by John Hawkins, September 2006
John Hawkins: Why are Europeans so secular compared to Americans?
Claire Berlinski: American religiosity doesn’t need to be explained; after all, throughout history, in every civilization, people have believed in the supernatural. What needs to be explained is European atheism, which is the aberration-unique in the world and in human history. It has its origins in politics, I think, not metaphysics. Voltaire was of the view that it is not so much the intrinsic power of the argument for atheism that caused people to reject faith, but rather the corruption of the Church, and largely I agree with him. Before the French Revolution, there were no atheists in Europe. Heretics, sure. But atheists? Unheard of.
Political atheism-as opposed to philosophical atheism-emerged from revulsion with the corrupt Catholic Church and the detested Bourbon Monarchy; the two being intimately identified in peoples’ minds, as indeed they were. Une foi, un loi, un roi, as they said, and with two down, a trifecta seemed inevitable. This in turn paved the way for intellectual atheism, represented by such figures as Nietzsche, Marx and Freud-all of whom, by the way, assumed atheism as the starting point rather than endeavoring to prove it. You could ask-why atheism, why then? Why not, say, an anticlerical form of religion? I suspect the answer lies in the linkages between atheism and the scientific revolution-linkages of loose association only; after all, no scientific discovery ever specifically disproved the existence of God. Atheism is the natural correlate to the doctrine of scientific materialism, and clearly atheism gained strength through its identification with the triumphs of science. But it needed a political context to take hold, and only in Europe did it find one. In this sense, the separation of Church and State in the US worked, paradoxically, to the advantage of the Church.
But in another sense, as I argue in my book, the popular view of Europe as a completely secular society is too facile. Anticlerical forms of religion have taken hold. Someone once sent me an article, perhaps in was in the Guardian, about three young women, imbeciles all, who had devoted themselves to radical beliefs: the first to the destruction of capitalism, the second to Islam, and the third to something like an old-fashioned Christian heresy, close in spirit to the Albigensian heresy. There is something going on in Europe, a flourishing of sects, all of which have something in common and that is an absolute, virtually pathological, refusal to profit from experience. Now, why should anyone devote herself to the destruction of capitalism when we know perfectly well, if we know anything at all, that the realistic alternatives are monstrous, inefficient, stupid, brutal and self-defeating? When it comes to anti-capitalism and fruity Christianity, it is quite interesting to think of both as Christian heresies. As official belief has waned in Europe, Christian heresies have come to flourish. Communism, after all, has its roots in certain apostolic teachings about poverty and property; and free love is just what the Church faced in the 12th century and effectively crushed. One can argue-and I do, in my book-that Europe remains what it has always been: a Christian society, one now tormented by heresies.
John Hawkins: In the book, you said that anti-Americanism seemed to be at least in part, a religion substitute for many Europeans. Can you elaborate on that idea?
Claire Berlinski: Certainly. The phenomena to be explained are the irrationality and the ardor of European anti-Americanism. Irrational, because entirely disproportionate to any real faults in American society. Of course America has flaws, and no, it is not lunacy to point them out. But in poll after poll, you see substantial numbers of Europeans, non-trivial numbers, who believe the September 11 attacks were staged, yes, staged, by an oil-hungry American military-industrial complex to justify its imperialist adventures in Iraq. In Germany, 20 percent of the population believes this. In France, a book arguing this case was a galloping bestseller. Now that is bughouse nuts. Totally bats in the belfry. Then the ardor: “My anti-Americanism,” wrote one columnist in the British Telegraph, “has become almost uncontrollable. It has possessed me, like a disease. It rises up in my throat like acid reflux, that fashionable American sickness.” If only we could harness all that outrage and transform it into a non-polluting energy source! You see this kind of thing all the time in the European press. (Meanwhile, if the French, say, wipe out the entire Ivorian air force, do you see protestors on the streets chanting “No blood for cocoa?” What a question.) When you have these two phenomena together-irrationality and this curious passion, this fervor-it seems reasonable to conclude that you are in the presence of something like a cult. So you consider it, sociologically. What role does this ideology serve in the European psyche? One answer: It fulfills many of the roles once played by the Church. It offers a comprehensive-if lunatic-answer to the question, “Why is the world the way it is, and why is there evil in that world?” It provides a devil to excoriate and then to exorcise. There is community and belonging in anti-American activism, ecstasy in protest. Again, a form of Christian heresy, and no more lunatic, surely, than anything the Cathars believed, if also no less.
