We all have our political preferences. According to Professor Steven Pinker, those preferences are largely genetic in origin, and therefore pretty much immune to fundamental change. Even when a person switches party allegiance, his broad outlook remains the same. Winston Churchill went from being a romantic Tory imperialist to being a romantic Whig imperialist (and back again). These shifts of loyalty amount to very little more than what a British novelist has called “strolling from east to west on the deck of a north-bound ship.” If, by the time you reach age 30, you have settled into the conviction that Henry Kissinger is a war criminal, or Bill Clinton a traitor, you will almost certainly take that conviction with you to the grave.
None of which means that we should not listen to the other person’s point of view. I myself, though pretty much a straight-ticket conservative, will sometimes, when I find myself at a loose end in a public library, or when browsing the Internet while putting off some unwelcome task, read a Maureen Dowd Op-Ed, or an article from one of the liberal magazines. I regard these explorations as a sort of intellectual duty, in fact — all part of an opinion journalist’s responsibility to keep his finger on the pulse of the nation, which in fairness should include The Nation. One does not want to sink into complacency.
I therefore approached The Eagle’s Shadow in a spirit of earnest inquiry. Here is a lefty writer, with a stack of books to his name (I am sorry to say I had not read any of them before picking up this one), setting out to tell us, in the words of this book’s subtitle: “Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World.” All right, why does she? The answer to the first part of the question is pretty obvious: it’s our wealth, our power, and the appeal of our popular culture. The second part is more problematical, and has been the object of much head-scratching among the punditry since September 2001. What is it about us that makes them so mad? Why do so many foreigners hate us — some of them, it seems, all the time, and perhaps all of them some of the time?
Mark Hertsgaard has the answer to this conundrum. We are hated, he says, because we are not Sweden. At home, insufficiently redistributionist taxation and welfare policies result in great disparities of wealth. Abroad, we arrogantly and obstinately decline to go along with the international consensus, willfully refusing to ratify such obviously progressive and humane agreements as the Kyoto Protocol on “global warming” and the International Criminal Court. We even — gasp! — withdraw from treaties when they do not suit us. We abjured the Anti-Ballistic Missile, treaty, for example, in pursuit of some preposterous and obviously unworkable plan for “missile defense.” We are not good world citizens.
I suppose one could develop a cogent, systematic explanation of “Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World” from these premises. Sweden is, after all, quite a nice country (though, oddly, not half as much troubled as we are by desperate legions of people wishing to enter it). An explanation along those lines would not appeal to me very much, but I think something interesting might be made of it. Mr. Hertsgaard, however, has not really attempted this. Instead, he has used chance remarks by people he has met in foreign places as a framework for some boilerplate lefty ranting about topics that are, in many cases, only very thinly connected to what foreigners think about us. The Florida vote-counting chaos, for example, that marred the 2000 presidential election, is very galling to Mr. Hertsgaard because of the way it turned out. He gives us ten full pages on it. Does he really think, though, that the minutiae of dimpled chads and butterfly ballots are of any interest to people in Britain or Beijing? I have relatives in both places, and I can assure him that this is not so.
And with the best will in the world — well, perhaps not the best, but starting from an open-minded approach to this book, at any rate — I must say, this is dull stuff. It has been an article of faith on the political Right for as long as I can remember that it is we who have all the original ideas, that nobody on the Left has said anything interesting since Adlai Stevenson passed from the scene. I should like not to believe that, in the interest of good vigorous debate, but every page, every paragraph of The Eagle’s Shadow confirms it. It would be hard to think of a threadbare lefty cliché that the author does not deploy, often more than once. One can’t help wondering why Farrar, Straus & Giroux bothered to engage Mr. Hertsgaard. Wouldn’t it have been cheaper to just bind up a stack of old Anthony Lewis columns?
And so: The U.S.A. is “a society plagued by racism.” We are a nation in which “women today still do not enjoy economic parity.” We are operating “the mightiest empire in history.” “Our enthusiasm for the death penalty … baffles many, especially in Europe.” “Blacks and Hispanics are imprisoned … at much higher rates than their population size would suggest.” Reagan was a moral criminal for supporting apartheid in South Africa. (Though Nelson Mandela is a saint for supporting Castro’s far crueller dictatorship in Cuba.) The U.S.-supported Chilean coup of 1973 was a case of “international terrorism” — just like the assaults of last September 11, with which it even shares a date! (Louis Farrakhan, call your office.) Missile defense is a “mirage.” Et cetera, et cetera, et interminable cetera. All right, I confess, I did not finish the book. The human stomach can only take so much.
Anyone who cares to inquire can find these hoary old saws tackled in hundreds of carefully-researched books, or in magazines like National Review, or on the Op-Ed pages of newspapers like this one. I have neither the space nor the inclination to take them on here. Well, just one perhaps, by way of illustration. Support for the death penalty in Europe is very little lower than in the U.S., and in some East European countries is actually higher. As Joshua Micah Marshall has pointed out: “Europeans crave executions almost as much as their American counterparts. It’s just that their politicians don’t listen to them. In other words, if these countries’ political cultures are morally superior to America’s, it is because they are less democratic.” That, of course, is Mr. Hertsgaard’s real beef: this clamorous, colorful, unfinished, unruly nation is just too darned democratic.