For America

Anti-Americanism By Jean-François Revel, translated from the French by Diarmid Cammell, Encounter Books, 280 pages, $25.95

On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the
Future Tense
By David Brooks, Simon and Schuster, 352 pages, $25.00

Jean-François-Revel, author of the best-selling Without Marx or Jesus, wrote Anti-Americanism to respond to the sentiment, fairly widespread in Europe, that the United States has become a force for evil. I admire him for taking on the challenge. The United States, to be sure, does things in ways that Europeans ought to criticize, from our reliance on the death penalty to our love affair with handguns to the failure of George W. Bush to win international support for the war in Iraq. But the contrarian in me wants Revel to succeed. Even when European critics of the United States are right, there is often an air of superiority in their tone that betrays the fact that their societies are not quite as flawless as their criticisms of ours imply.

To take one conspicuous example, the United States has not done a very good job with racial discrimination, but we do have a relatively good record when it comes to religious tolerance. France does not. A revival of anti-Semitism, the government's bungling of the head-scarf issue, and the popularity of the xenophobic politician Jean-Marie Le Pen all suggest that the French might have something to learn from the American experience. Yet when they discuss this issue, intellectuals in France invariably conclude that the United States is rife with religious bigotry and governed by faith-based fanaticism, despite the fact that our Le Pen, Patrick Buchanan, has been a failure, both major parties in the United States compete for the Muslim vote, and anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism are no longer respectable positions in public life.

Although he has a case that needs making, Revel chose instead to publish an intemperate and one-sided screed. For example, he takes issue with a French writer named Jean-Marc Adolphe, who claims in the newspaper Libération that in the United States, "only the most fortunate have the right to medical care and grow old with dignity." The author, Revel writes, implies that the United States has no publicly funded retirement scheme, when everyone knows that it does. Adolphe also suggests, according to Revel, that Europeans do better than Americans when it comes to medical coverage, but nearly 10 percent of the French were not covered under their public provisions. Besides, Revel concludes (wrongly), both France and the United States spend roughly the same proportion of their gross domestic product on medical care. For Revel, Adolphe's rather mild comment represents a "small set of platitudes that reveal an ignorance of the subject so crude one can only hope it's intentional."

This example is typical of nearly all the ones cited by Revel, and it indicates why his book is so weak. Nothing in Adolphe's statement suggests an ignorance of the fact that the United States has a system of social security. He makes no comparison to France. The French, in any case, when they realized that some had no access to medical care, created the CMU (Couverture Maladie Universelle) to address the problem, whereas the number of uninsured in the United States has been rising. And spending on medical care includes, on the American side, funds for drug-company profits and hospital construction that may not have much to do with wellness. Revel claims at many points in his book that the United States should not be immune from criticism, but, as this example shows, he then attacks as treachery nearly all the criticisms of the United States made by Europeans.

Revel loves America, but the America he loves is the ideologically self-certain commentary of FOX News. European critics of America, he claims, are "dupes" whose willingness to accept the great lie of American arrogance "evokes the equivalent lie that surrounded the Soviet Union ever since 1917." They serve the cause of terrorism by refusing to recognize the degree to which the United States serves as the best protection against it. "Anti-Americanism is at base a totalizing, if not a totalitarian, vision," Revel writes in conclusion, in case anyone missed his point about earlier generations of fellow travelers. Yet it is Revel, as his choice of language suggests, who seems trapped in the atmosphere of charge and countercharge that characterized the Cold War. He is Jean-Paul Sartre in reverse, evoking the Popular Front politics of good versus evil by citing the good intentions of the hoped-for land of redemption while ignoring or explaining away its bad faith.

The case for America that Revel does not make is made by David Brooks. It is not that Brooks is an apologist for his country; he identifies with the social criticism of 1950s nonfiction writers such as David Riesman and William H. Whyte, and his new book, On Paradise Drive, is filled with troubling accounts of what life is like in the United States today. Yet Brooks tries to look beyond the unseemly and the ugly to find a deeper truth in the American experience, and, by and large, he succeeds.

