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Barbarism, Perversity and Ex-Trotskyites: Conservative Pundits Introduce Americans to Europe

By Ben Fritz (ben@spinsanity.org)
June 18, 2001
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What do you do when the president goes on one of his first trips abroad and finds that many of America's allies disagree on important issues of international policy?

Argue the merits of the particular policies you support? That's one option and, in fact, it is the one that President Bush has taken in public. For some of his supporters in the media, however, that doesn't cut it. They have trampled over logic and rationality in an effort to denigrate and delegitimize some of America's closest allies for criticizing Bush on topics like global warming and missile defense.

Associating Europe with past atrocities

One of the most common lines of attack was to bring up European history, which, of course, is full of human rights atrocities. Without explicitly saying so, a number of pundits attempted to associate modern, democratically elected governments with fascist and communist governments of the past.

Michael Kelly, writing in the Washington Post, juxtaposes Bush's foreign policy, and criticism of it as unilateralist, against some pretty awful alternatives:

America is not Europe. America was created as an escape from, and antidote to, Europe. American "unilateralism," as its critics call it, has not produced anything like perfect leadership. But there are worse "isms" than unilateralism, and three are imperialism, fascism and communism. A century of American resolve, often in the face of European disdain, created a continent where not one of these lives as a serious force.

Robert E. Hunter ends an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times about European opposition to the death penalty in America in a very similar manner:

Perhaps the last thing that many Americans want, especially proponents of the death penalty, is interference from abroad, and especially from Europeans--residents of a continent clearly lacking in "clean hands" after a century of mass barbarism from which, in fact, the U.S. more than once played a major role of deliverance.

Notice how both Kelly and Hunter use ridiculously reductionist readings of history to delegitimize European criticism of Bush's policies. Many, if not most, European countries were not perpetrators of the "mass barbarism" Hunter speaks of. In fact, some of America's most persistent critics, such as France, fought on the U.S. side. Both Kelly and Hunter also set up a false dichotomy wherein America has been the world's savior for the past century. Residents of the Philippines or Hawaii, however, might take issue with the image of America as a country never involved in the "imperialism" Kelly speaks of, while many of those whose ancestors lived under slavery might bristle at the notion of Hunter's that Europe is the only continent that has engaged in "mass barbarism" recently.

Who is guilty of what, however, is not the point. Most European nations and the U.S. have advanced dramatically this century when it comes to human rights, and arguing that wrong actions in the past delegitimize current viewpoints is a diversionary tactic, not a rational argument.

Attacks on the European Union as a threat to freedom

Not content to slam European countries individually, pundits also launched attacks on the European Union. According to these pundits, the E.U. appears to be a grave threat to human freedom.

George Will, for instance, claimed the recent narrow rejection of advanced membership in the E.U. by Irish voters was an example of how "the Irish saved civilization." In his op-ed column in the Washington Post, Will calls the E.U. "perverse" and European democracy's "stealthiest post-1945 threat." Whether the E.U. is indeed that dangerous is, of course, debatable, but Will makes the case with irresponsible speculation about the motives of E.U. leaders:

Because the European project is perverse, its advocates probably will draw one of three perverse conclusions from the latest setback to it. They might decide never again to allow democratic comment on their anti-democratic enterprise. They might change the treaty ratification rules to annihilate minority rights and facilitate tyranny of the majority. Or they might be so blinkered by arrogance that they think their problem is not with their message but with their methods of communicating it.

Is there any basis to argue that the European Union will prevent members from submitting treaties to referenda, or that it will "annihilate" the rights of minority members? If there is, Will doesn't present it. And conveniently enough, he also demonizes an organization that is currently at odds with a Republican president on a number of issues.

Simple name-calling

The worst examples of irresponsible rhetoric, though, fell far below groundless criticism and speculation to simple name-calling. Numerous conservative pundits repeatedly brought up some of their favorite terms to associate European leaders who dared to criticize President Bush with ideas most Americans find distasteful.

William Safire in the New York Times: "ex-Trotskyites in France consider us barbarians for imposing the death penalty on a mass murderer."

Kelly, again, in the Washington Post: "For decades, this elite class [European opinion leaders] has generally cherished a sneering and jingoistic contempt for America and for American values."

The Wall Street Journal editorial board: "The broader truth is that some center-left governments and their supporters have trouble accepting that opposing points of view are at all legitimate."

Are some European leaders ex-Trotskyites, jingoist elitists and intolerant? Could be. Does that have anything to do with whether the U.S. is doing enough about global warming or whether a missile defense shield is a good idea? Certainly not. By using these terms, are these pundits using negative association to delegitimize European leaders who are criticizing America? Absolutely.

Some considered criticism

All this is not to suggest that none of the criticism of Europe is legitimate. Few pundits, however, seemed willing to take the time that Gregg Easterbrook did in the New York Times yesterday to make considered, fact-based policy critiques. In a well-reasoned analysis, he notes the tensions of European integration and points out that the U.S. may make for a convenient scapegoat for politicians who want to focus the people on other issues. "It seems certain there's more Euro-static coming, because for the moment, many European leaders believe that making small of America is in their interest," he concludes.

A critical take on Europe that doesn't bring up barbarism, perversity or Trotsky? It makes for a nice change of pace.

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