Americans might be unaware, but a great deal of right-leaning discourse in Europe holds the United States responsible for the outbreak or inflammation of their culture wars.
In France, Emmanuel Macron has spoken disparagingly of ‘certain social science theories imported entirely from the US’ which are ‘based on a different history, which is not ours’. His education minister was more explicit, castigating an ‘intellectual matrix coming from American universities…which wants to essentialize communities and identities’.
In the UK, meanwhile, in a column mischievously titled ‘It’s All America’s Fault’, the English commentator Ed West blamed the US for the spread of ‘social justice’ trends across Britain. ‘Because our middle class desperately ape everything they read in the New York Times, or watch on Netflix,’ West wrote:
‘…so America’s history and discourse is transferred onto ours, a form of cultural imperialism that our leaders are too conformist to resist. So we see nice, elderly Liberal Democrats voters in suburban Oxfordshire kneeling outside their homes in absurd imitation of American sportsmen protesting about a police shooting, the circumstances of which they are entirely, and willfully, ignorant of. ’
Frankly, and with all due respect to my American friends, there is something in these arguments. America is a great mimetic force, simplifying and sensationalizing political concepts and broadcasting them across the world through the immense organs of its media (Netflix, Amazon, YouTube) and social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter). That’s why activists in Britain attempted to recreate the kind of Black Lives Matter protests that rocked the US in the summer of 2020, in a country where an armed police officer is as rare a thing as a well-socialized opinion columnist. The protest was a potent combination of very American in style and anti-American in substance. That’s why it went viral and then global.
Has the US become too large and too easy a target? Europeans have a long history of bashing Americans. The Yank, in European culture, is often portrayed as being a fat-assed philistine — a cruel stereotype that Americans match with their image of Europeans as being bird-chested snobs. Painting ‘culture wars’ and ‘identity politics’ as uncouth American inventions is just a remix of a familiar theme.
Macron and his ministers can justifiably complain about their treatment in the liberal American press, where crackdowns on Islamists are ludicrously portrayed as being inexplicably hostile as if Jihadis have not painted French sidewalks in blood. Still, one has to laugh at the irony of the US being charged with being a hotbed of anti-Western leftism by, of all people, the president of France.
As Antoine Traisnel writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the postcolonial writings of Cesaire and Fanon contributed heavily to the development of the ideas that are now bunched together beneath the term ‘social justice’. It was Sartre, perhaps the greatest icon of modern French philosophy, who wrote in his preface to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth that ‘strangers’ are ‘a different man; of higher quality’. More broadly, as Gavin Mortimer has pointed out in these pages, the so-called ‘French Theory’ was an essential influence on the mania for deconstruction in American academic life. To cover the influence of French intellectuals, for better and worse, on the higher echelons of US letters — taking in Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Beauvoir, Baudrillard et cetera — would make for a book big enough to beat a man to death with.
As for Brits like me, well, there is the faint whiff of hypocrisy hanging around our arguments about subversive American influences. We have been just as guilty of surfing the culture war tide. From Christopher Hitchens and Alexander Cockburn to John Oliver and Milo Yiannopoulos, there has been no shortage of ideologues with English accents making inflammatory arguments about American politics. Throw in Piers Morgan, James Corden and the Duke of Sussex and you could argue that President Trump, if he were serious about combating political correctness, should have looked across the Pond rather trying to build wall with Mexico.
The material facts of Western European societies also make it difficult to argue that ‘culture wars’ and ‘identity politics’ are American imports. Much of US politics exists in the shadow of slavery, but much of European politics exists in the shadow of imperialism. It was not American social scientists who enabled the development of les banlieues — ethnically balkanized metropolitan poverty traps which are sporadically shaken by violence. Nor can Britain claim that it had cheerful and harmonious race relations before American ideas drifted across the Atlantic. From Brixton to Bradford to Tottenham, it has had its own history of demographic discord. American memes might provide inspiration and opportunity but they have not created division out of nothing.
Finally, it is unfair to blame the US entirely for the negative consequences of Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. It is also unfair to blame the Chinese for the baneful results of TikTok. Europe has struggled to create its own online infrastructure, and if it dislikes that of other countries it is under no obligation to give it a home.
It is right and just for Europeans to be concerned about the influence of American culture on European life. At its worst it flattens Western politics, as if all of our nations have the same dilemmas and disputes, and injects them with a dose of hot progressive grievance.
But the US can be at least something of a scapegoat — far enough away that it is ill-placed to respond and big enough to be blamed. It is absurd for Macron to suggest that French egalitarianism could be functioning much more smoothly without dangerous foreign influences, and it would be as ridiculous for Britons to think all our post-imperial trends have been guided by those brash American upstarts. ‘When America sneezes, the world catches a cold,’ they say. True enough, but surely then the world needs a better immune system?