November 19, 2006

The American Option: Anti Americanism in Europe in the Twentieth Century

The French farmer Jose Bove, shown here, became famous within France for his antiglobalisation activities- including the destruction of a McDonalds Resturant. Bove and his supporters capitalised upon a long established trend within French and indeed European political discourse- fear, repulsion and genuine disdain for their neighbours across the Atlantic. Many books have been written on this subject- some by Americans and the odd Europeans who see anti Americanism as a form of totalitarian, democracy hating, snobbish, failure driven drivel from a set of European imperialists who resent the fact they have been passed by another nation and can't recognise America's unique role on the world stage- others written by anti Americans themselves have isolated the causes of anti-Americanism within Europe as stemming from America's failure to live up to its promise, America's failed policies and hypocrisy especially in the Middle East.

The problem is that neither of these answers really explain the fact that European anti-Americanism has been around for a lot longer than either American hyper power or even this model of American society. Also such analyses fail to see that the same leftbank intellectuals in France who support Bove will go home and watch films like A Bout de Souffle, that model themselves on all American heroes like Humphrey Bogart. Europe's relationship with America has always been ambivalent and complex, as Jessica Gienow-Hecht explains in this article from the American Historical Review. Dr Gienow-Hecht chronicles in various different countries the various shades of anti-Americanism- what she comes up with is that America as an entity shifts in anti-American discourse- its role is to annex xenophobia at an imagined place to a cause located in one's own country. Disdain the sexual libertinism of Rock and Roll and you can locate it in America and cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war. Refuse the proffered hand of globalisation and you can blame the farce upon an imagined America and declare your opposition to it. Its much better to see your opponents as quislings to either cultural cringe or economic control than respect their arguments.

Of course the most profound conclusion of all of this is that there is another country that would fit very readily into Dr Gienow-Hecht's analysis and that is America itself. The model of the first Anti-Americanism might be found in such commentators as Bill O'Reilly who scorn the secular progressive trends within their own country- the model of the second fits very adequately Michael Moore. There is an obvious distinction- both O'Reilly and Moore proclaim themselves patriots- often the anti-American European is a more passive welcomer of what bits of America he regards as good, but as numerous commentators have pointed out within the shell of an anti-American lies the snail of a philo-American.

The image of America therefore is being used in Europe in order to talk about European problems- sometimes to oppose particular policy positions especially in foreign policy (there are moments and places in the world where failures of American foreign policy are crucial to anti-American sentiment)- but just as in the United States, what is unique about America as a nation and a concept is the way that all sides of the debate fuse those two categories. America unlike France or Britain is Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, decadence, military power, global economics, capitalism and all sorts of other values- it is code for those terms. Your attitude to America ultimately depends whether in America or elsewhere on your attitude to the complex set of values and concepts attached to the brand America, some of them contradict, all of them are complexly related and an anti-American onetime can be a pro-American another- but whatever anti-Americanism is, it isn't simple.


Matt said...

I have heard (dont ask me were, so many books, blogs, and TV channels, so few brain cells) this argument put forward before.....but with regard to American Anti-Europeanism, a just as common but seldom talked about issue.

Gracchi said...

Yeah you are right Matt- the opposite works in many cases. I think its complicated as well because in many ways Europe sees its future in America and America its past in Europe. There is a kind of Jamesian image at work as well of corrupting old Europe as against naive new America. What is usually been played on I think in the US is a sense that Europe doesn't stand for anything- doesn't have an ideological nation view whereas in Europe its the opposite. Thanks for the comment

Steve Zavestoski said...

Nice post. I'm wondering if pre-1990s anti-Americanism in Europe (and especially the anti-Americanism of the mid-20th century European intellectuals like Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse) focused on a dislike of America's unabashed embrace of consumerism.

By the late 20th century, most of Europe made the same embrace. The rest of Europe, at least in its clamor to join the EU, seems to want to embrace consumer capitalism as well. If I am correct, this means that today's European anti-Americanism must have different roots. In other words, Europeans dislike our foreign policy, but not our consumer lifestyle.

If this is the case, then what is being described as anti-Americanism is not really anti-Americanism. It is anti-Bushism, and perhaps we well anti-Bush voterism. But remember, a full half of voting Americans, most likely a good many non-voters, and perhaps increasingly today even many Americans who voted for Bush in 2004, completely disagree with his foreign policy (not to mention many other positions).

Just some thoughts ... Hey, thanks for putting The Curious Stall on your International Politics blogroll. I like what you're up to here and I'll be back.

Gracchi said...

Steve fascinating comment and one I'm thinking through slowly.

I think you are right- consumerism is more popular now in Europe than it was and actually the anti-americanism is based aroudn foreign policy though sometimes its fused with a semi-Marxist critique of America. The popularity of Venezuala is interesting in that regard- though I think that's only a phenomenen of the intellectuals if you like.

I need to digest this a bit. Yes I liked the Curious Stall- it looks interesting and I will always link to things which seem to me to bring information I don't know about to me.