On Paradise Drive is not about the poor. Here you will not find people struggling without health insurance. That makes Brooks' analysis unrepresentative of all life in the United States, but it also plays to the author's strengths. In his previous book, Bobos in Paradise, Brooks called his method "comic sociology," which can be defined, roughly, as mocking rather than muckraking, an attempt to characterize our penchant for the outlandish by poking fun at our foibles. However appropriate for yuppies, comic sociology is out of place where tragedy rules.

Middle- and upper-middle-class Americans, as Brooks portrays them, are given to frenzy over work, shopping, learning, and playing. As children, their parents do not merely love them to death; they expose them to norms of achievement that begin when they are in the womb and carry forward through breast-feeding technologies, preschool activities, Little League games, and high-school choices. Once in high school, these "Junior Workaholics of America" commit to inner-city volunteering and honors electives in ways designed to impress even the most cynical college-admissions staffs. At top-flight institutions such as Princeton, undergraduates are "articulate on every subject save morality," as able to discuss terrorism in Uzbekistan as they are unwilling to pass judgment on promiscuity. Once he graduates, Brooks' Ivy League achiever spends uncountable hours on his job, all the while "communing with his fellow IT junkies about the CRM solutions on his mobile and how many WAP gateways he can access from his ISP." And with the money he earns, he buys fantasies, kitchen gadgets from Crate and Barrel for the luxurious dinner parties he has planned or power tools to transform the porch into a multiplex viewing room.

When he describes well-off Americans, Brooks, comic sociology aside, can get pretty brutal. Glossy magazines like Shape and Victorian Home "slather endless amounts of missionary zeal on apparently trivial subjects ... ." Executive advancement seminars lead him to conclude that "there is no management fad so stupid that you can't get some senior executive to buy in to it." Because their country is so powerful, Americans "have to act on the world stage," but the rest of the world "is a place that doesn't interest most of them."

For all his criticism, however, Brooks believes that "there is an exalted dream of democratic greatness buried at the core of our achievement ethos." If that comment seems to evoke Walt Whitman, Brooks then brings him into the discussion, as well St. John de Crevecoeur, Alexander Hamilton, Daniel Webster, and others who praised America for its near demonic energy and excitement. "It is often the hungriest, the uncultivated, the most grasping people who lead the way into the future," Brooks writes of our 19th-century gold rushers -- and of our 20th-century computer geeks. We live on Paradise Drive because, as crass and materialistic as we can be, we have as well a sense of utopian possibility.

On Paradise Drive can be read as the domestic portion of the call for national greatness that Brooks has been advocating for American foreign policy. If we are to project our power abroad, we had better stand for something at home. Brooks recognizes, as many other conservatives do not, that if you portray the home front as decadent and flabby, the trumpet will sound pretty uncertain when the trumpet sounds at all. Yet Brooks also understands that whitewash will not work; America cannot be grasped unless its huge flaws are noticed along with its powerful strengths. And so he finds poetry in the prosaic. "Even in those boring office parks," he writes, "even among those narrow workaholics who have never had a philosophical self-reflection in their lives, the successful ones are driven by some inner intensity. They must improve, perpetually grow."

American liberals should be as willing to find some good in their country as a conservative like David Brooks. Walt Whitman, let us recall, is one of the great democratic voices of our culture, a poet who inspired his countrymen to live up to the "vistas" promised by their ideals. A great society presupposes a great country; if we are ever to make our health care universal or our foreign policy humanitarian, we need to think of ourselves as more than insatiable consumers or narcissistic forest destroyers. Social criticism ought to criticize, but a society worth criticizing is generally a society worth appreciating. Brooks does not always find the right balance -- Americans stress achievement too much for themselves and too little for others -- but he is making the effort, and for that he deserves at least two cheers.