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.