The Blog

Among the Bourgeoisophobes, Part 2

11:03 PM, Apr 5, 2002 • By DAVID BROOKS
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THE BRUTALIST bourgeoisophobia of the Islamic extremists is pretty straightforward. The attitudes of European etherealists are quite a bit more complicated. Europeans, of course, are bourgeois themselves, even more so in some ways than Americans and Israelis. What they distrust about America and Israel is that these countries represent a particularly aggressive and, to them, unbalanced strain of bourgeois ambition. No European would ever acknowledge the category, but America and Israel are heroic bourgeois nations. The Israelis are driven by passionate Zionism to build their homeland and make it rich and powerful. Americans are driven by our Puritan sense of calling, the deeply held belief that we Americans have a special mission to spread our way of life around the globe. It is precisely this heroic element of ordinary life that Europeans lack and distrust.

So the Europeans are all ambivalence. The British historian J.H. Plumb once declared that he loved America (and he was indeed a great defender of the United States), but even his admiration for the country "was entangled with anger, anxiety and at times flashes of hate." In his infuriatingly condescending and ultimately appreciative portrait "America," the French modernist Jean Baudrillard wrote, "America is powerful and original; America is violent and abominable. We should not seek to deny either of these aspects, nor reconcile them."

But Europeans do seek to deny them--because they simply can't remember what it's like to be imperially confident, to feel the forces of history blowing at one's back, to have heroic and even eschatological aspirations. Their passions have been quieted. Their intellectual guides have taught them that business is ignoble and striving is vulgar. Their history has caused them to renounce military valor (good thing, too) and to regard their own relative decline as a sign of greater maturity and wisdom. The European Union has a larger population than the United States, and a larger GDP--and its political class has tried to construct an institutional architecture that will enable it to rival America. But the imperial confidence is gone, along with the youthful sense of limitless possibility and the unselfconscious embrace of ordinary striving.

So their internal engine is calibrated differently. They look with disdain upon our work ethic (the average American works 350 hours a year--nearly nine weeks--longer than the average European). They look with disdain upon what they see as our lack of social services, our relatively small welfare state, which rewards mobility and effort but less gracefully cushions misfortune. They look with distaste upon our commercial culture, which favors the consumer but does not ease the rigors of competition for producers. And they look with fear upon our popular culture, which like some relentless machine seems designed to crush the local cultures that stand in its way.

To European bourgeoisophobes, America is the radioactive core of what Ignacio Ramonet, editor and publisher of Le Monde Diplomatique, recently called "The Other Axis of Evil" in a front-page essay. It controls the IMF and the World Bank, the institutions that reward the rich and punish the poor, Ramonet claimed. American institutions such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Cato Institute promulgate the ideology that justifies exploitation, he continued. The American military provides the muscle to force-feed economic liberalism to the world.

They look at us uncomprehendingly when our leaders declare a global assault on terror and evil. They see us as a mindless Rambo, a Mike Tyson with rippling muscles and no brain. Where the Islamists see us as a decadent slut, the European etherealists see us as a gun-slinging cowboy. The Islamists think we are too spoiled and comfortable, the Europeans think we are too violent and impulsive. Each side's view of us is a mix of Hollywood images (Marilyn Monroe for the Islamists, John Wayne for the Europeans), mass-media distortions, envy-driven stereotypes, and self-justifying delusions. But each side's vision springs from a deeper bourgeoisophobia--the prejudice that people who succeed in worldly affairs must be morally and intellectually backward. This article of faith governs the way even many sophisticated Europeans and Muslims react to us.

AFTER SEPTEMBER 11, there was a widespread fear in Europe and in certain American circles that the United States would lash out violently and pointlessly. In fact, the United States has never behaved this way. It was slow to respond to Pearl Harbor; it was too timid in its responses to the USS Cole and other attacks. But to many Europeans, who must believe in our mindless immaturity in order to look themselves in the mirror each morning, it was obvious that the United States would shoot first and think afterwards.