Politics & Policy

French Offensive

Our review of a New York Times review.

We always knew that we would strike a few nerves with Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France. We certainly never expected anything but a negative review from the New York Times let alone from a hotshot French intellectual like Bernard-Henri Levy.

#ad#But judging from Levy’s fulminations in the Times on Sunday, we didn’t just strike a few nerves–we’re actually pushing people over the edge.

In his one-page critique, Levy hurls just about every hysterical epithet he can find in our direction. He accuses us of “racism” and “Francophobia.” He calls our book “nauseating,” “fantastical,” “grotesque,” and in competition for the “grand prize in stupidity.” He even compares what we’ve written to “the fascist French literature of the 1930s.”

Now that’s a curious putdown, comparing us to the French.

The only thing more curious may be the fact that before Levy goes diving off the deep end, he concedes so much of our argument. He readily admits that French anti-Americanism is “lodged in the heart of my country’s culture.” He even calls our historical account of Franco-American diplomatic relations–which is to say, the vast majority of our book–”a more or less fair re-evaluation.”

What really seems to irritate him is that we have the audacity to examine how French anti-Americanism has shaped Franco-American relations throughout history. At its core, our book seeks to overturn the pervasive, deep-seated, and dearly beloved myth that France and the United States are traditional allies whose age-old friendship only hit the rocks when America’s yahoo president decided to embark on an imperialist adventure in Iraq.

Levy’s central complaint, however, is that we have committed the unforgivable sin of “essentialism”–i.e. that we reduce France and the French to a simplistic, noxious caricature. His evidence that we are dyed-in-the-wool essentialists comes from the second-to-last line of our conclusion, where we offer some parting thoughts on the future of Franco-American relations: “Will the French, in short, continue to be the French?” we ask. For Levy, this mortifying question is hard evidence of “a temptation to which it is surprising to see apparently respectable minds succumb: racism.” In other words, we are racists for even wondering it. Yet Levy completely overlooks something that is, ahem, essential to understanding our question, which is that our question is actually an allusion. It harks back to the opening lines of the conclusion, where we quote a prominent American politician who had just been asked whether he considered the French friends or enemies. “The French are the French,” he responded. “And I think most people know exactly what I mean.”

And who was this politician? Here’s a hint: He spoke these words during a Democratic primary debate last year.

Still not sure? Some have said he looks French.

The odds remain slim, however, that the New York Times and Bernard-Henri Levy, now duly alerted, will soon condemn the junior senator from Massachusetts as a thoroughgoing essentialist, not to mention a fascist, a racist, and a Francophobe.

Levy accuses us of “racism” one more time because we have the audacity to quote several humorous lines from Mark Twain’s journal on the subject of the French. As it happens, Twain lived in Paris for several years, and thus we found his views on France and its people and culture both worthy of notice and entertaining. But Levy, who proves hopelessly unable to distinguish between moments of humor and seriousness in our book, would prefer that we had not mentioned Twain at all.

Well, Levy’s out of luck again because his sad performance brings to mind a line from Life on the Mississippi: “You take the lies out of him, and he’ll shrink to the size of your hat; you take the malice out of him, and he’ll disappear.”

John J. Miller is a writer for National Review and Mark Molesky is an assistant professor of history at Seton Hall University. Their book, Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France, was published in October.

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