Defining anti-Americanism

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.

  1. Katie said:

    The difficulty is of course, that people (at least in France)who describe themselves as anti-american (and they exist, and probably wear ralph lauren and drink starbucks) find people like moore and chomsky support their position, in that, as by right-wing america, funnily enough, they are perceived as “self-hating” americans, ones who reject what it stands for.

    In Paris, at least, this is subsequently confirmed because the expat americans who intend to stay here long-term tend to espouse similar views to chomsky and moore, and the phrase “I can never go back. It isn’t my America any more” I hear almost every day in my line of work.

    If anything, the problem is more that people (these expats and these french) DO INDEED mean the current administration when they say they hate america. They mean the culture that the administraion represents too though. And they mean those 53 million that identified enough with the current administration to let them in. And they mean the system that let the current administration get away with the courts fiasco in 2000. That culture feels as alien and wrong to people from NYC, LA and San francisco as it does to someone from Paris, Berlin or London. Now, agree or disagree with these statements, I am just saying what I get on the ground, speaking to relatively educated, mobile, professional, enlightened people.

    However, as someone who lived in the States through the first election and 9/11, you’re right, the left-wing of America, as wide and diverse and active as it is, hardly filters through to Europe. I face the same question every time I tell people I went to university in the States: yeah, but, American universities are for people who couldn’t get into one of ours aren’t they? Oh yes, that’s why all of Britain’s professors want to teach at them… People just aren’t aware of the flip side of American culture from burgers, jerry springer, and bush. That’s a terrible terrible shame, because there’s a lot to be proud of.

  2. yeah, but, American universities are for people who couldn’t get into one of ours aren’t they?

    Wow! Is this a common perception. Now, I have an american girlfriend, and I work in a university, so I’m not representative, but I’m very surprised many people think like this. Just goes to show I guess.

    Great article, btw!

  3. John B said:

    I think there’s a stereotype in the UK that at undergrad level, American universities are easier than proper British universities (obviously, polytechnics excluded).

    Anecdotally, the Brits I know who spent a year in the US as part of their degree tended to achieve better marks compared to their classmates in the US than they did compared to their classmates in the UK. This isn’t proof of much, or indeed anything.

  4. Katie said:

    Also, I should caveat that statement with “unless you go to an ivy league school, MIT or CalTech.” Just as Americans have never heard of Glasgow or Bristol universities, even though both are pretty good schools.

  5. An added problem being, of course, that the prominent “left” in American politics often comes across as little more than cringe-makingly rubbish: Howard “Yeeeargh!” Dean, Michael “selective and dubious facts” Moore, the Jane Fonda/Tim Robbins/Susan Sarandon “Hollywood liberal” axis, and even Chomsky (not for what he himself says, as so few people actually bother to read his often turgid prose, but for how his stuff is so often adopted by sympathetic, more extreme maniacs). None of these are exactly the finest proponents of the “other” America, but they are pretty much the only ones we hear about outside the States.

    It’s the Peter Cook thing again – “in America you’ve got the Republicans, who are like the Conservatives, and the Democrats, who are like the Conservatives” (paraphrased, obviously). Although the Clinton era is now looked back on like a Golden Age in certain quarters, many people outside the US who object so much to Bush also objected to Clinton – albeit not quite so passionately. Because, by European standards, Clinton was also on the right.

    I do get the impression that, over the last 4/5 years in particular although also under Clinton, there has been on the non-US left an increasing tendency to dismiss the States as a hopeless case, purely because what seems to count as “left” on that side of the Atlantic would be considered at best centrist over here. The constant reminders of the rise of the religious right only compounds the problem, as even when sensible leftish voices are heard they always appear to come primarily from the east coast or California, and so are dismissed as unrepresentative of the average American, who we all, secretly, imagine to be some fat, inbred redneck from the midwest. (It’s probably also worth pointing out that almost all of the people I know of, and I include myself here, who fall into this category would also hold up the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution as two of the greatest political ideals ever created – but these are considered as ideals never delivered upon, a potential never realised.)

    Add to that the ridiculousness of a situation where the term “liberal” can be used as an insult and the fact that the only time we really hear of domestic US politics is when something insane happens, often harking back to pre-Civil Rights era politicians who are still knocking around or the neo-cons or similar, and although few people in Europe who express a dislike of America would actually consider themselves “anti-American” rather than merely “anti-Bush”, the longer this situation continues, the more the lines will become blurred.

    At the moment, however, the fact that most people think of McCarthyism – and all the rabid witch-hunting imagery that conjures – when they hear the term “anti-American” means that few people accused of such a mentality will even consider for a moment that they could fall into that category, and dismiss such claims as mere lunatic-fringe ranting. Which, despite all I’ve said above, they usually are.

  6. Monjo said:

    Of interesting note:
    As a young man Hitler had an infatuation with an upper-society Jewish girl but he didn’t have the balls to ask her out – well he only had one ball.

    As a young man at college in (I believe) Beirut Osama bin Laden had a crush on an American girl there and asked her out and she rejected him.

    I guess its a thin line between love and hate (and that women are to blame for everything). Having been rejected by umm three American girls I just want to re-assure George W Bush and 294 million Americans that I am not taking flying lessons.

    Nosemonkey: I would say since the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the USSR, Europe has increasingly become very open and non-dependent upon the US. By 1991’s Gulf War, Europe really was in a position where it could finally – for the first time since 1939 and possibly 1914 – not have to look to the US for salvation/help. Clinton was possibly the US’s last chance at uniting EU and US paths. I guess we have to wait until January 2009 to see if the next US president wishes to draw our unions closer.

  7. Ken said:

    Another problem for those complaining of anti-Americanism is that a very large proportion of Americans themselves are, by this estimation, anti-American.

    I think you’re very close to hitting the nail on the head here, Third Avenue. The anti-Americanism of Europe, and I’m fairly sure it’s a reasonably widespread phenomenon, isn’t anti-American purely on grounds of geography or nationality. It’s anti-American due to hostility to symbolism and stereotype. In particular, it’s the evangelical (funny, the term is never defined), overweight, Bible belt, truck driving, deer-hunting hick that the hostility to America is defined as.

    Part of this shows how difficult it is just to define what America actually is. But more thoughts on my own blog.

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  12. Simon Jones said:

    I just picked up on Anti-Americanism as a topic on the Web , and consequently went lookin for somewhere to add my opinion .
    For me it is NOT the way the USA repeatedly invades countries in the middle and far east/asia on the pretext of improving their lives and promoting democracy. Nor is the sterotypical view that Yanks are all Obese jingoistic patriots hell bent on world domination and paranoid about any beleifs but their own.
    What does really make me angry is the insiduos way the British have allowed so much of American culture and lifestyle to infect our own , like fast food , soaps and tv dramas , medical practice , technology , even faith has been influenced by American evangalism. Clothing and Music is another , Rap , Hoodies and Baseball caps , angry youth , bad behaviour , loose politics , PR over policy , and last but by no means least , their Military occupying our countryside.
    Finally I hate with a passion the almost inbred belief amongst certain sectors of british society that American is better ? WHY ? Because they have more money ? Do They ? Because there are more of them ? Or because flash sells ?
    Go home yankee and take your cheap loose culture with you.