On Received Ideas | City Journal

Twenty years: that’s how long it took Gustave Flaubert to note and classify the approximately 1,000 definitions, aphorisms, and quotations that make up his Dictionary of Received Ideas. The unfinished work appeared long after his death. But is a dictionary ever finished? We should recall that he wrote in a century ravaged by epidemics, international wars, and the revolt of the Paris Commune. Violence, political as well as natural, then seemed the normal order of life.

Flaubert’s dictionary was a collection of foolishness—foolishness common among the bourgeoisie he loathed. How is it that, in every age, so many, at any given moment, think the same way? Are false ideas spread in the atmosphere of the time? No doubt they have the advantage of being comforting: most people care little whether the received idea is actually true, as long as it fills the need for an explanation of the world and, especially, does not require seeking any further.

A good contemporary illustration of the opposition between a received idea and rationality or science can be found in the debate, or absence thereof, over a “climate emergency.” The received idea consists in announcing loudly: “Science says.” But science, by definition, says nothing; there are only scientists, who argue among themselves. Reality is opposed to received ideas and to fashionable opinion. The person who repeats received ideas lives in an alternative world, with an alternative truth, one widely shared and thus reassuring.

The philosopher Harry Frankfurt, in a remarkable book published in 2005, On Bullshit, has explained in what sense the meaning of “bullshit” goes even beyond Flaubert’s received ideas: today’s world idealizes relativism and sincerity. If everything is relative, then no absolute remains, and thus my truth is equivalent to any other. This is not so, because there are indeed things that are demonstrably true and things that are absolutely false. But this radical distinction is covered over by today’s fashions. Sincerity, in turn, is so respected that it is sometimes held to be higher than knowledge—another fashionable trend. I will add to Frankfurt’s reasons the near-disappearance of religious belief: If God does not exist, who will punish bullshit? It is even possible to imagine bullshit, like fake news, taking the place of faith in satisfying the irresistible need to believe.

My own effort, in a recent book, to compose Mon dictionnaire du Bullshit, emphasizing a French context, could be reproached for offering my received ideas in the place of others. Maybe so, but the conflict of ideas, even received ones, is better than uniformity of thought. Here I offer a few entries, in alphabetical order, which might also be of interest to American readers.

Anti-Americanism is an early entry. The posture is extremely comfortable for Europeans, especially the French, and it carries no risk of retaliation; it has spread widely for two centuries and bears no relation to the real America. It is, then, a received idea in its pure state.

In its origins, the anti-American tendency brought together families of thought that are, in principle, contradictory: on the right, it is driven by hatred of democracy; on the left, by hatred of economic reality; in the center, by jealousy. But all these are united by the same hostility toward an imaginary America: the United States as a screen upon which the anti-American projects his unhappiness.

Early in the nineteenth century, a form of anti-Americanism was already emerging, initially on the Catholic right, stimulated by the success of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Tocqueville expressed reservations about the United States and its excessive democracy, which, he thought, would destroy traditional liberties; a conservative criticism was unleashed against him, all the same, for being too positive about America overall. “Americans are a people of ignorant shopkeepers and narrow-minded manufacturers who can claim no work of art over the whole surface of their vast continent that was not left to them by some pre-Christian tribe,” wrote Philippe Buchez, a Catholic critic of Tocqueville, in 1835.

These first anti-Americans took aim at the voluntarist character of a nation that had the audacity to invent itself; Catholic tracts attributed this artificial, nonorganic quality of the United States to its Protestantism and to a supposed Protestant pretension to remake the world. This reactionary strain would later find an immensely popular expression in Georges Duhamel’s 1930s bestseller Scènes de la vie future. In this work, the author denounced the mechanization of American society, the negation of the true culture that is supposed to be rooted par excellence in the old customs of the French. Duhamel went so far as to find the legs of Americans too perfect, as if “mass produced.”

This anti-American Right, from its beginnings to our day, sees in the United States a vision of the French or European future—despised because it is too democratic and too modern. Traces of this hostility can be found in the works of, say, Philippe Sollers or of Régis Debray, nostalgic for the old Europe, shaped more by time than by men. For Debray, a tireless inquisitor of the United States, there is Civilization (the title of one of his recent books) on one side and, on the other, America.

