Adam Ash

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Thursday, December 29, 2005

This Brit dude is fed-up with anti-Americanism: hey, come and live in the US, boyo, if you want to taste the real thing

From Fashionable anti-Americanism — by Dominic Hilton
The United States is burdened with the pains, frustrations, and hatreds of the rest of the world. Ignorant and unfair, says Dominic Hilton, in a scathing and witty critique of a disabling obsession.

The United States of America is on a hiding to nothing. In the conspiratorial alleys of the “Arab Street”, Uncle Sam is flogged like a habitual adulterer. In the bars and cafés of Europe, Yankee Doodle is lashed like a mutinous sailor. Even in the privacy of his own backyard, Brother Jonathan is grilled like a jumbo dog.

Ritual condemnation of the USA has been la tendance du jour since the Mayflower hauled anchor at Plymouth in 1620. But mankind has advanced some over the past four centuries: nowadays, taking pot-shots at the United States is a booming multi-billion dollar industry, and one my bank manager is keen I invest in.

Regrettably, however, I can’t indulge in the unceasing chorus of Yank-bashing. My financial balance suffers for it, but I’m what’s known in intellectual circles as an “ Americaphile ”. I told this to an American pal who’d taken shore leave on a recent trip past Europe. “Oh, so you’re the one,” he grinned.

His story is important. A pleasant chap – polite, open-minded, affable and adorably moral – he’d nevertheless found it hard to ignore the clear anti-American sentiment swilling around the old continent like the contents of an open sewer. In Paris, he explained, waiters had served him swiftly and attentively – a sure sign they’d identified him as an American pig and been keen to see the back of him.

I listened to his sad tale, then told him to quit worrying. While undeniably profuse these days, I said, anti-Americanism is not as alarming as many Americans are making out. Much of it is not serious. In fact, I qualified, most America-thumping is pathetically hypocritical, embarrassingly imbecilic, perilously ruinous and, worst of all, as derisorily fashionable as those ludicrous woolly boots everyone’s presently sporting. “But the world hates me and my nation!” he cried in response. “Fahgedaboudit,” I shrugged, in a hopeless attempt at a New York accent that nobody was buying.

Still, despite the best efforts of myself, most of Washington, and the entire populace of the Midwestern states, the fact remains it’s difficult for Americans not to notice how they’re the subject of global derision. Most of us would find that kind of thing hard to handle. We’d start to worry about ourselves and feel painfully conscious of our shortcomings. We’d look in the mirror, analysing, criticising, assessing and judging. We might consider therapy, confessional. We’d be reborn and either guest on Oprah or volunteer on Karl Rove’s staff.

Since 9/11, America has been aware of and concerned about the amount of anti-Americanism inside and outside its borders. Some of this has been caricatured, some of it earnestly analysed. Interest goes right to the top. “Why do they hate us?” President George W Bush asked Congress two weeks after 9/11. His administration splashes out $68 million per annum on “ Al-hurra ”, an Arabic satellite station which aims to tell “the truth about the values of the policies of the United States” to middle eastern couch potatoes. It was Bush who hired the legendary Madison Avenue advertising guru Charlotte Beers to market his nation to the Muslim world. She quit after eighteen months.

Some of this is understandable. It’s also understandable that “Why do they hate us?” has limits. In a Newsweek article, Fareed Zakaria expressed concern that with his lofty second inaugural address , Bush had ripened the opportunity for America’s critics to charge his nation with hypocrisy for the cavernous gap between its high ideals and its not-so-pure actions. But when Bush declared “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one,” he was also telling the world how (with some noteworthy exceptions) the charge of American hypocrisy might lose legitimacy. The speech combined time-honoured American idealism with a smidgen of “put up or shut up”. Two birds with one stone. “Will you give us a break?” the president was saying. “We’re doing our best here. Cut us some slack, why don’t you?”

Quite right. It would be futile for America to respond in a soul-searching manner to the trash talk of its detractors. Why? Because most of the time, it’s not America’s fault the world so condemns it. It’s not that America does everything right. America is imperfect, thank God. Its commitment to (and achievement of) imperfection is arguably its greatest feat. For this, we should love it. Criticism remains entirely valid. If America makes a bonehead move – something it does as well as most of us – we should jeer and blow raspberries. Though this is not what we do. The industry of anti-American sentiment is just that – an industry. It should not be mistaken for legitimate and considered concern. “I hate America” is the world’s default position. Knocking America is a form of displacement. It helps non-Americans avoid focusing on their own big problems. In fact, strip it of its lacy hosiery and the world’s relationship with America is disgustingly Freudian.

