Twenty-four hours or so after landing in Paris for a five-city tour in search of the new European anti-Americanism, I found myself in one of the coolest places on the planet: a big old ugly hockey arena on the outskirts of town, surrounded by 15,000 people waiting for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band to come onstage. The concert turned out to be a pretty standard Springsteen concert. But it’s always interesting to see him play abroad, and Paris enjoys a special place in Springsteen lore. It was here, back in 1980, that Bruce first talked politics with his fans. Largely self-educated, Springsteen had been given a copy of Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager’s A Short History of the United States. He read it and told the crowd that America “held out a promise and it was a promise that gets broken every day in the most violent way. But it’s a promise that never, ever dies, and it’s always inside of you.”
You can tell a lot about a continent by the way it reacts to Bruce Springsteen. Tonight, at the Bercy Stadium, the typically multigenerational, sold-out Springsteen audience could be from Anytown, USA. Everybody knows all the lyrics, even to the new songs. Toward the end of the evening, Bruce announces, in French, “I wrote this song about the Vietnam War. I want to do it for you tonight for peace,” and 15,000 Parisians, standing in the historic home of cultural anti-Americanism, scream out at the top of their collective lungs, “I was born in the USA,” fists in the air.
You can’t be anti-American if you love Bruce Springsteen. You can criticize America. You can march against America’s actions in the world. You can take issue with the policies of its unelected, unusually aggressive and unthinking Administration, and you can even get annoyed with its ubiquitous cultural and commercial presence in your life. But you can’t be anti-American. George W. Bush is “like a cartoon stereotype” representing “the worst side of the US culture,” Jordi Beleta, 45, told Phil Kuntz of the Wall Street Journal, outside Barcelona’s Palau Sant Jordi two nights after Paris. “Bruce is real. He’s a street man.” A Reuters reporter found a similar story in Berlin: “America can keep Bush but Springsteen can come back here as often as he wants,” said Rumen Milkov, 36.
To be genuinely anti-American, as the Italian political scientist Robert Toscano points out, is to disapprove of the United States “for what it is, rather than what it does.” Bush Administration officials and their supporters in the media would like to confuse this point in order to dismiss or delegitimize widespread concern and anger about the course of US foreign policy. To listen to their words, Europe has become a smoldering caldron of anti-Americanism, in which even our best qualities are held against us by a jealous, frustrated and xenophobic population led by cowardly, pacifistic politicians. The picture painted in the US media is one of almost relentless resentment.
I heard it first about France, where an anti-McDonald’s movement had taken hold, and a xenophobic, neofascist Hitler apologist managed to come in second in a national presidential election. Walk into a French bookstore and you will find titles like Who Is Killing France?, American Totalitarianism, No Thanks Uncle Sam, A Strange Dictatorship. French newspapers are filled with blistering criticism of the US role in the world. Le Monde, for instance, pulled no punches when it recently termed Bush’s Middle East policies “extraordinary, unjust and arrogant.”