Jewish Political Studies Review 20:1-2 (Spring 2008)
“Uncouth” Nation, or Just a Powerful One?
Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America, by Andre S. Markovits, Princeton University Press, 2007, 275 pp.
Reviewed by Sarah Schmidt
Andres S. Markovits, who is professor of comparative politics and German studies at the University of Michigan, wrote Uncouth Nation both to express his concerns about European anti-Americanism and to analyze its root causes. The book aims to provoke debate about a problem Markovits feels is producing a dangerous kind of pan-Europeanism, one that includes the return of anti-Semitism in new and potentially virulent forms.
Markovits is clear about his long-time affinity with the democratic Left both in Europe-where he was born, studied, and has spent considerable time-and the United States, as well as the fact that his political views are “akin to the Israeli peace camp’s.” Yet he feels that anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism have “become the requisite proof” for being considered progressive and liberal in today’s European climate of elite opinion. The fact that his support for Israel, in whatever fashion, has caused his increasing political marginalization led Markovits to write this highly emotional, often repetitive and, therefore, somewhat disappointing book.
Markovits bases his definition of anti-Americanism on one by Paul Hollander in Anti-Americanism: Critiques at Home and Abroad: “It entails…dislike of American people, manners [and] behavior…; rejection of American foreign policy and a firm belief in the malignity of American influence and presence anywhere in the world.”
Anti-Americanism, then, develops into a generalized, normative dislike of America and all things American, often lacking reasons or concrete arguments. According to Markovits, European elites have appropriated Samuel Huntington’s notion of the “clash of civilizations” to support their allegations of an increasing clash between European and American values. They indict America on three levels: it is morally backward, espousing a religious fundamentalism that among other things endorses the death penalty; it is the bastion of “predatory capitalism”; and it is culturally prudish, coarse, and “commodified.” In contrast, Europe is said to adhere to “enlightened secularism,” with policies that reflect a “considerate welfare state,” and led by people who are refined, “savvy and wise.”
Europeans, Markovits claims, do not accept America’s “otherness” as simply reflecting a different culture. From their perspective America’s differences turn the whole country into an object of ridicule, and overt anti-Americanism has become a “badge of honor” among European opinion makers such as the British novelist Margaret Drabble: “My anti-Americanism has become almost uncontrollable. It has possessed me like a disease. It rises in my throat like acid reflux.” Perhaps most disturbing, this anti-Americanism has become “Europe-wide” rather than specific to one or another country, and is expressed across the political spectrum. The Left focuses on America’s commercialism and capitalism while the Right emphasizes its supposed lack of history and tradition.
Anti-Semitism and Anti-Americanism
Markovits devotes one-fourth of Uncouth Nation to what he terms the “twin brothers” of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism. Historically anti-Semitism has been a pan-European phenomenon, which is why the Nazis were so successful in implementing their “final solution” among the countries they conquered. But, according to Markovits, anti-Semitism began to accompany anti-Americanism in the late nineteenth century, when both America and the Jews were seen to represent the modernity that so many Europeans feared. America and the Jews were both viewed as “money-driven, profit-hungry, urban, universalistic, individualistic, mobile, rootless, and hostile to establishment traditions and values.”
When, after World War I, America’s strength began to grow, “power as a unifying notion between Jews and Americans became more pronounced.” The Holocaust delegitimized anti-Semitism in Europe, but now, over a half-century later, Markovits claims that anti-Semitism has reassumed an important European function: in the form of anti-Zionism, it has allowed Europeans to express their anti-Americanism in an acceptable fashion. It is Israel’s close association with the United States, including America’s often tacit approval of Israel’s use of power, that has made their “brotherhood” serve almost inevitably as a means of distancing Europe both from the United States and from Israel.
Most Europeans, according to Markovits, are not upset with Israel because of its Jewish identity. Instead they disapprove of Israel’s power and the way it is used. Israel’s nationalism, attachment to religious values, and unilateralism clash with Europeans’ sense of themselves as postnationalist, secular, and universalist. Europeans equate both Israel and the United States with the pre-1945 Europe they believe they have overcome. Thus, whereas in the past Jews were hated for their powerlessness, now the opposite is true; deriding Jews is praiseworthy because Israel is so strong.
Power: The Decisive Factor
Markovits concludes by referring to a previously unpublished lecture Hannah Arendt gave in 1954. In speaking of European displeasure with America, she commented that “it has always been the misfortune of rich people to be alternately flattered and abused-and still remain unpopular, no matter how generous they are.” The power gap since World War II, as well as America’s wealth and disproportionate size, have produced a European identity that defines itself primarily via anti-Americanism. Voicing European displeasure with the United States, therefore, will become increasingly “functional” for a Europe wanting to become a global player in an era when American power is becoming increasingly challenged.
Markovits’s thesis no doubt contains more than a few grains of truth. Yet Uncouth Nation is not as convincing as it might be. Presumably it is a scholarly work, with thirty-eight pages of footnotes and endless (albeit highly selective) quotations. Markovits, however, repeats his claims ad infinitum, often using modifiers that cast his arguments in exaggerated tones of black and white, without including context or relating to other points of view. The book’s partisan approach, then, often detracts from its argument. Indeed, the book may stir debate on both sides of the Atlantic. But then it might not. It could just as easily sink into oblivion.
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 Paul Hollander, Anti-Americanism: Critiques at Home and Abroad (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).
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DR. SARAH SCHMIDT is senior lecturer in modern Jewish history and Zionist history at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she also teaches an honors seminar, “The American Jew and the Israeli Jew: A Comparative Analysis.”