On the left, anti-Americanism is traditionally associated with other fantasies: hatred of capitalism and of billionaires, of which America is taken to be the breeding ground. The fact that socialism and Communism have never succeeded in affecting American optimism and individualism renders the United States particularly unbearable to Marxists.

Between these two essential strains, it remains to situate the anti-Americanism of the state—of the French governmental elites, that is, who fear the loss of their cultural, linguistic, and diplomatic authority: the anti-Americanism of power. Since the days of Talleyrand, exiled in Philadelphia from 1794 to 1796, French leaders have been haunted by the American rise in power. Talleyrand regretted France’s contribution to the independence of this “mercantile people, without aristocracy and without culture”; “no conversations,” he wrote, and no gastronomy, “except roast beef and potatoes” at every meal—two centuries before McDonald’s. The same disdain shows up again nearly 140 years later, under the pen of Paul Claudel, poet and ambassador to Washington. He complained that at every official meal, one was served only chicken and cold water (the gourmet poet was unlucky to find himself in America during Prohibition). This diplomatic anti-Americanism descends down to General Charles de Gaulle, who tried in vain to situate France as the arbiter between the United States and Russia.

But anti-Americanism, in all these forms, so long central to French thought, has today become peripheral; the cause, surely, is familiarity with the real America. As millions of French citizens discover the United States as tourists, and often go to reside there, they recognize how much Americans are like themselves: divided by democracy, by money, by capitalism, and by cultures, which there collide even more than they do in France. More rarely now, one encounters some last hiccups of the classic anti-Americanism—for example, the denunciation of American puritanism, of which the #MeToo movement is taken to be a militant expression. That is the view of Catherine Millet, a pornographic author, and actress Catherine Deneuve, who has defended French-style courtly love against the harsh sexual regime that purportedly rules in the United States. America remains the last screen upon which are projected the last fantasies—before the film ends.

“The French retain an idyllic vision of colonization: the Republic is seen as bringing civilization to Africa.”

What really killed anti-Americanism, then, was cheap travel and perhaps the fact that, during the Trump presidency especially, many Americans became more critical of their own country than even the French.

A second entry: colonialism. In an act of remarkable audacity, on December 22, 2019, in Abidjan, French president Emmanuel Macron declared that France’s colonization of Africa was a “mistake” committed by the Republic, “a profound error,” and a “crime against humanity.” In France, his words went barely noticed. In principle, a crime against humanity would require a trial comparable with that of Nuremberg, if more retrospective. But this won’t happen, doubtless because the French retain an idyllic vision of colonization, still taught in schools: the French Republic is seen as bringing civilization and the French language to the African continent—and this without the spirit of lucre that motivated the horrible British, who wanted only to get rich on the backs of conquered peoples in Africa or India. The British opened trading posts; the French, schools.

This myth endures: there exists no exhaustive history of colonization shared by Africans and the French. The received opinion is that, apart from Algeria, where time was needed for the French to recognize that decolonization was a war, decolonization in Africa proceeded with as much civility as colonization itself. What, then, of the Madagascan leaders demanding independence who, in 1947, were loaded onto French military airplanes and thrown alive into the ocean? Who in France has heard of the 1898 tragedy in Dankori—the massacre by a French expedition of the Senegalese army that resisted the invasion and the destruction of all the villages that stood in their way? The French rightly remember the Nazis’ destruction of the town of Oradour-sur-Glane in 1944 but know nothing of a similar French crime in Senegal. The guilty officers were tried in Paris but acquitted; they were said to have contracted some “Soudan fever,” a local disease that (the claim went) impaired their judgment. Serge Moati made a film about this, Captain of the Darkness, which went unnoticed, since it undermined the fancy of France’s civilizing mission and the childlike passivity of Africans.

