Posted: April 12, 2005
A review of Anti-Americanism, by Jean-François Revel, translated from the French by Diarmid Cammell
nti-Americanism is a ubiquitous phenomenon, the closest thing in the contemporary world to a secular religion uniting intellectuals and demi-intellectuals across national boundaries and cultural frontiers. It is less a systematic ideology than a frame of mind, nurtured by deep-seated resentments against liberal capitalism and by quasi-nihilistic despair at Marxism's and other revolutionary ideologies' failure to redeem the human condition. In his timely dissection of the anti-American vulgate, the French political observer Jean-François Revel establishes the powerful continuities between the old "totalitarian temptation"—European and Third World intellectuals' attraction to Communism—and today's crude anti-Americanism, which does so much to distort representations of American society and U.S. foreign policy. In Revel's presentation, anti-Americanism is the totalitarian temptation deprived of any positive or coherent alternative to the established liberal order. It is, in important respects, a survival of the age of ideology and has inherited many of its predecessors' pathological traits.
Jean-François Revel is particularly well-suited to make sense of "The Anti-American Obsession" (the title of the original French edition of his book). He knows the United States quite well and has written about it with curiosity and sympathy since the publication of his international bestseller Without Marx or Jesus in 1970. In that work, he put forward the audacious claim that the United States was the world's only truly revolutionary society, a veritable laboratory for social initiatives and experiments in living. If that book displayed a rather naïve confidence in the counterculture, it nonetheless had the merit of pointing out the absurdity of identifying "progress" with bureaucratic socialist regimes that at best stifled individual initiative and at worst murdered their citizens with impunity. Revel is probably best known in the United States for The Totalitarian Temptation (1977) and his widely discussed 1984 polemic How Democracies Perish. (Contrary to legend, Revel did not predict in the latter the imminent collapse of the West. Instead, he foresaw a race in "comparative decadence" between Western societies that had increasingly lost their sense of purpose and Communist societies that were on the verge of imploding.) These books were intelligent and honorable contributions to the literature of anti-totalitarianism during the second half of the Cold War. But they are far from exhausting Revel's intellectual production over the past forty years. During this period, Revel has written on a wide range of subjects including a controversial book on the "style" of Charles de Gaulle, incisive reflections on the Western media and on the West's victory in the Cold War, and a deservedly acclaimed memoir (Le voleur dans la maison vide). If Revel's writings generally lack the intellectual penetration of his now deceased friend and colleague Raymond Aron, he nonetheless has admirably continued Aron's work as a lucid, philosophically informed anti-totalitarian polemicist.
This is by no means to say that his Anti-Americanism has been well read or adequately evaluated. Reviewers in The New Yorker and other liberal forums have taken him to task for being an uncritical admirer of the United States and American foreign policy. Some have even dismissed him as a neoconservative (an epithet which in certain circles is almost a form of hate speech). Such tendentious dismissals fail to do justice to the richness and equanimity of Revel's approach. Although he clearly admires the vitality of American civilization and is second-to-none in his ability to expose misrepresentations of American life, he stops well short of glorifying contemporary America. For example, he is against the death penalty and has grave misgivings about the widespread availability of deadly weaponry throughout American society. Like many American conservatives, he lambastes the promotion of group rights and "identity" politics over traditional liberal understandings of natural rights and individual opportunity. He thinks it absurd that many Europeans should fear American "hyperpower" more than they do the murderous enemies of Western civilization. Nonetheless, he would unmistakably prefer a world where American power was less disproportionate to the power and influence of other democratic states.
While he welcomes friendly and constructive criticisms of the U.S., Revel argues that nothing is gained by the profusion of highly selective, ideologically distorted, and empirically groundless attacks on America. The anti-American obsession of European elites only "aggravate[s] the evil that it aims to extirpate." Why, Revel asks, should Americans be expected to pay attention to critics who know so little about the U.S. and whose principal aim seems to be to restrict America's freedom of action in a dangerous world? Ideological anti-Americanism thus reinforces the unpleasant American habit, famously noted by Tocqueville, of reflexively resisting any criticism from abroad. This disposition is unworthy of a magnanimous nation that claims to act in the service of universal principles and not simply in the name of the national interest, narrowly construed.
