07 June 2008

Anti-Americanism. Why America?

"George Bush wants to invade us. He wants to fill our country with homosexuals and make our women into lesbians. And we say, NO George Bush! We do not want your homosexuals! We do not want our women to be made into lesbians!"

For almost anyone in the Western world, these words are somewhat ludicrous. Yes, George Bush did want to invade Afghanistan and many would doubt his motives. But he is not renowned in Europe or America as a pro-gay politician. For the Afghan militant who spoke these words to a BBC 2 reporter, it makes perfect sense. America is bent on dominating the Middle East. America is full of queers. America is run by George Bush. Naturally the three go hand in hand. It is tempting to dismiss these comments as simply hilarious, but it is also fascinating to think how the Jihadist lunatic community could make a howler of this nature. So it is interesting to look at exactly what America projects to the world, and why this can cause so much antipathy.

America has three faces which it shows to the world, and which you see depends mostly on the side you were on during the Cold War. The first face is the one I, as a citizen of a NATO country, see – America the leader of the Free World, the America of republicanism and the all-powerful US Constitution. America that can't pronounce its vegetables. America the friendly rival, America the annoying purveyor of irritating, fatty, shallow but nonetheless irresistible pop-culture. The America we like enough to borrow almost everything from but not quite enough not to be annoyed by. America to Britons and Europeans is the annoying friend who sometimes gets on your tits, who you occasionally fight with, who maybe saved your life once and who, despite your rocky relationship, you get on pretty well with. This is probably the closest face to the one America shows to its own citizens.

The second face is by far the most beautiful, and, surprisingly, is reserved for the former Eastern Bloc. This is the face that the American idealists of the nineteenth and early twentieth century aspired to project – America the beacon of democracy and freedom. America who, admittedly, can be annoying, might have its clear faults, but is a damn sight better than your previous best friend. Those who see this face aspire to and mimic it. They do not worry about American culture swamping their own, because they like it, and because, in the ideological non-war of the last century, America spent years wooing them.

The last face is for those who had the misfortune not to be aligned during the Cold War. Those who were not America's friends, but also who were not its enemies and so under the dubious protection of the terrifying Soviet Union. The Islamic World, Latin America and much of Africa all fell victim to both American and Soviet attempts to expand their spheres of influence. To these countries, American values, however admirable in theory, are mired in American actions. American backing of dictators in Cuba, Chile, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt, American bombings, CIA torture manuals, the US-backed militias and death squads, Allende and Mossadegh, all stick in the national memory when people think of the US. The US being a self-styled beacon for these things, when freedom, liberty, democracy and human rights are mentioned, unfortunately people think of America and all the atrocities associated with it. Easy then, for those willing to do so to spin anything empowering their people and threatening their hold on power as 'American imperialism'. It is no coincidence that the most virulent anti-Americanism stems mostly from these assorted non-committed countries.

The US and much of Europe all have their crimes to atone for. Where people have been touched by imperialism, neocolonialism and any bad relations with foreign lands, unfair resentment will always linger. Much of Latin America resents the USA's actions during the Cold War and rightly so. However this is not exclusive to America. Palestinians are somewhat uncharitable towards Israel. In Iran, the memory of 1953 is strong, and Britain is even less popular than America. In Algeria, France is hated, many Columbians distrust the Irish, everyone else in Britain hates the English and almost nobody in Europe likes the Germans. But anti-Americanism has a universal quality which needs examination. Something about anti-Americanism goes deeper than America's actions.

I count three basic functions of anti-Americanism: the first is a demonised 'Great Satan', common among anti-capitalist movements, used to unite many foes in one convenient and simplistic figurehead, easily understood and easily made into a banner, but ultimately damaging. The second is a deliberate shield for nationalistic authoritarian governments which often themselves benefit from American power – rather than openly opposing a civil society, personal liberty and democratic process, these can be dismissed as "too American" or "Western interference", and nuanced arguments about dictators as instruments and beneficiaries of neocolonial power can be sidestepped. The third form, a rational conclusion departing from irrational grounds, is rare, but the chief form present in Nazi Germany – an essential belief in racial segregation and a hatred of other races, particularly Jews, would naturally culminate in a hatred of the most multicultural and Jew-friendly of nations.

Though the myths and loose associations that fuel anti-Americanism vary wildly from case to case, the reason why it is America, and not another of the countless liberal free-market democracies with a tendency towards militarism, seems to be universal. Unlike other gay-friendly countries like the Czech Republic, economic superpowers such as China, gun-crazy federal republics like Switzerland, multicultural countries like Malaysia, free-market tax havens such as Monaco, or rampant militarists such as France and Britain, America has become the figurehead for all of these things rolled into one. Why? Quite simply because, since its inception, America has made being a figurehead its business. There are older democracies (Iceland), larger democracies (India), more secular democracies (Estonia), freer democracies (The Netherlands), more democratic democracies (Germany), richer democracies (Japan), but we all know who is The World's Greatest Democracy. And unfortunately, when people oppose democracy, capitalism or the non-stoning of sodomites, it is America that, quite deliberately, shines.

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