Thursday, June 07, 2007

Histeria Historia

[posted by Callimachus]

When French historians write American history it looks remarkably like ... well, what happens when European media write American stories.

With the illogicality of malice, Mr. [Patrice] Higonnet characterizes Mr. Bush as simultaneously incompetent and omnipotent, feckless and relentless, the bully of his advisers and the dupe of his advisers. Reckoning the sum of these contradictions tells us nothing about Mr. Bush or about America, but it tells us a great deal about the passionate, self-delighting, deeply irresponsible hatred that now prevails even among the most prestigious and best educated precincts of the Left. It is a book that Mr. Higonnet's sympathizers will read with vigorous nods, and everyone else will read with despairing shakes of the head.

The argument of Mr. Higonnet's book, such as it is, can be quickly summarized. America, he writes with an air of having made a great discovery, has done good things in its long history, but it has also done bad things. This by itself would not seem to distinguish America from any other country — for instance, from France, which is Mr. Higonnet's constant point of reference. (Although "Attendant Cruelties" was apparently written in English, it is really intended for a French audience: Both its frequent reference to French figures and events, and its general lack of inwardness with American history, suggest that its ideal reader lives in Paris.)

But America's failures and crimes, to Mr. Higonnet as to most conscientious Americans, seem worse than those of other nations, precisely because America has always held itself to a higher standard. Our promise of democracy was painfully slow of fulfillment. Freedom for white men went along with the inexpiable sin of slavery, with the genocide of the Native Americans, and with economic and social oppression toward women, immigrants, and minorities. The twinship of good and evil in American history is the great American theme — not just for historians, but for novelists and poets and philosophers.

Mr. Higonnet, however, has no new light to shed on this darkness. As he recites the familiar chapters of the American story — the Constitution and the Civil War, Progressivism and the New Deal — he never penetrates even the topmost layers of the mystery. Instead, he continually resorts to a banal formula: "Americans, as individuals and as a people, have frequently moved from nation to nationalism without real understanding." This is shallow enough, but it quickly becomes clear that even generalities like "nation" and "nationalism" — or Mr. Higonnet's favorite alternatives, "inclusion" and "exclusion" — are not being employed in any concrete sense. They are vague, slippery terms, which can be used with equal justice on both sides of every question. Was the American decision to annex the Philippines an example of nationalism — a desire to increase our power and prestige — or universalism — a desire to spread the blessings of republican government around the world? Was the Senate's refusal to accede to the League of Nations, a decision that Mr. Higonnet deplores, a case of vicious exclusiveness — a cynical indifference to the interests of mankind — or of virtuous patriotism — a refusal to tarnish America with the sins of Europe?

In neither case is it helpful to view American history in Mr. Higonnet's Manichean terms. It is the inextricability of good and evil that makes American history so tragic and so moving; and this ancient knot will not yield to Mr. Higonnet's crude separation of sheep and goats. For what really drives his judgments, it becomes clear, is not any true vision of America's best self; it is the proximity or distance of America to the ideals of the contemporary European left. When America acts like a centralized, statist, internationalist social democracy, Mr. Higonnet approves; when it does not, he does not.

I'm confident some of the perenial America-bashers among the overseas bloggers could do a better job at this kind of polemical mucking than the good historian does. He should stick to his day job and leave the dirty work to those who are experienced at it.

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