[The Montana Professor 14.2, Spring 2004 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]


Jean-Francois Revel
San Francisco, CA: Encounter Books, 2003
176 pages, $25.95 hc

Paul Trout

Given the title and the burning American flag on the dust cover, not to mention a French author, one might assume that this book is another diatribe leveled at "fascistic," "imperialistic," "militaristic," "arrogant," "unilateralist" (etc.) America.

Not so. This is a spirited and cogent rejoinder to the standard accusations directed at the United States by European intellectuals, especially the French. Revel (who resembles a well dressed Eric Hoffer in appearance) has written a number of thought-provoking books that have thrust him to the center of stormy intellectual debates on both sides of the Atlantic. Among his most important are Without Marx or Jesus (1971), How Democracies Perish (1983), and The Totalitarian Temptation (1977). Describing himself as a democratic socialist, he has been tracking European anti-Americanism for over 30 years, and, as this book's mocking and sarcastic tone makes clear, he is fed up with its mendacious hypocrisy and ludicrous distortion of evidence and logic.

Revel confronts the "disheartening catalogue" of charges meant to condemn America: it is undemocratic, culturally imperialistic, militaristic, arrogant, unilateralist, economically oppressive, supportive of dictators, etc. In taking up each charge, he comments on globalization and free trade, genetically modified foods, American popular culture, global warming and Kyoto, human rights, even capital punishment. No accusation in the anti-American bill of indictment is left un-examined.

While Revel concedes that America has "many defects" and "flaws," and has made some "disastrous" mistakes that deserve to be criticized (16, 18, 54), he also is convinced that many of the charges from European intellectuals are phobic distortions of reality, the products of curdled Left-wing ideology, a hatred of liberalism and modernity, and a desperate need to find a scapegoat to blame for self-induced miseries. With acerbic wit, Revel exposes the outlandish charges leveled against the United States as tricked up fantasies of envy and revenge.

For Revel, "anti-Americanism" is characterized by tortured logic and "a charming disdain for easily verifiable facts" (161), both signs of "pathological rancor" (71). Ever since the Cold War, European elites have displayed their willingness to swallow "the most flagrant and stupid lies" about America while "blindly denying discomfiting facts about its anti-democratic enemies" (3). The most egregious of several recent examples is the claim by Frenchman Thierry Meyssan that a truck bomb, not an airplane, was crashed into the Pentagon on Sept 11 as part of a massive disinformation campaign cooked up by America to justify planned armed invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The book containing Meyssan's zany view (L'effroyable Imposture, 2002) became a "gigantic bestseller," thanks to widespead media support. "This stampede towards the absurd speaks volumes about French credulity," and about "the intellectual level of 'the most intelligent people on the planet'" (150).

Another trait of anti-Americanism is to use double standards and un-contextualized charges to make the United States look as bad as possible. America is accused of acting in her own interests as if other countries don't (28). It is singled out for being "materialistic" as if Africa, Asia, and the Middle East are governed by the "purest unselfishness," as if the "universal corruption that is ravaging them is the expression of a high spirituality" (71). America is condemned for polluting, although the nations that are heavy polluters--such as Brazil, China, and India--"demand that the United States apply restrictions that they themselves don't feel required to observe." America is chastised for not signing the Kyoto accord, even though by mid-2001 the 167 signatories had done absolutely nothing "either collectively or individually to reduce their 75 percent share of world pollution. Here is utter inconsistency, of course, but the agenda is less about ridding the world of pollution than about excommunicating the United States" (25).

America is admonished for being a "bully" while Saddam Hussein butchers hundreds of thousands, Islamists murder Christians in Nigeria and the Sudan, Russia imposes its homicidal will on Chechnya, and al-Qaeda engages in "unilateral" "hyperterrorism" throughout the world. America is shamed for protecting dictators while Saudi Arabia supplied a palace for Idi Amin, and France and Germany stroked Saddam Hussein for sweetheart oil deals. America is condemned for being "arrogant" but an official report of the French government predicts the salubrious global homogenization of culture under France (111; 45-46) and Belgium claimed that its courts had "universal jurisdiction" over all international crimes. America is berated for practicing capital punishment, even though 87 other countries do so in massive doses, and often with far less regard for defendants' rights than found in the United States (149).

Among anti-Americans, "reality is lost from view: the imperatives of chronology, geography and strategy count for nothing." One claim after another is exposed by Revel as a paranoid fantasy for which there is often not a shred of evidence. Rather despairingly, Revel observes that his efforts to rebut such charges are probably useless; in the last analysis "facts are trumped by psychological imperatives" (9; 50).

