From its inception, America and its core values of freedom and self-determination have been the object of an almost continuous assault by European intellectuals.
From degeneration - the theory that living in the New World creates increasingly inferior species - to relativism and deconstruction, European theories have not only betrayed a particular disdain for America, they also often develop out of this disdain.
In "Reconstructing America," University of Virginia political scientist James Ceasar traces the history of this attack - initially exclusively European but now popular among the American left as well - and offers a spirited response. On the very first page, he writes that "it is time to take America back." From whom? "[T]he literary critics, philosophers, and self-styled postmodern thinkers who have made the very name 'America' a symbol for that which is grotesque, obscene, monstrous, stultifying, stunted, leveling, deadening, deracinating, deforming, rootless, uncultured, and - always in quotation marks - 'free.' "
Mr. Ceaser points out that although America-bashers far outnumber defenders in intellectual circles, the country is fortunate in that it has a tool with which to defend itself, political science - the quest for "the factors that maintain and destroy different systems and orders." Implicit in this definition is the idea that individuals can affect those systems. Europe's America-bashers, in contrast, traditionally have been historicists, who believe in the inevitability of historical events, and the inability of rational actors to change them.
In response to the European critics, America has had a trio of esteemed defenders, one in each of the last three centuries, who employed political science in support of the American idea. Publius, the pseudonym for the three authors of the Federalist papers (Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay), made the case for political science in the 18th century. Mr. Ceasar contrasts the U.S. Constitution to the French Constitution, which, as Margaret Thatcher has pointed out, has to be shelved in libraries in the periodical section. The American model, needless to say, is safely ensconced with the longer-lasting volumes.
In the 19th century, Europeans favored racialist theories assailing the folly of America's creating a system that did not follow the principles of racial hierarchy. Alexis de Tocqueville, in his "Democracy in America," rejected racialism, which he saw as nothing more than an attempt to justify unjustifiable systems such as slavery. In describing what he called "a new political science for a new world," Tocqueville also portrayed America as an open, pluralistic nation, one that could accommodate various races and nationalities within a workable system.
In the 20th century, German refugee Leo Strauss took up the cause of American greatness. Strauss, who praised the American system as the culmination of the ideas of Athens and Jerusalem, or reason and revelation, took on a whole new stream of anti-American theories. It may sound premature or even odd to place Strauss alongside the far better known work of Publius and Tocqueville, but Mr. Ceasar makes a good case for doing so.
Strauss faced even more insidious enemies - such as decon-structionism and relativism - than Tocqueville and Publius. These theories began to have real-world political consequences. For example, one outgrowth of relativism was Martin Heidegger's "equivalency thesis," which lumped America together with the Soviet Union, preventing the drawing of moral distinctions between them.
Strauss refused to accept this idea, or, indeed, any form of moral relativism. He trained a whole generation of scholars, in academia and out, to make the case for American superiority. Strauss and his disciples, by refuting the relativism that led to the equivalency thesis, thus played a vital role in winning the Cold War.
Although it may seem strange that America's leading defenders have tended to be of European origin, this may be because only Europeans can understand the true dangers of anti-Americanism. Americans themselves remain somewhat oblivious to the din of America-bashing that can get muffled on its way across the ocean. It is only when they visit Europe, see the French refuse to let American planes use their bases for raids on Libya, or, increasingly, when they take literature classes at elite institutions, that Americans begin to wonder why European intellectuals do not like them.
This European distaste for the United States is especially mystifying to Americans when they consider how many times in this century American intervention saved Europe from tyranny. Americans figure, understandably, that this might make Europeans grateful to America. As Mr. Ceasar explains, this is not the case.
Europeans have been condescending toward America for upwards of two centuries, and they do not appear to be stopping now. In this challenging but rewarding book, Mr. Ceasar provides Americans with the tools to start fighting back.