I just finished Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America by Andrei Markovits. I have less and less interest in debates about anti-Americanism, because they get acrid fairly quickly. I wanted to read Markovits, though, partially because of who he is.
That is, first of all, the Karl W. Deutsch Collegiate Professor of Comparative Politics and German Studies at the University of Michigan. His title, though, is less important than his background. His family emigrated from Romania, arriving in the U.S. in 1960. In between, he studied in Vienna, and thus reads and speaks good German. He is also familiar with many other Continental languages, and follows the European media closely. Finally, he identifies himself as having a "life-long affinity with the democratic left in Europe and the United States" and for the project of Europe. (xiii). To let you know where he’s coming from, he lists his positions on various issues, from the death penalty (against) to unions (for).
Markovits’ background makes him conscious of three pitfalls of anti-anti-Americanism:
- Defensive denial/Complete identification. The anti-anti-American becomes so fed up with the supercilious tone of European anti-Americanism (or so afraid of "giving the other side ammunition") that he defends U.S. policy even against spot-on critiques.
- Tit-for-tat. For every flaw identified by the anti-American, the anti-anti strikes back with an analogous shortcoming of modern European societies. Don’t get me wrong; a bit of tit-for-tat is satisfying, and sometimes administers a needed corrective. But it rarely illuminates causes and nature of anti-Americanism, and often destroys dialogue.
- Contempt. Just as many European anti-Americans are do not care to remedy the defects they mock in American society, many anti-anti-Americans are motivated by a mirror-image of contempt for Europe. On both sides, these critics don’t want to understand; they want merely to score points and bolster fragile egos. Mark Steyn, for instance, could be put into this category.
Markovits largely avoids these pitfalls. First, no complete identification. He criticizes the indefensible policies of the Bush Administration (Guantanamo Bay is "completely illegal"). He also acknowledges that U.S. foreign policy has triggered suffering and resentment in many parts of the globe. Thus, Markovits concentrates on European anti-Americanism rather than its Latin or South American counterpart, which is largely driven by the United States’ often-sordid history in the region. Markovits cites many European authors who have addressed anti-Americanism in their own societies (such as Dan Diner in Germany and Philippe Roger in France) who know the local terrain and, presumably, are not motivated by Europhobia.
Markovits cites Paul Hollander’s definition of anti-Americanism as "a predisposition to hostility toward the United States and American society, a relentless critical impulse toward American social, economic, and political institutions, traditions and values…an aversion to American culture in particular and its influence abroad…and a firm belief in the malignity of American influence and presence anywhere in the world." To sum up, anti-Americanism, a prejudice like any other; entails an irrational hatred of the U.S. for what it is, not what it does. To Markovits, European anti-Americanism is characterized by a "surplus" hatred that goes beyond a harsh critique of American policies to "a generalizing, stereotyping and pejorative characterization that contributes little or nothing to understanding the phenomenon at hand but does much to reinforce existing prejudices." (25). In the first chapters of the book, Markovits sets out this carefully-delineated definition and argues that anti-Americanism has now become a European lingua franca — it’s left its nest among the elites of the right and left and settled deep in European mass publics, and finds very similar expression in all European societies. It’s also driven, Markovits concedes, by "the perfectly respectable human need to hate the big guy." (31)
A brief but useful historical overview of anti-Americanism helps Markovits make a few often-overlooked points. One: that anti-Americanism has deeper roots on the right of European societies than on the left. To the European right, America represented control of national affairs by a rapacious Jewish elite; promiscuous race-mixing; heedless, onrushing modernity; lack of differentiations of status and heredity necessary to a proper "organic" society; and a vulgar popular culture that, unfortunately, mesmerizes restive European proletariats. The left’s distrust of the U.S. overlapped in many ways with the right’s, but of course placed America’s vapid consumer culture, militarism, religious fanaticism and social Darwinism in the forefront. Keep in mind, Markovits reminds the reader, that anti-Americanism draws on tropes long established in the European cultural landscape.It did not start with George W. Bush — although it drastically increased during his Administration and, Markovits speculates, will probably never subside to pre-W. levels after he is gone.
To show that anti-Americanism goes deeper than rejection of specific American policies, Markovits devotes an entire chapter of the book to anti-American attitudes in domains — such as sports, fashion, or health — that have little to do with politics. A few examples, from the dozens Markovits cites, selected in turn from the thousands offered by the European media: In the 1980s, Germans whined endlessly about how America’s "health craze" was forcing them all to quit smoking and go to the gym; just a few years later it was America’s fast food that was threatening to snap Germans’ belts. America’s obsession with "brutal" sports such as boxing or football shows a violent, uncultured streak; but the complete absence of racial taunting or hooliganism during the 1994 World Cup was showed that American sports fans weren’t "authentic" and lacked real passion for the sport. "Regardless of what happens in America, and how, it irritates and upsets Europeans. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t." (97).
Markovits’ contrast of Europeans’ respectful approach to other cultural traditions with its jeering attacks on the U.S. mirrors my own experience: I’ve seen Europeans speak of monkey brain dinners in Iran, endless cricket matches in England, and four-hour, unsubtitled Bollywood spectacles with feigned — perhaps even real — respect. When the European press was exposed to American baseball in 1994, though, they "had nothing but contempt, derision, and ridicule for the game: no attempt to engage its traditions, no endeavor to understand it on its own terms, merely another vehicle to confirm one’s prejudices about America." (97). Lazy stereotyping that Europeans know to avoid when speaking of other countries is deployed against American targets without hesitation.
