Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Uncle Gulliver

"They apprehended my breaking loose, that my Diet would be very expensive, and might cause a Famine. Sometimes they determined to starve me, or at least to shoot me in the Face and Hands with poisoned Arrows, which would soon dispatch me: But again they considered, that the Stench of so large a Carcass might produce a Plague in the Metropolis, and probably spread through the whole Kingdom." Jonathan Swift, "A Voyage to Lilliput," in Gulliver's Travels

Uncle Sam, the American Gulliver, peers down at edgy Europe in "Überpower: The Imperial Temptation of America," a new book by Josef Joffe, editor of the scrupulously centrist German newspaper "Die Zeit." The book gets a review by William Grimes here (and last time I checked the review had not been banished behind the subscription wall). Joffe gets an essential truth out in the open that is too often forgotten.

It does not matter what the United States does, Mr. Joffe argues. The mere fact that it can act with impunity causes alarm. To Europeans, the new United States looks like Gulliver did to the Lilliputians: a giant whose intentions are uncertain and whom they would prefer to see bound by a thousand little ropes. "Their motto is: let him be strong as long as he is in harness, be it self-chosen or imposed," he writes.

Understanding that could help a lot of us here in America grasp the otherwise (to us) baffling poll results that show whomping majorities in Europe find America a greater threat to peace than Iran or North Korea. It also explains the perverse rooting for American failure in Iraq among many Europeans who ought to know better. Joffe seems to agree:

European opposition to the current Iraq war, in this analysis, becomes clearer. France and Germany, joined by Russia and China, joined forces to frustrate American designs, not simply on the merits of the case, but also as a matter of principle or instinct. Success in Iraq would only make the United States more powerful and therefore more unpredictable and threatening: "America's triumph would grant yet more power to the one and only superpower — and this on a stage where it had already reduced France and Russia, the E.U. and the U.N., to bit players," Mr. Joffe writes.

There's a danger, of course, in treating Gulliver psychology as though it explains everything. One may oppose the American experiment in Iraq on perfectly principled grounds, or even out of a genuine love for the United States. More likely, based on my discussions with European friends, Gulliver syndrome and principled arguments are so woven into each other they're a seamless fabric.

My German friends especially tell me to just get used to the fact that America is going to be hated and resented, rationally or not, simply because it is powerful. But the taint of irrationality makes the resentment too easy to dismiss. Joffe expresses it well:

Anti-Americanism, Mr. Joffe argues, can sometimes be as complex, paranoid and all-encompassing as anti-Semitism. "Like the Jews who were simultaneously denounced as capitalist bloodsuckers and communist subversives, America gets it coming and going," he writes. It is puritanical and self-indulgent, philistine and elitist, ultrareligious and materialist. When it does not intervene, say, in Rwanda, it is wrong. When it does intervene, it is accused of naked imperialism.

Or, as the "Telegraph" put it in a recent editorial:

Americans find themselves damned either way. If they remain within their own borders, they are isolationist hicks who are shirking their responsibilities. If they intervene, they are rapacious imperialists.

Indeed, many of their detractors manage to hold these two ideas in their heads simultaneously. Yet a moment's thought should reveal that they are both unfair.

The Telegraph editorial was written in response to a recent poll in Britain which reveal the utter contempt most of them have for most of us:

In answer to other questions, a majority of the Britons questions described Americans as uncaring, divided by class, awash in violent crime, vulgar, preoccupied with money, ignorant of the outside world, racially divided, uncultured and in the most overwhelming result (90 percent of respondents) dominated by big business.

Which might sting, but only if you don't know your history. In the 18th century Thomas Jefferson had to work hard to rebut Comte de Buffon's scietific assertion that American mammals -- including, according to some of Buffon's French naturalist followers, Americans themselves -- were degenerate runts. Ninteenth century British publications poured out invective on everything they deigned to notice from the United States. The usual practice of British authors was to take every slander of one American by another in a hot political campaign as an absolute truth, and to present the most degraded characters from the frontier or the slum as the typical inhabitant of the United States.

"Both the travelers and the literary journalists of [England]," wrote Timothy Dwight the elder, "have, for reasons which it would be idle to inquire after and useless to allege, thought it proper to caricature the Americans. Their pens have been dipped in gall, and their representations have been, almost merely, a mixture of malevolence and falsehood."

And this was long before America threatened anyone else's sense of national security. The hatred was strong enough to overpower logic, even then. In 1863 the Very Rev. Henry Alford, DD, dean of Canterbury, wrote a "Plea for the Queen's English" which decried the "deterioration" of English in American mouths. He warned Englishmen to hold aloof from the American way with the language and compared the state of English in America to "the character and history of the nation":

its blunted sense of moral obligations and duties to man; its open disregard of conventional right when aggrandizement is to be obtained; and I may now say, its reckless and fruitless maintenance of the most cruel and unprincipled war in the history of the world.

It was the familiar list of crimes and vices and hypocrisies. Every learned Englishman could rehearse it and many of the finest writers, such as Coleridge and Sydney Smith, bent their considerable talents to spelling it out at length. Except that, coming in the middle of the American Civil War, Alford's screed replaced a now-doubtful entry in the catalogue of American vice with a freshly minted one. As H.L. Mencken noted, "Smith had denounced slavery, whereas Alford, by a tremendous feat of moral virtuosity, was now denouncing the war to put it down."

Eventually America, emerging into a world power, found itself in a world shaped -- or unshaped -- by 300 years of European dominance: Artificial nations strewn across the map of Africa and the Middle East, dysfunctional ex-colonies, all that seething resentment of "the West" in Arab and Asian peoples. Joffe picks up the plot:

The United States is on top for the foreseeable future, in Mr. Joffe's view. That is its inescapable fate. "America has interests everywhere; it cannot withdraw into indifference or isolation, and so all the world's troubles land on its plate," he writes. The problem, as Henry A. Kissinger put it recently, is how to translate power into consensus. Without it, the United States can act, but it cannot succeed.

Kissinger's dilemma seems impossible to solve. How can you convince people they agree with you because they want to, when they -- and you -- know perfectly well you can act without them, or coerce them, or even force them.

But we could do better at it than we have, and we should try. What should the Lilliputians try in return? How about trying to swallow some of the stupid and senseless expressions of contempt. As the "Telegraph" Editorial puts it:

To dislike a country as diverse as America is misanthropic: America, more than any other state, contains the full range of humanity between its coasts.

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