September 23, 2003

French Anti-Anti-Americanism

How it took me a month to discover this essay by Adam Gopnik from The New Yorker I can't imagine. I suppose it's because it hasn't been linked to by any of the major bloggers (other than Merde in France), and I suppose, because I don't subscribe to the magazine. I came upon it at Arts & Letters Daily. (thanks Lileks)

There's so much here that's worth reading that I urge you to click and read it all, but I am nevertheless compelled to comment and excerpt from it. Gopnick characterizes French anti-Americanism in the Summer of 2003, and then interviews and reviews three French writers who, in one way or another, represent the "anti-anti-Americanism" camp.

A it turns out, an American spoiling for a rumble in Paris this summer may have had a tough go of it, as anti-Americanism was pushed out of the French consciousness by the striking, get this, part-time entertainment industry workers:

For many people in France, it produced, surprisingly, a sense of dour hopelessness greater than that caused by any of the other strikes that have happened in France in the last eight years. It is one thing to have your country stopped regularly by truck drivers and railroad engineers; at least this has the savor of blue-collar rectitude. When the country and its joys can be shut down by part-time trombonists, however, something is wrong, or at least ridiculous.

Some of that hopelessness might contribute to the lack of "passion" in the French version of anti-Americanism:

A kind of generalized anti-Americanism, not simply opposition to the war in Iraq, does exist, but it has become “a routine of resentment, a passionless Pavlovianism,” rather than a critique of United States policy, as the historian Philippe Roger concluded in “L’Ennemi Américain” (“The American Enemy”), a recently published six-hundred-page tome devoted to the subject. Anti-Americanism, though of course it has life as a muttered feeling, has almost no life as an idea or an argument. Even in its strongest and most overt form, it tends to be Olympian and condescending rather than vituperative.

Gopnick interviews Bernard-Henri Lévy, author of the successful book “Qui A Tué Daniel Pearl?” (“Who Killed Daniel Pearl?”), and refers to the book as:

a demonstration piece, a deliberate embrace by a French intellectual of an American journalist, and a book that insists that the death of an American journalist (and one who worked for the Wall Street Journal, at that) was as important for France as for America...

...B.H.L.’s purely political, or forensic, conclusion is that it is naïve to speak of Al Qaeda as an independent terrorist organization. At most a band of Yemenis and Saudis, the Al Qaeda of American imagination and fears—the octopus of terrorism capable of bringing tall buildings down in a single morning—is largely controlled by the Pakistani secret service, he says, and he concludes that Pearl was kidnapped and murdered with its knowledge. Pearl was killed, B.H.L. believes, because he had come to understand too much about all of this, and particularly about “the great taboo”: that the Pakistani atomic bomb was built and is controlled by radical Islamists who intend to use it someday. (He writes that Sheikh Mubarak Gilani, the cleric whom Pearl had set out to interview when he was kidnapped, far from being a minor figure, is one of Osama bin Laden’s mentors and tutors and has a network in place in the United States. John Allen Muhammad, the Washington sniper, Lévy claims, in a detail that, if not unknown, is unpublicized in the United States, had transferred from the Nation of Islam to Gilani’s sect shortly before he began his killing spree.)

The essential conclusion of this central Parisian thinker and writer is, therefore, not that the American government ought to be more conciliatory toward the Islamic fundamentalists but that our analysis of the situation and its risks is not nearly radical enough. “I am strongly anti-anti-American, but I opposed the war in Iraq, because of what I’d seen in Pakistan,” Lévy said. “Iraq was a false target, a mistaken target. Saddam, yes, is a terrible butcher, and we can only be glad that he is gone. But he is a twentieth-century butcher—an old-fashioned secular tyrant, who made an easy but irrelevant target. His boasting about having weapons of mass destruction and then being unable to really build them or keep them is typical—he’s just a gangster, who lived by fear and for money. Saddam has almost nothing to do with the real threat. We were attacking an Iraq that was already largely disarmed. Meanwhile, in some Pakistani bazaar someone, as we speak, is trading a Russian miniaturized nuclear weapon.”

The idea that we chose Saddam's Iraq as a target not because they were THE target, but because they were a relatively easy and justifiable starting point in the War on Terror is one that escapes many of Bush's critics. Many of those people seem to think that the War on Terror was merely Bush's excuse for invading Iraq. I don't agree that Saddam's Iraq was "false target", as Lévy asserts. It's clear he was a major player in harboring, training and bankrolling Islamic terror. But Lévy's theory on the prominent role of the Pakistani intelligence sevice in supporting terrorism should be sobering for anyone who believes that all we have left to do is mop up a few Al Qaeda types in the mountains of Afghanistan. For more details on Lévy's theory, check out this review by Ron Rosenbaum of The New York Observer.

Gopnick finally characterizes French anti-Americanism as a sort of isolationism, or a desire to return to the more comfortable past. Or worse yet, as part of their illogical denial that they themselves are, and have already been among the targets of Islamic terror:

The real threat to France is not anti-Americanism, which might at least have the dignity of an argument, an idea, and could at least provoke a grownup response, but what the writer Philippe Sollers has called the creeping “moldiness” of French life—the will to defiantly turn the country back into an enclosed provincial culture...This narrowing of expectations and horizons is evident already in the French enthusiasm for cartoon versions of French life, as in “Amélie,” of a kind the French would once have thought fit only for tourists. It has a name, “the Venetian alternative”—meaning a readiness to turn one’s back on history and retreat into a perfect simulacrum of the past, not to reject modernity but to pretend it isn’t happening.

“In France, the problem, more than a will against America, is a will to hide—to hope not to be seen at all. But it is insane for the French to see all this as somehow apart from them. It began against us. Nine years ago, the G.I.A.”—the Algerian Islamists—“who are a group of the same kind, hijacked a plane and were going to fly it into the Eiffel Tower! The only difference? They didn’t know how to fly a plane! They were trying to use the pilots to do their work. Seven years later, they knew how. So to imagine that we are somehow immune is not only crazy on principle—it is the direct opposite of what we know to be the facts!”

Posted by dan at September 23, 2003 11:54 AM