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

Baudrillard's anti-Americanism stems in part from his horror of a globalization that is promoted by a "hegemonic" United States. Unfortunately, his arguments unoriginally repeat neo-Marxist critiques of capitalist mass society: "the mission of the West . . . is to subject the many different cultures by any means available . . . ." When conducted by military means, the objective of globalization "is to quell any refractory zone, to colonize and tame all the wild spaces whether in the geographical space or in the realm of the mind." And so on and so on.

Well before 9/11, however, Baudrillard had assembled the full range of anti-American cliches in his 1988 travelogue of the United States. He then observed, for example,

"America is a world completely rotten with wealth, power, senility, indifference, puritanism and mental hygiene, poverty and waste, technological futility and aimless violence . . . the only country where quantity can be extolled without compunction . . . ."

Baudrillard equated air-conditioning, freeways and supermarkets with inauthenticity. This inauthenticity extended even to what he perceived as purified garbage: "The country is without hope. Even its garbage is clean, its trade is lubricated, its traffic pacified . . . ." There was an "insane ease of life, to counteract the hyperreality of everything . . . ."

No wonder the Twin Towers emerged in his mind as the most potent symbols of globalization, inauthenticity and all. Whatever it reveals about America, The Spirit of Terrorism certainly testifies to the capacity of some intellectuals to misinterpret reality in obscure and empty verbiage.

A more judicious critic is Clyde Prestowitz, who accounts for the recent upsurge of global anti-Americanism in a fairly conventional way. Prestowitz, a former U.S. trade representative in the Reagan Administration, is not himself animated by anti-American sentiments. And he may not sense the powerful psychological factors at its roots. So he is tempted to explain--or explain away--anti-Americanism both as a response to the policies and attitudes of the current Bush Administration and as a response to the United States' rise to become the sole superpower. Accordingly he wishes to explain "to baffled and hurt Americans why the world seems to be turning against them and also to show foreigners how they frequently misinterpret Americans' good intentions."

Yet as it proceeds, Prestowitz's book amounts to a survey of what the United States has done wrong and how its actions and attitudes stimulate rejection and hostility abroad. The author faults the United States under Bush as being too assertive, arrogant, unilateralist, militarist and propelled by a missionary zeal and a belief in "being exceptional and apart from the rest of humankind, a special chosen people. . . ." More specifically, he "often felt that America's differences with the world could be largely explained in four words: Israel, Taiwan, religion and lobby."

"Religion" here does not mean Islamic religious fanaticism, however, but American religious fundamentalism. This is blamed for stimulating a Manichean view of the world and a wrongheaded moralism in U.S. foreign policy. Similarly, in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Prestowitz blames the Israel lobby and finds the Palestinian case far more compelling than that of Israel. He gives every benefit of doubt to Arafat, who is among the many people he interviewed for the book. He also offers a spirited defense of Saudi Arabia against its detractors.

Much of his methodology relies on recounting conversations with a wide variety of prominent figures around the world, from the prime minister of Malaysia to George Soros. All of them turn out to be critical of U.S. policies. The interviews convey the unmistakable implication that if such a wide range of important and influential people object to American policies, well then, the objections must be well founded and the policies accordingly mistaken. Occasionally, Prestowitz approaches the subject in a judicious "on the one hand and on the other" spirit, but the critiques of U.S. policy invariably overwhelm the defenses.

Lively and well written, Prestowitz's volume highlights the irritants which impede relations between the United States and other nations. But it fails to come to grips with the deeper, less rational aspects of anti-Americanism.

Doubtless many of the U.S. policies here surveyed contribute to anti-Americanism. But these policies by themselves cannot sufficiently explain these widespread anti-American attitudes (many of which predate the Bush Administration). One may doubt that if, say, the United States had ratified the Kyoto Treaty, signed the landmine treaty, endorsed the International Criminal Court, become generally more supportive of the UN, put more pressure on Israel, given up any pretense of defending Taiwan against a Chinese attack, and pursued a more sensible energy policy--these steps would have made a huge difference to those who are persuaded, on ideological, religious or political grounds, that this country is the embodiment of all evil.

