The anti-American dream

The anti-Americanism of some in the UK media has very little to do with America.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

I can see how somebody could label themselves pro-abortion or anti-smoking. I can see how a movement might be labelled anti-drugs or pro-hunting.

But pro-American? Anti-American? How did these become such neatly polarised positions?

This is the question vexing UK comment writers in the national press. The reaction to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon has spawned a reaction of its own, splitting the media into two broad camps: those who think the USA somehow deserved what it got on 11 September, and those who view such thoughts as blasphemy.

In the anti-American corner stands the liberal left – notably, the New Statesman periodical and various columnists for the Guardian newspaper. These arguments hinge on the idea that America is getting some kind of comeuppance for decades of aggressive foreign policy. So Charlotte Raven insisted ‘a bully with a bloody nose is still a bully’ (1); and Seumas Milne, under the headline ‘They can’t see why they’re hated’, argued the need for Americans to ‘make the connection between what has been visited upon them and what their government has visited upon large parts of the world’ (2).

Barely had the World Trade Centre collapsed when the New Statesman ran an extraordinary editorial asking the rhetorical question: ‘American bond traders, you may say, are as innocent and as undeserving of terror as Vietnamese or Iraqi peasants.’ The answer? ‘Well, yes and no.’ (3) Ouch.

The reaction against the reaction came from commentators broadly, but not exclusively, from the right. Spitting vitriol in the Daily Telegraph, Janet Daley wondered of the liberal left: ‘Has the hatred and foaming malevolence now rising to the surface been bubbling away under that smug, lazy facade for a generation, just waiting for the triumphal moment to gloat about what many of its spokesmen have called America’s “defeat”?’ (4)

The Daily Mail on 18 September ran two lengthy attacks on anti-Americanism: one by Stephen Pollard, headlined ‘Why I am utterly ashamed to be a member of the chattering classes’ (5), and another by Stephen Glover, who warned: ‘[T]o demonise the Americans is to follow the example of Osama bin Laden.’ (6) In the The Sunday Times, Bryan Appleyard admonished: ‘I am sick of my generation’s whining attitude, its wilful, infantile loathing of the great, tumultuous, witty and infinitely clever nation that has so often saved us from ourselves.’ (7)

What’s all this about? It seems far too simplistic to emphasise, as the left does, the ‘connection’ between American foreign policy and a terrorist attack which represents no political cause, and which has so little political justification that nobody has even claimed responsibility for it. But it is equally simplistic to insist, as the pro-Americans seem to, that the anti-American reaction is based on nothing more than knee-jerk prejudice and wilful ingratitude towards the USA.

The anti-Americanism that this attack has unleashed in the UK press has very little to do with America. It expresses a broader dissatisfaction with contemporary society – a dissatisfaction that was widespread way before 11 September.

Today’s anti-Americanism is more symbolic than real. Whatever your criticisms of America’s foreign policy, Britain’s foreign policy has wreaked more than enough destruction. America is a capitalist superpower that dominates the world; Britain, a former colonial superpower that would like to dominate the world, is hardly a peace-loving utopia. In this sense, it is hard to see exactly what America has done wrong that the rest of the Western world has done right. You cannot have a go at America without, by default, questioning the politics and values of the rest of the Western world.

But isn’t that the point? The problem with the anti-Americanism expressed by the liberal intelligentsia is not that it is parochial, or that it fails to recognise America’s achievements. Rather, this anti-Americanism expresses a more widespread, and less than coherent, discomfort about the modern world. It is not America-the-nation that the antis are attacking, but America as symbol of modern capitalism.

One of the more useful challenges to the antis was put down by Bryan Appleyard, in his Sunday Times piece on 23 September (8). Appleyard attempted to situate contemporary anti-Americanism within the history of the British left. The left reacted against America, according to Appleyard, because it so clearly symbolised the success of capitalism – provoking within the left ‘a burning hatred for America for disproving almost everything they ever believed’. Fast-forward to today, when traditional left-wing politics have collapsed and capitalism reigns supreme, and ‘the anti-capitalism, anti-globalisation movements abandoned potentially rational, cultural and environmental anxieties in favour of a monstrous random bag of anti-American loathing’.

Appleyard’s insights are useful because they at least try to put anti-Americanism into the context of history, and of the contemporary politics of anti-capitalism and anti-globalisation. But he gets things wrong, and the wrong way round. It is not that contemporary anti-capitalist movements are a cover for anti-Americanism, but that anti-Americanism is a more focused expression of the anti-capitalist politics that have come to the fore over the past few years. And because of that, the current anti-Americanism represents a set of views that is even more degraded than Yankophiliac pro-capitalist Bryan Appleyard suggests.

When left-wing politics still existed, it was probably fair enough to attack the ‘rampant capitalism’ that America symbolised: not because, as Appleyard claims, America proved the futility of left-wing politics, but because it proved their necessity. In symbolising the best that capitalism could offer, America also symbolised its limitations – social inequality on a global scale, and a politics and culture that fell way short of its potential.

But when left-wing politics no longer exists – when there is no alternative to the market – what can the anti-capitalism-cum-anti-Americanism that is gathering momentum today actually mean? When those who attack America as the symbol of capitalism present no alternative to capitalism, what are they attacking this symbol for?

Lambasting America’s record on foreign policy, Seumas Milne claims that it is ‘this record of unabashed national egotism and arrogance that drives anti-Americanism among swathes of the world’s population’ (9). ‘Egotism’ and ‘arrogance’ – an interesting choice of words. It seems that what bothers Milne is not the consequences of Western foreign policy – to which, in an era of unchallenged global capitalism, there is little alternative – so much as the way this policy is presented. It is almost as if he is saying, okay, we can accept that America is the boss and that it can do what it likes – but it should not go around proclaiming, ‘We are the boss and we can do what we like’.