Revel shows that the same thinkers and politicians who never understood Communism now resort to anti-Americanism to explain nearly all the world's problems. He devotes an entire chapter ("The Worst Society That Ever Was") to the misrepresentations of American history and society that dominate mainstream European discussions of the United States. It is a sad, sobering litany. As Revel demonstrates, the European Left has renewed the critique of the old European Right: America is a crude, materialistic society "entirely ruled by money." Poverty is the "dominant social reality" in America and the welfare state can barely be said to exist. Violence, criminality, and racial oppression are characteristic of a society bereft of the most elementary forms of social solidarity and civic spirit. Most European journalists and commentators are convinced that the United States is a cultural wasteland and show little awareness of the richness of America's political and literary traditions or the admirably self-critical character of American national life.
What is more, the United States is given next to no credit for its principled and determined opposition to totalitarianism in the 20th century. Instead, European commentators love to harp on the excesses of the McCarthy era and to dismiss American anti-Communism as a fanatical and extremist ideology, far worse than the evils it set out to combat. It is tempting to suspect Revel of presenting an entertaining caricature of European (and not only European) views of America. But his book is studded with hundreds of revealing quotations from respectable newspapers, prominent politicians, and leading intellectuals that demonstrate his account's accuracy.
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The centerpiece of the book is a devastating dissection of the anti-globalization movement. Revel shows the utter vacuity of its identification of capitalism with injustice and poverty and its assumption that economic autarky and protectionist barriers will contribute to the amelioration of poverty and the promotion of social justice. More ominously, he establishes the essentially fascist underpinnings of a movement that habitually puts "agitation before thought." And he excoriates mainstream European politicians for shamelessly indulging violent activists who despise liberal and capitalist civilization and who are more interested in destroying than humanizing the market economy.
Revel is particularly effective in exposing the economic illiteracy that informs anti-globalization. Many European, particularly French, politicians remain dirigistes who presume that only the state can effectively promote economic progress and social justice. A purportedly conservative politician such as Jacques Chirac can thus readily succumb to the illusion that one can have a "normal and permanent dialogue" with those who (truth be told) do not oppose globalization per se but who wish to impose a revolutionary socialist version of it on unwilling nations and peoples.
Revel also exposes the fraudulent character of the anti-globalizers' partisanship on behalf of the Third World. Third World nations desperately need international markets to be opened to their goods and particularly for the European community and the United States to scale back agricultural subsidies to their farmers. In complete abstraction from the relevant facts, the anti-globalization crowd ferociously denounces the evil effects of free trade thereby reinforcing protectionist tendencies in the Western world. In addition, the anti-globalizers are abysmally ignorant of history and show no awareness of the strong connection between protectionism and growing international tensions in the period between the two world wars. European and Third World elites delight in excoriating "neo-liberalism" and in claiming that capitalism makes "the rich richer and the poor poorer." But Revel establishes that of all the regions in the world only Africa has gotten poorer in recent years and almost wholly as a result of self-inflicted wounds.
There is much else to recommend in this lively and, on the whole, quite persuasive book. For example, Revel convincingly argues that Islamist fanaticism owes little or nothing to resentment about the effects of globalization. The effort "to ascribe rational economic and political causes" to Islamist violence is fundamentally misplaced. Islamists hate the West, in both its traditional Christian and liberal incarnations, for what it is, and are not open to dialogue addressing the problems that inevitably accompany modern civilization's development and spread. Revel suggests that they have no principled objection to globalization but simply want it to take a dictatorial, theocratic form. He also devotes several fascinating pages to the myth of Muslim moderation. In a particularly striking formulation, he avers that moderate Muslims are all too "moderate with their moderation."
For all its virtues, Revel's book is not, however, without serious limitations. Despite his admirable opposition to totalitarianism, Revel often displays a surprisingly shallow commitment to "progress." He is far too sanguine about the positive effects of genetic engineering and embryonic stem cell research and is completely silent about their drawbacks. He shows no awareness of the negative moral and political consequences that sometimes accompany the positive economic effects of globalization. For example, he has nothing to say about the tendency of globalization to undermine patriotic attachments within modern democratic societies. As Samuel Huntington has recently observed, educated elites in the Western world increasingly mock patriotic and religious attachments and define themselves as citizens of the world.
Revel originally wrote this book for a European audience. He therefore highlights the most irresponsible expressions of anti-American sentiment, intending to expose its remarkable superficiality. But even in Revel's native France there is no shortage of intelligent and sympathetic friends of the United States who are also sometimes critical of certain aspects of American foreign policy. Unaware of these friendly critics, Revel's American readers might be tempted to enlist his thoughtful book in the service of a rival and equally thoughtless anti-European ideology, one that Revel by no means subscribes to or wishes to promote. This book is a most salutary contribution to the healing of the transatlantic divide and deserves to be received as such.