Like earlier commentators, Revel recognizes that the prime source of anti-Americanism is Left-wing hostility to capitalism and liberalism (160), both -isms supremely incarnated in the United States (12). "Hatred for liberal civilization is for many...the key to the anti-American obsession" (52). The fundamental "Marxist article of faith" is that capitalism is an "absolute evil" (37). This hostility intensified with the demise of the Soviet Union, since the United States was blamed by the Left for hastening the shipwreck of the last great hope of Communists and radicals (16). This is why Leftists are so incensed by any hint of American "triumphalism."

Revel makes a strong case for globalization (defined as free markets and private enterprise, not state-controlled economies) as an effective means of promoting, over the long haul, the development of the poorer countries of the world. The cure for poverty, he explains, lies in "good economic management, political democratization, secular education, active measures against corruption, general equality, freedom of information, religious pluralism and tolerance," and other core aspects of liberalism, all of which attend free-er markets and international trade (124). But for the European Left, liberalism is fascism with a human face (52, 168). As French philosopher Jean Baudrillard puts it, "'Liberal globalization is going in exactly the opposite direction: towards a global police state, total control and the reign of a security terrorism.'" Revel asks sarcastically (138), "Reading this, who would dare argue that France can no longer boast a great thinker?"

It is this hostility to liberalism--secular, democratic, capitalist, materialistic, individualistic, humanistic, open, scientific, modern (and, yes, imperfect)--that connects the Left with the Right and militant Islam, as it once connected Hirohito, Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin. Like the Left, Le Pen's National Front party echoes the Left in accusing America of plotting to "enslave the world" (4), and, like jihadists, its members cheered as the Twin Towers, with many people still in them, collapsed in smoke and flame (71). For jihadists, America epitomizes everything they don't have and want, and don't want but may get anyway (73). There is no hope for compromise, Revel concludes, because the very existence of the United States--like that of Israel--contravenes the teachings of the Qur'an (129).

But political and religious ideology provide only a partial explanation of anti-Americanism. For Revel, anti-Americanism has its deepest roots in the "profound psychological need" for elites to exonerate themselves for their complicity in evil and to lay elsewhere the blame for their countries' failures. America--powerful, influential, and dazzlingly successful in almost every way--makes the perfect scapegoat for the sins of the world (25). It must be succeeding at the expense of everyone else.

Revel illustrates this therapeutic function of anti-Americanism most effectively in his treatment of the charge that America is "fascist." Revel finds in this charge the sort of dunderheadedness that characterizes thoughtless hatred. In over two hundred years, the United States has not had a dictator, while Europe has spawned "the most criminal regimes ever inflicted on the human race--pinnacles of evil and imbecility achieved in a space of less than thirty years" (17; 156). To distract attention from this repugnant reality, Europeans engage in an operatic display of "anti-fascist" indignation at the expense of the very country that sent troops to Europe to rescue it from its own fascist madness. No good deed goes unpunished.

Anti-Americanism is especially appealing to academics and intellectuals on the Left, since it now serves to cloak the part they played as apologists and champions of the most bloodthirsty grave-diggers in human history. From the 1930s, when a Pulitzer went to a New York Times reporter who lied about Stalin's slaughter of kulaks in the Ukraine, to the present compassion displayed for Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda terrorists, many Left-wing academics and intellectuals have been handing the shovels to the grave-diggers. "Even during the Cold War, although it was the U.S.S.R. that annexed Eastern Europe, made satellites out of several African countries and invaded Afghanistan, and although it was the People's Republic of China that marched into Tibet, attacked South Korea and subjugated three Indochinese countries, it remained dogma among Europeans--from Sweden to Sicily, from Athens to Paris--that the only power that could be fingered as 'imperialistic' was America" (159). "Discredited by its complacent indulgence of, or complicity in, Communist genocides, the Left never stops imagining fascist dangers" to don the mantle of righteousness (158).

Again illustrating that no good deed goes unpunished, America, Revel argues, is condemned for being what European decadence forced it to become. For example, America is condemned by Europeans for being an imperialistic "hyperpower" when it was the political and moral collapse of Europe that led to America's dominant role in world affairs. America is condemned for its economic clout when this clout is in part the result of the economic wasteland left by Communism and other failed collectivist experiments. "The current American 'hyperpower' is the direct consequence of European powerlessness, both past and present. The United States fills a void caused by our inadequacy--not in our capabilities, but in our thinking and our will to act" (18). American "unilateralism" is the consequence--not the cause--of the diminished power of other nations.

