In a recent review essay, I discussed the future of Europe in the time of Muslim immigration into the Old Continent; but, in this one, I share Régis Debray’s lament for an ancient and culture-rich continent that has been annexed by the “imperial republic” of the United States and reduced to a sad sideshow on the world stage. Through the power of communication, marketing, branding, and an endless array of gadgets, America is re-making Europe in its own image.
A striking example is the roles of the United States and the Soviet Union during the Second World War. One could say that the Soviets gave their lives to defeat Nazi Germany. Some 27 million of them, divided between military and civilian, died, whereas only 405,000 Americans, almost of all them military, lost their lives. A poll conducted in 1945 asked the French which country they think contributed the most to the defeat of Germany. Fifty-five percent credited the Soviets, while 15% gave the credit to the United States. In 2004, the same poll produced results that were practically the reverse. What happened? In 1998, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, a Hollywood movie about American heroism, was released. That’s all it took for memories to be erased and historical facts to be switched.
Movies such as Saving Private Ryan are part of America’s cultural arsenal to refashion European and, indeed, world history and civilization, a fact that Debray, a prolific French intellectual, grimly confesses has already been accomplished. Europe, one might say, is now a large client state of the American imperium. In his book, Civilisation: Comment nous sommes devenus américains (Civilization: How We All Became American), Debray tells us that the traits that used to be distinctly European (thinking, writing, art, the elevation of the spirit over material concerns) have been overshadowed by the exigencies of the here-and-now and the frantic need for access, both of which favor communication across space. Cultures and civilizations need transmission across time, from generation to generation, even millennium to millennium, relying on institutions such as the family, church and school, not shiny objects created in Silicon Valley in the hands of event makers and impression managers.
Naturally, Americanism is an ideology—“primacy of space over time, image over text, and happiness over the tragedy of everyday life (le drame de vivre)”—that dares not speak its name. If Europe values philosophers (with disciples), America prefers celebrities (with fans). The autograph has been replaced by the selfie and Winston Churchill’s V sign by a “thumbs up.” The cult of happiness with its vacuous smiles has turned Americans into cheerleaders for a rampant form of capitalism and a new creed that Debray sums up as “branding+running+fitness.”
It’s too late for Europeans to opt out of this world order. Donald Tusk, the President of the European Union addresses his audience in globish, despite the fact that the only English-speaking founder of the Union has chosen to exit. Speaking English—the lingua franca of our days—passes for a sign of cosmopolitanism, but compare this to the knowledge of the 16th-century Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The latter “addressed God in Spanish, women in Italian, men in French, and his horse in German.” And what of the strange politics that is willing to consider Turkey for membership in the Union, but not Russia, whose culture is, in so many ways, inextricably woven in the life of Europe? The author reminds us that Russian and German were taught more in French schools in 1950 than they are today.
Debray is too well-educated and knowledgeable to fall into the facile trap of essentialism. He knows that both the United States and Europe are too impossibly diverse to be reduced to one or two stereotypes. A lifelong progressive, he values America’s contribution to civil rights and social justice, just as he has little patience for the self-satisfied European unmoved by vital energies blowing from across the pond. His book is more of a lament at what we are willing to give up for the thrill of ephemeral glitz.
Unlike many who think Muslims are an existential threat to Europe, Debray simply doesn’t think that Islam has a real alternative to European civilization. The bloody attacks committed by Muslims benefit from the communications systems favored by the US media; but such attacks, however gruesome, are events designed to terrorize, not to replace. The United States, on the other hand, is the new Rome with a far vaster reach, one that includes the solar system.
There may still be some hope, however minuscule it might be, to survive America’s overpowering dominance. Despite the head-spinning frenzy of presentism, civilizations have a way of enduring through their cuisine, management of time (days of week and hours in a day), and many other subtle ways. There is no allusion in the book to the growing rehabilitation, by both Right and Left, of life in the terroir in France, with its villages, as an antidote to the loneliness of individuals in nation-states. Debray’s solution is to use a mix of accommodation and zealotry in resisting the American behemoth.
It is interesting to note that Civilisation is a salutary reminder that Americans’ continuing obsession with President Trump as the denigrator of American values plays no part in Debray’s overall assessment. On the contrary, Trump appears as a character out of central casting, another typical American who sees the world through his country’s idiosyncratic lenses. For the author, as for other generations of Europeans before him, it is America itself, with its missionary zeal, that is the ultimate threat.