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...a sweatshop of moxie

Sunday, March 20, 2005

So Proudly We Hate

In the history of the world, we have had more "anti" and "phobia" sentiments about peoples, than those which are "pro"-something.

Case in point: How many of you know the opposite of "anti-Semitic"? If you answered Philosemitic, you get a cookie.

Now, how many times have you heard Philosemitic used, whether written out or in conversation? Exactly. Further, for those of you who got the cookie, how many times have you heard it, as opposed to anti-Semitic?

Were I Perry Mason, I would rest my case comfortably at this point -- but I'm just getting started.

Me, the first and seemingly only time I've heard this term used outright was in David Frum's book on President Bush the Younger, The Right Man. He mentioned that President Clinton's administration was the most aboveboard Philosemitic administration in US History. I distinctly recall thinking -- after 3 years at Oxford, how come I have never heard this word before? Especially since I have long known, I myself am Philosemitic.

Though it could say something about me, I doubt it as much as it says something about human nature: that perhaps in ordinary, everyday life we are much more subject to negativity about others, including being aware of self-reproaching phrases, than of those which tout the positive.

It is in this spirit that I read Professor Bainbridge's recent post on Francophobia, as it pertains to its opposite complaint, Anti-Americanism.

Coincidentally, one of the few "phile" names in common usage is "Francophilia". For example, I myself am an unabashed Francophile. I love French history, French culture, and I love speaking French. Paris, I know like the back of my hand. I'm eminently comfortable in France.

As for the French, they have long had a fascination with the upper-classes of Britain, psychologically lending me a comfort-making hand. If today you were to walk into a country club in France, or were invited for a Battenburg at the Crillon Hôtel, you would be immediately transported to England.

Not the England of the terraces, the chavs and the Butlin's Camps, it's true -- but the England of the cream teas, the Harris tweeds, of Cowes Week, of Badminton, of the unhurried air of visiting royalty. To these French, everything British is considered "BCBG" (bon chic, bon genre).

How disinflating it must be, then, to find out the English upper-classes have a sneeringly superior attitude towards the French. Just as the English working-classes still seethe with resentment and distrust towards Germans who obliterated the East End, the county set find themselves barely able to stomach, as they see it, their slightly ridiculous neighbours to the South. The French are "too too", as my grandmother once proclaimed. Mind you, her neck was swathed with an Hermès scarf as she said it.

And not all French have a cultural affaire with Britain. There are some to whom the British are the peculiar, doltish offspring of the continent. They're like Germans, with less intelligence and even worse food, as my old French tutor at school liked to say. Mind you, he was happily teaching English girls in Oxfordshire as he said it.

In the distancing of General De Gaulle from the "Anglo bloc" of Roosevelt and Churchill, you can see traces of this attitude, even moreso, since it threatened to make France a second-rate partner in a post-war English-speaking world. As Britain's empire disintegrated by mutual consent, there came a more vigourous version of it -- these United States of America. An America who had roots in old Europe, without ever wanting to be a part of it, as even the British were by must needs forced to, if only geographically.


Well, because the United States of America was founded on principles which were antithetical in its time to nations in Europe -- they are emblazoned on pieces of parchment whose words still define its children 200 years later. People came as much for economic opportunity, as social freedoms unimagined in their own countries, since tabula rasas are hard to come by in old worlds. After the wrench from the Motherland, America set forth to conquer itself, with no counterbalance in its own hemisphere to apply the brakes. Though it could have failed a hundred times from birth, it survived a Civil War to prosper, outdoing itself, bettering itself more in each new century. The American Experiment is a success.

France the first republic, was born of fierce, liberating ideals, just as vital to its self-image as the United States' Constitution is to it. But the revolution which pupped it was unaccountably bloody, and most importantly, its form of government didn't last. Monarchies came, republics went. France warred with and was warred countless times by its neighbours. Napoleon in his time was as demonic as Hitler, but Hitler doesn't today lie entombed under a dome of gold.