Dankori was not an isolated war crime of which Macron has suddenly reminded us. How, then, do we explain the fact that it was almost never spoken of, whether on the French side or on the African? No doubt it was necessary for several generations to pass; since African leaders went to French schools and were collaborators rather than part of a resistance, they could not plausibly denounce the French. But now the younger generation, such as those who shouted down Macron during a comparable speech at Ouagadougou in 2017, owe nothing to French colonizers; when they invoke the past, they have nothing to lose. They do not even consider studying in France, as their parents and grandparents did; now it is the United States that attracts them because there, they will not be asked condescendingly where they come from. To be black in America is common, as noted by Souleymane Bachir Diagne, who taught in Dakar before becoming a professor of French literature at Columbia University in New York. In France, by contrast, Africans remain “negroes,” associated with the former Empire.

Colonization was a horror, and decolonization remains unfinished. In Nantes, a port city in western France, a memorial of repentance, dedicated to the slavery to which the city owed its fortune, has been dedicated. How long can repentance for colonialism be deferred? Or, if the word “repentance” is deplored, “memorial” will do. The French should consider that, if there is no revision of colonial history, then, in 20 years, no African leader will speak French, but instead Wolof, Arab, or English.

Since no one reads Hegel anymore—and it was he who created the formulation in 1806—we mention the “End of History” these days only in connection with the American political theorist Francis Fukuyama. In a famous 1989 article published under this title in the United States, and then in a book that further develops the theme, Fukuyama appeared as a kind of prophet: the fall of the Berlin Wall, which coincided with its publication, announced that the history of political evolution had concluded, with democratic capitalism the victor. But meantime, history resumed, and Fukuyama’s theory is now commonly cited with derision. This is a mistake: Fukuyama was actually right. But we had misread him, just as we had earlier misread Hegel.

Both Hegel and Fukuyama tell us that history has meaning, which remains to be shown, and that ideas govern the world, which annoyed Marx and later the Marxists. Fukuyama observes that contemporary history can be summed up as the confrontation between two ideas—socialism and capitalism—and that, after 1989, only one of these ideas remains viable: this is the End of History, as envisioned by Hegel. All societies are heretofore proceeding toward the same endpoint. More precisely, all try to do so but not at the same speed, and not all will make it there, Fukuyama says. But among the ideologies currently available, there no longer exists an alternative endpoint, or else these alternatives are situated beyond this world, such as the Islamist caliphate, which, moreover, has no universal value, since Islamism is valid only for Muslims. Still, Fukuyama did not exclude the possibility that, in some unforeseeable future, human passions would generate alternative utopias that would put history back on its tracks.

From whatever point of view the End of History thesis is examined, however, it is currently irrefutable; what is surprising is that it remains so contested. It is history’s losers who object to it: those on the right who dislike capitalism because it is materialist and associated with America; and those on the left who deplore the disappearance of the socialist utopia that was so attractive, as long as it was not put into practice.

It’s worth noting, too, that Fukuyama never claimed that the End of History would be all rosy. Between the realists who “won” and the “deniers” of this reality, the fight would go on—as it has.

Equality, our next entry, sometimes seems to have become the sole object of politics—all the more desirable because it does not exist in the natural state. The way we think about it is another form of foolishness.

The French, Tocqueville wrote, wished for equality, above all, along with freedom, if possible—but under oppression, if necessary. Democratic societies have never been more egalitarian but seemingly not enough to suit voters: the debate between the Right and the Left is often reduced to how best to limit inequalities. Traditionally, the Left strives to do this through fiscal redistribution, or even wealth confiscation. On the right, investment in economic growth is preferred, with the hope that a rising tide will lift all boats.

Yet inequalities are no longer mainly financial. Real capital has become cultural. This is what socialists fail to see, as witnessed by economist Thomas Piketty’s famous work, Capital in the Twentieth Century. Accusing the market economy of leading naturally to the accumulation of wealth, Piketty concludes that heavy taxation of capital at the global level is needed for real redistribution. Assuming that this is feasible (which it isn’t) and that Piketty’s statistics are correct (they are contested) and that this taxation of wealth would not penalize investment and growth, one might consider that the author ignores the character of modern inequality, since he makes no allusion to the social capital of individuals: the accumulated reproduction of knowledge, information, and networks appropriate to contemporary economies. Social capital is by far the most productive kind, since it makes it possible to acquire wealth and to adapt to a changing world; it is also a form of capital transmissible without being taxed.

