anti americanism/a love hate relationship

  1. 1,781 Posts.

    October 22, 2003

    President George W. Bush's trip to our shores tomorrow has focused attention on a striking fact - the apparently irresistible rise in hostility among many Australians towards the US. It's safe to assume that his whirlwind visit will be accompanied by demonstrations, and that placards will blame his country for a wide variety of sins, real and imagined, from the ill-fated war in Iraq to Third World poverty to the popularity of American fast food.

    The other day I received an email invitation to demonstrate against his visit, signed on behalf of a refugee support group. Apparently the US is responsible even for our vexed asylum-seeker policies.

    Americaphobia is hardly new. For the Vietnam generation, it was part of an epic global drama of Davids and the Goliath, where Goliath was the US and the Davids were a somewhat motley band of Third World "liberation movements". When the Soviet Union fell, and the supply of AK-47s dried up, so did Third World socialism - and radical hatred of America lost a good deal of oomph. Today the anti-globalisation kids gallantly carry the flag of this old radical vision (Che T-shirts and all). But since the "liberation movements" have evaporated, it's an object-less enthusiasm, a hatred without hope.

    Yet while anti-Americanism may have been winged, it never died. Instead, it's fallen to earth to become the taken-for-granted of the cultural sophisticate. Nobody is anybody today if they can't recite a desk-calendar homily from Noam Chomsky, or re-enact Michael Moore's latest "expose" of American crassness. The same people who drench themselves in an ocean of BBC period costume-dramas (even the Victorians are hipper than the Americans) will gleefully describe the American "neocons" as fascists, and "Dubya" as the world's greatest terrorist. Americaphobia has thrown off its cheesecloth and donned Country Road.

    But there's an odd, and unremarked, paradox at the heart of this great outpouring of disdain. For those who profess to despise America most are not infrequently the truest "Americans" of them all.

    Cold War conservatives liked to accuse their opponents of "moral equivalence" - by equating Kent State with the Prague Summer, or Chile with the Gulag. In their fury they missed a small but important fact. Those who equated Henry Kissinger with Adolf Hitler weren't exhibiting a hostility to Western cultural and political values so much as a deep if somewhat naive attachment to them. And the same is true of our erstwhile anti-Americans today.

    America has always laid itself open to adverse judgment in the court of international public opinion, by virtue of its remorseless political high-mindedness, and by its habit of viewing the world through the prism of its own national ideals. Anyone who studied history at school can recall that lonely, quixotic figure of Woodrow Wilson in the Palace of Versailles, doggedly pursuing a Millennium of "national self-determination" among the chicanery and revenge-lust of "old Europe". Conversely, Graham Greene's eminently reactionary message in his Quiet American was that American idealism was the chief cause of the West's blunders in the world - and that the world would be a safer place back in the gin-soaked, trembling hands of European colonialists.

    America's present-day critics are much closer in spirit to Wilson than Greene. The demonisation of Kissinger has staying power precisely because he incarnates the ruthless European pragmatism of Metternich and Bismarck - while his critics adopt the same lonely, heroic posture as Wilson himself. Chomsky's mantra of resistance to a military state evokes the Jeremiads of the Founding Fathers, when they warned against the dangers of slipping into Old World despotism. And Moore is the Mr Smith of his generation, forever travelling to Washington with his heart on his sleeve and America's best instincts in his overnight bag.

    For in its heart of hearts anti-Americanism is a profoundly American movement. It's no coincidence that when Australian university students want to "critique" America they turn to American libertarians like Chomsky or American anti-imperialists like the late Edward Said. Phillip Adams's most ebullient critics of American hyper-power are American academics. And when Andrew Denton asked the question recently "Should we fear America?", to whom should he turn, but a left-liberal veteran of the Washington press gallery.

    "Moral equivalence" was a Cold War furphy. The reason radicals rarely criticised the Soviet Union wasn't because they loved it, but because nobody really believed the Soviets had any ideals left to live up to. Likewise, when today's cultural sophisticates call America "the real threat to world peace", and deny outright the reality of Islamic extremism, that's not because they're all rooting for Osama. Rather, it's because everybody knows the jihadis never had a commitment to world peace in the first place. Since they reject all of our most cherished values, they can hardly be reproached for failing to live up to them. For our miniature Wilsons, as a moral problem they simply don't compute.

    Before the Iraq war, many critics insisted (with wearisome attempts at wit) that it was really a base economic conflict - an oil war. They pretended to view France and Russia - the two greatest economic beneficiaries of Saddam Hussein's rule, and of the UN's never-ending sanctions program - as moral paragons. They even swore that their next imported car would be French (though hopefully not Russian).

    It was another red herring. Nobody seriously believes that the French or the Russians are possessed of high national or international ideals. People know that Americans still are, and that they treat their ideals with deep seriousness. And that's why America's repeated failure to measure up to those ideals (as in Iraq) is greeted with such delirious mockery.

    And so there's something curiously cheering about good old-style, home-baked, momma's apple pie anti-Americanism. It's a sign that America's high-minded self-image is still alive in the world. Unfortunately, it's not obvious how far old-style American idealism is going to serve our nouveau Wilsons, or would-be Mr Smiths.

    The evolving international battle-lines suggest that a series of further dirty, morally equivocal, bloody conflicts are in the offing. American foreign policy is starting to savour more and more of Metternich. And lofty isolationism sadly doesn't seem a viable option.

    David Burchell, a lecturer in humanities at the University of Western Sydney, is co-author of Western Horizon: Sydney's Heartland and the Future of Australian Politics (Scribe).
arrow-down-2 Created with Sketch. arrow-down-2 Created with Sketch.