What would've happened to this fledgling republic had it had a Washington, a Jefferson, and later a Lincoln, instead of a Robespierre, a Napoleon, and later a Napoleon III? These are not names which are committed to the republic, but rather to French glory. Therefore, France, a new republic, was unstable whilst participating in the most unstable form of government there is. We are in its 5th incarnation, with some predicting its end after President Chirac's political demise. Is France a success?

Whilst this question is pondered, you may ask yourself -- why the compare and contrast with the United States? Why do we always have to compare one to the other, which necessitates a winner-loser situation almost by defintion.

It is, to some, even a question which borders on the unsophisticated -- the worse lese-majesté a person can embody. Children in playgrounds compare. Intelligent, cosmopolitan adults see the whole sweep of history instead.

But we in the West have a linear sense of history, and the linear is the perfect conduit for a compare-contrast vision of the world. Let's at least just admit this to ourselves straight off, being philosophically honest for once. As Robert Kagan said in his monograph, Of Paradise and Power, it's time to stop pretending.

What he was referring to was specifically "that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world...". Not that they did. But that in fact, they don't. Anymore.

Wholesale statements of this kind often tend to alienate readers, especially Aristotelians like myself, who always seek to balance extremes. For every example of anti-Americanism or Francophobia, one can think of many others, especially personal ones such as I used earlier.

It's important, then, to note that not all Americans feel aggrieved at the French. And not all Frenchmen dislike the American way of life. We do have shared values. We do have admiration for one another. We do visit, talk, romance, marvel at and often just coexist peacefully with each other, free from news pundits or intelligentsia roaring otherwise.

What can harm then are not critics, but the criticisms themselves. And if by chance, it's not criticism but bigotry, then it can harm more than just feelings.

When I was in France a few years ago (pre-9/11), I was asked by a French acquaintance why I wanted to "exile" myself to the US, especially since I was aiming south, not to NYC (the only civilised option, apparently). Before I opened my mouth to respond, I was greeted by a litany of complaints about Americans, all-too familiar as they are to us all.

Americans were fat, uncultured, violent, controlling, conservative, provincial, self-obsessed, sports-mad pea brains with no knowledge of geography or knew how to make conversation. They had no "esprit", no history, they were "nulles".

As if that weren't enough, all the people at the table concurred. There must've been thunder in my eyes since one person piped up, "Of course, not all Americans are like this. But too many are." I looked away, so another explained, "It's not Americans we dislike, but their government." Everyone nodded. Governments are easy to loathe. Surely, I understood that.

It's then that I walked away from the table.

One can tolerate criticisms. One can even tolerate insults. But when you try to cloak them with a hypocritical veneer of "truth", you are in the presence of bigots and that's no good place to be.

Earlier last year, when I first became a pollworker, one of my colleagues was a 50-something lady. Her mother came from Russia as a war bride in the 40's. She herself had travelled all over Europe when younger. She was a registered Democrat, as I found out in due time. And she told me she'd never go back to France again, or buy anything French if she could help it.

"Why not?". Because they are ingrates. And arrogant. "And?". And? And that's it.

Less words, similar sentiments, same bigotry.

What struck me on reflection was that this American's dislike was less detailed. Ingratitude, arrogance. Quick, easy, also built on a coating of "truth". But not targeted the same way. It was...amorphous, and felt less visceral because of it. It made me more curious therefore, since her background could not (easily) explain away her attitudes.

I wish in retrospect I had sought her out about it. I didn't. But the incident has stayed with me.

Is Anti-Americanism then, more entrenched socially with the French, than Francophobia is with Americans? You betcha.

Now if you believe that the French, en masse, have a wider culture and place more emphasis on appreciating the intellectual realm than Americans do in their world (as I do, by the way), why is it that that supra-ignorant attitude known as bigotry has taken root in the two most intellectual countries in Europe -- namely, France and Germany?