The proof of this transmission of social capital can be seen in admissions to France’s prestigious grandes écoles: students at the top management school, the École National d’Administration, for example, are children of students of these, or equivalent, schools, such as the École Polytechnique or the École Normal Supérieure. The reproduction of elites as described by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu 40 years ago has accelerated considerably. This is the real inequality sensed by so many today.

It’s no accident that the French gilet jaunes protesters revolted against the graduates of elite schools: they had guessed right in their egalitarian demands. But how is cultural and social capital actually constituted? It starts in earliest childhood: inequalities begin to emerge in the first three years of life. Deficits can be made up, to some degree, with the help of the right pedagogies; but by then, we are already into damage-control mode. If Bourdieu was right, then preschool from the youngest age possible is the best answer to the desire for equality.

But will our equality-obsessed societies be satisfied with progress toward equality deferred to distant future generations? It is unlikely. Thus, the Left remains committed to old forms of redistributive taxation, while some supporters of free markets are coming around to the concept of a government-provided universal basic income.

Received opinion deems whatever goes wrong these days “neoliberal.” But just what is “neoliberalism”? In American political debate, the term now generally connotes globalization and free markets. An idea of Anglo-Saxon origins that arose in the late 1970s in the United States, neoliberalism was essentially the work of two University of Chicago economists: Milton Friedman and Gary Becker.

Both believed that human behavior could be analyzed as if it conformed to utilitarian calculation. “I do not say that all human beings are rational,” Becker told me, “but that they behave, collectively, as if they were.” Starting from this theory, it was supposed to be possible, by adopting the rules of the market, and by adjusting prices, taxes, and regulations, to move toward the best possible society—one with greater wealth and less crime, for example. Becker’s work helped lead the American criminal-justice system to increase penalties for crime, which may have reduced the crime rate; the cost of crime became too high for the perpetrator, who then preferred to give up criminal activity. According to Friedman, restriction of the state and the rule of the market would increase “freedom of choice.” Free-market economists, he said, do not seek directly to produce happiness, but markets increase freedom of choice (of consumption but also of ways of life and of education), which may, perhaps, contribute to happiness.

This approach was to exert a determining influence on the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Germany during the early 1980s—and in France, too, as witnessed by the privatization of companies, the lowering of corporate tax rates, and the adoption of Europe’s single currency. All were of neoliberal inspiration.

American neoliberalism is distinct from French liberalism, which, traditionally, has been more political than economic. French liberal theorists, from Montesquieu to Bertrand to Jouvenel to Raymond Aron, were, above all, political thinkers, haunted by the totalitarian threat, whether of religious or partisan origin. There is not a sentence about economics in Tocqueville, and Aron is preoccupied with the Soviet menace, not with the market economy. Thus, the vociferous warnings of French antiliberals are attacks on something that hardly exists in their country. Among developed nations, the French economy remains the most under state control, so it’s hard to say what these ravages of neoliberalism are supposed to be, since it has barely affected us. Cite a French neoliberal? I don’t know of any.

In fact, the French went straight from classical liberalism, both political and moral, to a kind of post-liberalism or critical liberalism. I would define post-liberalism as an attempt to enrich classical liberal thought. It retains foundations in personal responsibility and the subsidiary role of the state but adds a readiness to consider what classical liberals and neoliberals have tended to neglect: the passion for identity, the desire for equality, and transnational threats such as global warming. French post-liberals advocate a universal basic income, mandatory public education from the age of two, a carbon tax, and personal-property rights in data gathered from social networks. Further, post-liberalism acknowledges that human beings are not necessarily rational actors and that true rationality requires taking the passions into account.

Here was a surprise: Ronald Reagan—about whom the French (and not only them) express many trite, contemptuous thoughts—often thought for himself and wrote his own speeches. You can consult his manuscripts at Stanford, written in a broad hand, black ink on yellow legal pads. Having read these speeches closely and written the preface to the French edition collecting them, I note that they are built around three simple, recurrent ideas: entrepreneurial freedom is good, the Soviet Union is bad, and the United States is terrific. Reagan’s idealized America was conservative, based on traditional values, work, family, and religion. (He was himself divorced, but no matter.)

