Sunday, October 10, 2004

Americans Are Naïve, Yes…

…but not in the way that they — and especially Europeans — generally believe…

As the squandered sympathy posting on Transatlantic Intelligencer points out, American naïveté should be assimilated not to the alleged personal failings that Europeans feel necessitate criticism (preferably as loudly as possible), but rather to the fact that Americans are prone to take that criticism at face value, assuming that the detractors are honest and decent people and that their loud disapproval stems from honest, more or less objective, observation (rather than self-serving auto-congratulation).

This American naïveté — the real type — applies to common citizens of the USA as well as America's journalists. See what John Rosenthal has to say about the New York Times' reporting on Le Monde:
… the legend of the squandered sympathy draws much of its inspiration and seeming plausibility from the headline of the front-page editorial that ran in Le Monde the day after the attacks: “We Are All Americans”. An article that appeared in the New York Times one year later made allusion to this seemingly well-intended, if rather bizarre, affirmation, only then to note that “the same writer” who coined it, Jean-Marie Colombani, had in the meanwhile ascertained that the solidarity it was supposed to express had been largely dissipated. It even seemed to Mr. Colombani that just a year on “we have all become anti-American” (New York Times, September 12, 2002). [I.e., before the Iraq war was even decided upon!]

Various factors were offered to explain this remarkable and remarkably universal change of heart, all of which have since gained pride of place in the standard version of the legend. … some weeks later (October 2, 2002), Thomas Friedman published an op-ed piece in which he describes putting in a personal call to Alain Frachon, who Friedman incorrectly identifies as “the senior editor” of Le Monde, in order to find out first-hand “how his paper was viewing America”. Confirming his own perspicacity, Friedman was able to report that solicitude for America was indeed yielding to hostility and that even the “columnist” who penned the “all Americans” article now only considered himself American some of the time. …

Since attention was first called to it in the Times, the title of Colombani’s post-9/11 editorial has been widely cited in the rest of the American media and on the Internet. Its content, however, has been largely ignored. … Thus are legends born. For the solidarity ostentatiously displayed in the title of Colombani’s editorial is in fact massively belied by the details of the text itself. By the fifth paragraph, for example, Colombani is offering his general reflections on the geo-political conditions which he supposes provoked the attacks …
… It was likewise in the pages of Le Monde, and again just one week after the attacks, that the fevered suspicions which would later propel the success of lunatic left best-sellers on both sides of the Atlantic first found their way into print: No, the attacks were not merely a comprehensible, perhaps then even legitimate, response to US domination around the world. The attacks were in fact the work of “the Americans” — the ubiquitous Americans — themselves! In an op-ed piece titled “I Don’t Feel American”, one Marie-José Mondzain of France’s prestigious National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) offered up a delirious brew of truths, half-truths, confusions, and pure fantasies, all seemingly conspiring, by way of some dizzying logical leaps, toward the conclusion that the U.S. government had itself sponsored the hijackers. …

In this connection as well, incidentally, the New York Times managed to miss the story, even indeed obscure it, while ostensibly reporting the story. The Times mentioned Mme. Mondzain’s piece in an article published on September 22 under the title “In Europe, Some Critics Say the Attacks Stemmed From American Failings”. It neglected, however, to note that the gist of Mme. Mondzain’s piece was not that the attacks “stemmed from American failings”, but that, in effect, America did it. Whether this was the result of mere incompetence or a conscious editorial decision to shield American sensibilities from the extremes of French fury, only the reporter and his editor can know for sure [my emphasis]. But it should be noted that the Times piece also misidentifies Mondzain … Such lapses suggest that the New York Times’s reporters lack the requisite linguistic skills and/or cultural familiarity to report accurately even on a country as generally accessible to Americans as France – a possibility which should give us profound cause to pause concerning the accuracy of their dispatches from more exotic venues. And where real knowledge is lacking, ideological "intuitions" can no doubt be expected to fill the void. …

…The conduits by which these European phantasms have in the intervening years managed to infiltrate the political debate in the US as well is a subject deserving attention in its own right.