Here, Markovits nicely skewers superficial prankster Michael Moore, the useful idiot of European anti-Americanism, who handily confirms anti-American prejudices before adoring European audiences. Moore tells the English paper The Mirror, for example, that Americans are "possibly the dumbest people on the planet." He knows this, he explained to a Munich audience, because Americans are "smiling all the time" and "have that big [expletive] grin on our faces all the time because our brains aren’t loaded down." (14) In a note, Markovits explains that Europeans inevitably view American cheerfulness as inauthentic, but never seem to be able to explain precisely *why* "smiling and friendliness connote stupidity and superficiality while sullenness and arrogance are supposed to signify profundity, cultural erudition, and authenticity." (227). Note to Michael Moore: those European audiences who love you don’t care about unemployed auto workers or exploited fast-food clerks. My experience shows that the most rabid European anti-Americans often have high-paying jobs at U.S.-based multinational corporations or law firms. Their mockery of the U.S. makes them feel superior, it doesn’t signal a willingness to join any crusade for social justice. If you’d like to test my hypothesis, try adding a few criticisms of European multinational corporations at your next lecture in Basel, and watch ice form on the upper slopes of your turtleneck-clad audience.
Another trope that interests Markovits is the image of Europe as utterly devoid of agency: a hapless, simpering damsel in distress, waiting impotently to be ravished by the leering Uncle Sam. As in the health craze/fast food example above, the rhetoric is constantly of "creeping" or "imposed" "American conditions", as if the citizens of European countries were being frog-marched into fitness centers then into McDonalds’. In contexts as diverse as the lawsuits against parents, British criminal trials, urban design, school shootings, holiday traditions, higher education, and television, Markovits finds endless examples of commentators decrying some sort of mysterious, inevitable "Americanization," without showing that these developments have anything to do with the United States; or are in fact anything other than the effects of modernity, increased global interdependence, and clever marketing. Note that Markovits is not denying American influence on Europe here (I’ve noted it a few times in my blog); he’s pointing to the fact that it’s mutated into a convenient anti-American catchphrase, a "code term" that substitutes for respectful dialogue or real analysis.
Now to the strongest and weakest parts of the book. In Chapter 6, Markovits sets out his theory of anti-Americanism as a defining device for a new European identity. For all the bitter internal divisions among European states, they all seem to be able to agree that they don’t want "American conditions." Markovits’ thesis is that anti-Americanism has the same basic structure in all European societies. It is a dystopian vision of what Europeans — no matter what language they speak — do not want Europe to become. This idea is new, as far as I know the literature of anti-Americanism, and convincing. European society does, after all, show broad identifying traits that distinguish it from the United States, including generous social-welfare provisions, a deep distrust of military aggression and conflict, and privileging artistic and literary achievement — even in their most refined and masses-unfriendly forms — as defining elements of the national consciousness. Anti-Americanism is, according to Markovits’ vision, a cheap and cynical means to achieve a worthy end: defining a different, more human way of organizing prosperous societies. On a much lower level, it’s also a handy way for center-left politicians to show their alleged militancy. Markovits nicely shows how skillful deployment of anti-American tropes (in addition to legitimate criticisms of U.S. foreign policy) enabled Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to claim some vague kind of "fuck-the-man" left-wing sentiment while pushing through social reforms so radical, by German standards, that they provoked outcry from some parts of the ‘conservative’ opposition.
The weakest part of the book, to me, was Chapter 5, in which Markovits draws broad parallels between anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism in European discourse. The chapter is far from a dead loss — Markovits highlights the structural parallels between these two prejudices, and the fact that they are inseparable companions in Europe. However, taking on anti-Semitism involves Markovits in the delicate business of distinguishing legitimate criticism of Israel in the European press from cheap stereotyping (a distinction which, in my view, he does only imperfectly). Considering how much effort Markovits had to put into this important distinction in the context of anti-Americanism, dragging Israel into the mix just brings in too many unrelated issues. Further, some of the examples of anti-Semitism Markovits cites seem to reflect little more than petulance or overheated rhetoric, rather than genuine prejudice. Finally, Markovits’ attempts to link anti-Semitism to anti-Americanism too often sound forced, and aren’t backed up by an adequately-theorized framework. In sum, this large chapter needs to be its own book, both because it doesn’t really fit in to this one and because it deserves more thorough treatment than it receives here.
[Added a bit later] Markovits is aware of Katzenstein and Keohane’s thesis that anti-Americanism doesn’t matter much, but argues that they underestimate its practical effects: "[D]ecisions not taken because of residues of anti-Americanism, policies not implemented because of an existing though silent antipathy to America, might be as important as the visible expressions that we can measure and observe." (136-37). He cites business deals and sporting decisions that seem to have been influenced by anti-Americanism. However, he then quotes a Roger Cohen article which speculates that anti-Americanism might have helped drive the decisions of the German and French governments not to support the U.S. Administration’s decision to invade Iraq. Not the most convincing example of how anti-Americanism has bad side-effects, I’d say. (Markovits does not mention what he wrote about the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which seems odd, given that he tells us most of his other political opinions.) Nevertheless, I think recent events support Markovits’ thesis. They show that foreign leaders have begun paying a steeper price for supporting America, or being seen to support America. Whether you think this is such a bad thing will likely depend on your view of recent American foreign policy.
Stylistically, Uncouth Nation is fairly accessible, although Markovits occasionally writes clunky, abstract sentences that look as if they had been translated directly from the German (see p. 210), and has an annoying habit of occasionally providing quotations that support his point without giving us context about the author and his point of view. So, it’s a thought-provoking book which offers some genuine insights.