All posts by Rondi Adamson

Norman Podhoretz’s “Making It”: Reflections on European anti-Americanism

I’ve been on a bit of a Norman Podhoretz binge of late. Earlier this year, I read Ex-Friends, which I found fascinating (he has far more glamorous ex-friends than I do), and so much of what was in it made me want to read Making It (a recently re-released book that had apparently caused rifts between Podhoretz and some of those “ex-friends”). Apart from being brilliant, he is also a clear writer, very engaging, candid. Our backgrounds are madly different and I was born 35 years or so after him, and yet early on in Making It, I came across these paragraphs that seemed to have come from my own experience (with certain differences, namely dates and places). He is writing here about his time as a gifted American student overseas, studying in England:

…it was impossible to live in England or visit any European country in the early 1950s without being forced into a constant awareness of oneself as an American, and an unproblematic awareness at that.

…I was able to do a lot of traveling, and as happened with so many of my contemporaries (updated Columbuses all), it was the American in myself I stumbled upon  while trying to discover Europe. For protest as we all might, the whole world insisted on regarding us quite simply and unarguably as Americans: we spoke English with an American accent, we carried American passports and travelers checks from American Express, we were overawed by cathedrals, we were buoyant and wide-eyed and talkative, we had good teeth and smooth complexions, we complained about the absence of central heating in winter, we were accustomed to modern plumbing, we had a thing about dirt, we preferred showers to baths and took too many of both, we grew impatient at slow service in restaurants, and we drank water more happily than wine. In short, we were in a million small details marked off in their eyes as an identifiable national type.And in our own eyes, after a while, as well.

…for the sheer vulgarity of the anti-Americanism one came upon everywhere in Europe pushed many of us into the unaccustomed role of patriotic defenders. There was no way of resisting the invidious comparisons to the benefit of America which popped into one’s head when a waiter in a Paris cafe sneered, “Un Americain, sans doute,” as one handed him a thousand-franc note, or when a particularly philistine Englishman made snooty references to American materialism. Time after time, one would find oneself protesting, “No, it isn’t really like that in America, you’ve got it all wrong,” and then rather to one’s own astonishment one would hear oneself offering a spirited defense of this or that aspect of American life which one had never felt the slightest inclination to defend while at home.

Plus ca change.

As I said, these could have been my words (though they wouldn’t have been written this well had they been mine) from the late 1980s when, after getting my B.A., I went to Paris to study at the Sorbonne and work as an au pair. I was, at that point in my life, a typical Canadian WASP from the Ottawa Valley. I had the typical Canadian viewpoint: Canada is morally superior to the United States; we are peacekeepers; we are a mosaic, not a melting pot; we have free healthcare; we have no guns; we are not just different than them, we are better than them. It was, of course, mostly hooey; or the narcissism of small differences.

And this is what I came to see in Paris. I realized — as I was mistaken for an American at least 70% of the time (and the rest of the time for a Scandinavian), that I was, in many ways, American. I talked like one, I dressed like one, I carried myself like one. I shared more of a world view (i.e., a “new world” view) with Americans than I did with Europeans (and their “old world” view). I was sometimes driven mad by the stuffiness and mustiness of the French on fait pas ca — meaning, “we don’t do that” — attitude or policy, the idea that some things are simply not done for no good reason other than, well, on fait pas ca. (Italians have a similar expression — non si fa. It isn’t done. And if you ask them why, they cannot tell you.)

I remember watching the movie Baghdad Cafe in a Paris movie theatre and feeling crazily homesick. What I saw on screen was the freedom and openness of individuals being who they were, dressing as they wished, letting it all hang out, for better or for worse. It was something I missed while living with a wealthy French family and studying with mostly European classmates and professors.

In short, I came to see myself as a North American, or a Canadian American. I was still happy to be Canadian, but no longer insulted to be thought of as American.

Podhoretz mentions “the sheer vulgarity of the anti-Americanism” he encountered in Europe. This was the 1950s. In the late 1980s, it was vulgar and then some. It was relentless, in particular, the attacks on Ronald Reagan. It’s interesting to keep this in mind, because when George W. Bush was president, there was a received wisdom that he inspired an unprecedented anti-Americanism. Simply not so. When George W. Bush was president, I was taking French classes in Toronto — to keep up my language skills — and the rhetoric against Dubya from my teacher was at fever-pitch. And yet, I remembered that it had been just as bad in the ’80s. Reagan was a child; a Nazi; a bully; heck, Americans were all big kids! Nazis! Bullies! They were stupid! Reagan was a cowboy; heck, so were Americans!

