When a man as distinguished as Patrice Higonnet professor of history at Harvard, a leading scholar of France and the French Revolution writes a book as bad as "Attendant Cruelties" (Other Press, 378 pages, $25.95), it is more than a shame, it is a symptom. What drove Mr. Higonnet to range so far from his professional pasture as to write this brief history of America? It was not any great expertise in the subject; the bulk of the book is a sketchy and conventional chronicle, assembled from secondary sources, and containing no facts or interpretations that will surprise any reader who paid attention in his or her 11th-grade U.S. History class. It was not any deep historical insight; for Mr. Higonnet's method is not to explain our history so much as to assign grades to its leading actors, depending on how well they suit his present-minded criteria of "inclusion" and "exclusion," enlightened "patriotism" and iniquitous "nationalism."
No, the reason why "Attendant Cruelties" got written is much simpler: It is Mr. Higonnet's overpowering hatred of President Bush. How, Mr. Higonnet keeps asking, did the country in which he has lived for decades the country that he admires as "open-minded, welcoming, at the forefront of nearly everything, and, in so many ways, the freest country in the world" twice elect as president a man whom he regards as evil incarnate? This is not an exaggeration. In the course of his book, Mr. Higonnet compares the president not just to Hitler "We can understand him better if we understand what came before him. ... Hitler was a madman, but even he did not become chancellor of the German Reich just because he was a madman" but also to Stalin: "What Stalinism was to utopian communism, Bushism is to the American creed."
With the illogicality of malice, Mr. Higonnet characterizes Mr. Bush as simultaneously incompetent and omnipotent, feckless and relentless, the bully of his advisers and the dupe of his advisers. Reckoning the sum of these contradictions tells us nothing about Mr. Bush or about America, but it tells us a great deal about the passionate, self-delighting, deeply irresponsible hatred that now prevails even among the most prestigious and best educated precincts of the Left. It is a book that Mr. Higonnet's sympathizers will read with vigorous nods, and everyone else will read with despairing shakes of the head.
The argument of Mr. Higonnet's book, such as it is, can be quickly summarized. America, he writes with an air of having made a great discovery, has done good things in its long history, but it has also done bad things. This by itself would not seem to distinguish America from any other country for instance, from France, which is Mr. Higonnet's constant point of reference. (Although "Attendant Cruelties" was apparently written in English, it is really intended for a French audience: Both its frequent reference to French figures and events, and its general lack of inwardness with American history, suggest that its ideal reader lives in Paris.)
But America's failures and crimes, to Mr. Higonnet as to most conscientious Americans, seem worse than those of other nations, precisely because America has always held itself to a higher standard. Our promise of democracy was painfully slow of fulfillment. Freedom for white men went along with the inexpiable sin of slavery, with the genocide of the Native Americans, and with economic and social oppression toward women, immigrants, and minorities. The twinship of good and evil in American history is the great American theme not just for historians, but for novelists and poets and philosophers.
Mr. Higonnet, however, has no new light to shed on this darkness. As he recites the familiar chapters of the American story the Constitution and the Civil War, Progressivism and the New Deal he never penetrates even the topmost layers of the mystery. Instead, he continually resorts to a banal formula: "Americans, as individuals and as a people, have frequently moved from nation to nationalism without real understanding." This is shallow enough, but it quickly becomes clear that even generalities like "nation" and "nationalism" or Mr. Higonnet's favorite alternatives, "inclusion" and "exclusion" are not being employed in any concrete sense. They are vague, slippery terms, which can be used with equal justice on both sides of every question. Was the American decision to annex the Philippines an example of nationalism a desire to increase our power and prestige or universalism a desire to spread the blessings of republican government around the world? Was the Senate's refusal to accede to the League of Nations, a decision that Mr. Higonnet deplores, a case of vicious exclusiveness a cynical indifference to the interests of mankind or of virtuous patriotism a refusal to tarnish America with the sins of Europe?
In neither case is it helpful to view American history in Mr. Higonnet's Manichean terms. It is the inextricability of good and evil that makes American history so tragic and so moving; and this ancient knot will not yield to Mr. Higonnet's crude separation of sheep and goats. For what really drives his judgments, it becomes clear, is not any true vision of America's best self; it is the proximity or distance of America to the ideals of the contemporary European left. When America acts like a centralized, statist, internationalist social democracy, Mr. Higonnet approves; when it does not, he does not.
The same French perspective helps to explain why Mr. Higonnet's survey of American history tends to reduce itself to a series of judgments on American presidents. He hands out gold stars and dunce caps to Jackson and Lincoln, Wilson and Roosevelt, as though they were solely responsible for the movement of American history during their terms of office as if they were monarchs like Louis XIV and Napoleon, or monarch-presidents like De Gaulle. Jackson, he writes, was "irascible and forever angry" thus, he inflicted the Trail of Tears on the Cherokee. Franklin Roosevelt was "deeply self-centered" thus, he failed to advance from the New Deal to true socialism.
That these men had to deal with congresses and courts and states with parties and unions and corporations in short, with a democracy, seems invisible to Mr. Higonnet. As in a grail legend, the virtue of the leader means happiness for the country, and vice versa.