That kind of disgust, that level of disdain, that overpowering spite -- surely, this isn't rational, and yet French intellectuals to a man and woman seemed possessed by it. Sartre loathed the US, perhaps because it's that godlike substitute on earth.

Yet, other Empires have existed much worse than the US' could ever hope to be, and indeed, were embodied most recently by France and Germany themselves, so could it be a fear of recognition which fuels this antipathy?

The answers are too detailed for a blogpiece which merely questions, rather than provides solutions. One can even only guess at the reasons, since supposition here triumphs when no real data is present.

The hysterical anti-Americanism then may be traced to, but isn't exclusive to:

1) The American Government post-World War II. Regardless of administration, the Americans have taken on generational duties vis-a-vis Europe, such as defence and budget in the form of the Marshall Plan. This breeds resentment of the anti-caretaker kind: one resents one's own dependence, obligation, gratitude. The only way to change that legitimately is if one objectifies the bad, and lessens the good of said caretaker. In their eyes, America with all its faults is worse than the worst empires of yore, precisely because their statehood ideals are high. They've set themselves up. People understand evil rogue states. But evil rogue states tend not to survive unchallenged. Is Europe then the challenger?

2) Ideological divide. Americans know their system is imperfect, but can be tweaked to better perform without need of outside intervention or disbanding it. Neither France nor Germany had that luxury historically. Americans were at the forefront versus Communism. Many French and German intellectuals then and now find that unacceptable. The same is true with a newer generation of those committed to international law and institutions, as well as those more environmentally aware than Americans are said to be. The European Union also is not anything more than hybrid -- a cultural and economic unity of people, whose primary interest is peace amongst its membership. It is by definition, anti-military. They have that luxury when the United States was duty bound to defend them.

3) Feelings of Guilt. France came to the Colonials aid early on, but they didn't actually fight for their freedom from the British Crown with the Americans merely looking on (this is exactly what happened in France, Germany, Japan, and now Iraq -- liberation isn't as straightforward a matter to the liberated). France capitulated to the German blitzkrieg with amazing alacrity, thus unfairly damning them historically ever since in Americans' eyes, and perhaps in their own. France has been on the losing end militarily for a while. Germans were more adept, but consequently had more to lose in the end. But divesting oneself of guilt gets easier if the generations which did the original sinning, die.

3) Sense of Superiority. Americans are cowboys, a mixed undefined "race" of people with less than 250 years of history. How can they possibly match the grandeur of European civilisation? Even Peruvians had the Incas and Central Americans Aztecs and Mayans, advanced cultures which contrast favourably with anything on the North American continent. America is unworthy to lead the world. It's almost as if Americans were homunculii, with no past, who came from no where out of thin air. Cynically though, if that counterargument is brought before them, they then say that Americans had no "original" thoughts; they're just a derivative, therefore second-rate culture. Bigotry always likes to have it both ways.

4) Traitors. Many Europeans receive visiting relatives from the US with less than enthusiasm. Americans are often hurt and puzzled by this attitude. They shouldn't be. Their ancestors left their homelands for a BETTER place. America was the golden door. So what did that make those who didn't open that door? Losers by inference. Europeans suffered horrors in two World Wars, whereas American land was largely untouched for a century. Not only was the path different, but there is an element of betrayal to it. You left. You took the easy way out. You're a traitor. All emigrants face trouble and heartache in adapting to new countries, but the ones left behind cannot, a priori, ever fully comprehend that.

5) Fear of the Modern. When you represent the Old World, sometimes you feel yourself old, outdated. Ideas which once came gushing out have become a trickle comparatively. Europeans invented the importance of inventions, but Americans took those ideas and absolutely ran with them. Look around you. Even the blog which we write daily is from the well-spring of the American mind. Luddites are everywhere, but those who fear that modernity means Americanisation are legion.

6) Jealousy. America works. Other places don't work as well. If bad things have to happen, it's better if they happen in America, since the solutions, the turnaround time, the money are there. Others wish to have what America has, but only on their own terms, and even worse, they suspect they don't have what it takes. Some countries have even been given a chance, and some have squandered it. That's hard to accept for many.