Of all the varieties of anti-Americanism, the Latin American types have been most obviously determined by historical factors. Yankee No! is a historical case study of particular types of anti-Americanism (revolutionary, conservative, episodic) which erupted in Cuba in 1959, Panama in 1964 and the Dominican Republic in 1965. Each of these, according to the author, was "a milestone in the history of anti-Americanism." They have had the closest connection with the policies of the United States and have exhibited the "diversity of grievances against U.S. power."

In line with the author's "case by case" approach, he shows a reluctance to offer generalizations aside from suggesting that anti-Americanism has three features: variability, ambivalence and the resilience of the U.S. responses it generates. Two of these features are clear enough. But is not clear how or why U.S. "resilience" to manifestations of anti-Americanism could be a defining feature of the phenomenon itself. But he may have perceived a real link when he writes that anti-Americanism "has been an idealistic but confused resistance to idealistic but confused U.S. foreign policies."

More debatable is the author's assertion that "the political and intellectual Right has done most to sabotage serious thinking about anti-U.S. sentiment by overusing the term and exploiting its inherent negativity." He supports this by reference to the writings of this reviewer, objecting to my "paint[ing] anti-Americanism as a pathology." While I certainly emphasized that it is a "hostile predisposition" involving non-rational elements, I also took pains to stress (as in this review) that a wide range of well-founded criticisms can be made of U.S. foreign policy or domestic American institutions. McPherson concedes this point when he writes,

"even for supposedly more 'rational' critics [of the United States] . . . it has proved extremely difficult to escape generalities about the United States--that all of its foreign policies were unilateral, that all its companies are exploitative, that all its culture vulgar, and so on."

All of which surely suggests a hostile predisposition.

Yankee No! concludes by arguing that in the wake of 9/11, it is of particular importance "to understand that anti-Americanism has not been a pathological prejudice but a complex cultural and political concept that merits serious treatment by historians." Actually 9/11 suggests that it can be both of these things.

Among the books here reviewed, Occidentalism is the most original and insightful. In a short space it presents the core beliefs associated with the anti-Western outlook--namely, the "Occidentalism" of the title (of which anti-Americanism is a major part). Occidentalism is the counterpart of the better known concept of "Orientalism", which in the late Edward Said's formulation was a wrongheaded and demeaning collection of Western ideas about the East. Time has certainly come to show that a more powerful, influential and destructive counterpart of Orientalism can be found in Occidentalism: "the dehumanizing picture of the West painted by its enemies . . . ." Central to this vision is the image of the West as an unheroic, "machine-like society without a human soul." Components of Occidentalism include hostility to the city, to science and reason, trade, materialism, "commodified human relations" and the self-interest they promote. Occidentalism in particular "reflects the fears and prejudices of urban intellectuals who feel displaced in a world of mass commerce."

What this study also shows is that Occidentalism, while most influential today in the non-Western, Islamic world, has been greatly influenced by--if not altogether derived from--Western ideas about the West. The authors acknowledge that "Islamism [is] the main religious source of Occidentalism in our time." But they go on to argue that "today's suicide bombers and holy warriors don't suffer from some unique pathology but are fired by ideas that have a history." Western influences on non-Western Occidentalism include German romanticism, Russian Slavophilism and certain strands of Marxism:

"Ninenteenth-century Russian nativist thinkers, loosely termed Slavophiles, have provided a model for national or ethnic spiritual attacks on Western rationalism that was followed by generations of intellectuals in other countries, such as India, China and Islamic nations . . . . [In turn,] Russian Slavophilia was rooted in German Romanticism . . . . [I]t was a common Romantic belief that excessive rationalism caused the terminal decay of what was once the vital organism of the West. . . . Wars against the West have been declared in the name of the Russian soil, the German race, State Shinto, communism and Islam."

Essay Types: Book Review