Sauerkraut Cowboys

Article excerpt


ON MY FIRST DAY back in Europe after a week and a half in the United States this winter, I attended a dinner at a research institute in Berlin. After sherry in a pleasant reception parlor, we took our places around a candle-lit table for six. I knew only the friend who had invited me. To my left sat a German historian, a heavyset man in his 60s with a stubbly white beard and a nice, wide smile; his wife, at the end of the table, wore clear- framed glasses and slightly spiky short hair. To my right was a former Swedish ambassador; across the table sat a British historian.

The conversation went, I guess, as conversations at such dinners often go: A bit of this and a bit ofthat with the soup, leading to a bit of America-bashing with the main course. Oh God, I thought, not again! Over my years in Europe I have heard my fill of anti- American rhetoric. Already in the early 1970s, while I was a student in Italy, I had become sick of being told I am "not a typical American" when, in fact, I think I am quite typical of a certain American type.

(In an essay in Granta magazine a few years ago, the American-born Israeli Haim Chertok recalled how he encountered such "vacuous anti- Americanism" for the first time while hitchhiking around France in the 1960s. "Upon discovering they had made a temporary American captive," he wrote, "salesmen, farmers, truck drivers seemed driven to challenge the teenager in the passenger seat: 'How do you explain Selma? ' As though I were Bull Connor incarnate or the French were not themselves torturers.")

Maybe it was my jet lag, but I found the anti- Americanism expressed during that dinner in Berlin particularly irritating. I mean, really. The animus against the U.S.- against "US," "Americans," rather than the Bush Administration was so predictable, so smug and, well, so uncreative. "You re-elected him in 2004," was repeated with a wistful yet accusatory little curling of the lip, like a mantra a mantra sweeping aside the complexities of U.S. political (and social) history, not to mention disregarding the 2006 election as well as the loud, angry and eloquent criticism of the Bush Administration I had just heard to the max from friends and family, let alone the media, in the United States itself. Don't these people ever watch Jon Stewart? (CNN International nans a roundup of The Daily Show several times every weekend.) Don't they read the New York Times online?

Bring on the criticism, OK. But please, please, make it something other than a self-satisfied nyah nyah nyah!

As I was writing this letter, I paused to read Jonathan Yardley's Washington Post review of a new book by Andrei S. Markovits called Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America. Markovits, it turns out, examines in particular the knee-jerk anti- Americanism of academic and intellectual elites like the people with whom I dined here. A professor of comparative politics and German studies at the University of Michigan, he portrays their stance "as a generalized and comprehensive normative dislike of America and things American that often lacks distinct reasons or concrete causes." Among those he quotes is the British author Margaret Drabble, who, for example, makes an amazing self- assessment that anyone with a brain should be embarrassed to admit: "My anti-American-ism has become almost uncontrollable. It has possessed me like a disease. It rises in my throat like acid reflux."

In such European circles, Markovits notes, Americans are viewed, paradoxically, as "too religious, too secular; too idealistic, too materialistic; too elitist, too populist; too prudish, too pornographic; too individualistic, too conformist; too anarchic, too controlling; too obsessed with history, not having any history; too concerned with culture, not having any culture; too dominated by women, too controlling of women. America, in the view of some Europeans, is so obsessed with freedom and individualism that this obsession impedes genuine individuality. …