[This is the third in a series of blog posts on anti-American sentiment in Europe, based in part on a mini-series produced by the Finnish Broadcasting Company, and continuing our wider inspection of Dumb Europeans.]
Primitive wokeness takes on different forms in Europe and in the US. American faux progressives are happy to celebrate systems of oppression, so long as the ruling class is diversified. Their counterparts in Europe — as I’ve previously written — are passionately opposed to the United States, though totally uninterested in, or oblivious to, their own governments pursuing similar agendas.
Consequently, the two continents have contrasting emphases in their woke sloganeering. In the US you might hear, “She is sick of whiny boys. And she is perfectly OK with dealing out death,” in an article celebrating female drone operators as a victory for equality. In Europe: “Yankees … represent everything I detest: a pretentious and arrogant empire, composed of uncultured rubes and pitiable cooks,” from the French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
As much as the self-described communist was demonized during the campaign, Mélenchon’s bona fides as an intellectual were never called into question. Unlike in the US, appearing cultured is still an asset in French politics — and describing the American imperial project as “Yankees” being “uncultured rubes” still passes for sophisticated in Europe. Ironically, Mélenchon didn’t quite make it to the runoff election, which ended up being a choice between an investment banker and a xenophobic demagogue (sound familiar?).
There has been, in the 20th century, a degree of correlation between America’s global dominance and European hostility towards it (as I discussed in the first post of this series). But the roots of these attitudes in Europe go back a long way, predating any geopolitical power America has gained since.
All the justified criticism of the US notwithstanding, it’s hard to buy into the “unique evils of American society”: aside from the blatantly irrational and emotional dimension of the underlying attitude, the same criticisms have been leveled from diametrically opposed premises. America’s pathology has been depicted as manifesting its inherent racism, as well as its racial inferiority; as being due to a lack of democracy, or the influence of too much democracy; and the criticism has originated from the far left and the far right, and everywhere in between.
Three recurring themes seem to be: (1) that American culture is uniquely crass, unsophisticated, and shallow; (2) that Americans value money above everything else; and (3) that all manner of greed and “decline of higher tastes” the world over is, in large part, due to its corrupting influence — of “Americanization”.
This last belief was quite literal in 18th-century conceptions about the moral and cultural degeneracy of the New World. According to popular theories of the time, not only were the native people of a physically and mentally weakened stock, but the same fate awaited European migrants, even animals. Cornelius de Pauw, a Dutch priest employed by the court of Frederick the Great, wrote in 1768 that American tigers and lions are “entirely mongrelized, undersized, cowardly,” and that “a generalized mutation and bastardization had affected all four-legged creatures in this part of the world,” that dogs imported from Europe lose their voice, while hogs, “which dwindle in Pennsylvania, in other places lose their shape”. If Europeans were rapidly poisoned by the hazardous geology and climate, all the worse for the Creoles of European ancestry who, no matter how educated, “never produced a single book”.
“This degradation of humanity must be imputed to the vitiated qualities of the air stagnated in their immense forests, and corrupted by noxious vapours from standing waters and uncultivated grounds,” claimed de Pauw, in a comical demonstration of something polls will show about present-day attitudes, too: that time spent in America corresponds with more favorable views. De Pauw, who never set foot on American soil, was nevertheless considered the foremost expert on it.
In the 19th century, the racial dimension became even more pronounced. In the aftermath of 1848, Arthur de Gobineau, an aristocratic French diplomat, formulated a theory of whites being a superior race of Aryan, Indo-European extraction (and aristocrats as the superior class). This fateful theory, and countless similar ones, were widely accepted in Europe and shaped attitudes towards America. The native population, the African slaves, and the so-called inferior stock of European immigrants, were seen as the reason for American racial deterioration. According to one theory, northern Europeans, upon arriving on the new continent, would begin to metamorphose into Indians and southern Europeans into Negroids. All this led to the conclusion that America would never produce true culture, but was forever condemned to a rootless existence, in a vacuum devoid of higher values.
Unlike de Pauw, Gobineau did travel to the New World, though reluctantly — as a penalty for refusing a previous diplomatic assignment from the French foreign minister. It was beneath him, as a “civilized European”, to visit Beijing. But Gobineau’s trip to the new continent confirmed his suspicions: that there is no western civilization outside of Europe, and that all people in North America are irredeemably materialistic.