Threats and fads

First, let’s distinguish between different types of anti-Americanism. Thomas Friedman put it well on one of his columns: “for Europeans, anti-Americanism is a hobby. For too many in the Muslim world it has become a career.” In other words, anti-Americanism that breeds terrorism and tyranny is a big, big problem. But anti-Americanism that falls into the category of “indulgent fad” is generally immaterial. Except this is not quite true, is it? Friedman missed something. For more and more Europeans, and more and more Americans, anti-Americanism is an ever more profitable career path. It is very material.

So let’s rework this: anti-Americanism that breeds terrorism and tyranny is a major problem for us all and one the United States of America must fully address; anti-Americanism that doesn’t result in suicide missions is not America’s problem, it’s the problem of its moron perpetrators – though it benefits nobody good. Non-Americans that find comfort in blaming America for all the world’s ills – poverty, war, environmental destruction, the death of high culture, their own pitiful inadequacies – suffer for such fatuous bunkum. Their own houses rot as they drone on at dinner parties and terrorist camps about American “crimes against humanity”. The rhetoric of Osama bin Laden is curiously similar to that of Harold Pinter (though notably less profane). Pinter, I hazard a guess, is less dangerous.

They are all morons, but the difference is that America can and should ignore the dinner guests. They pose no threat. Especially not an intellectual one. The philosophy of “damn you if you do, damn you if you don’t” is not worthy of serious contemplation. Insularly isolationist or intensely imperial, America is castigated for both, often by the same people. This is what’s technically known as a no-win situation. “The illogicality at base consists in reproaching the United States for some shortcoming, and then for its opposite,” writes Jean-Francois Revel in his aptly-titled Anti-Americanism. “Here is a convincing sign that we are in the presence, not of rational analysis, but of obsession.”

Many of those who say America does not live up to its own ideals and rhetoric would surely be the first to protest if it did. If America invades and “liberates” Iraq, they say, it should also invade and liberate North Korea, Burma, China, Zimbabwe, etcetera. I’d love to see their reaction if America took up the challenge. Yes, America talks a good game – but this should be celebrated, and, yes, held to account. As it stands, though, whether the “indispensable nation”, the “universal country”, the “last, best hope”, the “shining city upon a hill”, the “global policeman”, the “lone superduperpower”, the “empire in denial” or Jefferson’s “empire of liberty”, the US plays the traditional lead role of the world’s whipping-boy. We might suppose this is inevitable. C’est le prix du pouvoir (as Jacques Chirac might put it).

American booty

America does not want to be charged with hypocrisy by hypocrites. By definition, however, it always will be. In all its guises, anti-Americanism is an infatuation and an excuse. Anti-Americanism is “the dog ate my homework” of international relations.

“Power is fascinating … But being fascinating is also power,” says Timothy Garton Ash in his new book Free World . Fair point. But fascination quickly spills into fixation.

“At least part of the Western left – or rather the Western far left – is now so anti-American, or so anti-Bush, that it actually prefers authoritarian or totalitarian leaders to any government that would be friendly to the United States,” writes Anne Applebaum in the Washington Post. “Many of the same people who would refuse to condemn a dictator who is anti-American cannot bring themselves to admire democrats who admire, or at least don’t hate, the United States.”

Applebaum is on to something. This goes beyond Saddam apologia. It’s getting into the realm of anti-democracy. To some, democratic movements are only legitimate if also anti-American. Ukrainians in Independence Square were pro-American, not pro-Castro. Must’ve been a CIA plot.

In a sweeping commentary for Commentary magazine entitled “Americanism – and Its Enemies”, David Gelernter suggested “Americanism” is a religion and that “anti-Americanism is closely associated with anti-Christianism and anti-Semitism … America has remained an object of hatred within nations that have themselves gone over to American-style democracy; has been hated by people who had nothing whatsoever to fear from American power.”
Actually, it’s worse than that. America has remained an object of hatred from those who directly gain from American generosity. Some of America’s most sour critics preach their gospels in America’s palatial universities. A highly desirable standard of living is endowed on those who make their living attacking America’s highly desirable standard of living. Ditto its liberty.

“Since the end of the cold war, anti-Americanism has overtaken soccer as the world’s most popular sport,” Tom Friedman writes in Longitudes and Attitudes. “And there is this general assumption in intellectual circles that America is to be blamed first for whatever happens, and a given that American intellectuals will play along and accept this role as the world’s punching bag. And when you refuse to do this in mixed company, it’s as if you unleashed a huge fart at a cocktail party – people look at you funny and just start to back away.”

