Bashing Goliath

Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America by Andrei S. Markovits (Princeton University Press, 302 pages)

I feel, having just read Andrei Markovits's Uncouth Nation, a profound satisfaction. It's not that Markovits is a great stylist; he's assuredly not. His sentences are sometimes maddeningly convoluted, and the book itself is poorly organized, with many key examples illustrating his arguments buried deep within the text. Nor is it that I agree with all of his arguments, though I do find most of them compelling.

No, the satisfaction comes from seeing someone on the progressive side of the political spectrum actually marshalling the evidence to point out that, while Bush is indeed bad, much of Europe has gone more than just a little loco when it comes to discussing America.

Visit Paris, London, Berlin, Amsterdam or Athens today, talk with leading intellectuals and commentators from all the many different sides of the continent's fractious political discourse, listen in to conversations in cafes and bars, and the chances are pretty good you'll hear some, frankly, rank nonsense about America-the-evil-Empire, or America-font-of-all-things-bad. It'll be dressed up in the superior tones Europeans often adopt when discussing the United States -- bemoaning the country's crudity, its intolerance, its barbaric mores, its fanatical and bloodthirsty social system. And the flaws in America's cultural and political visions will be rather self-satisfyingly contrasted with an ever-peaceful Europe's superior methods of social organization.

Loathing America -- and, by extension, its sidekick Israel -- is, writes Markovits, a form of "pedigreed prejudice," its practitioners utilizing a rather loathsome, stereotype-laden language that would be entirely beyond the pale if it was being employed against any other nation or people on earth. Indeed, he argues, many of the most anti-American gibes are laced with heavy dosages of anti-Semitism, with the United States seen as a country controlled by, and beholden to, a nefarious global Jewish cabal. As anti-Americanism has risen, so, too, have anti-Semitic commentaries become more commonplace in Europe, with the political left -- with its allegiance to purportedly oppressed third world movements -- leading the charge.

Markovits mentions the example of an anti-globalization demonstrator at Davos wearing a Donald Rumsfeld mask with a star of David on his chest, while others danced around a "golden calf," and he asks his readers why a country as small as Israel should be a prime target of protestors bemoaning the economic inequalities of globalization. He details prestigious academic journals kicking Israelis off their editorial boards and leading commentators proudly proclaiming an enmity to all things Israel. In January 2003, he writes, the Independent newspaper in Britain even published a cartoon of Ariel Sharon eating a baby -- a piece of propaganda that brings to mind the age-old notion of Jews as drinkers of Christian children's blood.

In other words, while the Israeli government's actions are assuredly deserving of powerful criticism, Markovits argues that the response in Europe to years of Middle-Eastern strife has been to reawaken ethnic and religious prejudices supposedly made entirely unacceptable in the post-Holocaust years.

What emerges are a series of feedback loops: dislike for America feeds on dislike of Israel, and, conversely, dislike of an Israel currently ruled by thuggish conservatives and perceived to be pursuing old-fashioned colonial rule over the Palestinians leads to greater hostility toward its patron, America. Dislike of Israel morphs (among some) into a more pronounced dislike of all things Jewish. And dislike of Jews is furthering an anti-American worldview held by people who tend to believe American Jewry holds disproportionate political and economic sway over America's polyglot, and immigrant-heavy, populace. In many ways, the know-nothing, conspiracy-contorted populism animating these beliefs might be seen as a cousin to the narrow-minded American populism the historian Richard Hofstadter chronicled in the mid-twentieth century.

Rarely will this worldview be leavened with the kind of humility one might expect from denizens of countries that either ran their own far more bloody imperial projects in the not-so-distant past or were dominated by unfathomably nasty fascist or communist one-party systems for a good part of the 20th century. Thus the spectacle of a leading theorist for the German Social Democratic Party noting, without any sense of irony, that America is the paragon of a "defective democracy." Thus, too, Austrian journalist Eric Frey writing a "Black Book USA" detailing all of America's crimes, in emulation of the Russian journalist Vassily Grossman's World War Two-era Black Book that chronicled, for the historical record, the crimes of the Holocaust.

