but America is still too big a target to take down directly. There are others, however; weaker targets; and this brings me to next week’s topic: Alain Finkielkraut and the new anti-Semitism. Look for the post next Wednesday.

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