In anti-Americanism "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 incompetence and corruption as the cause, they finger the West in general and the United States in particular" (9). This self-exculpating strategy is a world phenomenon, as is shown by this incisive and revealing observation from Venezuelan writer Carlos Rangel:

For Latin America 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 fore-most power in the world. It would require an inconceivable effort of collective self-analysis 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, even Latin American politicians and intellectuals must repeat that all our troubles stem from North American imperialism. (57)

Here we see how the Americans are useful to us: to console us for our own failures, serving the myth that they do worse than we do, and what goes badly with us is their fault. American is the scapegoat, made to bear all the sins of the world. (170; 143)

This scapegoating is not without ill effects for all concerned. As Revel explains, anti-American hostility induces the United States to withdraw from "multilateral" engagements, and thus to act unilaterally out of necessity. "The U.S. hears European governments constantly upbraiding her with reproofs that are never directed against themselves and, what's more, that are pathetically self-contradictory. It's no wonder if she might prefer to act alone" (172). Revel deplores the fact that the United States withdrew from the International Court of Justice, "but given the blatant lies, the ridiculous fictions, the imaginary accusations that every day misrepresent American policies," it was understandable that America wanted to avoid thousands of prosecutors summoning before the court the entire executive branch of the United States government for "crimes against humanity."

Anti-Americanism also isolates Europe from the United States, leading it to abnegate its responsibility to defend itself to the detested "hyperpower." This dynamic breeds shame and resentment (123). Even worse, the anti-American obsession prevents many struggling countries from acknowledging and surmounting their problems (24). The economic stagnation of the Arab world is a result of bad economic policies, cowardly or dictatorial leadership, misguided social practices, and the inability to engage in thorough self-criticism (see Afshin Molavi, "City on a Hill," The New Republic, 9 February 2004, 11-13). Blaming the United States merely perpetuates their woes.

As cogently argued as this book is, it is not without flaws. That there is no index is unforgivable in the age of the word processor. At times, Revel sees "wonderful illogicality" where I don't. It is not contradictory, as he claims it is, to accuse the United States of unilaterally meddling in the affairs of other countries and also of being isolationist (7), unless, of course, "isolationist" means "refusing to act" and not "insular." As Revel himself argues, anti-Americanism can provoke the United States to withdraw from multilateral engagements and so have to go it alone when it must.

I also wonder if Revel has gotten to the bottom of the "profound psychological needs" behind anti-Americanism. Why is this pathology so rife among people who pride themselves on their critical thinking skills and intellectual sophistication? Sure, curdled left-wing hopes explain some of it. But not all anti-Americans could be described as radical leftists. Are other "psychological imperatives" also at work here? Revel, despite his willingness to offend anyone, leaves unexplored the possibility that anti-Americanism, a form of hate speech, may be related to anti-Semitism. As Omer Bartov suggests, "What we are witnessing today is a broad front of opinion, spanning the entire spectrum of the political and religious scene, whose criticism of American and Israeli policies, and whose fears and phobias about present conditions, utopian dreams of a better future, and nostalgic fantasies of a mythical past, all converge in a bizarre and increasingly frightening way on single figure, a single cause, 'the Jew'" (The New Republic, 2 February 2004, 25-33; Revel spots the striking similarity between the paranoid propaganda of the Right and Left, but does not pursue it [4, note*]). We should not forget that Hitler called himself a (national) "socialist," and hated the "global economy" and "capitalism" because they were "Hebrew" devices for the "bastardization and niggerization of civilized humanity" (in Bartov, 27). Certainly not all anti-Americans are anti-Semites, or visa versa, but similar phobias and psychological needs may feed both.

"Good" arguments to one are not always "good" arguments to another. I find Revel's Anti-Americanism a bracing and sometimes bitingly funny dressing down of European intellectuals all lathered up from swinging wildly at the American piñata. It should appeal to moderates and on-lookers who are wondering what in the world is going on. But this book will probably make no dent on America-phobics, since they find it so easy to discount and deny the evidence of their own eyes and the experience of millions and millions of immigrants, who leave behind their often "fascistic" homelands and flock to the country that has given more practical gifts to humankind than any other, and that has afforded more people with greater comfort, security, and freedom than any other. But no good deed goes unpunished.

[The Montana Professor 14.2, Spring 2004 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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