7) Strength. America is strong. Militarily strong. Economically strong. Culturally strong. It dwarves the world with its might. And it's just one country. Many Europeans have been waiting for a counter to the American hegemon, since they are used to that ole balance of power system. Some championed the Soviet Union, despite what it stood for. It fell. Then Japan was going to cook the US' economic goose. It stagnates. Now it's China's turn. Almost 2 billion strong. The Chinese Century? We'll see. All the while, the most obvious solution is staring at them in their faces -- Europe. But Europeans lack the will to compete militarily. Indeed, that is now their raison d'être, invoking reason 2 above.

If as Professor Philippe Roger of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales is right, anti-Americanism in France is a "discourse", to use a post-modern Foucaultian term, maybe it can be analysed in future.

But as in all discourse, its premise lies in power structure.

Who wields power, who manipulates it, who uses it. And in each situation, though the appearance of power seems to lie within the stronger actor, sometimes the weaker can undermine that position by constantly questioning it. By being a nuisance, the anti-hero becomes heroic to the audience, at once actors and critics. In other words, instead of being passive, the challenger wrenches some power away from the powerful.

This is the role which the French have played since the late 1940's. And the rest of the world is enthralled whenever it happens.

Anti-Americanism is as pervasive today as anti-Semitism, and indeed, are eerily intertwined in some people's minds. It's not enough to shame people into not believing lies. One must also not believe them in part or in toto. The same is true of Francophobia. Or of any self-perpetuating hatred.

If conspriacy theories are graveyards of the intellect, so too are prejudices lifelines for demagogues.

That's one souffle de la vie we can extinguish together.

Further Reading

Sixty Million Frenchmen can't Be Wrong: What makes the French so French?
The American Enemy: The History of French Anti-Americanism Coming April 22, 2005.


  • WOW, I told you when I met you in RSS that you should be a writer. Now I'm sure of it.

    By Blogger Jorge Vergara, at Sun Mar 20, 12:30:00 am GMT-5  

  • Thanks, Jorge. And for what it's worth, I know I was born a writer. Maybe not a good one, but a writer nonetheless.

    Now, I just have to build my courage up and tell daddy...


    By Blogger vbspurs, at Sun Mar 20, 12:35:00 am GMT-5  

  • I am in favor of any post that allows me to link to this SNL transcript:


    By Blogger Jim, at Sun Mar 20, 02:42:00 am GMT-5  

  • Vic, you forgot perhaps the most obvious thing: anti-Christian sentiment.

    How many in, say, France are actual (as opposed to nominal) believers? I wouldn't be surprised if it were like England, where there are more practicing Muslims than Anglicans. The prospect of a large, advanced country where over half the population actually has faith (in something besides Marx or the UN) is surely hard to swallow.

    By Blogger JSU, at Sun Mar 20, 07:45:00 am GMT-5  

  • Well, to quote Fitzgerald, hasn't America always been, in the eyes of us Europeans, the "last and greatest of all human dreams" - or nothing? America, idealistically seen as a place to discard the corruption and woes of the old world, Europe's chance to make it better than the first time around - with hopes that high, is it a wonder that we are disappointed when we look over the pond and find - pretty much ourselves?

    When Columbus found the new continent, he didn't see it for what it _was_ (a big obstacle on the way to where he wanted to go), but for what he _wanted it to be_ - and I think the same holds true for many of us, whenever we criticise the U.S. for things we wouldn't even waste a second thought for had they happened over here.

    I'm convinced that those two leitmotivs, hope and disappointment, account for much of the ambivalence Europeans show towards America even today. It's not the U.S.' fault that for centuries Europeans have idealised the new world, only to condemn it as soon as it didn't correspond to their naive notions... Perhaps the only error of the U.S. (resp. its governments) is that from time to time they themselves all to willingly fell into this utopist trap, à la Wilson - which led to situations where the from moral highground applied cure was worse than the sickness.

