Date: Fri 29 Nov 2002 - 00:27:50 GMT
Varieties right and left, foreign and domestic.
By Christopher Hitchens
Posted Wednesday, November 27, 2002, at 8:57 AM PT
In most obvious ways, the term "anti-American" is as meaningless
or absurd as the accusation "un-American" used to be. It is both
too precise and at the same time too vague. In what other country
could one imagine, say, a "House Un-Italian Activities
Committee" being solemnly convened? The term "anti-Soviet"
was also in wide use during the Cold War and meant neither "anti-
Russian" (let alone "un-Russian") nor, strictly speaking, anti-
Communist. The "Soviet," in theory, was the assembly and not the
party. But this precedent is discouraging as well.
However, as with the simultaneously over-capacious and over-
specific analogues ("terrorism," "anti-Semitism") we do seem to
need a word for it. There are those in the Islamic world for whom
the slogan "Death to America" is a real and meaningful
invocation. There are those in Europe and elsewhere for whom
the word "American" occasions a wrinkle in the nostril. And there
are those, in America itself, for whom their country can do no
right. I at any rate would claim, perhaps uselessly, to know this
phenomenon when I see it.
The United States of America is not just a state or a country but a
nation”the only such country, in fact”supposedly founded on a
set of principles and ideas. The documents and proclamations
preceded the nation-state. China would be China under any
regime, and so would Iceland or Egypt, but the USA is also a
concept. (Rather eerily, I suppose, one could say that this was also
partly true of East Germany, North Korea, Israel, Pakistan, and
Saudi Arabia”all states based on parties, ideologies, or faiths.
But only partly true, because the United States is based on
pluralism as regards faith, political allegiance, or ethnicity.)
That in itself probably explains a certain kind of anti-American
style”the kind that expresses contempt for mongrelization and
cosmopolitanism. This, which is mixed with both snobbery and
racism, is quite commonly found on the European right, which
always regarded America as a mobbish and vulgar and
indiscriminate enterprise. With some adjustments”resentment at
materialism and brashness”it also overlaps with some tropes that
can be encountered on the European left. Both mixtures
commingle again in Muslim anti-Americanism, which often
represents the USA as a sort of racial and commercial chaos,
manipulated by cunning Jews.
At the extreme case, which is American imperialism, the most
doughty foes of military and political bullying always maintained
that they fought against the U.S. government and not the
Americans as such. This was the invariable propaganda of the
Vietnamese Communists and of Ho Chi Minh himself, who
modeled the Vietnamese declaration of independence in 1945 on
the well-written preamble of Thomas Jefferson. Probably the
ridicule that is now directed at the idea of "anti-Americanism"
descends from the generation that rightly opposed that war and
was falsely accused of being unpatriotic for doing so.
But what if, just for a moment, one tried to classify something as
"anti-American" for its own sake? My nomination would go to Pat Robertson, who appeared on the television in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 atrocity and declared that the mass murder in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania was a divine punishment for a society that indulged secularism, pornography, and homosexual conduct. Here is a man who quite evidently dislikes his own society and sympathizes, not all that covertly, with those who would use violence and fanaticism to destroy it. He dislikes this society, furthermore, for the very things that it tends to advertise about itself, namely permissiveness and variety. If this is not "anti-American" then the term is truly meaningless. I would go a step further and say that racism and theological bigotry are "anti-American" as nearly as possible by definition, since these things are condemned or outlawed”after a bit of a struggle, admittedly”in the amendments to the Constitution if not in the document itself. But this would meet with strong objection from some radicals, who suggest that the idea of America is a fiesta of genocide and slavery dating back to the first contact with Columbus and the pilgrims. Obviously, both these schools cannot be correct simultaneously. But that would put Americans, for all their conquering history and imperial hubris, in a similar category to that once occupied by other cosmopolitans. If they cannot be accused of plutocracy, for example (or even if they can), they may be accused of subversion, immodesty, and the spread of libertinism and vice, as well as junk food, trash movies, and cheap jeans. It's almost enough to make you proud (except for the food and film bit). The Cold War succeeded, for a mixture of valid and spurious reasons, in fixing the idea of "anti-Americanism" as a syndrome of the left. Forgotten was the long hatred of the old right for the American idea. But now we can see its resurgence in the applause from all of the old and new fascist parties for the attacks of Sept. 11. The rhetoric about "globalization," which is often harmless enough in every sense, still conceals the view of the Le Pens and the Haiders that America is undermining the healthy and organic and familiar "nation state." So it is indeed, in many ways. More is going on, when the American flag is being burned, than a protest against a superpower. As to an appropriate term, what shall we say? With any luck, the American idea is itself too capacious”even too "diverse"”to be wounded by any one insult. But when it comes from outsiders we might learn to say "anti-modernist" or, though it takes a while to utter, "anti-cosmopolitan." From insiders we might derive the notion (not so dishonorable) of "native masochist." I propose these tentatively, knowing full well that they will never catch on. But you will still know them when you see them. Article URL: http://slate.msn.com/?id=2074645
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