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I came to believe that Europeans envy American optimism so much that they dismiss it as childishness.

For me, it was like seeing the worst, most self-satisfied side of Canada clearly for the first time. Listening to my French friends talk about the U.S., all I could think was, Is this how we sound? Because if this is how we sound, we need to grow up. It was the same kind of snide, disparagement of Americans accompanied by the same, bizarre obsession with them, the same envy. Europeans, like Canadians, have an obsession with getting attention from the U.S., all while holding them in contempt. This put a serious dent in my anti-Americanism and went a long way to changing my world view.

Currently, I spend a good deal of time in Italy — on average, three months a year. I am sad/resigned to report to you that the attitudes about gli Americani have not changed from what I  observed 30 years ago in France, or, apparently, from what Norman Podhoretz observed more than 60 years ago in England. Americans are stupid. They are naive. They are big kids and cowboys — again with the cowboys! Europeans need to find a new insult — and plus, they don’t notice us enough. And I actually do not think Trump has made it worse, believe it or not. His presidency just gives them another reason to shake their heads in wonderment at the big children who would take such a risk.

So oddly, perhaps, I find myself defending Americans and American policy a good deal these days in Italy, just as I did during my time in Paris. Podhoretz called it being in the “unaccustomed role of patriotic defender.” I don’t know what I would call it, since I am not patriotic about the United States. Maybe it is nothing more than a lack of patience with assumptions, not to mention displays of ignorance/ingratitude, but I have confronted it on many occasions.

A couple of years ago, a history prof of mine in Italy asserted that his country had been liberated from the Nazifascisti by i partigiani (the partisans). Period. No one else helped. I put up my hand and said that, as courageous as many partigiani were, without le Alleate (the Allies), Italy would not have been liberated. Certo, he replied, without missing a beat. He had just, he said, forgotten to mention that detail. He was smiling as he said it, but I could tell he hated me ever after.

In and of itself, his comment would not have irked me, but it must be seen in the broader context of his lectures, which were entirely anti-American ALL THE TIME. He could scarcely bring himself to say anything good about the Marshall Plan, which to hear him tell it, was merely a way to control Italy’s democratic choices forever and ever and ever. Without the Marshall Plan, Italians would be living in a peaceful, communist paradise right now. American military bases in Italy? Pure evil! Imperialism! I tentatively suggested to him that a) those bases have protected Italians, and that, b) given the sacrifice of a generation of young men in order to free Europe from itself, perhaps it wasn’t entirely unreasonable of Washington to want some influence on how affairs might unravel afterwards. As you can imagine, I continued to endear myself to him. (That said, whenever I am in France I make a point of visiting my uncle’s grave in Normandy — my website about him here — and I always find the people in Caen and thereabouts lovely. Mind you, I am Canadian and I speak fluent French, but I suspect that were I a unilingual American visiting a relative who had died routing the Nazis from France I would also be treated with much kindness.)

So this has turned into a rather longer post than I had intended, but if you can take anything away from it, it is this: read Podhoretz. And if you’re interested in two or three of my pieces on Canadian anti-Americanism or Canada-U.S. relations in general, please check out this from the Christian Science Monitor (where I do indeed focus on some ways in which Americans can learn from Canadians, though please remember this was written in 2011), and these two from Huffington Post.

A Series of Unpleasant Experiences

[Today is the 75th anniversary of la rafle du Vel d’Hiv. As such, I found it appropriate to post this piece I wrote a while back and put aside. – RA]

The first time it happened, I was in Poland. It was 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I had been studying in Paris and working as an au pair. I had had a classmate at the Sorbonne named Magda and we had become fast friends. We drank wine together and talked about love and what we wanted for the future, always in French, as I had no Polish and she had limited English (but very good Russian). Magda was intellectual and funny and when she returned to Poland at the end of 1989, her studies over, I missed her company. We had always gotten along well.

A few months later, that changed. I experienced some drama or other with a man and decided that a change of scenery was in order. I booked a ticket to Warsaw and flew on Air Lot — mercifully, a short flight from Paris — and Magda was waiting for me at the airport.

Once in Warsaw, I bought some Solidarnosc paraphernalia, which, after the fall of the Wall was relatively easy and safe to purchase. I tried a wonderful cake called “W-Z”: I still remember it fondly. Magda’s family welcomed me, putting me up on their couch. They talked a lot about their fear of a potentially-united Germany. “We get rid of the Russians; we get the Germans again,” her mother said. The family had suffered many deaths from cancer — Magda’s father and brother — which they were sure were due to Chernobyl. I felt for them and appreciated their openness.

