Saturday, February 10, 2007

Andrei S. Markovits, "Uncouth Nation"

Ray Taras, who regularly reviews contemporary world literature for the blog, recently turned his sights on a new work of nonfiction: Andrei S. Markovits' Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007):
Uncouth is a generic term that the author employs for a large catalogue of personal shortcomings that Europeans attribute to Americans: venality, vulgarity, mediocrity, lack of culture, inauthenticity, simplemindedness, self-centeredness, emotionality, obesity. A checklist for Americans' appearance includes "gaudy jewelry, expensive-but-tacky clothes, garish makeup, platinum blond hair, tatoos, vulgar demeanor, in short inauthentic and kitschy glitter best captured by the term 'uncouth'" (p. 45).

Who actually believes that Americans fit this uncouth stereotype? For Andrei Markovits, a Jewish Romanian immigrant who arrived in the U.S. in 1960, western European elites and its public share this image of Americans, though with some subtle differences between them. Culture-driven anti-Americanism has deep roots in western Europe, Markovits claims. Heinrich Heine hated America; in the German poet's words, "there are no princes or nobles there; all men are equal--equal dolts" (p. 57). Bertolt Brecht came to believe that "The mistakes of the Russians are the mistakes of friends; the mistakes of the Americans are the mistakes of enemies" (p. 69). Markovits summarizes Charles Dickens' views of Americans as "conceited, ill-mannered, repulsive, sanctimonious, immoral, boastful, uncultivated, tasteless, moralizing, insulting, insulted, abusive of liberty, materialistic, religious and blasphemous at one and the same time" (p. 72). For Dickens, this was only made worse by the fact that many Americans live along the Mississippi, "a slimy monster hideous to behold" (p. 72). There is almost nothing that Europeans haven't hated about Americans. Markovits paraphrases Jules Huret's observation about their hyperactivity: "the jaws and teeth of the Americans, like every other part of the American anatomy, enjoyed no rest. Instead, they had to be in good shape for the tough, oversized portions of beefsteak that were served for breakfast" (p. 76). Markovits lists many more choice quotes about America ranging from French soccer great Michel Platini to Italian dramatist Dario Fo.

Two noteworthy aspects to Markovits' approach to anti-Americanism are its efforts not to reduce it to the failures of the Bush administration nor to reduce it to world opinion as found in survey data. It may be that he has tilted his analysis too far in the other direction. If there is a spike in anti-Americanism today, part of the explanation must include U.S. unilateralism, the influence of American neocons, and the personalities of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz. While statements by a handful of European public intellectuals explaining how America brought 9/11 on itself may have had some wider resonance, poll findings by the Pew Charitable Trust or the World Values Survey give us a better sense of the nuanced attitudes of average western Europeans and whether they are really more intensely anti-American than those of Canadians, Latin Americans, South Asians, or West Africans -- setting aside majority Muslim states.

I echo Markovits' regret that contemporary eastern Europe is not part of the study. Findings there might well have been the opposite of those he found in the west. The proposition that because the east has been less anti-American it may also today have less acute anti-Semitism (p. 178) would have been fascinating to test.

Markovits contends that it is impossible to talk about anti-Americanism without talking about anti-Semitism (pp. 151-2). He continues: "Today it is hard to find examples in European public opinion of a non-anti-Semitic singling out of Israel, the Jewish state, for exclusion from the community of nations" (p. 165). What would he make of Eric Hobsbawm, Harold Pinter, and a hundred other prominent British Jews breaking away from the pro-Israeli Board of Deputies of British Jews this week to form their own purportedly more evenhanded organization? Markovits includes a self-administered test to assess when anti-Israeli attitudes conceal a strain of anti-Semitism (p. 166). Would Pinter pass?

The connection between culture and politics is elusive. Readers of this book will want to know, for example, whether western Europeans' resentment of aggressive anti-smoking campaigns -- not an issue defining high politics -- is not unconnected to aggressive American behavior in international politics. As a soixante-huitard, I am reminded of how the student demonstrations in Paris and also London and West Berlin in 1968 were designed so as not to be hijacked by what were perceived as aggressive, publicity-seeking American student leaders. The politics of protest were the same but the styles were regarded as sufficiently different to keep them apart. Maybe Markovits' thesis that Europeans irrationally dislike all things American may be better understood as a call for Europe to be Europe.

The notion of the U.S. as Europe's Other enabling Europe to construct its own otherwise murky identity has appeal to some writers today but it is not very helpful. The social construction of a European identity involves normative, demographic, territorial, and institutional dimensions inter alia and by now extends well beyond the type of atavistic attitudes towards America that form the core argument of this book. Markovits mocks Europeans' sense of sophistication and cultural superiority and such an iconoclastic exercise is all to the good. It does not follow from this that Europe's postwar process of economic and political integration is not eo ipso a remarkable achievement, not defined by the relationship to the U.S., in which Europeans can take great pride.

I remember a lecture I gave a decade ago on the changing nature of anti-Americanism in Latin America. An Argentine participant dismissed my account by arguing that Latin Americans' anti-Americanism was a fabrication of the CIA to discredit the left there. Markovits accuses the European left -- with which he claims he otherwise sympathizes -- of embracing an irrational, ridiculous anti-Americanism. Neither the CIA, the socialist left nor for that matter serious scholars should be in the business of concocting anti-Americanism for the sole purpose of tarring those they dislike with that label.
Many thanks to Ray for the insightful review.

Ray Taras is the author of a forthcoming book on xenophobias in old and new Europe.

He has reviewed the following fiction for the blog:
Andre├» Makine's L’amour humain
Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island
Emmanuel Dongala's Johnny Mad Dog
Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide

Andrei Markovits recently put Uncouth Nation to the page 69 test.

--Marshal Zeringue