In a similar vein, Charlotte Raven’s equation of the USA with a playground bully, whose motivation for declaring ‘war on terror’ can be put down to its dented pride (‘It would rather have a virtual victory than submit to someone else’s agenda’), emphasises style over substance (10). And in politics, too, the main objection to Bush’s war seems to have been the language he has used to describe it.

When Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy opened the party conference on Monday by condemning the use of the words ‘war’ and ‘crusade’, he proposed instead the word ‘resolve’ (11). And as spiked reported earlier this week, even many of those activists campaigning to ‘stop the war’ support some form of Western intervention in the Middle East as a consequence of the terrorist attacks – they just want something that does not look or sound so brutal (12).

What is really being attacked here is not American foreign policy, or Western foreign policy, but a set of values dressed up as psychological traits. In attacking egotism, arrogance, bullying and aggressive language, the antis are criticising America for daring to stand up for itself. They accept that America should react to the events of 11 September – but the reaction they advocate is one born out of sorrow more than anger, as a nation humbled into a process of domestic soul-searching and international healing, rather than as a nation resolutely defending itself and its values. Because underneath this argument is the sense that really, there is very little to defend.

‘[T]he US government and media (along with their British cheerleaders)…raise the ideological stakes when they claim that we have seen attacks on freedom and democracy’, argued the New Statesman editorial of 17 September. ‘That is one way of putting it: another is to say that these attacks, using deeply symbolic targets, have hit a civilisation that has grown complacent, selfish and in some respects decadent.’ (13) America symbolises the pinnacle of modern capitalism – it is the best we have, and all that is on offer. Yet when all this is threatened by an attack that, itself, is primarily symbolic, we find that all we can say in defence of modern society is that it is ‘complacent, selfish and decadent’.

Katharine Viner, writing in the Guardian on 22 September, goes along similar lines, by explaining the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon as expressions of the international alienation and ‘misunderstanding’ caused by globalisation. This, she says, ‘mirrors an alienation within our own culture: the loss of our collective spirit, which has developed as a product of our increasingly superficial and individualistic age’ (14). She concludes that, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, ‘it’s not only the world’s safety that’s at stake – it’s what kind of world it will become’.

Well, that last point is certainly true. And there is little doubt that contemporary Western society is one of alienation, superficiality, and even decadence. But as we work through the aftermath of 11 September, the solutions put forward by America’s critics would only make these problems worse.

Just as some seem to dismiss notions of freedom and democracy as worthless, so Charlotte Raven claims that ‘free speech is a nice thought that hasn’t panned out in practice’, and that when the USA speaks from the heart, ‘that voice is deeply dumb’ (15). The hallmark of the anti-Americans in this debate is the extent to which they present the values and principles traditionally symbolised by America as being, at best, ‘nice ideas’, and at worst, outmoded and dangerous attitudes. Power is presented as egotism, success as arrogance, freedom as illusory, and the desire to defend oneself as the reaction of a bully.

In place of these values, the implicit proposal is for the politics of therapy. The Western world should react to these attacks, goes the argument, through a process of self-effacement, self-flagellation and appeasement. This won’t change the reality of global capitalism, because there is no social alternative on offer. But it will stop global capitalism from revelling in its achievements, and force it to feel its own pain.

It’s hard to see how this can solve the problems within Western society, let alone those in the rest of the world. When a society in which people already fear their friends and neighbours is shaken out of its complacency and gripped by fear, how can this foster a new collective spirit, or provide a solution to alienation? How can a society consumed by self-doubt achieve even half as much as a society filled with self-confidence? What difference will it make for nations in the Middle East and the third world to be dominated by counsellors rather than bully-boys, if the outcome of this domination is still the same?

Contemporary anti-Americanism is a symbolic attack on capitalism. The solution it proposes is nothing more than capitalism in therapy. As a choice between two visions of the kind of world we will become, it doesn’t amount to much.

Read on:

spiked-issues: Attack on USA

(1) A bully with a bloody nose is still a bully, Charlotte Raven, Guardian, 18 September 2001

(2) They can’t see why they are hated, Seumas Milne, Guardian, 13 September 2001

(3) ‘In buildings thought indestructible’, New Statesman, 17 September 2001

(4) A message to the Left: grow up, this isn’t a game, Telegraph, 19 September 2001

(5) ‘Why I am utterly ashamed to be a member of the chattering classes’, Stephen Pollard, Daily Mail, 18 September 2001

(6) ‘Let’s nail this lie: America is NO monster’, Daily Mail, Stephen Glover, 18 September 2001

(7) ‘Why do they hate America?’, Sunday Times, Bryan Appleyard, 23 September 2001

(8) ‘Why do they hate America?’, Sunday Times, Bryan Appleyard, 23 September 2001

(9) They can’t see why they are hated, Seumas Milne, Guardian, 13 September 2001

(10) A bully with a bloody nose is still a bully, Charlotte Raven, Guardian, 18 September 2001

(11) See Charles Kennedy’s statement on terrorism to the Liberal Democrats Party conference

(12) See What’s anti-war?, by Josie Appleton and No politics please, we’re peace campaigners, by Brendan O’Neill

(13) ‘In buildings thought indestructible’, New Statesman, 17 September 2001

(14) ‘In search of community’, Katharine Viner, Guardian, 22 September 2001

(15) A bully with a bloody nose is still a bully, Charlotte Raven, Guardian, 18 September 2001

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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