It is one of those undisputed tenets of faith of many right-wing commentators that Europe is a hot-bed of anti-Americanism. That Europeans instinctively reject anything that comes from the States simply because it has an American tag attached to it. The war in Iraq, Bush’s refusal to sign up to the Kyoto agreement, the Republican tax-cutting agenda, MacDonald’s and Starbucks – opposition to all these things is frequently portrayed as emanating from an knee-jerk anti-Americanism. Uncle Sam and all his works are fundamentally evil.
But is anti-Americanism really that widespread? And where precisely does legitimate criticism of the USA stray over the line into blatant anti-American sentiment?
Calling a spade a spade
‘All Americans are fat, stupid and ugly, and the US is the source of every evil on the planet.’ Such a statement, quite apart from being self-evidently untrue, can hardly be described as anything other than anti-American. And while one may hear such sentiments from dubious saloon-bar comics, one can hear similarly anti-European screeds from some dodgy wags here in the States (cheese-eating surrender monkeys, anyone?). All Germans are militaristic, all Frenchmen smell of garlic, the list of lazy stereotypes could go on.
But does anti-Americanism seep into more mainstream thinking? And how does one go about defining it?
A diversity of opinion
To be truly anti-American, one must surely instinctively reject ideas, policies and people merely on the basis that they are American, with no regard to their intrinsic value. Thus, to be a true anti-American, one must reject, say, Michael Moore or Noam Chomsky with the same enthusiasm as one does George W Bush or Ronald Reagan. One must despise the proponents of gay marriage in Massachusets just as one criticises the Christian right of Alabama. Unless one takes the view that Moore, Chomsky or gay-rights activists are somehow ‘less American’ than Bush, which would be a rather curious position to adopt. Looked at like this, the number of true anti-Americans in Europe begins to dwindle.
Some supporters of Bush might jump in at this point and say that the sin of anti-Americanism is to dismiss the last 50 years of American foreign policy – policy after all that has the democratic support of the American people, rather than the beliefs of private individuals like Chomsky or Moore. Again, this line of argument takes us down rather dubious paths. British membership of the EU has been the settled policy of all British governments for over 30 years, support for the NHS for over 50, and for the existence of the BBC for more than 80. Is it anti-British to criticise these policies?
Another problem for those complaining of anti-Americanism is that a very large proportion of Americans themselves are, by this estimation, anti-American. The island of Manhattan could easily out-Hampstead Hampstead for its liberal, anti-Bush, anti-war views. Are the Americans of Manhattan less American than their counterparts in Kansas? Is it not just as anti-American to mock the views of the former as it is to criticise the opinions of the latter?
It is a common mistake on the right and the left to reduce America to simplistic stereotypes. But America, and the American people, is as much about gay rights, feminism and envrionmental activism as it is about foreign intervention and aggressive capitalism. American government is not the same as America.
There are, no doubt, true anti-Americans in Europe and elsewhere. They deserve no sympathy. But neither do those who define anti-Americanism as opposition to a rather narrow view of what the US is about, and use this as a weapon to attack those who disagree with them.