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Mad About Us

In the view of many Germans, the U.S. is now post-Weimar. A letter from Europe.

By 5.11.04

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I recently hosted Bianca Jagger for a debate in Berlin. (More about her in a moment.) We convened in a back room at Max Moritz, a smoky pub in Kreutzberg, a neighborhood in Berlin known mostly for Turkish guest workers and left-wing anarchists. Crossing swords with Bianca was Gen. (ret.) Joerg Schoenbohm, the center-right interior minister from the nearby state of Brandenburg. The issue: "Human Rights -- Victim in the War on Terror?" Joerg Lau, the culture editor of the weekly Die Zeit, rounded off the panel. The room was packed. Diplomats, think tankers, students, taxi drivers, and locals sipped on their beer and peppered the speakers with questions.

Now, I had wanted to discuss subjects like whether we are turning a blind eye on Chechnya. Or what about Qaddafi's Libya? Or the president's commitment to democracy in the Middle East? This isn't what the audience had in mind. A gentleman who works for German television provided the most crowd-pleasing question. Herr Niles wanted to know why no one seems concerned with the absence of political debate in George W. Bush's America, where a chilling conformity and group think has taken hold. Herr Niles evidently missed the 9-11 Commission and Dick Clarke's testimony in late March. Or bestsellers like Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them; Molly Irvin's Bushwhacked; David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush; Eric Alterman's The Book on Bush: How George W. (Mis)leads America. Or for that matter the writings of Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd, Susan Sontag, and a few other brave dissenters. Ah, that stifling politburo in Washington. Poor Paul O'Neill, silenced in Siberia.

Herr Niles, alas, was pushing an idea that has become very popular in Europe. An American expat sent me a note recently, fretting about the growth of totalitarianism in the U.S. I had a German tell me in a letter that her son, who is now studying in the U.S., experiences an atmosphere so repressive that it cannot hold a candle to what the Stasi did in old East Germany. I'm not kidding. Educated people really say these things and apparently believe them. A senior foreign ministry official here in Berlin got into trouble last year when colleagues leaked to the press that he had referred to the U.S. in an in-house meeting as a "police state."

BACK TO BIANCA. I LIKE her. I worked with her on Bosnia and Kosovo (when we were on the same side). I admired her courage when she stood up to Serbs, Clintonites, and Bush Realpolitik which held that the U.S. did not have a dog in those fights. She kicked the hell out of the European Union when the feckless Europeans failed to act. And praised us Americans when we did. That was then.

Now Bianca was taking the side of Herr Niles. The audience swooned and I considered, not for the first time, the real character of this indiscriminate America bashing. It's like what Michael Moore dishes up -- comfort food for people who want to feel good about feeling bad toward America. Droves of Europeans seem to be craving this junk. A writer for the German weekly Der Spiegel told me during the Iraq debate not to take offense at the crude anti-American covers of the magazine such as the ugly, bearded, drooling Rambo figure it used to show the typical GI in Iraq. "We're just trying to please our million readers," he explained.

People lap it up and an army of teachers, editors, politicians, and writers keep delivering the goods. Last year, French scholar Emmanuel Todd stood atop bestseller lists and toured the continent as the king of the interview shows. His book, The American Empire: An Obituary (the U.S. edition is entitled After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order), is best described as something between warmed up Paul Kennedy and Michael Moore with footnotes. This stuff keeps coming.

Noam Chomsky's book, Power and Terror, is quoted here these days. It reads like a mix of Soviet-era Pravda commentary of Soviet times and a PLO communiqué. One of my recent personal favorites, Schwarzbuch USA -- "The Black Book USA" -- is a 497-page catalogue of America's crimes throughout history. Charts, factoids, and statistics tell the reader that the inside jacket was not spoofing when it noted that Eric Frey, the book's Austrian author, is an established scholar, who once studied at Princeton.

Frey's chapter titles tell the story: "The Genocide Against Indians"; "Blood, Lies and Dominos -- the Vietnam War"; "Whites Have It Better"; "The Land of the Executioner -- the Popularity of the Death Penalty"; "Bushonomics -- Politics as a Self-Service Shop for the Wealthy"; "The New Witchhunt: The Campaign Against Smokers"; "One Nation Under God -- Bigotry and the Puritans"; "Parasite of the World Economy."

IT DOES NOT end here. Elmar Thevessen, a recent Washington correspondent for ZDF German television -- the more conservative German network! -- has now dipped his own oar in the water with The Bush Report: How the U.S. President Betrayed his Country and the World. Okay, nothing new you say. True, check the footnotes and you'll find illuminating works like The Emergence of the Fascist American Theocratic State, which the author recommends as a "pamphlet easy to find in an Internet search." There is deep and profound analysis such as: "The Bush Doctrine…can be summarized in two words: preemptive and unilateral"; or before September 11th, the President did nothing but "play golf and fish." Even Dick Clarke hasn't claimed that.

But I've saved the best for last. When Elmar Thevessen was living in Washington he had a neighbor named Byron York, who worked for The American Spectator, "a weekly [sic] magazine with extreme right-wing views." Byron York "was actually quite nice," the author concedes, "although we only talked about the garden and the weather." Sounds like Mr. Thevessen may have been operating under cover. TAS workers and readers: Do you know who your neighbors are?

Jeffrey Gedmin is director of the Aspen Institute Berlin. His Letter From Europe appears each month in The American Spectator. This excerpt appears in its May issue.

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Jeffrey Gedmin is director of the Aspen Institute Berlin.