by Jean-Francois Revel
translated by Diarmid Cammell
Published by Encounter Books
176 pages, 2003
Reviewed by Pedro Blas Gonzalez
Jean-Francois Revel's book, Anti-Americanism, is such a well thought out and portentous philosophical tract that it can be argued to begin where Francis Fukuyama's auspicious 1990, The End of History and the Last Man left off.
Fukuyama argued that liberal democracy constitutes the "final form of human government," as the political evolution of man's longing for the best form of government was finally tapering off, thus bringing about the "end of history." Fukuyama views the dismantling of communism as a sign that totalitarian governments contain the seed of self-destruction and that liberal democracy has outlasted all other forms of government, not by chance or force, but most importantly through respect for human liberty and dignity. Fukuyama does not argue that liberal democracy is perfect. In fact, he insightfully points out where improvements are most needed, but he does say that it is the best and most efficient form of government ever tried. For Fukuyama, liberal democracy is already time-proven.
In Anti-Americanism Jean Francois Revel also contends that this is precisely the case, and that for this reason liberal democracies incessantly come under scrutiny from those who, to use Carl Popper's phrase, are ruled by the "totalitarian impulse."
Revel's erudition, mastery of political reality and intrigue spans from his perception of the intricacy of the political process, but also from his gift for understanding psychological nuances. His books are as much about how concrete historical processes play out in an objective arena as they are about the nature of man. This has resulted in very readable and insightful books that actually say something about the man of flesh and bone despite incessant cries for utopia. Revel's success as a political commentator is due to his shunting of abstraction and his embracing of the core values that inform the lives of people. Revel, like Ortega y Gasset, partakes in the view that political reality is always the most superficial level of a much more sophisticated metaphysical stratification.
Jean Francois Revel is a French philosopher who has served as editor of the weekly French newspaper L'Express. His language is clear and respectful of the reader and not couched in asinine and pointless neo-logisms. As a vital philosopher -- that is, someone whose main preoccupation is the strong relationship that exists between the necessary and the merely contingent in human life -- he attacks human problems as if they actually mattered. Thought does not exhibit qualities of being an intellectual sport for Revel. This is quite evident in his 1957 work, Pourquoi des Philosophes where he offers a critique of this very same sterile academicism. Revel is a worldly thinker whose erudition informs his thought. He writes in his Memoires: Le voleur dans la maison vide, a book that has yet to be translated into English, that the prerogative of the writer is to tell the truth, unlike the politician who has too many "coattails" to truly exercise something resembling freedom. His many distinguished books include The French (1966), Without Marx or Jesus (1970), On Proust (1972), The Totalitarian Temptation (1976), Culture and Cuisine: A Journey Through the History of Food (1982), How Democracies Perish (1983), Democracy Against Itself: The Future of the Democratic Impulse (1993) and The Monk and the Philosopher (1999).
Revel's goal in Anti-Americanism, he tells us in the introduction, is to continue his exploration of the "numerous examples of the intrinsically contradictory character of passionate anti-Americanism" that he first spelled out in Without Marx or Jesus. In Anti-Americanism his purpose is to, "Extend that list, so little has the syndrome changed over thirty years." Two significant world changes that have taken place in those 34 years: the fall of the Soviet Union and most of its satellite totalitarian states and the subsequent reshuffling of Marxism that has hitherto taken place, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 by Islamic terrorists. The initial impression that a reader of Anti-Americanism forms is Revel's lucid prose and his meticulously researched body of facts that makes up this work. The book is comprised of an introduction and seven chapters, each embracing diverse aspects of the pathology which negates that, "Democracy depends, to function well, on citizens being autonomous individuals."
However poignant and decisive the aforementioned events may have been for the cause of human liberty and dignity worldwide, Revel's argument is that it is precisely due to these events that the totalitarian impulse has intensified. He explains in the introduction, "Inevitably then, today as yesterday and yesterday as the day before, a book about the United States must be a book dealing with disinformation about the United States -- a formidable and perhaps Sisyphean task of persuasion, doomed to failure, since the disinformation in question is not the result of pardonable, correctable mistakes, but rather of a profound psychological need. The mechanism of the 'Great Lie' that fences in America on every front, and the rejection of everything that might refute it, evokes the equivalent lie that surround the Soviet Union ever since 1917." His reference to the Great Lie has to do with Ante Ciliga's 1940 book about the Soviet Union, Au pays du grand mensonge.