The vice versa, of course, comes to the fore in Mr. Higonnet's description of the current president. Indeed, the whole analytical framework of "Attendant Cruelties" with its vision of the president as the weight that turns the scales of American history for good or evil seems designed to give maximum scope for his indictment of Mr Bush. Now, it is obvious that the current administration is open to severe and justified criticism on almost every issue. (You only need to listen to the presidential primary debates, Democratic or Republican, to see how universal that criticism has become.) But the particular kind of criticism that Mr. Higonnet advances is perhaps the most odious and least convincing of all, managing to combine the worst features of the a priori and the ad hominem. You come away from "Attendant Cruelties" knowing nothing new about the Bush Administration, except the fact that Patrice Higonnet hates it very, very much.
To see how poisonous and blinkered Mr. Higonnet's hatred can be, just look at this partial list of the remarks he throws off in passing:
"The presence of African Americans in high offices of Bush's entourage is a highly ambiguous sign, and one has to wonder in dismay about what drove Secretary of State Colin Powell at the United Nations so diligently to echo his master's voice." With any other president, the fact that the most powerful offices of state are occupied by blacks would be seen for the sign of racial progress that it is. Because the president is George W. Bush, Mr. Higonnet feels justified in using outrageously offensive and condescending language, in which the American Cabinet becomes a king's or gangster's "entourage," and Secretary of State Powell is effectively turned into the slave of his "master." The racism here on display would be obvious even to Mr. Higonnet if it were not coming from the left.
"Once Americans had put to death and in the most ghastly way tens of thousands of unarmed civilians in a country that was already on its knees [by dropping the atomic bomb on Japan], every other abuse becomes feasible as well: the massacres of civilians in Korea and Vietnam, Agent Orange, Guantanamo." Around 200,000 people were killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki; between 1 million and 2 million Vietnamese died in the Vietnam War. As of last November, there were 435 prisoners at Guantanamo. Does Mr. Higonnet really think that what America is doing at Guantanamo, legally and ethically troubling as it is, can be compared to the dropping of the atomic bomb? Or does it necessarily become a world-historical atrocity because it happened on President Bush's watch? Precisely because the administration's policy on detainees does need informed, vigilant criticism, Mr. Higonnet's wild rhetoric is worse than useless.
"It was likewise from some deep instinct that George W. Bush seized on the idea of a War on Terror' in order to realize his dream of a softly fascistic America." Did the "War on Terror" materialize out of thin air, or did the murder of 3,000 Americans during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, make some sort of response necessary? Is America today a fascist country, soft or otherwise? Do fascist regimes allow books like "Attendant Cruelties" to be published? The left's readiness to call its political opponents fascists is a sign of its intellectual and moral bankruptcy, no less than was the right's readiness, in the 1950s, to demonize all liberals as communists.
"We speak of the Jewish fundamentalism of Bibi Netanyahu, of the Muslim fundamentalism of Osama bin Laden, and of the Christian fundamentalism of George W. Bush" Actually, we don't. Mr. bin Laden is a religious fanatic whose goal is the imposition of sharia law on the globe through violence. Perhaps it is only ignorance that leads Mr. Higonnet to think that being an evangelical Christian, such as Mr. Bush, is the same thing as being a fundamentalist Christian. But only malice can explain his pretense of believing that the President of the United States is equivalent to the head of a terrorist organization, or that the principles of the Bush Administration have anything in common with those of Al Qaeda.
Then there's Mr. Netanyahu to consider. Again, Mr. Higonnet is possibly just ignorant when he calls Mr. Netanyahu, a secular politician who does not even cover his head, a "Jewish fundamentalist." Perhaps he does not understand the difference between Likud and Kach. But then you find Mr. Higonnet writing that Israel is "the tail that in foreign policy inexplicably wags the American dog" this in the context of a defense of Iran's nuclear ambition, which is merely "a desire to achieve atomic self-defense against the United States." And that "a related factor in the determination of Bush's imperialist policies is the subterranean work of the so-called Jewish lobby." And that "the presence in high governmental circles of the neoconservatives whose sensibility often replicates that of the pro-Israeli lobby" constitutes a "cabal." And that this cabal draws inspiration from Leo Strauss, whose thought "replicated many of the ideas of its exact opposite, namely the thought of Sayyid Qutb, the first theoretician of fervent Islamism. In both cases, opponents and their ideology were not merely to be neutralized but to be eliminated." In short, you find Mr. Higonnet recycling all the quasi-anti-Semitic conspiracy theories now common on the left, right down to the stubbornly popular meme that compares Strauss to Qutb an absurdity that no one who has read either of them could possibly endorse.
Mr. Higonnet should know, better than most, that this talk of a Jewish "cabal" that secretly runs America is a direct descendant of the anti-Dreyfusard myth of a Jewish "Syndicate" that ran France. I do not think that Mr. Higonnet is an anti-Semite; I am sure he would reject the charge, and I am sure that he would be right do so. But that makes it all the more troubling that Mr. Higonnet's hatred for Mr. Bush can act like an intellectual black hole, drawing toward it every charge, every exaggeration, and every sophistry that might conceivably damage his nemesis. "Attendant Cruelties" is the kind of book that, in a decade or two, will be read only as evidence of how deeply the intellect can be degraded by political malice.