Around the same time as Gobineau was laying the intellectual groundwork for atrocities to come a century later, fellow Frenchman Charles Baudelaire had the distinction of coining the term “Americanization”. In Rockets, Baudelaire writes that the world is coming to an end, with humanity perishing through the very things it assumes to live by, starved of lifeblood and of spiritual vigor, as “technocracy Americanizes us”. A key reason for America’s degenerating influence was democracy, its “tyranny of public opinion”.
Up to this point, anti-Americanism in Europe had been mostly a reactionary upper- and middle-class sentiment. In the present day, although still spread across the political spectrum, it is more prevalent on the left — and yet, tinged with traces of this historical ambivalence towards democracy. We lament the sorry state of representative governance in the US, even as we resent the right of these “uncultured rubes” to elect the world’s most powerful leader.
Friedrich Nietzsche, who annotated Baudelaire’s posthumous works, was very taken with his thoughts on the contaminating effects of Americanization. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche writes:
“There is an Indian savagery, a savagery peculiar to the Indian blood, in the manner in which the Americans strive after gold: and the breathless hurry of their work — the characteristic vice of the New World — already begins to infect old Europe, and makes it savage also, spreading over it a strange lack of intellectuality. One is now ashamed of repose: even long reflection almost causes remorse of conscience. Thinking is done with a stop-watch, as dining is done with the eyes fixed on the financial newspaper… “Better do anything whatever, than nothing” — this principle also is a noose with which all culture and all higher taste may be strangled.”
This suspicion, too, is alive and well in present-day notions of the US. What use do they have for all that money if they never stop to enjoy it? My own impression, after moving from Finland to the US, was that there really is a difference between what middle-class Americans consider a comfortable existence, and what I was used to. In part, this is due to the absence of any social safety net in the US. People I grew up around didn’t have to worry about saving money for their kids’ college fees, or going bankrupt for medical reasons. An American visitor can be as puzzled by the small houses in suburban Finland, often with no car in the driveway, as we are by the sad state of American infrastructure and public services.
Between the world wars, the intensity and scope of anti-Americanism increases dramatically, eventually finding its way into Nazi propaganda. In the SS poster above, aimed at a Dutch audience, you can find almost every cliché about the USA still in vogue today: a hypocritical giant, blood-soaked bombs for legs, poses as the “liberator”, displaying various depraved beauty pageants (including an award for the “World’s Most Beautiful Leg”); a money bag; the arm of a gang member with a gun in hand; another hand holding a phonograph, playing shitty American pop music to gullible and attentive European ears. In addition to the obvious anti-Semitic and racist themes of the picture, it also draws attention — rather bizarrely — to the hypocrisy in American ideals of equality and democracy, with a Ku Klux Klan hood hovering above caged black people.
While it’s tempting to try and parse anti-Americanism into distinct left- and right-wing forms, much of it seems to “transcend the political”, as historian Seth Armus put it in an interview we did a while back: “I’ve found countless examples of 1940s French traditionalist Catholics who were very disappointed with their own ideology during the Nazi occupation and the Vichy government. After the war, many of them became communists — but, lo and behold, their anti-Americanism was exactly the same. The terms of the critique didn’t change, they just went from right to left.”
Throughout the previous two presidencies — from the radically right-wing Bush to the nominally left-ish Obama — European impressions of the United States were closely tied to our approval of its leader. This hasn’t always been the case, however, and the numbers were inverse in the case of Reagan versus Clinton. In the first part of this series I asked, half tongue-in-cheek, whether Donald Trump might make Europeans love America again. A new Pew report came out just last week, with numbers showing that Trump’s presidency has utterly “tarnished” the “American brand” abroad. Yet, large majorities of Europeans hold a favorable view of American people, including 80% of Swedes, 74% of Brits, and 73% of the French.
It’s not clear to me how well we can gauge people’s deepest prejudices through polls, though; few would admit, when asked point blank, to disliking an entire population of 300 million. But looking back on the George W. Bush years, it seems clear that Europe won’t see a return to that level of visceral aggression towards Americans as a people. For most, the US under Trump seems chaotic and vulnerable, its citizens less like unwitting foot soldiers and more like hostages.
In reality, not much has changed. Bush, Obama, and Trump have all pursued essentially the same agenda, and the three form a logical continuum. Europe has transitioned from its hostility towards all things American under Bush, through an equally irrational phase of Obamamania, to the current bewilderment under Trump. At least knee-jerk reactions to imperial figureheads seem to be subsiding, hopefully making people more aware of the real mechanisms of geopolitical power. Quite like American liberals need to learn that civilians droned by a female pilot are still victims of murder, Europeans should realize that US imperialism isn’t bad for being run by “pitiable cooks”.