You can’t escape Joe Klein these days. The time when he was “Anonymous” is now a cherished memory. In discussions on television, in the pages of the Guardian, over the airwaves of Radio 4 – he is everywhere, offering his kind counsel.
Klein’s pretence is that he is here to plug his book, The Natural, giving the consummate assessment of Bill Clinton. But it would be churlish to reduce his mission to extended advertising for his wit and analysis. Nope, Joe has a higher calling: he is the “liberal” who’s gonna save us from our identity crisis. Down deep, we love America, we need America – and he is going to remind us of it.
All this can’t be loosened from a post- 11 September context. For Klein, like so many Americans, the attack and its aftermath have set up an expectation and fear that remain irreconcilable. The expectation is that Brits, America’s cultural blood brothers, will follow Tony Blair’s shining example and rally round the US flag whatever may come in the war against terror. The fear is that many here don’t seem to have read the script, and keep whining about US disregard for human rights, US unilateralism, the US war on the environment, US “culture” and US support for states such as Israel.
So kind-hearted Joe gets angry. And when he gets angry, he addresses the issues with generalisations. While he doesn’t want to “minimise Europe’s ‘America’ problem”, take note: the French are decaying and the Germans are ferociously bland. In the end, it’s our identity, stupid: “There is great anxiety about how Britain, how France – how Europe – will be defined 20 years down the road. This, I suspect, is a prime source of the deeper resentments toward America.”
There’s something more here than immediate concern. The events of 11 September (and being the world’s number one Clinton-watcher) may have given Joe his pulpit; however, they did not create the fundamental issue of America’s relationship with Europe. What happened on 11 September merely cast new light upon a question that has preoccupied America for almost 60 years: is “Europe” with us or against us?
In the 1950s, Klein’s intellectual ancestors were up in arms not only about reds and fellow-travelling politicians, not only about Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Pablo Picasso, Charlie Chaplin and other “suspect” icons of European culture, but about those floundering “neutral” European intellectuals who were not true red, white and blue. Leslie Fiedler evaluated our illness in the journal Encounter in 1954: “Conditioned by . . . principled self-hatred, the European intellectual finds it hard to forgive America for being willing and able to let him live; and even harder to forgive himself for knowing that he could be, in our ‘McCarthy-ridden’ land, if not happy, at least unhappy in his customary way.”
Just as the US is now checking that new Labour is onside, in the 1950s it was working to make sure that the leadership of Labour was in the friendly hands of Hugh Gaitskell, Denis Healey and Tony Crosland, rather than the suspect, unilateral grasp of Nye Bevan. The American government did not openly say this; instead it relied on “independent”, liberal outlets such as the (CIA-financed) Encounter to make the point.
The American right has often made it clear that the US can go it alone without weak-willed allies; the “friendship” of US liberals for Europe is equally ambivalent, though. Read, for instance, the analysis by the National Review‘s Jonah Goldberg: Europeans, he claims, are “the enablers of barbarity for the simple reason that it makes them feel like they’re still in charge in some way”.
Joe Klein, on the other hand, is the sweet voice of reason. If we could only put Will Hutton and his Euroweenies on a desert island with knuckle-dragging Amerigoths, we could all just get along. If we would only invite Bill Clinton to make the speeches and Silvio Berlusconi to throw the parties, what a wonderful world it would be.
In the midst of this warm, fuzzy embrace, there are occasional moments of hope. At the Hay Festival this year, Klein took the podium with Christopher Hitchens. Initially the crowd was quite pleasant to Klein, saving their scepticism for Hitchens; however, when Joe waxed lyrical about the “benign power” of the United States, the audience’s self-hatred emerged and Klein’s efforts for Anglo-American harmony were booed.
Klein’s approach, like much of US foreign policy, founders on a fundamental contradiction. His America is “exceptional” in its values and objectives – but for us to tag along, it also has to be “universal”, and its ideology must be our ideology.
And if we protest that Europe or Britain or any one of us deserves a “Third Way”, that alternative must be restricted. “Containment” is no longer for the Soviets; it is for us.
Scott Lucas’s book Orwell, Hitchens, and the Betrayal of Dissent will be published next year