    Many Americans I met in Europe were astounded whenever they met any resentment towards them at all, and I can't blame them -because, at the bottom, the problem is not something they can really relate to. It's profoundly European.


    (The ideas above mainly owe to Paul Watzlawick and his wonderful book "Gebrauchsanweisung für Amerika", so I don't claim particular originality!)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Mar 20, 08:44:00 am GMT-5  

  • Victoria, dont tell daddy. Let his see this post. He will be convinced :-)

    By Blogger S A J Shirazi, at Mon Mar 21, 12:10:00 am GMT-5  

  • *LOL* Jim. I must've missed that skit, but I wouldn't be surprised if that were around the year 2002.

    BTW, since the skit has that "City of Whores" line, allow me to share my favourite anecdote about that.

    Old King George V had just received Lord Hoare-Belisha (of Belisha Beacons fame), who had gone to Paris for an economic summit. At the time, France was pressed by coal miner strikes, and needed English coal badly.

    When he met the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, he told him what Lord Hoare had to report, but also what the French Ambassador said about the testy British diplomat.

    The King said,

    "It seems, Mr. Baldwin, it's very much a case of no more coal to Newcastle, no more Hoares to Paris".

    Good old salty Sea King.


    By Blogger vbspurs, at Mon Mar 21, 12:52:00 am GMT-5  

  • The funny thing is, JSU, you are not wrong with your anti-Christian sentiment, but also, I have to say -- some of the most Catholic Old Guard people I know (other than Spaniards) are the French.

    One of the lasting Revolutionary legacies, of course, is the topic of laïcisme: the French are absolutely potty about keeping Church not only from State, but from Society. Fareed Zakaria spoke about this eloquently in a piece recently, which sadly I forget the title of.

    Christianity is by no means dead in Europe, and in fact, Catholicism is making a bit of a come-back with certain people -- especially the British (not just the literary or upper-classes either, though it's interesting to note that the Duchess of Kent and the late Princess of Wales' mother all recently converted AND it was speculated recently that Tony Blair has secretly converted too!).

    But Europeans seemed paralysed at the thought of "going back" to the way things were -- which led to strife, war, and loss of life. Religion is seen as a negative force therefore, and quite apart from the fact that Christianity is outmoded for them, so too is religion itself.

    The question of religion is therefore trickier in Europe than say it is in America, where the social and private forces are stronger than State-centric European countries.

    Also remember that this may not be a bad thing, since there are tremendous amounts of Muslim immigrants in Europe. Whilst this is of course, not bad in and of itself, it does offer its own problems about integration, etc. To neutralise religion, since the opposite core is so weak, is something both left and right tend to agree on (as in President Chirac's recent foulard ban), and surely, that's a good thing.

    BTW, have you ever seen a French film from the 1970's with Jean-Louis Tritignant called Ma Nuit Chez Maud?

    It's about a practising Catholic mathematician, and not only is the story is unusual but also really well done.

    You won't regret watching it. :)


    By Blogger vbspurs, at Mon Mar 21, 01:05:00 am GMT-5  

  • Werner, what a fantastic and juicy reply, thanks so much.

    I will certainly look up that Paul Watzlawick piece. I presume he's Austrian? :)

    As for American reactions to Europeans, not too get too maudlin about it, but sometimes I am genuinely angry with Americans -- it's not that they are, en masse, the nicest people in the world. You can't make generalities of that kind with any seriousness. But I think most people will agree they SEEM very nice, and more importantly, feel that everyone else should be too, as just a way of being.

    Nice isn't sophisticated. And sophistication, with few exceptions, is a way of being most Europeans idealise. Niceness is almost something losers, fools, or country bumpkins have, and that is there to be exploited.

    This is even true in Britain. Polite, by all means. Nice, no.