Since American conservatism is a political style unknown in France, people did not understand that Reagan was in favor of immigration. The French Left, when they did address Reagan’s immigrant-friendly policy, did so in terms of the interests of those who used cheap immigrant agricultural labor in California, the state where Reagan was for eight years governor: Mexicans were needed to pick strawberries. This reductive explanation misses the fact that Reagan was not the lackey of capitalists but a true believer, the bearer of what I once called in a book the “conservative American revolution.” Was it coincidence or causality that this ideology, shared by the immense majority of voters—his reelection in 1984 was an unprecedented triumph—restored the U.S. economy and won the Cold War?

“Reagan was a true believer, the bearer of what I once called the ‘conservative American revolution.’”

True, Reagan had the good fortune that the economy was boosted by the emergence of computer technologies and by gigantic increases in productivity and that the Soviet Union was imploding during his presidency—Chernobyl, which revealed the mismanagement of Soviet technology, occurred during Reagan’s tenure. Still, it remains the case that Reaganite ideology itself had measurable effects. Though not himself an intellectual, he listened to those who knew more than he did, including Milton Friedman and other economists active at the University of Chicago and at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, who persuaded him to let interest rates rise in order to heal the American economy from the high inflation destroying all incentives to save and to invest. They also encouraged Reagan to cut taxes, so as to make work more profitable; this, too, proved beneficial for Americans, and then became the golden rule for the world. His military policy, which Europeans saw as adventurous, was successful; he intervened against Soviet attempts to extend their influence, particularly in Central America. On the advice of the “father of the H-bomb,” Edward Teller, Reagan announced the intention to create a shield to protect the United States from nuclear attacks. Whether this “Star Wars” strategy was a dream or technologically possible was unknown at the time, but Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was sufficiently shaken to conclude that the U.S.S.R. could no longer compete with American supremacy.

All this is more or less accepted by American historians and arouses the admiration of American citizens, many of whom see Reagan as one of the best presidents of the twentieth century. But none of this was understood in France. French elites hated Reagan at a time when Paris was ruled by a true intellectual: President François Mitterrand. The French socialist was a literate person, after all, whereas Reagan—quelle horreur!—had been a mediocre actor in bad westerns. But the American people defy intellectuals and love westerns, especially B movies. Those poor souls must lack the sophistication of French elites.

At 10 Downing Street, in 1983, Margaret Thatcher’s collaborators walked around in slippers; the prime minister could not bear the noise of shoes on the floors of her residence. She followed the same rule in her own office. I received a dispensation, but I advanced on tiptoe. Thatcher had little taste for light conversation; having hardly sat down, she asked me abruptly to sum up for her the program of the French opposition, led by Jacques Chirac.

“Thatcherism” was more a temperament than the application of a systematic doctrine. (AP PHOTO)

Chirac had suddenly converted to market-based liberalism, after having long sworn by the authority of the state; liberalism was in the wind, carried by the electoral successes of Thatcher and Reagan. In Paris, on the left, Prime Minister Laurent Fabius had also felt the wind shifting; having to choose between the European Union and socialism, with the assent of Mitterrand, he chose Europe, which, committed to open borders and stable money, was seen as a liberal institution. Seeing that Thatcher was impatient, I emphasized the program of “denationalization” prepared by two Chirac shadow advisors, both entrepreneurs. Thatcher jumped up: “Denationalization . . . denationalization—a very bad word, a negative word; you must be positive and say privatization.” I followed her advice and introduced this neologism into our language, where it remains. Three years later, the French government included a minister of privatization; but since we are talking about France, he was recruited from among the high state bureaucrats, with no private-sector experience.

I retained nothing more from my interview with Thatcher, as I was too fascinated by her lacquered and sculptured hairstyle and by her overly powdered face, white as that of a marquise at Versailles. “Thatcherism” was, in my view, more a temperament than the application of a systematic doctrine. As a way of speaking, though, it can be summed up in one of her famous expressions: “Society does not exist.” By this, she meant that individuals are accountable for their actions, a holdover or rebirth of a Victorian morality that considers the poor responsible for their poverty by their behavior. But Thatcher derived no revolutionary teaching from this way of talking; she never fundamentally challenged the National Health Service, the main political achievement of postwar social democracy, for example. Her popularity had less to do with a so-called ultraliberalism, which was barely applied, than to her transformation into a war leader who took back the Falkland Islands from the Argentinian invaders. It is because of this far-off war, a reaffirmation of the British empire, that she became the Iron Lady. As for privatization—in 1986, Chirac actually proceeded more audaciously than did the British.