Thus Anti-Americanism begins by deciphering the technique and psychology necessary for mounting the apparatus of the great lie and how best to see it to fruition. The purpose of the great lie, he tells us, is to increase the, "Gulf between the desire to know on the part of the 'silent majorities' and not to know on the part of the intellectual and media elites." Hence, the book begins by citing attention to the fashionable malaise of attacking the United States as the scourge and source of all the evils found on Earth. Revel points out that the ethos of the people whose only passion is to "play-act a revolution that has failed" is relentless and self-serving. The "anointed Western bien pensants," Revel's equivalence to Marxist apologists, are not only found outside, but rather very busy in the role of fifth columnists; as a kind of insider trading of another sort. In international political intrigue, Revel goes on to suggest, there are no coincidences, maladroit misunderstandings or wasted efforts; malcontentment simply never sleeps.
If techniques for "deconstruction" are in vogue today they are so by taking advantage of insipid academic circles and certainly were not designed to fall in to the able hands of a public intellectual of the likes of Revel. Revel turns deconstruction on its head and makes it bite itself and makes a lasting mark on the understanding by proving that the insular world of the seminar has very little to say about the conditions that pertain to reality proper. Thus Anti-Americanism is not a work that rants and cants about the plight of all the "just" causes of the world and how mother U.S.A seems to always find herself in the middle of it all. What makes Revel particularly credible as a political philosopher is his ability to be guided -- and refuted -- by reality proper. His overwhelming integration of facts and his willingness to stir clear of pompous, though gullible ideological notions make his thoughts enlightening and instructive.
In his first chapter titled, "Contradictions," Revel argues that America has become a "global superpower" because it is ranked first in the world in the following four categories: economic, technological, military and cultural. He credits American high culture with offering a measure of refined sophistication to the rest of the world in the areas of literature, painting, music and architecture. However, it is America's popular culture, he suggests, that draws the most attention internationally. While American trends in popular music, dress and food have a great attraction for the young of the world, it nevertheless attracts the greatest degree of ire from its detractors. Revel intimates that the aesthetic value of these creations can be debated without recourse to rancorous ideology. A fine example of another philosopher that critiques America from the outside is Julian Marias' masterful 1972 work, America in the Fifties and Sixties: Julian Marias on the United States, a well intentioned work that never descends to the level of ideology. But where Revel is particularly strongest in his commentary of this popular phenomenon is in pointing out the causes or reasons for such American success. Not simply content with dismissing reality, Revel instead resorts to sincere analysis.
His main concern in Anti-Americanism, then -- as is also the case in his other works -- is to demonstrate that if the citizens of democratic countries are mostly happy with their well-being, why then do free states receive the constant barrage of attacks that they receive from leftist? Revel's point is to dispel myths and to cite the true origins of hatred for liberal democracy. He makes this very clear when he writes in The Totalitarian Impulse that, "Members of democratic societies get a view of their own regimes that is unfavorable compared to others, while the same kind of systematic disparagement, either constructive or destructive, cannot manifest itself in Communist societies, where criticism is either stamped out at birth or prevented from spreading by the power of the bureaucracy. It is like a football game in which the only points registered on the scoreboard are those lost by one of the two teams." This, of course, is aptly confirmed by people who have lived under such totalitarian regimes. But what about those who do not know any better? Is this a matter of education? One of the main contentions of the book is that it is the responsibility of opinion makers, education, professors and the media elite to act as intermediaries to educate the general populace on questions, where as professionals they naturally know better. But this is a matter of good will. This lack of good will is the crux of Revel's argument. Thus, this work is essentially a book on humanism and what actually takes place on the world stage in its absence.
He cites the November 2000 American Presidential election as an example of the strength of liberal democracy at work. Only after the votes were counted and recounted several times, leading up to a month's delay in the final tally, did a clear winner emerge. Revel writes, "So when rulers and intelligentsia of manifestly undemocratic countries see fit to call the United States a 'banana republic' they are only exhibiting their own bad faith." In "Contradictions" Revel offers insightful and useful commentaries on topics ranging from the American system of the Electoral College, the hyped-up numbers of the Kyoto Protocol, to "America's production of 25 percent of the planet's goods and services."
