The fear and self-loathing in Las Vegas
As shocking to Americans as the events of September 11 2001 was the worldwide wave of anti-American sentiment that followed. By December 2002, an independent opinion research group based in Washington DC had confirmed this phenomenon. The Pew Research Centre’s Global Attitudes survey interviewed 38,000 people across 44 countries. But what exactly does anti-American mean? And is it a useful category for analysis?
Among the British media, it was leftwing commentators who blamed America for what had happened. US intransigence over issues such as global warming and the International Human Rights Tribunal, combined with arrogance in all things cultural, was held to reflect a rapacious, consumerist, imperialist power that had encouraged, so the critics argued, terrorist atrocities.
Less than two days had passed since 9/11 when Seumas Milne first used the term anti-American in his Guardian article “They can’t see why they are hated”. Others soon followed, leading to expressions of outrage from rightwing commentators. The argument has run ever since. Clearly, as Times columnist Mick Hume suggested to a recent University of Oxford Rothermere American Institute conference, “American Culture in Europe”, the debate has been marked by some considerable dishonesty on both sides.
Supporters of US foreign policy seek to dismiss any dissent as being based on anti-American sentiment, while the critics of US intervention around the globe are usually the same people who campaigned for just such action in Bosnia.
Such inherent contradictions are not new. Postwar Britain was infused with an old-fashioned, conservative dislike of American culture. Yet those who disliked what they saw as shallow and vulgar were often the first to slaver over the US’ power and technological might. Today, contempt for soulless American consumerism is more likely to come from the liberal left, but, given the choice between an anti-US placard and their all-elusive green card, it is clear which many would choose. As writer Ziauddin Sardar has pointed out, many Muslims express loathing for America while still aspiring to work for the likes of Microsoft or Citibank.
But a focus on the petites jalousies Europeans have for their transatlantic rivals, or the simultaneous love and hate that others express towards the world’s sole superpower, misses what is new. The greatest problem is the extent to which many Americans concur. US society could be characterised by its loss of self-confidence well before those terrible events. Nowadays, many prejudices about the US seem to come from Americans themselves. In some ways being anti-American has become as American as apple pie.
You don’t need to be in Europe, still less to go to the Middle East, to find a rejection of American values such as ambition, success and experimentation. Americans have been uncomfortable with themselves for some time. In this regard, September 11 acted as a catalyst rather than a trigger. Anti-globalisation protestors in Seattle, many of them American, had long been arguing for the dismantling of the World Trade Organisation before al-Qaida took the wind out of their sails. Indeed, we would do well to recognise quite how western the anti-westernism of the hijackers was.
This had little to do with America itself, but rather expressed a broader dissatisfaction with the world that targeted America as the highest symbol of capitalism. It was informed rather more by Nietzsche than Mohammed.
For many in America, as well as elsewhere, power has become represented as egotism, success as arrogance, freedom as illusory and the desire to defend oneself as the act of a bully. With such confusion at large, it is hard to envisage how the downtrodden of the world will ever liberate themselves. By attacking everything American from McDonald’s to Microsoft, the critics display a rejection of who they are that reaches its apogee in the self-loathing of Oscar-winning Michael Moore’s aptly titled book Stupid White Men.
Neither is such self-hatred and denial a preserve of the liberal left. On the same day as Milne’s piece appeared in The Guardian, Reverend Jerry Falwell, pastor of the 22,000-member Thomas Road Baptist Church of Lynchburg, Virginia, told US TV viewers that it had been the activities of abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians that led God to give Americans “what we deserve”. By comparison, the Bush administration can only talk the talk about American values, for to walk the walk would demand identifying content behind the hollow references to freedom, equality and democracy included in the all-new US National Security Strategy.
America has lost its sense of mission in the world, other than to protect us all from a handful of terrorists. This lack of a wider purpose, born out of the failure of the political projects of both left and right, has allowed self-doubt and confusion to grow. Ironically, by advocating restraint on all fronts, the supposedly leftwing critics reveal themselves to be even more conservative in outlook than George W. Bush. Their rejection of scientific endeavour, economic growth and political debate, combined with the right’s reluctance to fight for these, unites them with the nihilism of the hijackers. It is this lack of direction that has emboldened the likes of French president Jacques Chirac and United Nations secretary-general Koffi Annan to snipe from the sidelines.
At the beginning of November 2001, Chelsea Clinton made her views heard at an anti-war rally in Oxford, where she was studying. Writing later for the US magazine Talk, she explained: “Every day I encounter some sort of anti-American feeling.” But that so many in the one undisputed superpower on earth feel so isolated, threatened and unloved speaks volumes as to where the problem lies. Their introspection was possibly best captured by another series on anti-American sentiment held earlier this year in Oxford.
This student-led initiative was organised by Seth Green, a Marshall scholar at New College and founder of Americans for Informed Democracy.
Attendance at one of his gatherings was a bit like a cultural version of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Students, mostly American, were encouraged to discuss their feelings as a group, as well as ideas such as: “Why do they hate us?”, before reporting back to the main body. Transcripts of the discussions posted on the group’s website invariably concluded: “We believe that the forum promoted international understanding and cooperation” and the like.
Could this more therapeutic “touchy-feely” ethos or confessional-style of discussion that has infested America over the past ten or so years serve to put things straight? I doubt it. While the sentiment behind such initiatives may be admirable, without addressing the fundamental issue of America’s loss of nerve for its old values and reluctance to debate new ones, the meetings could only ever be about holding hands and trying to feel good. As one member of the audience at the recent Oxford conference said: “The events of 9/11 have allowed the US to understand itself as a victim on the world stage.”
Whether any good will derive from such self-pity remains to be determined.
As the University of Central Lancashire’s Alan Rice reminded the audience, we forget at our peril that America represents much that is best in the world, as well as a little of what is worst. Its values can be used to liberate as much as to oppress. The key question, therefore, should not be whether we are for, or against, the US, but “what exactly are we for?”
First published by Times Higher Education Supplement, 17 October 2003