American Anti-Europeanism

More than the conclusions, it is the methods of argumentation that expose anti-Americanism for the prejudice it is. There is the use of gross caricatures. Disregard for complexity and nuance. Trivial anecdotes treated as significant evidence. And most tellingly, flimsy or dubious facts are accepted without question if they damn the United States — while exculpatory evidence is harshly scrutinized or, more often, ignored.

When these methods are present, you can be sure that what you are reading is not rational criticism. It is irrational loathing. You can also be certain that what you are reading says far more about the author’s ideology and psychology than it does about the object of his disgust.

Using the same standard, it is quite clear that a similar prejudice — in many ways, the mirror image of anti-Americanism — is growing among North American conservatives. It is anti-Europeanism.

The invasion of Iraq brought us “freedom fries” and “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” but the prejudice beneath that silliness predated the war and it has only grown in the years since. It’s now so widespread that it’s difficult to find a discussion of Europe in conservative magazines or blogs that is not saturated with undisguised malice.

It’s also showing up on book shelves. There’s America Alone by columnist Mark Steyn. Menace in Europe by journalist Claire Berlinski. The West’s Last Chance by Tony Blankley, the former press secretary to Newt Gingrich. And now, just released, there is Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow Motion Suicide, by Bruce Thornton.

In terms of providing insight into Europe and its challenges, Decline and Fall is almost worthless, and yet it’s a valuable little book that should be read by anyone interested in transatlantic relations. Not only does it provide a succinct summary of the anti-European mythology embraced by North American conservatives, it contains particularly striking examples of the specious methods common to anti-Europeans and anti-Americans alike.

Thornton’s rhetorical frame is the H.G. Wells novel The Time Machine, in which a time traveller discovers a “very beautiful and graceful” race known as the Eloi hundreds of thousands of years in the future. Gentle and passive, the Eloi spend their time playing, making love, and sleeping. Everything seems idyllic.

But the Eloi are also soft, weak and stupid. “Worse, they are hedonistic narcissists,” writes Thornton, who casually watch “one of their fellows drown without interrupting their play.”

Eventually, the time traveller discovers the Eloi live not in paradise but a cattle pen: They are the cultivated food of a savage, underground race called the Morlocks.

Europeans are the Eloi, in Thornton’s eyes. And the butchers below? “Radicalized European Muslims are the Morlocks destined to devour an exhausted civilization,” he writes.

This dismal fate is the inevitable result of Europeans’ abandonment of Christian faith, argues Thornton, a professor of classics at California State University. “Rampant secularization in Europe has led to spiritual impoverishment and a materialist culture of pleasure,” he writes.

Believing in nothing, coddled by social spending, mired in stagnant economies, Europeans live only for the next cheap thrill. “As a decadent European, conscious of my approaching death, and given over entirely to selfishness, I could see no reason to deprive myself of such things,” says a character in a Michel Houellebecq novel — a character who perfectly embodies “the pathologies of postmodern Eutopian man,” Thornton writes.

A character in a novel is a slender thread on which to hang a continent but Thornton insists that the “rootlessness, despair, and failure of community” in Houellebecq’s work “are reinforced by other evidence less subjective and impressionistic.” He cites a 2003 Harris poll “that found that while 57 per cent of Americans are satisfied with their lives, only 14 per cent of the French, 17 per cent of the Germans, and 16 per cent of the Italians are.”

Secularization is also the primary cause of Europe’s baby crisis, Thornton claims. “In 2000, the EU fertility rate was 1.5 (babies per woman), ranging from 1.2 in Spain and Italy to 1.4 in Germany and 1.7 in France, the latter rate reflecting the fertility of immigrants.” Europe is greying. Depopulation is inevitable.

Enter the Morlocks. Untainted by secularism, Muslims are breeding and radicalizing rapidly. “Faced with an enemy that knows passionately what is worth dying and killing for, what will Europe, devoted to material pleasure and riddled with self-doubt, die and kill for?” Thornton asks. “A shorter workweek, early retirement, Internet pornography, state-funded abortion, afternoon adultery, the whole dolce vita lifestyle constantly held up as a reproach to us money-grubbing, workaholic, overreligious Americans?”

