Saturday, July 24, 2004

Why do they hate us?

Writing in the Hudson Review, Bruce Bawer answers a question that my friend and I were discussing just last evening: Why do they hate us?

I'm not sure how the topic came up, but at a local Orthodox conference years ago (before 9/11, I'm sure), someone made a passing comment at the end of one of the Q&A sessions: "American culture is an oxymoron." It was off-topic, and the speaker wanted to move on, but the comment needed to be challenged. If there's no such thing as American culture, how do you explain Gershwin, Twain, James (Henry or William), T.S. Eliot, the Pilgrims and the Underground Railroad, Lincoln's speech at Gettysburgh and "I have a dream." Whether or not you like every aspect of it--Starbucks, McDonald's or Disneyland--to say that it doesn't exist just doesn't deal with reality. It's good that the fourth-century Church didn't have that attitude in meeting the dominant Greek culture of the time.

But Bruce Bawer has lived in Europe, and he writes:
Yet as my weeks in the Old World stretched into months and then years, my perceptions shifted. Yes, many Europeans were book lovers--but which country's literature most engaged them? Many of them revered education--but to which country's universities did they most wish to send their children? (Answer: the same country that performs the majority of the world's scientific research and wins most of the Nobel Prizes.) Yes, American television was responsible for drivel like "The Ricki Lake Show"--but Europeans, I learned, watched this stuff just as eagerly as Americans did (only to turn around, of course, and mock it as a reflection of American boorishness). No, Europeans weren't Bible-thumpers--but the Continent's ever-growing Muslim population, I had come to realize, represented even more of a threat to pluralist democracy than fundamentalist Christians did in the U.S. And yes, more Europeans were multilingual--but then, if each of the fifty states had its own language, Americans would be multilingual, too.

He tackles a library of books on the topic, from the pathetically facile to the insightful, and gives his reader a tour of European anti-Americanism beginning before the American Revolution. It's 12,000 words, so you might want to save it to disk and read it at your leisur, but here are the highlights.

Mark Hertsgaard's The Eagle's Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World is one of the simplistic: "America, in short, is a mess—a cultural wasteland, an economic nightmare, a political abomination, an international misfit, outlaw, parasite, and pariah."

Will Hutton's A Declaration of Interdependence: Why America Should Join the World is another: "Hutton is a true statist, the sort of person who feels less than fully comfortable in societies where the government fails to make its presence sufficiently felt: 'In a world that is wholly private,' he writes, 'we lose our bearings; deprived of any public anchor, all we have are our individual subjective values to guide us.'"

Clyde Prestowitz's Rogue Nation "comes off as agreeing with Hertsgaard and Hutton that America is an outlaw state whose cultural values and political system are fundamentally flawed and whose interactions with the outside world do more harm than good."

According to Jedediah Purdy's Being America, "the spread of democratic capitalism is essentially positive, though hardly problem-free; that young Third Worlders' self-contradictions on the subject of America (cheering Osama one minute and Microsoft the next) reflects a simultaneous attraction to both American liberalism and anti-American violence; and that it's in America's interest to encourage the liberalism and discourage the violence."

He describes Richard Crockatt's America Embattled: 9/11, Anti-Americanism and the Global Order in much livelier terms, apparently, than Crockatt uses himself:
In a plodding, prudent, professorial prose, Crockatt first sums up "how America sees the world" and "how the world sees America," then offers a potted history of political Islam, of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, and of the war on terror, all the while patently seeking to strike an inoffensive balance, as if such a thing were possible with such a topic. Crockatt's book has a cultivated colorlessness: he seems incapable of making the blandest assertion without qualifying it to death or using the word "arguably" (which recurs here with the frequency of expletives in a rap lyric).

Although Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great About America? more or less praises America, Bawer finds his praise lacking: "Souza shares the Islamic view that 'there is a good deal in American culture that is disgusting to normal sensibilities.' (He never tells us what he means by 'normal' --and one is not sure one wishes to know.)"

Robert Kagan's Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order refers to some often forgotten truths about Europe, Bawer says, "that the "paradise" of peace and prosperity Europe now enjoys is made possible, quite simply, by American power." Kagan says that the European "peace" is based on a fantasy protected by a people who will never be permitted to enter it.

The Frenchman Jean Francois Revel has written in his book Anti-Americanism a surprisingly spirited defense of America against the illusions of the European media elites: "To Revel, the tenacity of European anti-Americanism, despite historical developments that should have finished it off once and for all, suggests 'that we are in the presence, not of rational analysis, but of obsession' -- an obsession driven, he adds, by a desire to maintain public hostility to Jeffersonian democracy."

In the context of a couple of Norwegian books (which I didn't link, not knowing very many people who speak Norwegian), Bawer gives a brief history of European anti-Americanism:
To be sure, Western European intellectuals often claim, as Norwegian author Jens Bjørneboe did in a 1966 essay, "We Who Loved America," that they once were pro-American but, owing to some social change in America or some U.S. government action, have altered their position. The current claim is that Europeans loved America until the Iraq War; before that, it was a truism that they loved America until Vietnam. But Bromark and Herbjørnsrud state flatly that "It wasn't the Vietnam War that made European intellectuals, authors and academics anti-American. The truth is that they had been anti-American all along." As early as 1881, the Norwegian author Bjørnsterne Bjørnson argued that Europe's America-bashing had to stop; even earlier, in 1869, James Russell Lowell complained that Europeans invariably saw America "in caricature." Indeed, nineteenth-century European aristocrats despised America as a symbol of progress, innovation, and (above all) equality, ridiculing it as a mongrel land of simple-minded Indians and blacks; later, avaricious Jews were added to the list. These stereotypes soon spread to Americans generally, resulting in today's European-establishment view of Americans as materialistic morons.

The biggest divider between America and Europe, Bawer says, is the illusion sponsored by Western European media elites. "It sometimes seems to me a miracle, frankly, that America has any friends at all in some parts of Western Europe, given the news media's relentless anti-Americanism. There is no question that the chief obstacle to improved understanding and harmony between the U.S. and Western Europe is the Western European media establishment. It is an obstacle that must somehow be overcome, for Western civilization is under siege, and America and Europe need each other, perhaps more than ever."

I haven't read any of the books myself, and my reading stack is tall enough that the War on Terror may be over before I get to them, so although I can't endorse his opinions, I can say that I appreciate the context he's provided.

He doesn't explain, unfortunately, why a lifelong U.S. citizen would say that American culture is an oxymoron. I guess I'll have to ask her sometime.

SOURCE: Godspy

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