It's long, extremely long, but a must-read for anyone interested in transatlantic rivalries. Paul Berman's New Republic essay on France's long tradition of anti-Americanism overflows with absorbing insights. Just as you'd expect from the author of Terror & Liberalism.
Examining the diplomatic run-up to the Iraq war, he doesn't absolve the Bush administration of clumsiness and arrogance:
Where Bush's American admirers and even some of his non-admirers merely saw cowboy hats, the French saw lederhosen. And the French - a great many of them - recoiled. I find it hard to believe that anyone with lofty responsibilities in the Bush administration ever appreciated how much damage was done to Franco-American relations by Washington's foreign policy manoeuvres in those early months of 2001.
Fair comment. Yet he places even more emphasis on how the French were led astray by their poor grasp of American history and institutions. Raised on a diet of unremitting secularism, for instance, most French opinion-makers never get to grips with the role of religion in US daily life. No wonder they fall so easily for the cheapest of conspiracy theories:
Instead of looking at these matters from the vantage point of American history, the French observers tended to adopt the vantage point of French history and concluded that America was retreating into the Middle Ages, even if America had never been in the Middle Ages.
A fairly astonishing number of serious and prestigious journalists and intellectuals throughout Europe harbour a suspicion right now that, in the age of the possibly crypto-fascist Bush regime, America has turned away from civilization--an opinion that I have heard repeated in one country after another, usually in a tone of sad and anxious concern, the way that someone might express worry about a friend with advanced cancer.
What makes this thinking particularly dangerous, Berman argues, is the lack of diversity in the French media:
Whatever may be the complaints from American intellectuals and journalists about terrible pressures on them in the United States to conform to the Republican line, I am convinced, from hopping back and forth between France and the United States over these last years, that conformist pressures in France have been decidedly heavier. [Pierre] Rigoulot points out that not a single one of the big daily national or regional newspapers in France, nor any of the TV chains, supported the American overthrow of Saddam - a degree of unanimity that surpassed even the Germans on this issue.
Berman isn't entirely pessimistic. He sees the publication of a clutch of pro-American polemics as a sign that the elite mood may be shifting. Unlike the many French-bashers across the pond, he's also open to the idea that some of the criticisms made about the quality of life in the US have some weight to them. Let's face it. Which do you prefer? A cardboard cup of coffee in Starbucks or an espresso in a typical Parisian cafe?
In the end, though, it's obvious which country really suffers from an inferiority complex. Berman, much as he admires France and its heritage, cannot ignore the blight on the national psyche:
Anyone who visits Berlin will recognize instantly that Germany is a nation that has suffered stupendous and unbearable defeats--a nation that has been reduced to rubble repeatedly by events, even if the Germans have themselves to blame for some of those events. A visitor to France will come away with no such impression. Rubble, in France? And yet it may be that France, too, is a nation covered with scars--a wounded nation, different from Germany only in France's gallant insistence that it is not a wounded nation.
(Via Mick Hartley)
PS: Sorry to string this out for so long, but I can't resist highlighting Berman's brief account of the theories of Buffon, 18th century godfather of anti-Americanism:
Buffon postulated that, in the New World, the Biblical flood had taken place much later than in the Old (which, by the way, is a notion that lingers on in Tocqueville, though he gives the deluvianism a positive spin). And, because the flood had taken place not so long ago, the New World was still a bit soggy. Animals and plants were feebler and less fully developed than in Europe. Trees were stunted. Dogs did not bark. Humans were hermaphroditically less sexual. Men's breasts lactated... All of nature degenerated in the disgusting sogginess, and people who came from Europe were bound to degenerate, as well.
So now you see where modern authors like Thierry Meyssan get their spiritual nourishment.
And how did Benjamin Franklin respond? In his characteristically no-nonsense style:
Franklin, at a dinner in Paris, asked all the American men to stand up, and likewise all the French men, in order to demonstrate that Americans were taller, not shorter, than the French--which was a devastating refutation of the naturalist theory of biological degeneration, and a genial display of American wit, to boot.