Of course not. Europe is doomed.

As with most prejudices, anti-Europeanism contains grains of truth. Europe really is struggling with demographics and costly social welfare. It’s also hard to disagree that Europeans have been free-riding on American military spending. And even the most cosseted bureaucrat in Brussels would acknowledge that delusion and hypocrisy are present in at least some aspects of European thinking.

But to turn these commonplace observations into the Eloi and the Morlocks, Thornton has to make some spectacular errors of both commission and omission.

Consider the ennui he claims is stifling Europe, and the 2003 Harris poll he cited to prove the point. What Thornton doesn’t mention is that the country which topped that poll — the country in which people expressed the greatest satisfaction with their lives — was not the United States. It was Denmark. Godless, socialist, so-very-European Denmark.

It’s also not true that the numbers reflected those who said they were “satisfied with their lives.” In fact, they are the percentages who said they were “very satisfied.” A second positive response was “fairly satisfied.” That’s standard phrasing in polls. And because it’s hard to know if people are drawing a meaningful and consistent distinction between “very” and “fairly” satisfied, it’s also routine for pollsters to add the two positive numbers together and use that as the proper measure.

And what do those numbers look like? Ninety-one per cent of Americans gave the thumbs-up to their lives. That’s excellent. But it’s less than the 97 per cent of Danes who were positive, 94 per cent of Dutch, 93 per cent of Swedes, and 91 per cent of Luxembourgers. In Ireland and Finland, the figure was 89 per cent; it was 88 per cent in the United Kingdom; 84 per cent in Spain and Belgium; 82 per cent in Germany; 80 per cent in France.

As the pollsters wrote, northern European countries are “upbeat and positive” while others, “particularly Germany and the Mediterranean countries,” were “much less happy or optimistic.” These findings are in line with many other surveys, and they put the lie to any notion that Europe is drowning in angst and ennui.

Thornton’s discussion of fertility is even more misleading. “Fertility is higher in the U.S. compared to Europe as a whole or to the European Union,” wrote Princeton demographer Charles Westoff in a recent paper. “However, fertility in a number of North and West European countries is practically the same as in the U.S.”

As it turns out, the countries with the lowest fertility rates tend to be more religious and conservative. They also have the least developed welfare systems. Poland, for example, is arguably more religious and conservative than the U.S. — and it has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world.

As for the countries whose fertility rates are “practically the same as in the U.S.,” they tend to be northern countries like Norway — which also happen to be the countries with the lowest levels of religiosity and the most generous welfare systems. (And no, immigrants are not responsible for those higher fertility rates as their populations are too small to skew the numbers so dramatically.)

This isn’t to say religion is not a factor in fertility. There’s evidence that it does play a role, some of which is cited by Westoff in the paper I’ve quoted. It just isn’t remotely as important as Thornton claims. As hard as it is for some to believe, atheists do have babies.

As for those “fecund Muslims,” they are becoming less so. “The fertility of Muslim women is declining in all countries for which data are available,” writes Westoff. “With the passage of time, Muslim fertility moves closer to the fertility of the majority in the respective countries.” Au revoir, Eurabia.

Perhaps inevitably, Thornton also salts his text with errors of the sillier sort, such as referring to “England” when he means the United Kingdom, or claiming that “England” is “increasingly incapable of competing in a rapidly globalizing and interconnected economy” — even though the U.K. has boomed for the better part of 15 years and London has, arguably, overtaken New York as the world’s financial centre.

I had a good snort on reading that “the far-right Vlaams Belang party won 20.5 per cent of the vote” in Amsterdam — which would be quite a remarkable feat given that Vlaams Belang is a Belgian party and Amsterdam is decidedly not in Belgium. And the reference to “John-Paul Sartre”? No comment required.

But then, accuracy isn’t terribly important in a book like this. Thornton is a Believer writing for other Believers. Like anti-Americans, anti-Europeans already know The Truth. Facts are strictly for decoration.

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