After the void that the fall of the Soviet Empire created -- a global distopia by all accounts -- globalization is now suddenly viewed as the axis of all evils. Revel convincingly argues that what lies behind the anti-globalization clamor of the 1990's is a deeply rooted and much, "Older and more fundamental struggle against liberalism, whose chief representative and most powerful vehicle is the United States." While the Soviet Empire was by design expansionist both ideologically and territorially, this phenomenon was regarded by Marxists as a necessary step toward world "liberation." Instead, Revel points out that the principles of globalization are nothing more than the "freedom of movement for goods and people."
In chapter two, "Antiglobalism and Anti-Americanism" Revel argues that these two terms are synonymous with capitalism. He points out the terrible inconsistencies that make up the arguments of antiglobalizers when he writes, "If their diktats were carried out, if frontier barriers were reestablished everywhere, with passports and visas even for tourists, there could have been no Seattle and no Goteborg." This, of course, fits the old dictum of biting the hand that feeds it. Revel does nothing other than point out the hypocritical and debilitating truth when he observes that the people who have the most pressing and vital need to protest, people whose life depend on it, are those who live in totalitarian countries. The antiglobalization rioters, as he calls these volatile elements, have no coherent program, only a "display of useless farrago of hatreds."
In chapter three, "Hatreds and Fallacies" Revel develops the argument that there is no reason why there should be any "misunderstandings" about America both, in its strengths and weaknesses given the open stance that America takes on human liberty.
If rudimentary distortions of American foreign policy, the nature of her economy, and the international appeal of her popular culture were not enough, then a systematic attack on her people and way of life is employed. Thus, in chapter four, "The Worst Society that Ever Was" Revel takes on the motives of those who discredit the United States on principle.
Chapter five, "Cultural Extinction," has Revel addressing questions having to do with television, film, the media, art and music. He sets the tone of this chapter by writing, "The idea that a culture can preserve its originality by barricading itself against foreign influences is an old illusion that has always produced the opposite of the desired result. Isolation breeds sterility. It is the free circulation of cultural products and talents that allows each society to perpetuate and renew itself."
His analysis of the differences between cultural diversity and globalization is timely. He reasons that while globalization is a free exchange of cultures, cultural diversity is merely forced cultural protectionism that cannot succeed at the price of emptiness. Anti-Americanism is the kind of book where the facts are the point.
In "Being 'Simplistic,'" the sixth chapter in this work, Revel manages to isolate the "new" phenomenon of terrorism as being rather old "hot fronts" of the cold war. Given the dwindling influence of Marxism as an official mechanism of state terror, Revel correctly asserts that the only thing left, then, is terrorism as the preferred form of war for the 21st century. He observes, "Thus hyper-terrorism borrows its technological means from our modern civilization while trying to destroy and replace it globally with an archaic one -- an engine of poverty and an enemy of Western values. In these terms the "war of the twenty-first century is defined."
Anti-Americanism ends with a chapter aptly titled, "Scapegoating." Revel's sincerity as a thinker is showcased when he writes at the beginning of that chapter that, "There is a big difference between being anti-American and being critical of the United States. Once again: critiques are appropriate and necessary, provided that they rest on facts and address real abuses, real errors and real excesses -- without deliberately losing sight of America's wise decisions, beneficent interventions and salutary policies. But critiques of this kind -- balanced, fair and well-founded are hard to find, except in America herself: in the daily press in weekly news magazines, on television and radio, and in highbrow monthly journals, which are more widely read than their equivalents in Europe."
Anti-Americanism traces the various forms that anti-Americanism has taken in the past and how this hatred informs the present. Revel demonstrates that this phenomenon is "Less a popular prejudice than a parties pris of the political, cultural and religious elites."
He cites that this is clearly demonstrated in the embracing of American products by the people in places like China, Iran and Latin America, places where in many instances the official government line is no less than continual vituperation of the American system. He shows that according to a SOFRES (Societe Francaise de'enquetes par sondage) survey of May 2000, "only 10 percent of French people feel dislike for the United States." Revel ends the book with the reminder that, "The two most glaring traits of obsessive anti-Americanism: selectivity with respect to evidence and indictment replete with contradiction." The book easily demonstrates that at the root of this malaise one always encounters the cancer of ideology. | March 2004
Pedro Blas Gonzalez is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Barry University in Miami, Florida. Amongst his intellectual pursuits is his interest in the relationship that exists between subjectivity, self-autonomy and philosophy.