Magda and I made plans — visiting pretty-as-a-gem Krakow was a priority. What did I want to see in Warsaw? Well, I ventured, the site of the Warsaw Ghetto. Her face fell. She informed me that the former Ghetto was now nothing more than a plaque. Not interesting. Not worth it. “There must be a museum,” I said. “No. Just a plaque.” I said that I would like to see the plaque and would certainly be happy to go by myself.

She asked me what else I wanted to see in Poland. Well, I told her — I don’t think I was conscious of engaging in brinksmanship — Auschwitz, of course. I suppose “wanted” is a strong word. I felt that I should. I had to. I would. I told her as much. She rolled her eyes. “They made us go there in high school,” she said. I quickly pointed out that again, she need not come with me. That didn’t seem to change her rueful — or was it angry? — expression. “Why do you want to go there?” I pointed out the obvious. It was history. It was horror. I felt that it was the very least I owed the victims.

“Polish people died there too, you know,” she said. I had never suggested they hadn’t. “Yes, I know, many of the Jews in Auschwitz were Polish…” I began, only to be interrupted with, “I mean Catholics died there,” she said. Oy. There we had it. I pointed out that I had never said or thought otherwise. Most of the victims at Auschwitz, however, and of the Holocaust, were Jews. She shook her head. “No.” she said. “There weren’t nearly as many as they say.” And there we had some more of it. I was stunned. I was quite young and had never been exposed to this kind of revisionism and trivializing before. Now, sadly, it is old hat to me. Back then it was new and I was shocked.

When I said again that I would go without her, she rolled her eyes. “Alright,” she said. “There’s a bus.” The discussion was over. I went alone on that bus to Auschwitz. She was more than cool to me for the rest of my visit and made a lot of political comments designed, I think, to pick a fight. I resisted. But it got to the point that I — pathologically introverted and never able to handle conflict well — decided to retreat. I thanked her family, leaving them flowers and a full W-Z cake, and booked into a hotel. At the time, even the fanciest hotels in Warsaw were cheap and I stayed somewhere very nice — it might have been a Marriott. I remember feeling very lucky the option was there. Even another day of dealing with the fury I could feel simmering off of Magda would have been too much.

I did invite her out for a thank-you dinner — regardless of what had happened, she and her family had been generous in many ways — and she accepted. I don’t remember what we discussed other than a bit of gossip regarding school friends, but I’m sure it wasn’t history. After that, I got the odd Christmas card from her, one with the news that she had married and was expecting a baby. The only long letter she sent was a plea for help when she and her husband wanted to immigrate to Canada. I wrote back with the truth — there was nothing I could do. They would be wiser to contact the Canadian Embassy in Warsaw.

I sometimes regret that I didn’t call Magda out more on her comments, or try to talk to her about them. I told myself that if any such thing happened again, I wouldn’t be so peace-able.

(I realize I have not written here about my actual visit to Auschwitz — that would take a column in itself. Suffice to say it marked me. Suffice to say I would like a chance to go back, now that I am older and I hope, have a better understanding of its significance.)

***

It was 1999, during the NATO intervention in the former Yugoslavia. I was back in Toronto, and had been invited over to dinner at the house of friends, a couple I had met at university. They were now married, with two very young kids and living in a leafy, lovely and expensive part of the city. The TV was on as we enjoyed pre-dinner chat and somehow, what was unfolding in Kosovo caused the wife to say, with a certain contempt, that we wouldn’t be hearing about the atrocities that had been occurring in the former Yugoslavia 50 years from now. Lest there be any doubt about her meaning, her husband chimed in that this was because the Bosnians had no equivalent of a “rich Jewish lobby” and “Jewish-owned media” to “force us” all to hear about the Holocaust “all the time.”

I remember feeling like I had been jackbooted in the stomach. I had known these people for over a decade — we shared startlingly similar WASP upbringings — and, until that night, I had always felt at home with them. Admittedly, there were long periods during which we had no contact other than a birthday card, but I had never heard them speak such nonsense. Were these views newly acquired? Had they held them for years? It wasn’t as though we often talked politics. I managed to stammer out that I believed we would be hearing about the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia decades from now, and that if we still learned and talked about the Holocaust fifty years after the war, it had nothing to do with any lobby, and everything to do with its importance — what Norm Geras would later call its uniqueness and its universality (a quote I wish I had had at the time). My friends fell silent at that, but I suspect it was only to peace-keep. I requested a change of topic and made a mental note to trust my gut, which generally tells me staying home is the safest bet.

But one does want company, from time to time.

