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Friday, April 09, 2004

Between Love and Hate Lies...L'Obsession

James Taranto (and several others) links to this book review in the Asia Times. In it, John Parker (an American living in Vietnam) unleashes his atomic-powered thesaurus on the forces of anti-Americanism while reviewing Anti-Americanism (L'obsessian anti-Americaine) by Jean-Francois Revel (now available in English).

Parker compares anti-Americanism to a religious cult:

Still, the anti-American cult provides its legions of drooling adherents with the crucial element of any faith: the illusion of meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence. That priceless psychological salve, in this case, is the comforting delusion that, no matter how hypocritical, backward, bigoted, ignorant, corrupt or cowardly the cult's followers might otherwise be, at least they are better than those awful Americans.

Parker is dead-on about that. I've often thought that many Leftist beliefs serve as a kind of religion. Their basic dogma---capitalism bad, Kyoto good, etc---is accepted without question, even in the face of refuting evidence. But the religion's primary purpose, as far as I can tell, is to make the believer feel superior. It's pious to be for the Poor, for the Earth, against Racism, without once ever having to think about what damage your simple-minded solutions might do. It's enough to be one of the Good People, to have good intentions, even when they lead to disastrous results.

This behavior is not confined to the Left, of course, but conservative religious fanatics tend to be...well, religious.

Revel, Parker says, points out something that I've noticed for a long time now:

Revel also breaks new ground when he discusses the striking tendency of other countries to ascribe their own worst faults to the United States, in a curious "reversal of culpability". Thus the famously peace-loving Japanese and Germans excoriate the US for "militarism"; the Mexicans attack it for "electoral corruption" in the wake of the 2000 election; the British accuse it of "imperialism"; Arab writers condemn it after September 11 for "abridging press freedom"... The gold medal for jaw-dropping hypocrisy, however, goes to the mainland Chinese, whose unelected dictatorship routinely accuses the United States of "hegemonism"... What they actually oppose, of course, is not "hegemonism" itself, but the possibility that any power other than China would dare to practice it.


If anything, Revel does not develop this point highly enough. For, to an American observer of countless anti-American diatribes, the most striking aspect of the United States they describe is how little it resembles the actual, physical United States, and how uncannily it resembles a doppelganger of the writer's own society.

Amen, brother. I refer you to (as Parker goes on to mention) constant French accusations of "arrogance" (which sit no better in the mouths of Britons or Germans), Arab and East Asian cries of "racism" (I don't know about Vietnam, but Japan and Korea certainly aren't known for their enlightened attitudes toward their indigenous minorities), and (especially) Saudi Arabian indignation towards "religious persecution" of Muslims. I've also heard the US accused of being a "police state" by citizens of countries which do not have the anywhere near the tender concern for civil liberties that the US does.

I used to think that they expected better of us because we expected better of ourselves. After all, the US claims to be "the land of the free", and when we do not quite live up to that ideal, that's grounds for legitimate criticism---more so, say, than some other country that does not make that claim.

But after a while I realized these critics weren't really interested in us living up to our hopes, but only down to theirs. They were so busy pointing out the motes in our eye that they had no time to spare for the beams in others'.

Another unmentioned aspect is the sheer adolescent pettiness of the criticism. This can be seen most clearly in international press coverage of the United States, which scarcely ever misses an opportunity to America-bash, even when reporting on areas that are in essence non-political, such as economic statistics and scientific discovery. Revel discusses the typical example of a story in the economics journal La Tribune, which gleefully announced "The End of Full Employment in the USA" when the US unemployment rate climbed to 5.5 percent in early 2001 (at the time, the French government was congratulating itself for reducing French unemployment to only twice this level). More recently, the British Broadcasting Corp gave exhaustive coverage to a technical problem with the US Mars Spirit Rover, but barely mentioned the successful effort to solve the problem. This spiteful editorial decision, and countless others like it, was typical of an organization in which balanced, accurate news coverage has become secondary to the holy task of denouncing Uncle Sam.

I don't think much of the examples given here. Revel might have a point about the employment figures, but I would say that this was more an example of the French press trying to gin up another round of "the failure of capitalism", rather than sheer anti-Americanism (although the two often go hand-in-hand). And the bit about the Spirit (which is so recent it must be Parker's contribution) belongs under "If it bleeds, it leads." Once it stops malfunctioning, it's no longer news (I never heard about its recovery from the American media, either, until it started to discover things).

But that doesn't mean Revel's not right. This sort of thing showed up occasionally in the Sydney Morning Herald's TV listings, where the "What's on Tonight" snippet would sometimes make offhand sneering comments about American culture, and occasionally pops up as a non-sequitur in Guardian articles.

For decades, the anti-Americans have compared the US to the Roman Empire...

This ought to be a hanging offense, by the way. Overused. the fond hope that a similar "decline and fall" would someday materialize (given that what followed the Roman collapse was centuries of war, ignorance, and barbarism, one questions their motives).

Actually, we might wonder when the Roman Empire got such a bad rap. A century ago it was considered a bastion of civilization in a barbarian world. When did this change?

To illustrate, countless commentators have parroted the cliche that the "war on terrorism" is unwinnable, but how many have noted the obvious, undeniable corollary that Osama bin Laden's self-declared war on the United States is equally unwinnable?

Now here's an interesting question. I believe that most critics of the WoT know that Bin Laden's war is unwinnable, and therefore we shouldn't fight it. The result is something akin to a pack of jackals watching some rats try to kill an elephant. The jackals know the rats can't possibly succeed, but they enjoy the sight of the mighty elephant in distress. So they tell the elephant to keep still, that the rats aren't really hurting it, that if a rat gets killed, it'll only make the rest mad. Most never dream that the rats can succeed, that the elephant's seeming inertia will only draw more rats, and those that do never think of the consequences of the death of the elephant, or realize the rats will soon be hungry again.

But now enjoy with me, friends, what seems to be the heavy hand of an editor:

It is ironic, however, that so many East Asians would be drawn to the cult, since they, out of all the regions of the developing world, have the least reason to feel inferior to the United States (after all, many societies in the region have already surpassed the US by various objective criteria). It may be that in the Asian "school" of anti-Americanism, a different psychological dynamic is at work: since Asians are as convinced of their innate cultural superiority as all the other critics (though with infinitely more justification than most), it must make them very uncomfortable that, in almost every case, their societies' escape from thousands of years of static, inward-looking despotism only began when US, or British, influence arrived.


Parker goes on to say that the book's flaws lie in a lot of repetition, and the fact that Revel takes many of his examples from French sources which tend to be unfamiliar to a wider audience.

There's much more. Go ye and read of it.