Love to hate you

<strong>Uncouth Nation: why Europe dislikes America</strong>

Andrei S Markovits <em>Princeton Uni

"My anti-Americanism has become almost uncontrollable," wrote Margaret Drabble in May 2003, two months after the invasion of Iraq. "It has possessed me like a disease. It rises in my throat like an acid reflux . . . I can't keep it down any longer. I detest Disneyfication, I detest Coca-Cola, I detest burgers, I detest sentimental and violent Hollywood movies that tell lies about history."

At that time, I was in a remote corner of south-east Mexico, where chickens are sacrificed in churches to cure illnesses, mules are the primary mode of transport, and Spanish is the second language to Tzeltal, Tzotzil or Ch'ol. On my second day there, an old man accosted me and asked me why my leader, Señor Bush, was killing Iraqis. I told him Señor Bush was not my leader. (This is partly untrue, but in Latin America it has been expedient to use the British passport rather than the American one.) I said I lived in Britain, in Europe, but he was unconvinced. He asked if this "Europe" was not just part of America, and demanded I show him the size of the body of water that (supposedly) separated the two places.

To him, I looked, spoke and probably smelled just like a gringa, even though I have lived in Europe since I was an infant. "Europeans" (I use this term loosely) see themselves as vastly different from Americans, yet in some parts of the world we are indistinguishable.

It seems perverse, then, that anti-Americanism is the only face of xenophobia still broadly accepted in Europe. If, at a dinner party, you imitated the way Chinese people speak, laughed about their stupidity, their "slitty eyes" and their lack of grace, you could safely expect never to be invited back. But no one thinks twice about calling Americans dumb, fat and uncultured. How is it acceptable for one superpower, but not the other, to be the object of such derision?

European aversion to America reaches far beyond the political sphere, Markovits says. It is not a question of what America "does", but of its essence: of what it "is". He acknowledges that US foreign policy has wreaked havoc in parts of Central America, south-east Asia and the Middle East, and that people in these places have legitimate reasons to hate America. But this should not be the case in Europe: European powers have not (historically) behaved any better, and American military intervention in Europe was welcomed in 1944.

Markovits argues that anti-Americanism is not a recent phenomenon, linked solely to the actions of the Bush administration. Rather, it has been around since 1492. Citing a broad body of work, from philosophers, artists, ethnographers, politicians, historians and journalists, he claims that Europe's ruling class feared America's "castrating" power long before it grew into an 800-pound "gorilla", and did everything in their power to denigrate it. In the words of Martin Heidegger, America has always been seen as a "soulless, greedy inauthentic force".

Markovits's research is wide-ranging and deep, and he writes with clarity, precision and insight. While his reading of history may be a little one-sided, he turns the looking glass on to Europe in some interesting ways. Modern anti-Americanism, he argues, has become the key (and only) building block of an "emotionally experienced" Europe. What else do Europeans really have in common? It is a continent divided by culture, language and history, unable to agree on a constitution. Yet, on the subject of America, there is unprecedented, voluntary, "democratic" conformity in opinion. It is a unifying creed: one that crosses social, political, economic and racial divides.

Unfortunately, the rest of Markovits's argument lacks nuance. He often divides contemporary Europe into outdated ideological epi- thets - "left" and "right" - and makes sweeping statements such as "European intellectuals embraced Bill Clinton wholeheartedly as a kindred spirit".

Worse still, he lurches off down a ludicrous path when he tries to equate popular anti-American sentiment (a visible fact) with European "hatred" of "Jews/Israelis" (a crude and inaccurate term). He cites criticism of Israel in the European press, and isolated threats made to Jewish organisations, as evidence of a "Europe-wide hatred with a pedigreed history".

Even the most cursory examination of the media in Europe and America shows that, on the subject of Israel-Palestine, that cherished "American" value - freedom of speech - is exercised much more extensively in Europe than in the US. And political cartoons depicting Israel with the star of David do not, de facto, mean that Israel is "the collective Jew": Israel's own flag also depicts the star of David.

Markovits has dedicated his book to "transatlantic souls and beings all". Yet, in the end, he has parked himself firmly in one camp - mocking "virtuous Europe" and (to borrow one of his frequent sporting analogies) batting exclusively for his own team. This is a pity, because an intelligent, balanced debate on the subject is long overdue. Facile America-bashing has indeed become a boring, intellectually lazy European pastime. But it does not mean that America's riposte should be the same.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni v Shia