Paul Johnson, the British journalist and historian, recently delivered some harsh words on anti-Americanism as embodied in the culture of Europe. He called it crude, childish, self-defeating and nonsensical. "It is based," he said, "on the powerful but irrational impulse of envy -- an envy of American wealth, power, success and determination."
Most Americans would probably consider his opinion exaggerated. Surely it can't be that bad? But a Canadian, living in a country where anti-Americanism is the air we breathe, may decide that Johnson has it about right.
For Canadians, cultural anti-Americanism provides, among other things, a way to avoid reality. It helps us escape responsibility for mass culture. If the cultural preferences of our fellow citizens dismay us (or our own appetites make us feel guilty) we blame the Americans. Because most of the mass culture we receive originates in the United States, we place the burden of our cultural sins on American shoulders. In these matters, we have lost the power of self-reflection.
For instance, a recent Globe and Mail piece by John Doyle, the TV critic, carried the headline: "The empty inanity of American celebrity," one of several thousand similar headlines that appear every year in Canadian papers. No doubt the editor who wrote it knows perfectly well that Canadians are as celebrity-crazed as anyone. But at the same time we want to feel superior to Americans. So the Globe flatters its readers into believing, wrongly, that they are in a position to look down on American inanity.
In this way, hypocrisy becomes an essential element in the Canadian style. In another piece, Doyle described watching TV on "a dull day of mind-numbing American piffle-culture." (As opposed, presumably, to Canadian high-culture.) For Doyle and many others, the United States offers a safe punching bag. What Canadian reader will ever object to a journalist pouring contempt on Americans?
Theorists have been arguing for years that American culture debases the whole planet, to the point where humanity now has no choice but to live in McWorld, a place as predictable as Disneyland. American, European, and Canadian writers love this idea, but one American has set about the task of challenging it -- Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University in Virginia, the author of Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World's Cultures.
Where others see tedious uniformity around the world, Cowen sees attractive diversity. Where others imagine American culture imposing a single global style, Cowen sees international exchange producing innovation. In culture, he argues, globalization expands choice. Being an economist, he's supposed to know little and care less about culture. But it's Cowen, not one of the army of cultural theorists, who has pointed us toward a startling truth: The rise of the great media companies has been accompanied by diversity and heightened freedom.
His secret method is personal research. He looks and listens rather than reading essays by other economists. He loves discovering forms of creativity that arise from globalization, such as reggae. It began under the influence of American R&B, borrowed from the 1960s British bands, drew on sea chanteys, and took inspiration from Rastafarianism, a religion linked to Ethiopia. Jamaica considers reggae intensely Jamaican and the world loves it. (It happens that I realized how much I liked it in 1979, while listening to it in Israel.) Its influence long ago went back to the United States as inspiration for Paul Simon, rap, and many other forms. Whatever you may say about Jamaican popular music of the last 30 years, it has not been, to quote the standard cliche, "trampled by conglomerate multinationals."
In France, cultural anti-Americanism has been endemic for generations. One philosopher, Jean Francois Revel, recently claimed (in his book, L'obsession anti-americaine) that it emerges from French political and moral failures; it's the result of inadequacy.
In Europe generally it deeply influences and distorts political thought. The Americans, with their 18th-century constitution, have maintained civil peace, democracy, and high levels of economic activity across a vast sea-to-sea territory for more than a century. In the same period, Continental Europe has suffered for long periods from monstrous burdens that its leaders have placed on the people -- fascism, communism and two catastrophic wars. Twice, Americans have had to cross the Atlantic to pacify Europe.
All that is tragedy, but it has a comic side. While these facts would fascinate an impartial observer, not one in 100 European political writers ever notices them. And of those who notice, only a few imagine that Europe might learn something, maybe just a little, from this unprecedented American experience. Europeans, looking at America, like to notice lynching in one era, McCarthyism in another, race riots in another -- as if these were comparable to the catastrophes of Europe.
It's culture, grounded in mythology, that keeps Europe from seeing this remarkable history with any clarity. European culture teaches its elites that America is run by ignorant gun-toting cowboys. How could Europe possibly learn from people like that? In France, and in countries like Canada as well, anti-Americanism resembles a unique French beverage, absinthe. It's exciting, it's satisfying, and it's built into cultural history. But it does tend to leave you blind.