John Hawkins: How pervasive is anti-Americanism in Europe?
Claire Berlinski: Very, very. See poll numbers above. We see members of the Dutch parliament in hiding, the abrogation of freedom of expression throughout Europe, the rise of right-wing leaders who openly advocate the mass deportation of non-white Europeans, one barely-thwarted terrorist attack after another-and yet, according to the polls, the majority of Europeans consider the United States to be their biggest worry. They’re monomaniacally obsessed with the danger posed to them by Americans and the perfidious cabal of Jews who yank our puppet strings.
John Hawkins: A lot of people like to play down the differences between America and Europe, but it has become clear that there is a huge cultural & political gap between us on a wide variety of issues. Why do you believe we’ve grown so far apart or have we always been split like this and just haven’t really noticed because our cooperation during the Cold War masked the differences?
Claire Berlinski: The divide has always been there-European anti-Americanism is as old as America itself. It tends to flare up and then die down, flaring up generally at times of European insecurity. Certainly, since the end of the Cold War Europe has really come into its own, and unfortunately, Europe’s own is historically rather an unattractive thing. If young Germans are now seen muttering darkly about how they deplore American militarism-a sentiment, I am persuaded, that represents nothing more than their own stifled longing to switch on the tank’s ignition and thrill once again to the low deep rumble of its engine-it is certainly nothing new; Germans have complained for a very long time of these things. If we heard less of this during the Cold War, yes, of course it was because the alternative to our militarism was the hammer and sickle; this kind of choice does seem to sober people up.
John Hawkins: Do you think Americans should regard France as an enemy nation? Why or why not?
Claire Berlinski: Oh no, of course not. An enemy nation? Like North Korea? It’s not widely appreciated that we actually receive excellent counter-terrorism cooperation from the French. Their anti-terror officials are brutal as hell and twice as ruthless, too, so this is quite useful to us. No, France is not an ally, precisely, but neither it is an enemy. Ask me again in 75 years, when France will be the first Islamic nuclear power in Europe. Then we may have a real problem on our hands.
John Hawkins: Here’s a quote from the book: “Indeed, it is perfectly conceivable that Britain could, like France, become a quasi-hostile power within one election.” Why do you say this?
Claire Berlinski: Here’s another quote from the book: “Traditionally, Britain’s anti-American elites have been vocal, but they have generally been marginalized as chattering donkeys: They have never been able to exert sufficient influence to unravel the Anglo-American alliance. There are now, however, some two million Moslem immigrants in Britain, and more worshipers at Britain’s mosques each week than at the Church of England. These immigrants form a highly visible and powerful anti-American vanguard and voting bloc, and their sentiments are particularly hostile toward America. According to a December 2002 poll commissioned by The Guardian – a newspaper anything but prone to anti-Islamic hysteria – 13 percent of British Moslems approved of the September 11 attacks. Another fifteen percent declared themselves unsure. More than half refused to believe al Qaeda had been responsible, and more than two-thirds believed the United States had declared war on Islam. Following September 11, British schoolchildren of Pakistani origin cheered and punched the air.
“Anti-Americanism has by this route escaped its circumscribed association with Britain’s privileged pseudo-sophisticates, permeated Britain’s underclass and its working class, and become inextricably conflated with a raw strain of racial and religious resentment. As a consequence, the Anglo-American alliance is far more vulnerable than most Americans realize.”
John Hawkins: There’s a lot of talk about anti-Semitism in Europe. Are the complaints overblown? Realistic? What’s your opinion?
Claire Berlinski: I’m going to forward you, separately, a document I received from a friend of mine in Paris. I’m sorry I don’t have time to do a proper translation, but if you run it through Google translation you will absolutely get the gist. …This document was circulating widely in the Grandes Écoles-the French Ivy League. Read it and tell me if you think the complaints are overblown. Feel free to post the whole thing for your readers. Let them judge for themselves.