***

It was the summer of 2003, and a terribly handsome man asked me out on a date. Now, the summer of 2003 also happened to be the summer of the SARS outbreak in Toronto. Each visit to a doctor saw one filling out a questionnaire about recent trips to Asia, a questionnaire that included the silly question, “Are you experiencing any general malaise?” At my dermatologist’s, I wrote, “Only when I’m conscious,” causing Dr. Eisen to smilingly scold, “You could end up in quarantine for that!” That might have been better than what happened.

Khaled, the terribly handsome man, was originally from Jordan, had immigrated to Canada 20 years earlier, and was an engineering professor at a Toronto university. He was tall, dark and charming. He laughed easily and often. On our first two or three dates, I tried to avoid any discussion of politics, as 2003 was also the first summer of the war in Iraq. By the time July rolled around I had already been bickering with people about it for several months. No more, I vowed. I lived Basil Fawlty’s Don’t Mention the Warmantra. Discussing Iraq, and even Afghanistan, inevitably led to aggravation.

But there was another war I mentioned. Khaled had lived in Amsterdam, and given that I had visited the city myself, I asked him about its many museums. He reeled off a list of those he had visited — Rembrandt House, the van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum — neglecting to include one that had devastated me. ”What about Anne Frank House,” I asked. I wince at the cliché of it all, but the mouth that laughed so often and so loudly stiffened. No, he said. No, he hadn’t visited Anne Frank House because it represented “something that is exaggerated and gets too much attention.” I asked him what he meant, though I didn’t need to. I knew what was coming.

The Holocaust wasn’t “that bad,” the numbers “can’t be trusted,” there may have been deaths in camps but actual “death camps” could not have existed, “Jewish financiers” started the war anyway and various other calibrations. He told me the story of his great lost love, a German woman (a piece of the puzzle) whose father had been sent to Stalingrad. German soldiers suffered as much as any Jew, he said, “but there is no Anne Frank House for them.” I let him know how unimpressed I was with his theories, and he quickly attempted a bit of back-pedal, conceding that the Jews had been done “an injustice,” but that it was “not as bad as current injustices perpetrated against the Palestinians.” He protested that as “a scientist,” it was normal that he should doubt the numbers — most people weren’t trained to do so, he argued, so we gullibly accepted what we were told by generations of Jewish-controlled media and blah blah blah. I tuned out the rest and things ended before they began.

For a few years after that, I would occasionally run into him and he would inevitably mention that he was going to do something with his “Jewish friends.” “I’d love to talk,” he’d say. “but I have a bridge game with my Jewish friends.” “I’d invite you for coffee, but my Jewish friends have invited me for dinner.”

Whatever you say, fella.

***

In April 2015, I was very happy to attend the Festival Internazionale del Giornalismo in Perugia, a city I know well. After the first day of lectures and workshops, I went for a walk with Mauro, an Italian acquaintance who worked in PR, and we happened to pass by one of my favourite plaques in the city. It honours local young men who died fighting what Italians call Nazifascisti. It was erected in 1945 and refers to Teutono Bestiale or ‘the beastly/bestial Teuton’, and Turpe Fascista or ‘filthy/vile Fascist’. Yes, the Nazis were beastly and the Fascists vile, but I can’t imagine such language being used today, even in Italy, where the threshold for politically incorrect blunt-speaking is rather higher than in the anglosphere. I think that is why I like it so much, and why I find the sight of it rather refreshing. The choice of words almost makes me laugh.

I directed Mauro’s attention to it, and the conversation turned to the war and, well, by now you should know where this is going. Mauro asserted that the Shoah was bad, but why do we always have to hear about it? What about Rwanda? I pointed out that we do hear about Rwanda, as well we should. It isn’t either/or. He tried another tack: Jews have a lot of money! They’re rich, and that’s why we have to hear about the Shoah “all the time.” For good measure he added that what the Israelis were doing to the Palestinians was “the same” as Auschwitz. When I dismissed that last comment as patently absurd, he didn’t respond, instead carrying on about Jews being rich and powerful and diamonds, diamonds, diamonds. They’ve got lots of diamonds!

I should have dropped it right there and gone back to my hotel. But I persisted, which — other than the work-out it gave my Italian — was a sorry exercise in futility.

***

These unpleasant incidents are by no means the only such unpleasant incidents I’ve experienced. But they’re the ones that resonated the most with me, that surprised and upset me the most, that woke me up, that ended some relationships and nipped others in the bud.