Not nearly frequently enough will you hear an honest acknowledgement that while the United States might be leading the stampede toward globalization, the citizens of Europe themselves, especially in the leading countries of the European Union, haven't exactly done badly from the new, and utterly unfair, global economic arrangements. Nor will one hear reference to the uncomfortable fact that if America withdrew from the global scene and shrank its foreign and military commitments back to the non-existent pre-1776 levels, inevitably Europeans would end up having to spend a lot more of their own money, and probably shed a lot more of their own soldiers' blood, setting in place their own security arrangements. Nor will one hear acknowledgments that many of the things Europeans hate most about the United States -- whether it be the death penalty, or its religiosity -- were staples of European nation-states well into modern times, and also exist in many other countries today without generating nearly the same animosity.

Markovits, a Romanian-Jewish immigrant to the United States, and a professor of comparative politics and German studies at the University of Michigan, argues that Europe's anti-Americanism -- a phenomenon he traces back to the birth of the New World and one that has existed even in periods when Western Europe and the United States were supposedly joined at the hip -- is now something akin to a European "lingua franca." Like Hannah Arendt before him, he argues that it is an "ism" unto itself, a political rallying cry at the core of the new "European" identity. Politicians debating everything from expanding the EU to protecting the integrity of national languages, Markovits argues, use "America and Americanization as a convenient bogeyman to garner points in an internal conflict that has nothing to do with America." Don't like reforms to the way cricket is played in England? Blame the United States. Don't like obesity or, conversely, an obsession with exercising? Blame the United States. Don't like reality TV (a phenomenon that emerged first in Europe)? Blame Hollywood.

Like Arendt, Markovits argues that this rather simplistic discourse serves a mainly negative role, allowing Europeans to blame all the problems, and contradictions, of modernity on one particularly savage entity, thus avoiding any culpability for their own role in the way the world is.

He sets out to pop some bubbles, and he achieves this splendidly. Whether he's quoting Italian anarchist icon Dario Fo sympathizing with the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, or German and French citizens bemoaning, in language eerily reminiscent of 19th century critiques, an "Americanization" process they detest but seem utterly unable (in a sign of startling passivity) to stop, the effect is deeply disturbing.

If, he writes, Islamic extremists had successfully flown a plane into the Eiffel Tower, as they plotted to do in 1994, it is inconceivable that large swatches of the American intelligentsia would have put pen to paper blaming the French for the atrocity against their country. Yet, he shows, immediately after 9/11 many of Europe's leading voices began crying schadenfreude, arguing something akin to "America had it coming." He quotes French philosopher Jean Baudrillard saying "We" all "without exception" dreamed of an attack on the World Trade Center for years. He writes about best-selling books in Germany that blame the entire attack on a U.S. government conspiracy. He quotes composer Karlheinz Stockhausen talking of the beauty of the imagery of the burning towers.

America is, of course, the big cheese, and it's always morally easier to side with David than with Goliath. Yet sometimes David happens to be wrong. George W. Bush is a terrible leader and his administration has done untold harm to America's relations with much of the rest of the world, but that doesn't mean that radical Islamists' goal of utterly humbling the U.S. superpower would bring anything other than chaos to the globe. Europe does many things much, much better than the United States, but that doesn't mean there aren't some things America does very well (generating material well-being for a tremendous number of its residents, assimilating many millions of immigrants a year, allowing for a national flexibility that no longer uses race as a core notion of citizenship). Nor does it negate the debt of obligation the "Old World" has to an America that, warts and all, helped make Europe the tolerant, liberal, pluralistic, environment it is today.

One could argue that Markovits exaggerates to get his point across; that he's selective in his use of sources -- ignoring, for example, the many passionate writings in defense of the United States written by Europeans immediately after 9/11, and the soul-searching that Europe has undergone as anti-Semitism on the continent has grown. He also may underplay the degree to which current anti-Americanism in much of Europe is more about a dislike of George Bush than a genuine, durable, dislike for all-things American.

But, at the end of the day, the fact remains that rarely has the Atlantic Ocean, the expanse between the continents, seemed as huge. In exploring the less honorable underpinnings of this, and the more unsavory discourses that curry favor in political circles in Europe today, Markovits performs a valuable service. If you wonder where the U.S.-European relationship is heading, Uncouth Nation is a book well-worth reading.

Sasha Abramsky is a senior fellow at the New York-based think tank Demos. The author of Conned: How Millions Went to Prison, Lost the Vote, and Helped Send George W. Bush to the White House (The New Press, 2006), he lives in Sacramento and teaches writing at the University of California at Davis.

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