Conservatives outside America often have to tread a lonely path. They are at best patronized, at worst silenced. They look towards the great republic as if it were a celestial city, a fortress and arsenal of the cause. They defend it with an indiscriminate passion against stupid, ignorant critics.
And yes, those critics are ignorant. When I first visited the USA in 1977, I was so astonished and overwhelmed by the experience that I did not sleep properly for a month after I returned home. I had, quite simply, no idea what it was really like until I went there, my mind having been filled for years with the silly misconceptions and hopeless prejudices of my own declining nation and of the fashionable Left. It is a frightening combination, this resentful alliance of hostile Trotskyist and resentful, humiliated patriot. Washington should pay more attention to the hurt pride of once-great nations fallen on hard times, if it wants to keep any friends on the surface of the globe.
When I later lived in America for two years, I condemned myself to permanent internal exile in my own country. For having already known in part that the resentful, jealous misrepresentation of the United States was untrue, I now knew this fully, face to face and completely. I had either to sit silent and listen, inwardly fuming, to the uninformed rubbish of the modish Americophobes —or I had to make enemies by contradicting them.
It must be even worse for conservative Frenchmen than for conservative Englishmen. In England we still have the last faint traces of our own patriotic, Protestant tradition, discernible on a clear day from a high place. Poor France, however, pretends that it is a revolutionary nation, though it would be hard to find anything closer to an 18th-century absolute monarchy, grandeur and all, anywhere on the surface of the earth. And so its thinking classes will always sympathize with the causes and governments that manage to combine dungeons with affected rhetoric and grand gestures, Stalin yesterday, Castro today, who knows what grisly tyranny tomorrow?
And so one whoops with delight to find, in the excellent Jean-François Revel, a Frenchman with the sense, understanding, and knowledge to defy Left Bank modishness and defend America with spirit against its dimwit foes. Many parts of this book are good for heart and soul alike, being brisk, merciless refutations of Euro-smugness about Kyoto, the death penalty, racialism, inequality, and the rest of the false claims of the new Europe to be morally and politically superior to the nation on the far side of the Atlantic. There is much here that is exhilarating, crackling with perceptiveness and bitter humor. He has grasped the need of Europe’s failed elites to blame America for the miseries they have brought upon themselves, their need to feel superior to a culture that has in so many ways humiliated them by its success and then made matters even worse with its generosity. He correctly identifies “an anti-American psychopathology, which routinely seeks to transform the United States into a scapegoat burdened with all the sins of the world.”
As an example of this affliction, he produces an astonishing quotation from Hubert Beuve-Mery, founder of that fantastically self-righteous newspaper Le Monde, who wrote in the very year that American, British, and Canadian troops liberated his country from National Socialist occupation: “The Americans constitute a real danger for France.” To experience this wonderful specimen of the higher drivel in full, you will have to turn to page 52 of M. Revel’s book. But in the meantime, savor this: “Their [the Americans’] materialism does not even have the tragic grandeur of the materialism of the totalitarians. If they cling to a veritable cult of the idea of liberty, they don’t feel the need to liberate themselves from the servitudes that their capitalism entails.
”Living amidst this sort of thing, simultaneously pretentious and offensive to any well-tuned mind, it is easy to understand why the good Jean-François finds it hard to accept any criticisms of the USA. Condemnation from such curdled brains and such flapping mouths almost always amounts to praise. But that is what is wrong with this otherwise excellent and lucid book. It cannot recognize that a criticism of the USA may be true even though a French leftist has made it. Just as the Bush administration has used the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001, to overcome logic and any sense of proportion, M. Revel uses those events to convince himself that even America’s wrongful actions are right. He starts to go astray (on page 55) when he mocks civil libertarians for protesting against post-9/11 surveillance of suspects. He argues, “… the measures were designed precisely to protect democracy from its totalitarian enemies.” Well, of course that was the pretext for them, but for it to be established as the justification, it would have to be shown that these actions had produced a substantial increase in the safety of U.S. citizens from terrorist attack. No such proof is available, nor is likely to be. The best long-term defense against terror has always been to refuse to negotiate with it at all, so that it ceases to prosper. Yet in the short run such an attitude can lead to a severe increase in violence and destruction, while the appeasement of terror can—as in my view it has done in this case—produce an immediate decrease in such threats. Whatever it is that has prevented a repeat of the Manhattan slaughter so far, it is unquestionably true that, in modern states, the security bureaucracies value any excuse to increase their powers to monitor and examine the individual, as naturally as weeds strive towards the sunlight.
Trapped in isolationist, exceptional France, where they even have import restrictions on foreign vocabulary, Revel also refuses to see any vices in globalization. This, he says, “means freedom of movement for goods and people.” Even if that were all it meant, the free movement of people—attractive as it sounds—is a two-edged affair that now menaces many old-established conservative cultures on both sides of the Atlantic. As for the free movement of goods, one wonders just how long this idea will remain popular in the West once China has begun to fulfill her economic promise.
And so, though he accepts that “there is a big difference between being anti-American and being critical of the United States,” Revel does not entirely accept the corollary of this—that there is also a big difference between being pro-American and being uncritical of the United States. He seems unaware of the tyranny of politically correct conformism on American university campuses, unable to explain the electoral triumphs of William Jefferson Clinton, a social-democratic politician quite as bad as those they have in France, unable to digest the implications of the USA’s self-damaging immigration policies or its obsessive multiculturalism and multilingualism. If he knows how bad American schools are, or how dominated by cultural bias towards social liberalism U.S. broadcasting is, he does not show it. Friends and admirers of the USA ought to be abreast of these things, to realize that American conservatism in foreign policy—if it really is conservatism—is not matched by conservatism in domestic matters. The distressing truth is that it is precisely because they will not fight at home on the great cultural and moral issues of the family, marriage, abortion, self-discipline, and defense of national culture that American pseudo-conservatives feel such a powerful need to pose as giant-killers abroad. And, in the absence of real giants, they are compelled to magnify minor nuisances—such as Saddam Hussein—into menaces to world peace.
If only America deserved the unqualified admiration that Jean-François Revel heaps upon it. But tanks, missiles, aircraft carriers, and bombing planes are no substitute for the courageous resolve and unfashionable adherence to principle that once made America great and whose absence now gnaws at America’s vitals. France and Britain are not the only places where the cultural Left has occupied the strongpoints and besieges the inner fortifications.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday. He is the author of The Abolition of Britain.