Jean-François Revel’s Mistake
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, May 2, 2006
They’re dropping like philosophers. First Jane Jacobs, then J.K. Galbraith, and now Jean-François Revel, whose occasionally excessive gloom and desperate pro-Americanism was tempered by his gift for irony, his curiosity, his occasional fallibility. Here’s what he wrote in How Democracies Perish, a book published in the Year of Our George, 1984: “Democracy may, after all, turn out to have been a historical accident, a brief parenthesis that is closing before our eyes.” The observation is correct. Democracy is as fallible as ever. The cause, as Revel sees it, seems less correct: “Exaggerated self-criticism would be a harmless luxury of civilization if there were no enemy at the gate,” he wrote. “But if it is repeated often enough, it is finally believed. Where will the citizens of democratic societies find reasons to resist the enemy outside if they are persuaded from childhood that their civilization is merely an accumulation of failures, and a monstrous imposture?” There are a couple of problems with Revel’s anxiety.
First, the self-criticism is not “exaggerated.” It may occasionally be loud and squeaky, it may be aggravating, it may be incoherent. But “exaggerated” implies an efficiency of numbers that has, if anything, been lacking in the West: what criticism exists here, in the mainstream anyway, is meek, cowardly, predictable, and conventional enough for the Babbitts of the world to sip it with their martinis. The OpEd pages of the New York Times are a forum of preconceived ideas restated four or five times over every day. They are neither the leading edge of original thought nor (Punch and Pinch Sulzberger and dividends forbid) a font of self-criticism where you might find—for example—Lewis Lapham calling for Bush’s impeachment, or Thomas Frank putting in question the fundamental morality of the capitalist system, or anyone questioning the sobriety, metaphorical and literal, of President Bush. The “exaggerated self-criticism” Revel referred to lingers, in the United States, on a fringe that’s never allowed to make it to the hub of acceptable debate, whether it’s the OpEd pages of the major dailies or Tim Russert’s table or even the cable television shout shows, where only right-wing lunacy is esteemed.
The second problem with Revel’s assessment of democracy is that business of the enemy at the gates. The Third Reich was the enemy at the gates. Fine. But enemies haven’t been anywhere near the gate since. Crashing it once in a while, spectacularly, doesn’t mean much when the edifice is all gates. Not since 1945 has there been an enemy who could corrode democracy as much as democracy could corrode itself—and not because of its self-critical intellectuals and “lefties,” but because of those who purport to be defending democracy. Because of those who turn fear into democracy’s defining means of self-preservation. Because of those who turn government into a form of benign repression in the name of freedom. Because of those who think creating such monstrosities as the Department of Homeland Security, and projecting a $600 billion military machine on the world, “to fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here,” can somehow protect civil liberties and the national treasury from bankruptcy.
Barring a nuclear strike, the Soviet Union could never have undermined the United States, no matter how real or imagined enemies and infiltrators and fifth columnists the McCarthyites saw hiding beneath the stars and between the stripes. Since World War II the United States’ greatest enemies, and by extension democracy’s, have been the vicars of the national security state going back to Harry Truman and the 1947 national security directive that birthed it all. The war on terror is the cold war retooled and rephrased. And the very errors of perception that were perpetuated during the cold war (namely, the Soviet Union’s threat and omnipotence) are being recycled and applied to al-Qaeda. In fairness, Revel has a reply to that sort of reasoning: “Following a similar logic,” he wrote, “one might build a case that the Hundred Years’ War was a complete fabrication by Joan of Arc, who wanted star billing in a pseudo-resistance against the conciliatory, peace-loving English.” But I smell in the retort a man’s wet straw quite unlike the kind that blazed blaze at Joan’s feet.
It is rather with sophistry of the kind—with essentially reverse fanaticism, or anti-Americanism turned on its head by rhetorical rather than factual means—that Jean-François Revel has done his share, since 2001, to fuel American excesses in the war on terror, when he should have been tempering them. In “Anti-Americanism,” the book from which the Arc quote above was lifted, he did well, at first blush, to belittle the seemingly simplistic and hypocritical anti-Americanism of his compatriots. It appears stupid of the French to blister American imperialism when the 19 th and 20 th centuries reek of France’s imperial horrors. It appears stupid of German and Japanese intellectuals to cry foul at American militarism when the 20 th century was… anyway, you get the idea. But just as it isn’t quite fair to blame a 25-year-old white American from Georgia, in 2006, for the sins of his slave-owning forefathers, it’s not exactly fair to blame contemporary French, Japanese and German mercenaries of conscience for pointing out sins they’re in a good position to recognize, but have fortunately outgrown. Germans have not been lax in the art of self-criticism about their Nazi past, and if historical self-criticism was an Olympic sport, the Germans would win gold hands down, and the Americans an honorable enough silver (although the French wouldn’t win tin).
So Revel’s context and examples were simplistic. He was like the conservative pundit who trolls blog comment sections, picks a few sensational examples, and weaves a thesis about national discourse and political trends out of that. Anti-Americanism does not stem, as Revel claims, “fundamentally from our continent’s loss during the 20th century of its 600-year leadership role,” otherwise there might have been some consistency to the anti-Americanism from Truman’s time on. There hasn’t been. It had its Sartrian peaks but also its accommodating plains. Nor was there any sense of anti-Americanism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. To the contrary. Rather, the anti-Americanism evolved out of the sudden and uncharacteristic belligerence of the Bush administration, its contempt for “old Europe” and a world of alliances based on multilateralism, and its fondness for aggression first and talk maybe never. Revel, in his own prisonhouse of conceptions bred of the cold war era (the same prisonhouse, by the way, from which the likes of Condoleezza Rice warden the world), found rhetorical similarities worth rehashing between the cold war and the war on terror. Along the way he fell in the same trap that cold warriors did so expediently: he made an enemy of democracy’s disorganized defenders, and a hero of democracy’s greatest threat. Even his mistake is rehashed.
Here he is again in How Democracies Perish, speaking of the Soviet Union: “None of the classic concepts that make the past intelligible explains Communist imperialism. It does not follow the bell-shaped expansionist curve of previous empires. Yet the democracies persist in believing it will decline of itself and inevitably grow more moderate. The longer Soviet Communism lasts, the more expansionist it becomes and the more difficult it is to control.” Soviet Communism wasn’t just declining at the very moment Revel was writing those words. It was moribund. It was in the ideological ICU. Leonid Brezhnev had been as true an incarnation of the Soviet Union as Richard Nixon had been the incarnation of trickery. The guy was a walking dead, a gasbag of methane pumped up by cardboard missiles and gulags overrun by weed. Not ten years later, of course, the Soviet Union was history, having been crushed by its own irrelevance, albeit with help from a far-seeing leader (Gorbachev) who knew better than to go down in flames and take the world with him.
It was a fortunate moment in history, but Revel and the American right had misdiagnosed its run-up. To this day American conservatives love to give Ronald Reagan the cesarean laurels of the conquering hero, as if his arms race was the spear that did the trick. Almost certainly it helped, but the Soviet collapse was a matter of time. It was fortunate that it happened when it did, if it’s western democracy one is concerned about. It re-energized the West, somewhat, and put to rest for a while those national security state fanatics who were ready then, as they are in fact doing now, to suck the life out of western liberties in supposed defense of those liberties. But it took only a few fanatics—19, to be precise—to get the whole wasteful “war on something” rolling again, with a vengeance. Ni Marx Ni Jesus, was Revel’s most famous book (Without Marx or Jesus, from 1970). Someone needs to write our contemporary update: Without Bush or bin Laden.