We think we know all there is to know about Tocqueville. I will limit myself here, then, in my final entry, to the unknown Tocqueville, the one passionately interested in India. Weakened by tuberculosis, Tocqueville spent his last years preparing for a trip to India that was not to be, but he read everything published on the India of the mid-nineteenth century, mostly British travelogues. Living in internal exile after Napoleon III’s coup d’état, Tocqueville had time on his hands; he took notes and drafted about 100 pages, the substance of which would have been gathered during a trip analogous to the one he had taken to America 20 years earlier. But death intervened, in Cannes, and so we have only a sketch of the unfinished Democracy in India.

Let us consider Tocqueville as a man of his times: at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it seems that free will is on the defensive and that the destiny of human beings is dictated by forces beyond their control. For Hegel, history has a meaning that no one escapes and that leads to the triumph of the bureaucratic state. For Auguste Comte, progress is inevitable. For Darwin, our species results from blind forces that select those by nature best adapted. For Marx, there is no way to avoid either the triumph of capitalism or its ultimate destruction and its replacement by an Eden without social classes or needs.

Tocqueville, too, prophesies. After spending seven months in the United States, he thinks that he has seen the future and concludes that the universalization of the democratic principle is inevitable. But by “democracy,” he means the progress of the equality of conditions, not only that of representative institutions. For Tocqueville, this inevitable democratization was not an unmixed blessing; attached to aristocratic traditions, he sees in them a way of protecting individual freedoms against the rising absolutism of the state and the dictatorship of the majority. But if Tocqueville felt no love for democracy, he knew that it would have to be accommodated and, if possible, its perverse effects limited by laws and the Constitution: he had anticipated modern totalitarian regimes. A man of science, he investigates the profound causes of this democratic dynamic: Is it specific to the Christian West, from which arise the concepts of liberty and equality, or more universal?

The answer lies in India. It was then thought that no civilization was more contrary to the West than India. But Tocqueville is stunned to discover in his reading that India is organized into villages that exercise considerable autonomy and that these are administered by elected councils of five men, the panchayat. Is India democratic, then? If so, humanity’s movement toward democracy, toppling European monarchs as well as maharajas along the way, would be as universal as the laws of history revealed by Hegel, Marx, or Comte.

More than 150 years later, equipped with Tocqueville’s notes, I visited the panchayat that he had wanted to describe. A few remain, though only in the northern part of the country and limited to men, co-opted rather than elected by universal suffrage. These are the assemblies of the wise that regulate local conflicts among peasants; in the big cities, district panchayat are extremely rare. It is doubtful that Tocqueville would have discovered in India what he was looking for to support his theory. If India has indeed become a democracy, at the national as well as the local level, following its independence, this is less due to the influence of the panchayat than that of the British, who exported their institutions.

But what in precolonial India hermetically resisted the Tocquevillian myth of local administration, as well as British parliamentary rites, is a form of individualism found nowhere else. Indian democracy, according to the sociologist Ashis Nandy, himself a great admirer of Tocqueville, will never become totalitarian because “every Indian is a dissident.” No doubt religion contributes to this generalized dissidence: unlike in the monotheistic West, Indians venerate innumerable gods and make new ones every day. Yes, the governing Bharatiya Janata Party is trying to transform Hinduism into a monotheistic religion, with the god Ram at its center: “Ram is stronger than Allah!” can be heard in street demonstrations led by the BJP; but this project is unlikely to transform the Indian soul. It suffices to live in India, even briefly, alongside Indians, to see the pervasive presence of gods and, among Muslims, djinns. Polytheism as a barrier against the totalitarian temptation—this is something that Tocqueville had not envisioned.

Top Photo: Economist Gary Becker, shown receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush, was one of the architects of what the Left today describes as neoliberalism. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)