Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice

Mini Teaser: Anti-Americanism takes many forms -- most of them unfair. But as long as it strives to be a City upon a Hill, America Must learn to live with it.

by Author(s): Paul Hollander

Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism (London: Verso, 2002), 105 pp., $13.

Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), 165 pp., $21.95.

Alan McPherson, Yankee No! Anti-Americanism in U.S.-Latin American Relations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 257 pp. , $39.95.

Clyde Prestowitz, Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions (New York: BasicBooks, 2003), 328 pp., $26.

Jean-François Revel, Anti-Americanism (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2003), 176 pp., $25.95.

Anti-Americanism poses a paradoxical problem. It is visibly more widespread today than when the Soviet Union was producing a steady output of anti-American propaganda. Admittedly, there were always spontaneous anti-American sentiments throughout the world quite independent of Soviet inspiration. Still, the Soviet collapse might have been expected at least to weaken anti-Americanism. That has not been the case. Indeed the Soviet collapse could not even put an end to the anti-capitalism that has always been key to anti-Americanism. Instead they re-emerged, apparently stronger than ever, and joined together in anti-globalism.

How can this be explained? Anti-Americanism can best be understood by holding two seemingly incompatible propositions in balance. The first is that hostility towards the United States is a rational and justified response to its actual flaws and misdeeds--to the unsettling processes of modernization it sets in motion, to the discernible defects of American social institutions, and to the social injustices prevalent in American society. The bill of particulars in foreign policy includes alleged or real American intervention in the internal affairs of countries around the world, a bloated, imperialistic military establishment (the major instrument of such interventions), economic exploitation of poor, third world countries, the ravaging of the natural resources of the world causing serious environmental damage, and the corruption of the masses by mindless entertainment. In domestic policy, the indictments emphasize racism, sexism, immense economic inequalities and rampant commercialism.

The second proposition holds that anti-Americanism is a largely irrational predisposition somewhat similar to racism, sexism, antisemitism and other scapegoating impulses. Thus, virtually any widely shared group grievance can become a source of anti-Americanism since all such grievances are easier to bear if some familiar, powerful and prominent entity can be held responsible for them.

There are also domestic variants of anti-Americanism. They tend to be deeper, more visceral and more difficult to grasp than foreign forms of anti-Americanism since the latter are often connected with more tangible and identifiable collective grievances. More often than not, anti-Americanism is also associated with the adversary culture. The angry anti-Americanism of individuals like Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, the late Edward Said, Susan Sontag or Gore Vidal has a certain unfathomable purity. Its defining characteristic is the unshakeable belief that the United States (or American society) represents something uniquely, self-evidently and matchlessly depraved and evil that has no parallel in history.

Both domestic and foreign anti-Americanism have a complex and close relationship with each other, providing mutual support and inspiration. The phenomenal success of Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 in Europe is a good example.

It is not easy to separate the reasonable critiques of particular American institutions or policies from a virulent, scapegoating anti-Americanism. Sometimes justified critiques merge with the diffuse, undifferentiated hostility. But it can be done--and the volumes reviewed here represent varying degrees of success in that endeavor. They also represent but a small sample of the growing literature on anti-Americanism ranging from the purest example of the visceral kind (Baudrillard) to the energetic refutation of such attitudes (Revel). In between are more specialized and scholarly explorations, such as the examination of how the phenomenon has been stimulated (allegedly) by the Bush Administration (Prestowitz) and a historical study of three episodes of Latin American anti-Americanism (McPherson). There is finally a study of the connections between the longstanding Western critiques of the West (closely tied to anti-Americanism) and more recent non-Western rejections of the West (Buruma and Margalit).

J.F. Revel is perhaps a good starting point since he sets out to anatomize the anti-American phenomenon. His credentials are that he is a well-known and longtime critic of those Western intellectuals hostile to Western values and institutions and that he has written perceptively about American society in the past. In this passionate polemic directed principally at a French audience, he focuses on the important and influential French variety of anti-Americanism. Much of the book is a critique of contemporary France, its politics and elites seen through the prism of their attitudes towards America. And a paradox that emerges from his argument is that many of the actual problems and flaws prevalent in French society mirror those supposedly peculiar to the United States.

