Josef Joffe on Anti-Americanism

Josef Joffe, co-publisher of Die Zeit, attempts here to draw the line between "rabid and the reasonable" criticism of the United States. Joffe’s allegiances are clear; he is currently a fellow at a conservative American think-tank and is pro-American and pro-Israel by European standards. However, Joffe does occasionally criticize (G) American policy; so it’s unfair to describe him as a toady.

The piece has its flaws. He doesn’t tell us where he gets many of his quotations. Also, he tries to maintain a firm distinction between fair criticism of the U.S. and anti-Americanism, but doesn’t provide any examples of the former to let us police the fairness of his thinking. Plus, the piece goes on a bit.

However, Joffe makes some good points, which I’ll summarize. Joffe first looks at the nasty generalizations and stereotypes that plague European discourse about U.S. policy. Accusations of the "illegality" of some American action "may be true or false; they are not ipso facto anti-American. But to attribute American behavior to inbred imperialism ("look what they did to the Indians"), to American capitalism ("blood for oil"), or to religious bigotry ("they claim divine guidance") transcends policy criticism."

So is singling out the United States or Americans for criticism, while ignoring other nations’ essentially identical actions (I highlight a recent example here). Another press filter singles out Americans who "serve as witnesses against their own government and nation," regardless of their actual importance on the political and cultural landscape of the U.S. The usual suspects: Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, and Susan Sontag. I’d add Morris Berman, who is virtually unknown in the United States outside of leftist circles, but whose books (G) (with telling titles such as "Dark Times for American: End of an Imperialist Era" and "Culture on the Brink of Collapse: America Shows the Way") are instantly translated into German, available in every bookstore, and please left-wing German critics (G) no end.

Joffe finds Freudian defense mechanisms buried everywhere in the rhetoric of anti-Americanism. Anti-Americans will claim to despise only Bush when their language reveals the hatred goes much further (displacement); claiming not to be anti-American while simultaneously launching a stream of self-righteous invective against the Great Satan (denial); and criticizing shortcomings of American society that have direct counterparts in their own countries (projection). Anti-American argumentation is filled with such projection-derived stereotypes: America is a "merciless exponent[] of world capitalism"; America is "culturally retrograde"; it elects thugs (Nixon) and morons (Reagan) to lead it. These stereotypes all serve one main purpose, according to Joffe: "[T]he denigration of America and the elevation of Europe."

Because anti-Americanism is driven primarily by prejudice and the "the unconscious remedy of projection and displacement", anti-American arguments are often illogical and internally incoherent: The United States is simultaneously powerful enough to be responsible for almost every world evil and teetering on the brink of collapse; America is the world capital of racism and the land where honest debate has been stifled by "political correctness"; America is the land in which an indifferent state lets the weak drift into illness and poverty, and is a puritcanical nanny-state which passes laws to protect people from themselves, etc. etc.   

All these pathologies of thought make it impossible to have a reasonable discussion with an anti-American:

[I]n the end, debates on anti-Americanism or any anti-ism turn into spirals without resolution or escape. It is possible to have a useful discussion with a critic of American policy, and, indeed, necessary to hearken what is right and reasoned while rebutting what is certifiably false. But, in the end, anti-Americanism is not about America, as anti-Semitism is not about Jews. Any "anti-ism" reflects the crisis of the personality or polity afflicted with it.

This is also my experience. There’s really no point in arguing with anti-Americans. They’re driven by emotions you cannot change, and their arguments are either nothing more than a few hastily-strung-together stereotypes (example here (G)), or loony conspiracy theories; a web of suspicions and hatreds in which a few isolated facts hang here and there.

However, though I agree with many of the points Joffe makes, I’d add that almost all of them also apply to American and British attitudes toward Europe. Indeed, Joffe himself is an example: he’s a German willing to criticize anti-Americanism in the Continental press, which is music to the ears of the conservative magazine he wrote this article for. So, for example, is this Swede, who writes in English that the Swedish social-welfare model is "rotting from within." I’m not saying that these pieces don’t make good points; I’m just saying that if you’re a European looking to publish a think-piece in English, or have one translated, you’re likely to find a more eager market for pieces that criticize European society than for pieces that praise it.

Projection is also rampant in English and American coverage of Europe. The number one example: after enduring years of self-righteous lectures from the French about the "savagery" of the "Anglo-Saxon" social model, English and U.S. journalists and commentators didn’t even try to disguise their delight when the French suburbs erupted in riots last fall…

One thought on “Josef Joffe on Anti-Americanism

  1. I have been thinking about a reply to this since you posted it. It’s a topic which has been beaten nearly to death from all sides so it will require a certain delicacy of touch to add anything of value.

    There have been a lot of very harsh things written and spoken during the last few years. As an American expat I have faced open hostility personally. Not universally but in venues and from people which frankly astonished me at the time and still do when I think about it.

    I think the reflexive anti-americansm which Herr Joffe cites is in fact widespread among certain parts of the European population – most obviously the intelligentsia and journalists. Outside of these groups I see a lot of hostility but I believe it’s a different thing for the most part. I think it’s being driven largely by an almost unremittingly hostile press corps in France, Germany, Spain, and Belgium. Should the press change it’s collective mind for some reason or even switch to a neutral stance I thnk much of the latter hostility would evaporate.

    I’m not holding my breath because I can’t see any reaon why the situation will change much. The US could elect a Democrat as Bush’s successor who might be granted a honeymoon for as much as 6 months – but then the tide will turn back.

    On the plus side is the change in the German government from Schroeder to Merkel – but she cannot change the poisonous anger by herself and it would be political suicide for her to try. The best we can hope for a kind of detente with an increasingly hostile Germany and France under Chirac and his possible successors Sarko and Royale. If Le Pen wins the next election don’t expect a friendly France – he’s a reactionary, not a conservative.

    I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter nearly as much as it would have in 1975 or 1980. Prior to Yetlsin it was a case of hang together or hang seperately. Now there is much less that Germany can do for the US (and conversely). The bilateral relationships which critically matter to the US are increasingly in Asia and with Russia.

    Many Europeans seem determined to drink the anti-American cup to the dregs and there is not a great deal we can do about it, I think. There are all kinds of signs apart from the EU press. Multinational bodies are increasingly dominated by EU countries (and ‘Old Europe’ at that).

    Have a look at the current makeup of the IOC (International Olympic Committee) for a perfect example. Nine Europeans on the fifteen person executive committee with three of the four ‘executives’ Europeans. No US representatives. Two in total from the Americas I think. It cannot get more obvious that that unless they decide to call it the EOC and hold the ‘Eulympics’. Similar (though less extreme) things are happening within the UN and it’s associated organisations.

    The US should avoid making more enemies than need be within these bodies by flapping our mouths too much but practically speaking the US is no longer a body in which much effective diplomacy can be done. The UN is now largely a forum for propoganda (for all parties not excluding the US) and a veto forum. Only the least controversial initiatives can be completed within the UN as it stands.

    There is some cause for hope. After a time the smell will grow too high even for European nostrils. Having a ‘Human Rights Council’ with Sudan, Cuba, Iran, et al (but no US) will appear increasingly smelly to the Euro populace and resistance will rise.

    Robert Kagan recently published an Op-Ed piece in the WaPo. Quite straightforward – but observe the makup of the discussion panel Mr. Kagan participated in. It was – interesting. To say the least. Some of the most-offended members of that panel are people I am proud to have as enemies to be honest!



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