Imagining America

By unpicking our views of America, two new books show us how we see ourselves.

Josie Appleton

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‘What do you think of America?’, Timothy Garton Ash wrote in the New York Times in early April. ‘Tell me your America and I’ll tell you who you are.’ (1)

In two new books, one published in the UK and one published in Australia, authors and commentators from across the globe unpick our views of America.

As the writers in the spring edition of the quarterly magazine Granta testify, America has long made itself felt across all four corners of the globe. Amit Chaudhuri writes about Bombay’s post-Independence skyscrapers, climbing upwards less in imitation of America than as part of it. Irish writer Fintan O’Toole tells how a visiting President John F Kennedy in 1963 was greeted by Irish Eamon de Valera as ‘the first citizen of the great republic of the West, upon whose enlightened, wise and firm leadership hangs the hope of the world’.

On the other hand, Ariel Dorfman recalls sitting by a swimming pool in Chile in the 1960s, hating a screaming American child. ‘The odious American boy and his inconsiderate American mother had taken over this serene Chilean pool as if they owned it…. [T]hey symbolised to me the many ways in which the US had dominated Latin America: its ownership of mines and fields and banks and ships…its invasions of Nicaragua and Cuba and Guatemala.’

Today, as the lone superpower in a unipolar world, America demands our attention more than ever. After the end of the Cold War, and now, after 11 September, we primarily define ourselves in relation to America.

Blaming Ourselves: September 11 and the Agony of the Left documents the anti-American outpourings in the Australian and UK media after the attacks on the World Trade Centre. Its authors criticise, vilify and mock the often surreal attempts of intellectual establishments to pin the blame for 11 September on America. America, said many in the media, is a rapacious, consumerist, imperial power; it’s no wonder the hijackers got so angry.

So Phillip Adams, a columnist with the Australian newspaper, claimed that the hijackers were products of a violent, racist American culture, citing the killing of blacks by white mobs in 1917 and 1943, and the arrest of two million blacks during the war on drugs. In the UK New Statesman, John Pilger wrote that, far from being terrorists, ‘Islamic peoples’ had been the ‘victims of American fundamentalism, whose power, in all its forms, military, strategic and economic, is the greatest source of terrorism on Earth’.

Everything from America’s rejection of the Kyoto Protocol to Vietnam to Coca Cola was held up as evidence that America had it coming. UK playwright Harold Pinter, in his contribution to Granta, calls America ‘arrogant, indifferent, contemptuous of international law, both dismissive and manipulative of the United Nations: this is now the most dangerous power the world has ever known’. America, says Pinter, is ‘a fully-fledged, award-winning, gold-plated monster’ that ‘has effectively declared war on the world’.

Some of the contributions in Blaming Ourselves and Granta do well to get under the skin of these views. In Blaming Ourselves, sociologist Peter Saunders says that the anti-Americanism of other Western intellectuals is a ‘hatred born out of a righteous sense of defeat’: they think that their left-wing political ambitions were dashed by America, and now nobody is listening to them. Theirs is an impotent, childish rage, born of a sense of failure and a resentment of American power.

In Granta, French writer Benoît Duteurtre notes the attempts of French leaders to distance themselves from America: in French President Jacques Chirac, he saw ‘the inferiority complex of a Europe deprived of its role as a world leader…but still quick to judge good and evil’.

As Blaming Ourselves points out, there are many similarities between the Western intelligentsia’s and radical Islamists’ attitudes towards America. Commentator Michael Warby notes how a presenter put up a poster in the ABC’s Darwin offices quoting bin Laden: ‘There is no place in heaven for imperialist Yankee swine.’ Like Pinter, Islamists view America as an all-powerful, rampaging beast, who corrupts people’s lives and destroys all that is sacred. And Middle East Studies lecturer Leanne Piggott finds the same sense of failure and humiliation behind Islamists’ hatred of America that Saunders finds for Western intellectuals.

Blaming America for everything that is wrong in the world amounts to an abdication of responsibility – and a bizarre kind of self-sacrifice. Setting America up as the total ruler sets everybody else up as total victims, mere puppets to be made to dance at America’s whim. In Blaming Ourselves, Leanne Piggott quotes Khalid Amayreh in the London-based Palestine Times, who writes that: ‘America is the all-powerful devil that spreads oppression and death in my neighbourhood’.

Amayreh says that he tries to control his hate of America, but says: ‘I know too well that I can’t be free from the effect until I am free from the cause, and the cause is America’s greed, rapacity and hegemony…. Please, America, don’t make me an Osama bin Laden.’ Amayreh sees himself as the effect, America as the cause. He actions are not his choice, but the blind reaction to American power.

When you are driven by a blind resentment of somebody, then you hate the good things as well as the bad. So it is with America. People hate, not just its warmongering, but its confidence; not just its failures, but its successes. Anti-Americans also say they hate America’s unselfconsciousness – as Ariel Dorfman puts it, their ‘professed unconcern – “What? Me worry?”’. Why can’t Americans be more hung up like us, asks the European intelligentsia. Why can’t they worry a bit more?

But in many ways, being anti-anti-American is the easy part. Some make the mistake of reacting to anti-Americanism by declaring that the war against terrorism is the realisation of Western values. In Blaming Ourselves, journalist Tim Blair makes great sport of mocking the ridiculous assertions of anti-Americans, but opposes them by making some pretty questionable statements of his own: ‘The thousands [of Muslims] dancing in the streets of liberated Kabul looked happy enough, and were too busy burning burqas and playing soccer to bother “fleeing in terror”.’ Surely we can appreciate the good things about America without pretending that the US bombing of Afghanistan was a wonderful thing.

A more honest position on America is found in many of the Granta contributions. America attracts and repels. As Australian writer David Malouf says, America is both ‘McCarthyism, Vietnam’, and a society with an ‘extraordinary energy’: ‘that world of possibility and inventiveness and élan that is the cultural richness of American cities.’

It is the extraordinary energy of America that exerts a pull on the rest of the world. Only by allowing ourselves to be both attracted and repelled will we find a position on America that is more than shrill posturing.

Josie Appleton is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.

Granta magazine, no 77, Spring 2002 (UK and USA)

Blaming Ourselves: September 11 and the Agony of the Left, (eds) Imre Salusinszky and Gregory Melleuish, Duffy and Snellgrove (Australia), May 2002

Read on:

The anti-American dream, by Jennie Bristow

spiked-issue: After 11 September

(1) ‘The peril of too much power’, New York Times, 9 April 2002

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

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