My partner of ten years is Italian, and while he and I live in Canada, we spend as much time as possible — often months in a row — in Italy, where I am trying to perfect my Italian. I spent the latter part of 2016 taking an advanced Italian course at a university there, and one of my teachers taught us grammar through Italian literature. It was the class I enjoyed most — we got to read Pirandello, Calvino, Manzoni, Moravia, Baricco and others in the original Italian, increase our vocabulary and improve our knowledge of verb tenses. But there was one author she never touched, one I had always loved to read in English: Primo Levi.

As she was wonderfully approachable, I decided to ask her about it. “Oh,” she said, looking embarrassed. “We just try to avoid anything controversial in our classes here.” I asked her how Levi was controversial. “He wrote about his experiences, about facts of history,” I said. “What is controversial about that?”

“Nothing,” she admitted. “But we have students from Libya, we have Palestinians, Egyptians, and others who might not like it.” She shrugged, again looking embarrassed. I thought about my classmates, Middle Eastern and otherwise, and I thought she was selling many of them short. Soft bigotry of low expectations, anyone? And why assume only Middle-Eastern students might have a problem with reading Primo Levi? My own experiences tell me that anti-Semitism is pan-cultural.

Even if the risk for “controversy” exists in a classroom, isn’t the job of a teacher to teach? My professoressa implied it was a directive from above; she hadn’t a choice.

About a month after our conversation about Primo Levi, the same professor led our class in a discussion of same-sex marriage and abortion policies — or the lack thereof — in our various countries. Nothing controversial there.

Can we All Get Along?

Recently read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Highly recommend, and while I am tempted to say that it is relevant now, it has, of course, always been relevant. One thing I found of note was a reference to Rodney King’s famous “can we all get along” query (short answer: no): Haidt provides a longer version of the quote, which I find so touching. Apparently King also said, “Please, we can get along here. We all can get along. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out.”

Kind of broke my heart a bit to read that.

Bloomsday

Today is Bloomsday, a fact which got me to thinking about my New Year’s Resolutions a few years (3, maybe?) back: one of them was to read “Ulysses.” I did indeed read it, and I’m glad I did. It is brilliant, and I can see why it caused such a ruckus when first published. That said, it is also tedious in parts and a tad earthy for my tastes. So for those of you who haven’t read it but would like to appear highbrow enough to have done so, I give you this wonderful abridged version courtesy of YouTube and some guy with what sounds to me like a German accent.

Tom Regan

I am catching up here on things about which I should have posted earlier – for example, the death of animal advocate Tom Regan, someone who has been a big influence on my thinking. One of my favourite Regan quotes:

Because we have viewed other animals through the myopic lens of our self-importance, we have misperceived who and what they are. Because we have repeated our ignorance, one to the other, we have mistaken it for knowledge.

Check out his library here.

Turkey

A long overdue post about the Turkish referendum. I was certainly dismayed by it, but not surprised. Things had been going that way in Turkey for over a decade. I am in touch with several of my ex-students, all of whom still live in the Istanbul area. In general, they are pessimistic but have families and jobs and don’t want to leave. And, of course, they love Istanbul, as do I. Beyond that, I will outsource my commentary to Dani Rodrik, here. I believe it is a spot-on analysis.

UK Election

Monstrously depressing. Corbyn’s deranged worldview — which includes praise for all enemies of the West as well as (not so) thinly-veiled anti-Semitism (which I imagine he would insist is “just” anti-Zionism), his praise for Hamas and Hezbollah, his belief that Israel and the United States are central to all evil on this planet — does not appear to have done him any harm. In other words, either his supporters don’t care or more people than I had understood share this upside-down/day-is-night/ignorant-of-history view of things.

Julie Lenarz sums it up so well here.

Could Not Have Said it Better

This talk by Robin Yassin-Kassab sums up almost entirely how I feel about the Euro-American/Canadian left and how, at times, it resembles the extreme right (they certainly meet where their anti-Semitism is concerned). I don’t agree with everything he says here, but I certainly agree with his analysis of the current tragedy in Syria, and his contempt for the left in general, even though he is a leftist. Interestingly, I think in some ways I probably am too (or rather, I think I am a fiscal conservative/libertarian-social leftist/liberal-animal rights advocate/hawk) in some ways, but due to their useful idiocy (at one point in this clip, he uses that term), I never want to be associated with them. At any rate, Yassin-Kassab captures the sophomoric anti-Western sentiments of much of the left since the 1960s, as well as their racism. Honestly, I have come to the conclusion that if one is searching for racism, classism and sexism, one need only glance left. (Yassin-Kassab has a go at Chomsky, Fisk and Cockburn here, too, which is good.)