Yet the book is more a rebuttal of the assertions of anti-Americans than an inquiry into the sources of anti-Americanism. One theme running through the book is that the hostile critiques of America are often contradictory. Thus the United States is criticized both for "unilateralism" (throwing around its weight without consulting or cooperating with other nations) and for "isolationism" (not doing enough to solve or alleviate various problems around the world). Revel also demonstrates how anti-globalism and anti-Americanism have converged into a single ideological phenomenon. There is a persuasive refutation of the "root cause" argument that seeks to mitigate or excuse terrorism. Revel convincingly demolishes the idea that poverty causes terrorism.

Of particular interest to American readers is his reminder that anti-Americanism is also prominent on the European Right. Right and Left are united in a shared contempt for liberalism, which the United States represents--at any rate in its old-fashioned incarnation. The anti-Americanism of the Right (in France and elsewhere) is closely linked to its nationalistic tendencies. As elsewhere in Europe, it vilifies the United States because of its multiculturalism and openness to new immigrants at a time when western European countries face large numbers of unwanted immigrants as well as serious problems in assimilating those already within their borders. (Arguably, Islamic anti-Americanism is much closer to the right- than left-wing variety.)

While most of the substantive arguments in the book are on target, some of its bolder assertions could have been documented more carefully for the benefit of skeptics. It is noted, for instance, that in 1994, at the height of a famine, North Korea purchased forty submarines from Russia. I do not doubt for a moment that buying weapons took precedence over feeding the population, but I find the figure of forty (even if diesel) submarines rather large and would have welcomed information on where it came from. Also, even Revel's strong points might have been conveyed in a less-overheated polemical style. His often heavy-handed sarcasm will find favorable reception mainly among those who already share his premises. His tone suggests that much of anti-Americanism is so patently absurd that it can be easily discredited. This overlooks real failings in American society.

In particular, Revel ignores the substantial flaws of American mass culture--a potent source of anti-Americanism among both European intellectuals and Muslim clerics. He dismisses the notion that Hollywood is "the capital of bad taste, vulgarity and banality"--a characterization that may be exaggerated, but it resonates in many a civilized breast. It is of course true that American mass culture is popular and widely imitated all over the world, but that says little about its quality or about its impact. It is the very ubiquity of, say, MTV that alarms tradition-minded parents outside America. Unlike similar parents inside America, moreover, they have no wider knowledge of the United States that would allow them to put MTV into the context of a society that also has first-rate symphony orchestras, fine museums, first-class bookstores and various other barriers and alternatives to the mindlessness of much of American popular culture.

Despite these reservations, Revel acquaints the American reader with the specifics of a particular French anti-Americanism represented all too well by Jean Baudrillard at the other end of the ideological spectrum. Indeed, this fellow countryman of Revel may be said to incarnate the excesses of a convoluted anti-Americanism embedded in an opaque postmodernist jargon. For instance he writes about 9/11:

"When global power monopolizes the situation . . . when there is such a formidable condensation of all functions in the technocratic machinery and when there is no alternative form of thinking allowed, what other way is there but a terroristic situational transfer? . . . Terrorism is the act that restores an irreducible singularity to the heart of a system of generalized exchange."

Nor is clarity restored by the assertion that "it was, in fact, [the towers'] symbolic collapse that brought about their physical collapse . . . ."

While much of this small volume is impressively impenetrable, argument occasionally breaks out. But this is only a modest improvement. Baudrillard leaves no doubt that in his view the United States bears the responsibility for 9/11:

"[I]t is that superpower which, by its unbearable power, has fomented all this violence which is endemic throughout the world . . . . [W]e have dreamt of this event [9/11] . . . because no one can avoid dreaming of the destruction of any power that has become hegemonic to this degree . . . ."

Essay Types: Book Review