Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Anti-Americanism

The following is a book review I recently wrote on Jean-François Revel’s work, Anti-Americanism. I’ll be in Europe for the next two weeks so I’ll leave this with you as a run-up to further discussions of Revel when I return. I’ll also continue my look at Stephen Launay on war and comment on how the recent obsession with WMDs is indicative of the legalistic approach now dominant in international affairs, made all the worse by ridiculous misunderstandings of the limits and possibilities of military intelligence and espionage.

That the most lucid recent book on anti-Americanism should be written cover by a celebrated French author may be something of a surprise to an American audience, but for Jean-François Revel, exposing the myths that constitute the anti-American agenda is nothing new. Best known in the United States for his 1970 work, Without Marx or Jesus, Revel returns to the subject of America-bashing in his recent book entitled simply Anti-Americanism.

When the work was first published in Revel’s native France, it attracted a wide audience, sparked vigorous debate and immediately made the French best-seller lists. Its translation into English provides the non-French reader an opportunity to access one of the most coherent and thoughtful accounts of anti-Americanism in its current manifestations, while demonstrating that among French liberals at least, the traditional ties that bind France to the United States remain essential to the defense of western civilization

Revel is a veteran of the trench wars fought in France throughout the twentieth century between an assortment of communists, fascists and existentialists on the one hand and political liberals on the other, and his thought belongs in the same category as other great French liberals such as Raymond Aron and François Furet. In many respects, this is a book only a French author could write, drawing as it does on an array of anti-American anecdotes and examples from French and European intellectuals, media and cultural sources. Revel presents the reader with a snapshot of the contradictions and calumnies that obsess the anti-American ideologue. But more than just a catalogue, Revel’s work is an attempt to assess anti-Americanism as an ideology, to find the “root causes” of this preoccupation that sullies so many in Europe as well as the American academy. In this regard, Anti-Americanism is as much a philosophic as political work, one that comes to the aid of not only the United States, but the liberal democratic principles it represents.

According to Revel’s account, the anti-globalization movement and its sympathizers embody the diverse and often contradictory elements that make up the modern anti-American. Whether it be former French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, the International Red Cross or one of the multifarious non-governmental organizations that have sprung up over the last decade, the common cause that increasingly tends to unite these individuals and groups is their opposition to American dominance and the liberalism, both political and economic, that she represents. But as Revel points out, these movements are quick to cast themselves in the role of defender of global democratic society while painting the United States as the non-democratic imperialist aggressor. Revel masterfully exposes the lie behind such accusations, but he also goes further, showing that these lies in the name of global democracy are nothing new.

In Revel’s eyes, the current crop of anti-globalization protestors are little more than the holdovers from the ideologies of communism and fascism, refuted during the twentieth century but unwilling to give up the fight. Coming from the far right – and this is most notable in France but is prevalent to some extent elsewhere in Europe – is the specter of offended national pride, angered by the uncultured American behemoth infecting European high culture with Hollywood and McDonald’s. While from the left, we see the avatars of global democracy who bemoan the use of American military force in the world as an imperialism that spreads poverty and oppression. What is most interesting, perhaps, is that these two ideological cousins, separated during much of the twentieth century, have now come together in common cause against the US. This fact was made evident during the lead-up to the recent war in Iraq when French Trotskyites and communists joined in marches with Jean-Marie Le Pen’s rather xenophobic National Front in the streets of Paris, all in support of Jacques Chirac’s threat to veto UN Security Council approval for military action against Saddam Hussein.

Like their ideological ancestors in the twentieth century, these recycled anti-Americans take aim not so much at the United States itself, but at its international role. As Revel notes, “the real issue is America’s relations with the rest of the world.” The key accusation fostered by the anti-globalization movement is that of imperialism, but in the case of the US, the accusation is taken to boundless extremes. The United States is cast as an empire more barbaric and savage than any before. Its misdeeds – and Revel willingly admits American failings – far outweigh those of any other nation or society, past or present. In response, Revel masterfully dissects and destroys these misrepresentations, while pointing to the theoretical and philosophic distortions underlying them. With a wealth of examples and insights, he shows how benign, even beneficent, the American super-power has been when compared to its twentieth century rivals.

But the anti-American is never content with mocking America’s international role. Citing the connection between domestic affairs and international policy, he engages in an effort to highlight the corruption and tyranny that form the core of American society. Capital punishment, rampant crime and racial strife, the absence of universal government-subsidized health care, all these are proof of the lack of true democracy in the United States. Once again Revel points out just how misleading this picture is, a picture willfully painted by many in the European media.

And it is on the issue of the media that Revel provides perhaps the most stunning rebuke to the anti-American. To the extent that the health of a nation’s democracy depends on freedom of the press, the media is one of the essential elements in judging any democracy. On this score, Revel pulls no punches. As early as 1970, he wrote of the European state-run media – “stilted, long-winded and monotonous, dedicated to presenting the official version of events” – in comparison to the “lively, aggressive evening 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.” He finds the situation much the same today.

The question of the reality of American democracy and whether America’s dominance is due to this democracy or to some imperialist and decadent society, as the anti-American would have it, is the key question for Revel. True to his Tocquevillian inspiration, he comes down on the side of the democratic explanation. Like Tocqueville before him, Revel sees that despite claims to the contrary, America is still “the laboratory for the liberal democratic solution.” But he also sees that it is precisely because the United States moderates her democracy, both through stable constitutional forms and its traditional political and moral inheritance, that American democracy is democracy realized, as opposed to the theoretical democracy of the totalitarian mind and its final solution that seeks the overcoming of politics and thus of power.

Today, many in Europe are turning to the most recent edition of this illusion in the forms of anti-globalization, humanitarianism and international judicial bureaucracy. These ideologies would have it that power, especially the power of a particular nation, can only be in the service of imperialism. Their solution is to divorce power from morality in the hopes of restraining the only nation that can use practical power in tandem with prudent political action all the while greedily seeking to augment their own insatiable drive for pure unlimited power. Revel will have none of it, and with his typical tenacity and wit, he takes the enemies of western civilization to task. This is a book not just for Americans, but for all those concerned for the future of a humane and just liberal democracy on both sides of the Atlantic.

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