I notice that anti-Americanism is acquiring a shiny new veneer, and just in time. Gone are most of the street-level Yankophobes — the Paris subway spitters aiming for American tourists, and Britain’s yob-pundits aiming for a job at the Guardian. Even most of the name-calling has stopped, except when a politician needs a vote or two. (Jeremy Clarkson, the downmarket host of the BBC’s Top Gear, who this week told his 350 million worldwide viewers that “Americans are fat, stupid and rude,” is a holdout, however.)
For the most part, anti-Americanism has become ultra-respectable. More than at any time I can remember, anti-Americanism is now a general assumption in Europe, a permanent way of seeing the world. You can say anything you wish about America in a European capital and never have to explain yourself or bother with annoying details, because, you know, everybody knows…
In a recent issue (well, end of December, the most recent issue I have) of the Times Literary Supplement, for example, angry Canadian Ronald Wright concludes a review of a biography of Amerigo Vespucci this way:
Thanks to associations with “democracy, liberty, republicanism, and the opportunity to pursue dreams,” writes Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, “the word America comes positively charged.” But he adds a historian’s warning that brings the long story…to its current state of play: “More recently, because of superpower arrogance, corporate greed, corrupt politics, trigger-happy warmongering, ecological irresponsibility, and crass consumerism, the name America has conjured up other, less happy, associations.”
Some play. Some just scream. Normally, this sort of gratuitous self-indulgence in a book on an unrelated topic would be ridiculed by a competent reviewer, rather than tacked on approvingly as a way of showing solidarity in the struggle against the Great Satan. And you’d be forgiven for thinking that if Wright couldn’t restrain himself, the editors would help him out with a quick trim. But no opportunity to flay America must be permitted to pass.
That biographer’s little screed is heard and seen daily a thousand times in Europe, on TV, in newspapers, cafés, classrooms, and government offices, everywhere–and, perhaps not incidentally, everywhere creating a very cogent argument for American isolationism. For example, earlier this week, as Libération reports, the Euro parliament got a day of beauty covering itself in the rich emollient of outrage over the CIA’s rendition flights: The very idea that civilized Europeans should soil themselves by helping the Americans fight terrorists is now seen as ludicrous, because, as we all know, Americans are trigger-happy warmongers and what have you. Today, the Times reports, an Italian judge ordered the arrest of 26 American CIA operatives in a cover-blowing extravaganza even Richard Armitage couldn’t imagine. (Once the CIA festivities were over, however, the European Parliament turned its efforts back toward more familiar chores, like paying for the publication of some good, old-fashioned anti-Semitism, as this item in Primo explains.)
Meanwhile, as Eursoc reports, a quack UNICEF study has discovered that U.S. (and British, but especially U.S.) children are dumber, sicker, poorer than other kids in the West. The subtext: Americans are losers because their kids are victims of capitalism. Actually, worse than losers. “Thugs,” according to the bloggers at Medienkritik, who survey the false outrage of the Germans at American counter-terrorism, even as Deutsche Welle reports the decision to free Red Army Faction murderer Brigitte Mohnhaupt.
To provide context, Medienkritik points to a piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education by Andrei Markovits, one that looks at anti-Americanism in a way that may help explain European distaste for working with America against killers and suicide bombers:
For the time being, there seem to be no visible incentives for Europeans to desist from anti-Americanism. Its tone is popular among European publics. Far from harming Europe and its interests, anti-Americanism has helped Europeans gain respect, affection, and — most important — political clout in the rest of the world. Anti-Americanism has become a European currency whose value fluctuates greatly, but whose existence does represent a chip that Europe will cash in with increasing gusto. By cultivating an anti-American position, Europe feigns membership in a global opposition of the downtrodden by America.
Fat, dumb, rude, trigger-happy, whatever. Pour a drink the size of your fist and read the whole thing. If there’s a certain familiarity to it all, it’s because the European press sees Americans the way the New York Times and the Washington Post see Nebraska and Mississippi.
One real clear fact is that the European and American press have taken the same adversarial stance. In harmony with congressional Democrats, their principle adversary is George Bush, of course. But the America of Republicans will do, too.
Markovits lays some of the blame for Europe’s anti-Americanism at Bush’s clay-encrusted feet, and no doubt he’s at least partially correct. But there are also the partial truths and false facts that “everybody knows”–the conventional truths that are a daily staple of the press in Europe, as well as in New York and Washington. In Europe as in Iraq, the press contributes daily, even hourly installments to a consensus-driven narrative — a predictable story with a familiar arc, a story that starts, “As we all know…”
These stories often overlap; all the themes celebrated by Vespucci’s biographer, above, are comprehensible as little angry yips because everybody knows they’re true enough. The Iraq narrative is Vietnam. But journalists must take care, because that narrative sits atop another — one that sees America defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan and diminished around the world. That’s how the story ends, as everybody knows.
— Denis Boyles is author of Vile France: Fear, Duplicity, Cowardice and Cheese.