    By Blogger vbspurs, at Mon Mar 21, 01:12:00 am GMT-5  

  • Thank you, Shirazi. :)

    I received two emails along the lines you suggest, and I am genuinely happy that my piece was so well-received by you.

    This was the piece that I tried to post on Wednesday three times, although it was substantially smaller.

    Since as you know, the week has been harrowing for me, when I found the time to sit down on Saturday to add to it, I found that the words gushed out, like a geyser.

    And I don't want to be too self-congratulatory, but if I ever wanted to write a book, I feel that this blogpiece would be a good starting off point for it.

    I even like the title, which came to me out of the blue before I even wrote it.

    And speaking of F. Scott Fitzgerald, he once said "Writing is a ghostly process". Anyone who has ever had moments like that, knows what he means.


    By Blogger vbspurs, at Mon Mar 21, 01:17:00 am GMT-5  

  • Thanks, Vic.

    Yes, Watzlawick is born Austrian, and currently professor for psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Stanford. He's been eminent in the field of communication theory - if you are interested in these kind of things his work on "Pragmatics of Human Communication" is something you might want to check out, as it's a classic on this topic (and very witty too); on a lighter note, his "The Pursuit of Unhappiness" is also very enjoyable.

    You are certainly on to something when you say sophistication is something we cherish in Europe.
    But you know, trying hard to be sophisticated can be very tedious, and I suppose that's when we secretly peer over to the U.S. and envy them just a little for their much more uncomplicated approach to many things in every day life...


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Mar 21, 02:00:00 pm GMT-5  

  • Vic, I've loved Rohmer for a long time. In fact, I wonder if I didn't originally recommend that movie to you! ;)

    By Blogger JSU, at Mon Mar 21, 02:54:00 pm GMT-5  

  • I see, Werner, thanks for the info on Watzlawick (what is it with Austrians and California?).

    As for the sophisticated attitude, I am reminded that Anthony Minghella said that when searching for an actor to play "Dickie Greenleaf" in The Talented Mr. Ripley, he failed to find an American actor which satisfied, to his taste, the part's "to the manor born" attitude. He said all American actors he interviewed were too street smart to be successful in the role.

    As everyone knows, he finally settled on Jude Law, who had the languid aristocratic air and features needed.

    The irony of course is that Jude Law is a working-class lad from Lewisham. The US equivalent, to give you an idea, would be the Bronx.

    Where oh where, did the William Powells of America go to?


    By Blogger vbspurs, at Tue Mar 22, 01:05:00 am GMT-5  

  • Bah, JSU! You know I'm much more Cahiers du Cinema than you. ;)

    And just as I posted last night about Jean-Louis Trintignant, I saw that Sundance are featuring his 1998 film, "Those who love me can take the Train", 3-5:05 AM.

    And speaking of Ma Nuit Chez Maud, that name seems to be following me around this week. More about that in my future blogpiece. ;)


    By Blogger vbspurs, at Tue Mar 22, 01:08:00 am GMT-5  

  • Very interesting, Victoria. I ran into some of the attitudes you describe when we lived across the pond, although generally appended with, "Oh, but not you! Why, one would never know you weren't ____ (to match the nationality of the speaker)"

    And yes, attempting to be sophisticated can be terribly tiresome, and even more tiresome to watch. Because Europeans aren't any more sophisticated than Americans, really, it just soothes their amour propre (if that's how it's spelt -- I only took a semester of French back when I was seven, and we didn't do much writing) to think they are. My parents, who between them have lived on three continents, speak a dozen languages fluently, and have have held jobs ranging from making furniture to performing opera on stage to teaching post-docs, do not think of themselves as unusually sophisticated. The Europeans I knew over there, charming though I found them, had mostly moved from gymnasium to university to the corporation where they'd worked ever since, surrounded by others just like them; they'd lived in two, sometimes so many as three countries in Europe, and taken holidays in the States and sometimes Asia, and so they counted themselves sophisticated.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Feb 14, 07:57:00 pm GMT-5  

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