American cool

But it’s not just the left-leaning intellectual class that’s guilty of rank hypocrisy in its attitude towards Uncle Sam. It’d be comforting to think so, but you don’t have to wear elbow pads on your corduroy jacket to participate in this orgy of anti-American infantilism. The kids are at it too.

As 2004 faded into history, the Financial Times ran a feature under the headline “Tarnished image: is the world falling out of love with US brands?”

“Poll after poll has shown that allegations of human rights abuses and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq have tarnished the international reputation of the US,” the article reckoned, worrying aloud about a “subtle tarnishing of brands in the minds of millions of ordinary consumers.” Joseph Nye , of Harvard and “soft power” fame, offered his wisdom: “US brands have benefited from a sense that it is fashionable, chic and modern to be American. The other side of that coin is when US policies become unpopular, there is a cost.”

A net incline in Abu Ghraib scandals = A net decline in Pepsi sales? Impossible to measure, even with the advent of Mecca Cola . Besides, “It is more a subject of debate between intellectuals than something that is hampering the development of these brands with consumers,” says Maurice Levy, chief executive of the marketing group Publicis . But subheads like “Cool would come from Tokyo rather than LA” are not entirely bullshit. Cool is important. The most popular is never the coolest. America has become like a manufactured pop band. Kids go for thrash metal.

Though hang on, where did thrash metal originate? America’s diversity, its sheer vastness, makes life hard for its opponents. The land of Disney is the land of Easy Rider. The home of televangelists is the home of hip-hop. America is “cool” – even in its failings. The bad trip that was the Vietnam war was replayed in a succession of überhip purple haze movies like Apocalypse Now! The Deerhunter, Rambo, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Born on the Fourth of July, and TV shows like Tour of Duty with its Rolling Stones soundtrack.

My generation grew up with these movies, the Sheen-Duvall-Hopper-Brando-DeNiro-Walken- Stallone-Sheen-Defoe-Berenger-Cruise out-of-control American soldier with a bandanna, an ironic peace tattoo on their helmet – wild-eyed boys in the fug of drugs. We pretended these were negative images of an out-of-control America. Nonsense. To my generation, these movies were an updated confirmation of American cool. How cool to burn villages, to collect skulls, to play Russian roulette, to rape and pillage your way across the jungle to the psychedelic strains of Jim Morrison, then return home and be messed-up about what you done out in ‘Nam – or what, ahem, you were made to do. These movies were so very, very American.

In essence, what we are witnessing is a pseudo-rejection of the USA. All this “I hate America as much as you hate America!” baloney is a cultural phenomenon, little to do with any meaningful or cultivated sense of “politics”. Across Europe, gigantic music stores stuffed to the gunwales with American pop, rock and urban do a sideline in hipster books. Virtually without exception these dazzling paperback digests are rabidly anti-American (Why do we hate America?), anti-Bush/anti-American (The Bush-haters’ handbook), anti-globalisation/anti-American (American Dream/Global Nightmare), anti-American culture/anti-American (Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World).

For the most part adorned with colourful depictions of the universally attractive symbols of Americana, the covers tell a story of their own: as beacon or pariah, America sells. Here lies the reading choice of today’s youth, of societies most cool, and these cash-in volumes are horribly high in the sales charts. It’s not just the dreadlocked, nose-ringed student-acolytes who pack the theatres to hear the nasal drone of the world’s Noam Chomskys, it’s the kids who lap up American culture, obese and spotty from a diet of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, baggily clad in Nike, Gap and Levi’s, plugged into their iPods digitally replete with Eminem or 50 Cent. These are the kids whose street cred relies on their miserable detestation of the shallow, candied, military behemoth that is the USA.

Unlike back in ‘68, “I hate America” is now “organised”. Not organised in the leftist sense, I mean organised in the Ben and Jerry’s sense. Attractively-packaged, nice tasting, creamy, chocolaty, cookie-dough anti-Americanism that clogs the arteries and numbs the brain.

Fashion trumps sophistication. America’s insignia are ubiquitous – from Ralph Lauren jumpers to Primal Scream album covers to the end of a flaming match in the Arab Street, looking modish even when being burned . I’ve seen kids on TV in Osama bin Laden t-shirts and New York Yankees’ baseball caps (Hello? You don’t see the irony?). I’ve watched young British men in the nondescript north-of-London town of Luton clad in “New York” sweatshirts holding up banners of the extremist Islamic group al-Muhajiroun.

Our rebels are American. So are our anti-Americans. Michael Moore is one of America’s biggest exports. America makes anti-Americanism profitable for America. What a country!

