Saturday, November 26, 2005

Paul Berman on French anti-Americanism and more

The latest New Republic has a fascinating article by Paul Berman on French anti-Americanism (free registration required). The essay, which includes reviews of several books dealing with the topics, is an in-depth overview of the complex history of French attitudes toward America, and includes such truly fascinating tidbits. For instance, one of the authors he reviews, Philippe Roger, recounts a rather peculiar kind of anti-Americanism in the 18th Century, set forth by the great naturalist the Comte de Buffon:

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. Birds sang less melodiously in the New World. ... All of nature degenerated in the disgusting sogginess, and people who came from Europe were bound to degenerate, as well. One of Buffon's influential disciples was the Dutch savant Cornelius De Pauw at the court of Frederick the Great in Berlin (where, in Frederick's time, the court language was French--just to uphold the Frenchness of this analysis), and De Pauw calmly concluded, "A stupid imbecility is the fundamental disposition of all Americans."

... Buffon's disciples stood in high repute among the champions of the Enlightenment all over Europe. The absurdities, in short, did not seem absurd. Roger reminds us that Jefferson and Franklin, in their debates with the French, devoted themselves principally to refuting the naturalist arguments about American inferiority--this, instead of trying to affirm the virtues of democracy or the possibility of human progress. ... 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.

This is funny, but Berman's essay delves into some other things that aren't quite so much a laughing matter. Along with Roger, he finds that French anti-Americanism has taken many forms over the years, with often contradictory sins laid at America's doorstep:

In this fashion, a cultural tradition arose in which America was condemned for every possible reason and its opposite--condemned for being less advanced than Europe, which is to say, geographically and sociologically younger; and also for being ahead of Europe in its social development, which is to say, older. America was a country without values; and appallingly moralistic. Repulsive for being racist; and for mixing its races. America's democracy was a failure and a sham; and America was repeatedly said to have lately fallen away from its admirable democratic past. America was governed by a dictatorship of millionaires; or by a rabble of corner grocers. Worse than Hitler; or Hitler's heir; and either way a threat to humanism.

America was frightening because it was excessively powerful; and was repeatedly declared to be on the brink of collapse. America was bellicose; and its soldiers, cowardly. America was hopelessly Christian; and, beginning in the 1920s, America was, even so, dominated by Jews. Coldly calculating; and, at the same time, religiously insane. Talleyrand made the complaint about religious insanity at the very start of the American republic (he had fled to America in 1794 to escape the mass guillotinings that were mandated by France's new religion of the Goddess of Reason) in his witty remark that America featured thirty-two religions and only one dish, which was inedible. The remark about food was significant in itself, and suggested, as well, a larger complaint about the unattractive thinness of America's culture--a main theme of the anti-American accusation. And yet America's greatest danger to the world was also said to be its culture, which, despite its lack of appeal, was dangerously appealing, and was going to crush all other cultures.

Berman's essay also casts some doubt on the notion that it was our fault (or rather, Bush's fault) that we "squandered" Europe's sympathy after September 11; at least in the case of France, that sympathy was rather tenuous to begin with, and ready to dissipate at first touch of disagreement.

[I]n the days after September 11, as Roger reminds us, Jean Baudrillard composed his famous statement on the massacres, reporting what Baudrillard described as "jubilation" at the scene: "the prodigious jubilation in seeing this global superpower destroyed." "Ultimately, they were the ones who did it, but we were the ones who wanted it." These thoughts ran in Le Monde, no less.

Yet what is striking is not the spectacle of Baudrillard himself--a man evidently in the tradition of the fascist dandies of the between-the-wars period, oohing with aesthetic pleasure at the joys of random slaughter--but something else, which Roger points out. This most striking quality is Baudrillard's easy and confident use of the word "we," as in the astonishing remark: "we were the ones who wanted it." Roger comments, "His jubilation? He knows better! Our jubilation." This, finally, is the scary part--the blasé conviction of a famous cultural figure that, in cheering on the September 11 massacre, he is speaking on behalf of a gigantic collectivity. On behalf of everyone worth mentioning. On behalf of civilization.

