Fighting Words


Varieties right and left, foreign and domestic.

In most obvious ways, the term “anti-American” is as meaningless or absurd as the accusation “un-American” used to be. It is both too precise and at the same time too vague. In what other country could one imagine, say, a “House Un-Italian Activities Committee” being solemnly convened? The term “anti-Soviet” was also in wide use during the Cold War and meant neither “anti-Russian” (let alone “un-Russian”) nor, strictly speaking, anti-Communist. The “Soviet,” in theory, was the assembly and not the party. But this precedent is discouraging as well.

However, as with the simultaneously over-capacious and over-specific analogues (“terrorism,” “anti-Semitism”) we do seem to need a word for it. There are those in the Islamic world for whom the slogan “Death to America” is a real and meaningful invocation. There are those in Europe and elsewhere for whom the word “American” occasions a wrinkle in the nostril. And there are those, in America itself, for whom their country can do no right. I at any rate would claim, perhaps uselessly, to know this phenomenon when I see it.

The United States of America is not just a state or a country but a nation—the only such country, in fact—supposedly founded on a set of principles and ideas. The documents and proclamations preceded the nation-state. China would be China under any regime, and so would Iceland or Egypt, but the USA is also a concept. (Rather eerily, I suppose, one could say that this was also partly true of East Germany, North Korea, Israel, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia—all states based on parties, ideologies, or faiths. But only partly true, because the United States is based on pluralism as regards faith, political allegiance, or ethnicity.)

That in itself probably explains a certain kind of anti-American style—the kind that expresses contempt for mongrelization and cosmopolitanism. This, which is mixed with both snobbery and racism, is quite commonly found on the European right, which always regarded America as a mobbish and vulgar and indiscriminate enterprise. With some adjustments—resentment at materialism and brashness—it also overlaps with some tropes that can be encountered on the European left. Both mixtures commingle again in Muslim anti-Americanism, which often represents the USA as a sort of racial and commercial chaos, manipulated by cunning Jews.

At the extreme case, which is American imperialism, the most doughty foes of military and political bullying always maintained that they fought against the U.S. government and not the Americans as such. This was the invariable propaganda of the Vietnamese Communists and of Ho Chi Minh himself, who modeled the Vietnamese declaration of independence in 1945 on the well-written preamble of Thomas Jefferson. Probably the ridicule that is now directed at the idea of “anti-Americanism” descends from the generation that rightly opposed that war and was falsely accused of being unpatriotic for doing so.

But what if, just for a moment, one tried to classify something as “anti-American” for its own sake? My nomination would go to Pat Robertson, who appeared on the television in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 atrocity and declared that the mass murder in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania was a divine punishment for a society that indulged secularism, pornography, and homosexual conduct. Here is a man who quite evidently dislikes his own society and sympathizes, not all that covertly, with those who would use violence and fanaticism to destroy it. He dislikes this society, furthermore, for the very things that it tends to advertise about itself, namely permissiveness and variety. If this is not “anti-American” then the term is truly meaningless.

I would go a step further and say that racism and theological bigotry are “anti-American” as nearly as possible by definition, since these things are condemned or outlawed—after a bit of a struggle, admittedly—in the amendments to the Constitution if not in the document itself. But this would meet with strong objection from some radicals, who suggest that the idea of America is a fiesta of genocide and slavery dating back to the first contact with Columbus and the pilgrims. Obviously, both these schools cannot be correct simultaneously. But that would put Americans, for all their conquering history and imperial hubris, in a similar category to that once occupied by other cosmopolitans. If they cannot be accused of plutocracy, for example (or even if they can), they may be accused of subversion, immodesty, and the spread of libertinism and vice, as well as junk food, trash movies, and cheap jeans. It’s almost enough to make you proud (except for the food and film bit).

The Cold War succeeded, for a mixture of valid and spurious reasons, in fixing the idea of “anti-Americanism” as a syndrome of the left. Forgotten was the long hatred of the old right for the American idea. But now we can see its resurgence in the applause from all of the old and new fascist parties for the attacks of Sept. 11. The rhetoric about “globalization,” which is often harmless enough in every sense, still conceals the view of the Le Pens and the Haiders that America is undermining the healthy and organic and familiar “nation state.” So it is indeed, in many ways. More is going on, when the American flag is being burned, than a protest against a superpower.

As to an appropriate term, what shall we say? With any luck, the American idea is itself too capacious—even too “diverse”—to be wounded by any one insult. But when it comes from outsiders we might learn to say “anti-modernist” or, though it takes a while to utter, “anti-cosmopolitan.” From insiders we might derive the notion (not so dishonorable) of “native masochist.” I propose these tentatively, knowing full well that they will never catch on. But you will still know them when you see them.