“Benefits are acceptable, while the receiver thinks he may return them; but once exceeding that, hatred is given instead of thanks.” — Tacitus.

Sympathetic, yet critical friends, can sometimes help us look at ourselves in enlightening ways. In 1831, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States with a view toward explaining American democracy to his countrymen. The result was the seminal book Democracy in America, a remarkably prescient work. The French failure with popular sovereignty during the French Revolution made the French naturally curious as to how the American experiment was proceeding. In retrospect, the Americans may have simply been the beneficiaries of the fortunate circumstance of having a George Washington; a leader strong enough to unite disparate states, yet unwilling to become an American emperor. De Tocqueville found many reasons for the success of the American republic including a free press, the discretion for inheritances to pass to all children rather than just the eldest, and even “the superiority of their woman.”

Modern communications have made it much easier for the French to understand Americans and the Americans to understand the French. This does not mean, however, that we have availed ourselves of the capacity. Recently in Anti-Americanism, Jean-Francois Revel, philosopher and member of the French academy, has endeavored to explain the anti-American animosity that has increased recently, but has been a continuing theme during the entire post World War II era. Revel is writing primarily about the French to the French and unfortunately the English translation can be a little stilted in places. Reading the book is like eavesdropping on a family argument. Yet, with each page one is more grateful that the book has become a bestseller in France.

Among Europeans, the French suffer the most virulent form of the anti-American pathology. The British share a common language and culture and are far more pleasantly disposed toward the United States. The Germans underwent such a culture-wrenching experience with the Nazis, the post Cold War era, and difficulties with reunification with East Germany that they are ill-positioned to be too critical of anyone.

While acknowledging that there is a “big difference between being anti-American and being critical of the United States,” Revel explains how, “Europe in general and the Left in particular absolve themselves of their own moral failings and their grotesque intellectual errors by heaping them upon the United States.” Much anti-Americanism is reflexive and warmed-over rhetoric from Socialists and Communists still simmering from the Cold War. It is still hard for the Left to accept that they were so wrong about the economic advantages of socialism or even the evil nature of Soviet Communism. During the Cold War they habitually repeated the insanity of proclaiming the advantages of socialism, while at the same time urging aid for the Soviet Union from the West. This makes it easy to now criticize the US’s economic system while at the same time bemoaning American economic hegemony. Apparently, skill at repeating arguments that are contradictory improves with perpetual practice, until mendacity becomes a comfortable frame of mind.

America, especially in the European media, is continually stereotyped as a capitalist jungle, populated by uncultured Yahoos. According to Revel, anti-Americanism is primarily a consequence of American success. Some loathe America because “for over half a century she has been the most prosperous and creative capitalist society on Earth.” Americans are viewed like the rich uncle who wears loud and unfashionable suits, drives a large garish car, and whose idea of high culture is anything that can fit into a large screen television. It is comfortable for Europeans to assuage feelings of inadequacy with notions of cultural and moral superiority. However, it must be frustrating to adhere to this mythology while seeing ubiquitous American movies dominating the free choices of Europeans, despite heavy government subsidies for European-made movies.

What is most disheartening is the European willingness to believe the worst about America based on scant or even conjured evidence, revealing an eagerness to be deceived. In March 2002, shortly after the September 11 attacks, Thierry Meyssan published L’Effroyable Imposture (The Frightening Fraud), a grotesque and insulting book that asserted that no plane struck the Pentagon. One wing of the Pentagon was supposedly struck with a missile as part of a US plot. This fabrication is reminiscent of a small-scale Holocaust denial. It is not so bad that this book was published, but that so many of the French were sufficiently convinced of its veracity to make it a bestseller there.

Much of this anti-Americanism is intellectually incoherent and contradictory, unified only by reflexive and blind animosity. Revel provides several examples. At one point, the US was criticized as being “isolationist” for not engaging sufficiently in the Middle East. Just months later, the US was criticized for imperialistically insisting the Palestinians hold elections to choose a successor to Arafat. It is possible to be isolationist or imperialist, but difficult to be both.

On one hand, the French whine about free trade and globalization bulldozing French culture. Yet they complain just as fervently if the US erects trade barriers inhibiting free trade? Are American critics for free trade or not. American self-confidence in the universal applicability of its founding principles and in economic freedom are labeled as arrogant, while the French celebrate France’s “universal radiance” as the “country of human rights.” French culture has made many contributions, but modesty has never been one of them. It is more than disingenuous for the French to call Americans arrogant.

In many ways, there is little that Americans can do about anti-Americanism. Indeed Revel concedes that anti-Americanism is self perpetuating. Revel explains that “By criticizing the Americans whatever they do, and on every occasion — even when they are in the right — we Europeans compel them to disregard our objections — even when we are in the right.” By always opting out of leadership and always choosing complaint and pique, Europeans compel Americans to believe that Europeans are not really serious.

Until Europeans manage to free their culture and economy from the stifling state and until they are willing to embrace freedom and free trade, they will fall further behind the US economically, militarily, and even culturally. Unfortunately, the larger the gap the greater the animosity will likely be. Moreover as Revel concludes, “The fallacies of anti-American bias encourage American unilateralism. The tendentious blindness and systematic hostility of most of the governments that deal with the United States can only lead to their own weakness … condemning themselves to impotence … [and] strengthen the country they claim to fear.”

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