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

What the authors also show, however, is that anti-Western hostility is stimulated not only by Western ideas, but also by their failure. In particular, "the most violent forms of Occidentalism" (such as we encounter at the present time) were born from the failures of the non-capitalist alternatives to modernity attempted in countries such as Egypt, Iraq, North Korea, Ethiopia, Cuba, China, Vietnam and others.

All this is powerful and provocative. But the suggested continuity between the suicide bombers and 19th-century Romantic thinkers (among others) is not without problems. Islamic religious convictions--converted into murderous and suicidal violence--add a unique dimension, indeed a pathology, to the loathing of the West resembling earlier sources (Romantics, Slavophiles, and sundry guardians of tradition and critics of mass society, depersonalization, alienation, the cash nexus, and other afflictions of modernity). While Western self-loathing and guilt have helped to legitimate non-Western rejections of the West, the trajectory of ideas from Western Romanticism (highly individualistic, extolling passionate personal relationships, sensual gratification and so on) to traditional Islamic beliefs (anti-individualistic, puritanical, stressing other-worldly gratifications and the like) is a long and roundabout one. Occidentalism, in all its varieties including anti-Americanism, "is a tale of cross-contamination, the spread of bad ideas." These bad ideas come from several different cultures.

All the books here discussed support the suggestion that anti-Americanism can best be grasped by recognizing the wide range of circumstances and conditions associated with it. One likely source of its recently renewed strength, however, is the passing of the superpower status from two countries to one. The United States has thereby become a more plausible and inviting target for a wide range of grievances and discontents: global, national, religious and ethnic. As Revel writes:

"The United States is charged with all the evils, real or imagined, that afflict humanity, from the falling price of beef in France to aids in Africa and global warming everywhere. The result is a widespread refusal to accept responsibility for one's own actions."

It is almost certainly the other way round: The refusal to accept responsibility predisposes people to search for a scapegoat.

A particularly striking example of these trends has been the recent intensification of violent Islamic anti-Americanism culminating in 9/11. Arab grievances against the West, and especially its two key representatives (from the Arab point of view) Israel and the United States, have been long-standing. These grievances apparently intensified in the wake of the failed Oslo "peace process" that raised Arab expectations without gratifying them. Of late, anti-Israeli sentiments have been transferred to the United States, owing in part to its firm support of Israel and because it is the leading force of modernity in the Middle East.

This brand of anti-Americanism further increased after 9/11 in response to American actions against terrorism. American military assertiveness has always been repugnant to those convinced that the United States is the real "evil empire" and deserves all the blows struck against it. Thus the hostile critics of America at home and abroad embarked with earnest relish on explaining why 9/11 and other anti-American acts of terror could only be blamed on the United States since it embodies the "roots causes" of virtually everything wrong with the world.

Two additional phenomena helped to raise level the of anti-Americanism in recent times: the increased political and economic competitiveness of the European Union (combined with its declining military power and political will) and the personality of President Bush. Both at home and abroad, George W. Bush has stimulated an extraordinary amount of hostility and is widely seen as personifying everything wrong with American society, culture and foreign policy. He was even designated in European opinion polls as a greater threat to world peace than Saddam Hussein. This personal animosity has crystallized European objections to American power--and helped to justify the idea of the European Union as a "counterweight" to it.

But the most important underlying explanation of anti-Americanism is that the United States remains the leading embodiment of modernity--a condition at once widely desired and yet deplored the more it is realized. Hence the United States is inevitably seen as a global force for destabilization--undermining traditional values, communities, institutions and understandings of the world. This particular charge is well grounded. But it arises from the less well understood fact that the discontents of modernity are unintended consequences of the processes eagerly embraced. Not all good things go together: The advances of medical science lower mortality rates, which leads to overpopulation; the greater availability of consumer goods leads to a "consumerism" felt to be aesthetically and psychologically undesirable; access to nature contributes to its degradation; the freedoms associated with modernity leave people with bewildering choices; individual freedom and social isolation are often closely related; the freedom to choose among competing religious beliefs and denominations dilutes religious commitments and deprives people of taken-for-granted beliefs; social and physical mobility undermine the community; the liberation of women contributes to rising divorce rates; and so on and so forth.

And these discontents are aggravated by the historical fact that this country has been a repository of high ideals from its earliest beginnings. Its very existence is in large measure a result of collective efforts to create a society morally and materially superior to all others in history. Such ideals can never be fully realized--and they make the most successful achievements look inadequate and even hypocritical. America could avoid the hatred of anti-Americanism either by failing economically and socially or by becoming a "normal" country with no sense of mission. As long as the United States continues both to preach and prosper, however, it must reconcile itself to being heartily disliked.

Essay Types: Book Review