America in the World   /   Spring 2003   /    Articles

Industrial Modernity and Its Anti-Americanisms

Claudio Véliz

Protest against Vietnam (1966). Courtesy of the Dutch National Archives.

The Manichaean clarity of the Cold War has been sufficiently obscured by the rise of anti-Americanism to make it virtually impossible today to assume that all the then anti-communists are now staunch supporters of the United States, or to imagine that all those who regarded the Soviet Union as an inspiring portent of the future are now marching the streets of Paris, London, and Rome shouting obscenities against Mr. Bush. Gone are the days when French, Swedish, Portuguese, or Italian anti-Americanism was a mandatory, blue-collar, political by-product of the Cold War. It is now a commonplace that suspicion, if not outright dislike, of the United States and everything it represents derive disconcerting nourishment not only from the intelligentsia but from the higher reaches of some of the more prosperous and stable societies of the Western world. At the same time, the youth of the newly affluent working classes of these same countries—even when retaining faint memories of the compulsory anti-Americanism of the Cold War years—succumb happily to the embrace of the cultural creations of the colossus of the New World.

Unlike those Muslim countries where religion and politics coalesce and a robust and undifferentiated hatred of the great Satan is shared by all ranks, the anti-Americanism of the more advanced Western nations is characteristically diversified. It has spawned at least one influential variant that appears to be class-specific and has regaled the Western cultural tradition with a breathtakingly original, latter-day extension of Tom Wolfe’s seminal concept of “radical chic.”11xTom Wolfe, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (New York: Bantam, 1970).

The operative word here is not “radical,” but “chic.” Just as it was considered wildly audacious to sip Martinis with leather-clad Black Panthers in the Manhattan penthouses of the 1960s, or exchange pleasantries with Symbionese Liberation Army volunteers while wondering how the kids were getting along with their Weathermen buddies, in today’s fashionable quarters of Paris, Berlin, and Brussels, anti-Americanist chic is “in,” and not just with the useful idiots of the Cold War years. Considerable numbers of otherwise sane and respectable people are pouring obloquy on the United States, casting doubts on the intellectual acumen of President Bush, dismissing Colin Powell as a kind of Uncle Tom and Condoleezza Rice as an apprentice to Mrs. Thatcher and a traitor to gender and race.22xThis unwelcome and disconcerting development has not remained unobserved. See Jean-François Revel, L’Obsession Anti-Américaine (Paris: Plon, 2002); and Philippe Roger, L’Ennemi Américaine. Généalogie de l’antiaméricanisme français (Paris: Seuil, 2002).

Tom Wolfe observed that the great Leonard (“Lenny”) Bernstein and his friends favored earthy, primitive, exotic, romantic, and preferably muscular radicalismsqualities not readily associated with the American vanguard of industrial modernity, but dynamic Western society often takes astonishing turns, and this one certainly deserves to find its way into the history books under its proper name: “anti-American chic.”

The swift rise of anti-American chic has brought about a surfeit of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing explanations that, given the urgencies of the moment, have unfailingly attended to the contingent and the particular, such as the Kyoto episode, the retention of capital punishment, the International Criminal Court, American “unilateralism,” the legal status of the Guantánamo inmates, and, of course, envy of the prosperity and power of the United States, rather than to less publicized antecedents and long-term factors, some of which may deserve closer examination.

Such factors are mostly associated with the genesis and consequences, some quite unintended, of the English Industrial Revolution and the resulting cultural tidal-wave of industrial modernity, the swift progress of which is now popularly lampooned under the label of “globalization.” Less attention has been directed to the fact that the term refers to the virtual universalization of cultural artifacts and social habits that, almost without exception, carry an imprimatur of aggressive vulgarity consistent with the tastes and preferences of the first affluent working class in world history.33xThe negative impact of this vulgarity has not been attenuated by the silliness of American political correctness, whose intrusive prescriptions are greeted in Europe with mirth, derision, or contempt. How could one fault the French intelligentsia for objecting to the exclusion from some American academic programs of deceased white personages such as Voltaire, Ronsard, Diderot, Condorcet, Louis XIV, Talleyrand, Mazarin, Hugo, and Stendhal? It must be added that this notable social and economic achievement has not been at the expense of American excellence in the realm of “high culture.” This is confirmed by the many magnificent concert halls and opera companies; splendid museums and universities; and scientific and technological institutions that adorn a continuing industrial revolution tempered in its execution and results by remarkably successful sui generis democratic arrangements. These arrangements were bruised somewhat by a sanguinary civil war and are modified from time to time in response to contemporary usage and exigencies, but have certainly stood the test of time far better than those of every major nation outside the English-speaking world.

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