(Hawkins note: This email was around 3500 words long. I ran it through a translator and posted some of the lowlights here)
“…The Jews always were afraid of to disappear, this is for that that they colonize all and in all points and do not hesitate to exterminate the other populations (do not forget that according to the Tora, the jewish people reserves itself the right to exterminate all nation that opposes itself to the sionisme). The Jews are therefore as parasites, that do not stop growing as a virus. Si one climbs back up has the second World War, one goes counts that the description of the Jews done by the Nazis and aussidans mein Kampf, is so far reality.
…The wars of the Palestinians were more more more than more justified since one hunted them of their country. But the Jews never respected an alone treated one. It suffices to compare a card of 1948 and an of today to see the difference: Multiplication by 2 of the territories. The international instances and Ben Gourion came to an agreement on borders. It suffices to wonder why Israël present east there where it should not be? this simple question is carrier of sens,Tous simply by this that the Jews did not stop invading the countries being close to, as germany did it during the 2ieme World War. It do not respect nothing since the creation of their State. Worse again, today they do not do anymore wars to invade, it do it slyly, in a silent way. With a political one: colonization. As a virus that one injects to contaminate the whole bodies.
…Political activism must be more more more than more visible, have not anymore fear to pity you, to criticize, see, to be unaware of them: not to sit quoted of a Jew, not to get dressed as them, do not go out with Jews, not to recruit them, not to speak to them etc. ….. Go to the manifs, done to turn this letter for a day justice will be done. They will pay a day or the other their crimes.”
I’ve written about anti-Semitism in Europe at great length-in my recent book and elsewhere-and don’t want to repeat myself here, but I’ll just add this footnote from my book, because I think it’s so revealing. ‘In a poll conducted by researchers at the University of Bielefeld, it was found that 51 percent of Germans believed Israel’s present-day treatment of the Palestinians to be equivalent to the Nazi atrocities against European Jews during the Second World War; 68 percent believed that Israel was waging a “war of extermination” against the Palestinians; 82 percent were angered by Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians; 62 percent were sick of “all this harping on” about German crimes against Jews, and 68 percent found it “annoying” that Germans today were still held to blame for Nazi crimes. In a triumph of understatement, the German pollsters remarked that the findings “may be worrying.”‘
John Hawkins: Have the riots in France and the Cartoon riots had a big impact on European opinion?
Claire Berlinski: Two separate issues. Let’s begin with the cartoons. Directly after the riots began, France Soir carried just a terrific editorial, something to the effect that sure the cartoons were blasphemous and that’s just tough; the Catholic Church claimed very much the same right in France until we took care of that little problem with the Revolution. Great stuff. Long overdue. One day later, the editor was sacked. Throughout Europe, the same thing: displays of backbone followed immediately by the most pusillanimous kind of candy-ass truckling. Jack Straw turned in a particularly lamentable performance. But so did the US State Department.
The riots in France-which ones? The ones four months ago or the ones happening now? No effect at all on public opinion, as far as I can see; no one finds it in any way unusual to see the French taking to the streets; it’s just what the French do.
John Hawkins: When it comes to immigrants, do you think they have more opportunity and face less racism in America or Europe? Why so?
Claire Berlinski: Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely more opportunity and less racism in America. This is such an important point. I noticed this especially during my last visit to the US. Every time I took a taxi, I asked my driver-who was invariably an immigrant-how his experience of coming to America had been. Every single one had an immediate, unforced, positive response. “Americans don’t know how good they have it,” said one guy from Sierra Leone, in a sentiment widely echoed by every immigrant to whom I spoke. To the last! Ask that question anywhere in Europe and you’ll get a very different answer. (For one thing, the driver probably won’t be an immigrant, he’ll be a native Frenchman or German who loathes immigrants with all his being.) I did have a cab driver from Ghana on my way back from the airport when I returned to Paris. “How’s it been for you here?” I asked. His immediate response: dur, dur, dur. Hard, hard, hard. There are many reasons for this, but here are the two most important: first, the vitality and flexibility of the American economy, which promotes upward mobility and thus real hope for anyone who starts at the bottom, as most immigrants do; and second, the longstanding tradition in America of welcoming immigrants and viewing them as fully part of the fabric of American life. America is a country of immigrants; this permeates the culture in thousands of ways, many of them subtle but nonetheless immensely meaningful. Rates of intermarriage, for example. Americans consider immigrants so fully American that they are willing to marry them. Not so in Europe, where rates of intermarriage are much, much lower.