Ideals and piggybacks

Now, even I admit there’s something a little fishy at times about America’s claim to moral exceptionality. When Gelenter writes about Americans being “positive that their nation is superior to all others – morally superior, closer to God,” I can only think of Hegel’s conviction that 1830s Prussia was the perfect and ultimate achievement of mankind, and how this applesauce led to Marxism.

Nevertheless, there’s something too easy about knocking the believer. America is going to say and think big things about itself. Look at its history, and then understand that the United States is a nation, and acts as such – in its own interests and with a powerful identity. In his response to Bush’s second inaugural, the American commentator David Brooks identified “this weird intermingling of high ideals with gross materialism” which so defines his country. In the spirit of Washington and Kennedy, the president waxed lyrical on mankind’s highest ideals. Later that evening, “drunken, loud and privileged twentysomethings” carried each other piggyback down K Street.

“The people who detest America take a look at this odd conjunction and assume the materialistic America is the real America; the ideals are a sham,” Brooks wrote. “The real America, they insist, is the money-grubbing, resource-wasting, TV-drenched, unreflective bimbo of the earth. The high-toned language, the anti-Americans say, is just a cover for the quest for oil, or the desire for riches, dominion and war. But of course they’ve got it exactly backward. It’s the ideals that are real.”

The ideals are real. Not because they are America’s, but because they are ideals and they are the right ideals. Those who don’t revel in extremism, dictatorship and political stagnation have to decide whose camp they want to be in. Does Europe really feel more allied to communist China than conservative America? The European Union and China share “a convergence of views about the United States, its foreign policy and its global behaviour,” says David Shambaugh of George Washington University. This should send a shudder down the spine of democrats. Who truly wants to believe the late Susan Sontag and her assertion that America is “a doomed country … founded on a genocide”? Get over yourself. I’m sticking with my stateside compadre John Hulsman , who believes “there is little doubt we have all benefited from the ‘naïve’ optimism that has enabled America to do amazing things not just for itself, but also for all mankind.”

Into the mirror

Anti-Americanism, when not perpetrated by true haters, is often a stale mockery of America, born of our own fascination. This is our (the world’s) problem, not America’s. Jean-Francois Revel suggests that we “project our faults onto America so as to absolve ourselves”. As he says of his native France, and Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin say of the last four hundred years, some of this “Hating America” is born of fear, some of plain old weakness, some of outright jealousy. The left, in particular, is green with envy. 20th-century Communism only served to augment belief in the American Dream. “The success of America was thus a devastating blow to the Left,” writes Michael Ledeen . “It wasn’t supposed to happen. And American success was particularly galling because it came at the expense of Europe itself, and of the embodiment of the Left’s most utopian dream: the Soviet Union.”

But some leftists are getting tired of it. The narrative of left-wing anti-Americanism “has ceased to be critical, but become predestinarian,” says John Lloyd. Such stasis serves nobody except the tyrants, the terrorists, and the unoriginal, knee-jerk loudmouths who cash in on the fashionability of the flaming Spangled Banner (categorised by Barry Rubin as “self-interest”).

Even Americans are caught up in this silly love-hate relationship. “How can you have patience for people who claim they love America but clearly can’t stand Americans?”, Annette Bening’s flag-burning power-woman asks the eponymous Michael Douglas in Aaron Sorkin and Rob Reiner’s eco-friendly, anti-gun liberal dream The American President. Same question, the other way round, from rightwing firebrand Ann Coulter: a recent explosion was hilariously titled “Liberals love America like O.J. loved Nicole”.

This is all a little daft. After the fascistic and communistic horrors of the 20th century, we are bloody lucky to live in a world led by the United States in which the central geopolitical questions are “Should we spread liberty and democracy? And if so, how far?” We should ride our luck a little, before we run it out. “[America’s] interaction with the rest of the world must be a conversation, not a monologue,” says the new US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. That goes both ways. In Asia, “consumers are increasingly indifferent to US brands and are paying great attention to Asian trends and products,” reports the Financial Times . The rest of the world should swallow a spoonful of this medicine. When President Bush declares how, “In a world moving towards liberty, we are determined to show the meaning and promise of liberty,” we should let him get on with it, and try dusting off our own promises.

America is not the panacea, nor is it the devil. Our problems are generally our problems. The world would do well to be a little more like America, a tad more insular, self-involved.

Non-Americans love to quote John Kennedy’s famous call, “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Why? It is the second part of Kennedy’s couplet we should heed and let roll off our tongues: “My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” This still stands. And freedom, like charity, discipline and intelligence, begins at home.


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