And indeed, Berman concludes (drawing on Roger and the other authors he reviews, including André Glucksmann), Baudrillard's confidence that he was "speaking on behalf of a gigantic collectivity" had the weight of a longstanding cultural tradition behind it. Another fascinating, if grim and disturbing, tidbit from Berman's essay is that several French writers fantasized about something like the September 11 long before it happened:

[B]y 1925--to continue with this theme of French disapproval of American city life--the poet [Louis] Aragon, as Roger informs us, was already writing, "May America afar crumble with its white buildings." A generation later, in 1948, a writer whom Roger cites had already conjectured in print about the desirability of seeing Manhattan's Wall Street physically destroyed.

Roger might have added that, still later on, as Glucksmann points out, Jean Genet dreamed with pleasure (as shown in one of his essays, published in 1986) of Arabs blowing up New York.

That last bit is not only sickening (though not surprising coming from Genet, a writer who consistently glorified violence and murder as a form of rebellion against bourgeois society) but quite uncanny; when Genet wrote this essay, the Cold War was still in full force, and it would have been far more logical, if envisioning New York's destruction, to imagine the Soviet Union as the destroyer.

Anyway, read the whole thing; it's worth it.

By the way, in passing, Berman makes one of the best observations I've seen in a while summing up the schizophrenia of America's political scene today:

Modern political life is a landscape befogged with mists and clouds of halfway held fugitive opinions--the kind of landscape that allows an intelligent and well-educated person to say with perfect sincerity, "George W. Bush is a fascist and the United States is on the brink of becoming Nazi Germany," and yet allow that same earnest person cheerfully to acknowledge, in the next breath, that, come January 2009, Bush and his entire fascist crew of Zionist conspirators are absolutely guaranteed to vacate the White House in favor of a new and popularly elected team, who might well be Bush's fiercest opponents.

As Glenn Reynolds likes to say: Heh.

Note: Unfortunately, also in passing, Berman recycles a noxious and persistent piece of pseudo-history (not really related to the main topic). Discussing the various varieties of hatred -- anti-Semitism, misogyny, and anti-Americanism -- he writes that hatred is often rooted in fantasies of perfection thwarted by real-life human flaws: thus, in the case of misogyny, men idealize the perfection of Woman but are disappointed by the imperfections of flesh-and-blood women:

Men rail at women, and even set out to murder women, sometimes in gigantic numbers, as in the classic witch-hunts of Europe. This is always done in the name of a perfection that would surely exist, if only women weren't so damnably imperfect.

Far be it from me to argue that misogyny did not exist, in abundance, in medieval and Renaissance Europe. But the "classic witch-hunts" were not, modern historians overwhelmingly agree, about misogynistic mass murder of women by men. With apologies for mixing my genres, it's time to drive a stake through the heart of this myth.

Update: The links to the Google cache pages I posted before no longer seem to work, but it turns out that the article is available for free to registered users of; registration is a simple process that takes about 30 seconds. I had mistakenly said it was subscriber-only; my apologies.


Anonymous said...

I find it surprising that you would aid readers in circumventing subscription requirements like that. Do you approve of music file-sharing online as well? I have trouble seeing a difference.

Cathy Young said...

I seriously doubt that posting links to Google caches of one TNR article is going to cost TNR any subscribers. Do libraries with copy machines help people "circumvent subscription requirements"?

Peter Hoh said...

I used the links earlier tonight, but I can't seem to get to the cached pages any more.

I was very impressed with the section I read. Might make me walk over to the university library to get my grubby paws on a real live copy of the magazine.

Cathy Young said...

Oh, interesting point, Richard!

Not sure when the essay was written, actually; Genet died in 1986 -- the essay was a posthumous collection.

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Anonymous said...

anti american...get out of here...