John Hawkins: For the time being, the European public seems to have turned against the idea of creating a “United States of Europe.” Do you think the wishes of the European public will be respected, will they change, or do you think Europe’s elites will push on for a united Europe regardless of what the people want?
Claire Berlinski: They can push all they like, and of course they will, but I doubt they’ll get very far. After all, they lack the one thing that has ever in history succeeded in united disparate ethnic and linguistic groups-overwhelming force. It won’t happen any other way. Had the EU been understood as a formal alliance of nation-states, along the lines of the Dual Alliance or the Three Emperors’ League, it might have had a better chance, but it was intended to be a union, not an alliance.
It’s worth observing German tourists as they enter cafes in Paris. No loud voices, for one thing, unlike the Americans; no one wants to be caught blaring away in German. A constant furtiveness for another. And from the waiters, never an attempt to speak German. English sure; there’s money involved. Italian? Why not. They love those people. But German? Mais non. No waiter alive thinks of the Germans as fellow Europeans and no German thinks of himself as just another tourist. How could EU officials ever imagine that these memories could simply be cancelled or that they would never count? How can anyone in his right mind expect that an EU, with no power to command, could hope to retain the allegiance of its members?
It’s also interesting how much Europeans hate their own elites, especially those sitting on their indolent rumps in Brussels. People just hate being told what to do and how to live by a social class with no moral authority. That’s key, I suspect. The European elite simple has no moral authority. It doesn’t stand for anything. It has no depth of character.
John Hawkins: The subtitle of your book is “Why the Continent’s Crisis Is America’s, Too.” However, most of the big problems Europe has — declining birth rates, rampant secularism, stagnant economic growth because of socialism, difficulty in assimilating immigrants, and mediocre militaries — are issues we really can’t help them with much. So, what do you say to people who believe it’s a bad thing that Europe is in decline, but there’s just nothing much we can do about it?
Claire Berlinski: Well, they’re right. There’s not much we can do about it. But we should certainly diagnose the problem accurately and prepare for a future in which Europe is completely up the spout, with all the obvious ramifications this will have for us, rather than letting it take us by surprise. Oddly, many Americans don’t seem to be aware how grave these issues are, and that includes policy makers. I just got an email from the duty officer at the American consulate warning me to watch out, because al Qaeda might strike in Europe. You know, God love them for trying, but isn’t this a little obvious by now?
Another thing that struck me as I was writing the chapter about Jose Bove is that among the very urgent reasons Americans need to pay attention to what’s going on in Europe is because there is now such a large current of European thought, and European malaise, in American cultural and political life. It’s significant-and no joke-that a clown like Jose Bove has such a large American following. This is only one of the reasons that Americans must pay attention, but it’s quite an important one. The fawning over these European cultural, intellectual and political figures has to end, as does the admiration of social welfare programs that have in fact had catastrophic economic and cultural consequences.
John Hawkins: Can you tell us a little bit about your new book, Menace In Europe: Why the Continent’s Crisis Is America’s, Too.
Claire Berlinski: The book is about the new problems of old Europe, and the old problems of new Europe, and I discuss all of these questions in much greater detail. I’ve lived in Europe most of my adult life and still do. So these are my problems as well. I’ve tried to describe them in personal terms, by telling a set of stories unknown to most Americans, stories that taken together expose a thesis-this continent is darker than it appears. It is in a sense a book of travel writing, but it’s not the customary frothy encomium to European charm. (Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon would be a perfect example of the latter genre, a book with almost no relationship to life as it is really led by ordinary Europeans.)
My aim was not to write an indignant denunciation or a facile parody of Europe, however. Some of what is happening in Europe is admirable, or if not admirable, admirable in intent, and I do try to show this. The problems cannot be reduced to simple slogans and do not admit of simple solutions. But they can be stated, clearly, and illustrated, and that is what I have tried to do.