By Manzar Zaidi
Feb 17, 2014
Anti Americanism or anti-American sentiment can be defined as opposition or hostility to the people, government, culture or policies of America. This label is readily applied by pro American thinkers to an assortment of worldviews, many of them considered by these thinkers to be polemic in their interpretation of the term. The first edition of Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English language (1828) defines the word ‘anti-American’ as opposed to America, or to the true interests or government of the United States, or opposed to the revolution in America. In French the noun ‘antiaméricanisme’ has evolved since 1948, entering political currency in the 1950s. The recent exponential rise of the phenomenon is ascribed to particular American policies or actions, such as the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Many critics term it as a label utilized for blanket dismissal of any actions by United States as irrational. American scholar Paul Hollander describes it as a relentless critical impulse toward American social, economic, and political institutions, traditions, and values.
This is a harkening back to the degeneracy thesis, espoused by Comte de Buffon, a leading French naturalist, in his Histoire Naturelle in 1766. It was proposed that climatic extremes and other atmospheric conditions in the New World (America) weakened the genetic stock of men and animals. Purportedly, the American fauna was smaller than its European counterpart, venomous plants were more abundant etc. In 1768, Dutchman Cornelius de Paw described America as a degenerate or monstrous colony, arguing that the weakest European could crush it with ease. French Encyclopedist Abbe Raynal at the time wrote that America had not produced a good poet, an able mathematician, one man of genius in a single art or a single science. This degeneracy thesis was later rebutted by early American thinkers such as Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.
James W. Ceaser and Philippe Roger have read this as a kind of prehistory of anti-Americanism, one which has debatably fostered vehement rejection of anti Americanism by the Americans. Purportedly, this long standing feeling of anti Americanism has ‘carried over’ to the present day and age, which, according to some pro-American scholars espousing this theory, lends a mimetic quality to Anti Americanism. French scholar Marie-France Toinet contextualizes it as systematic opposition, an allergic reaction to America as a whole. Anti Americanism has also been equated with prejudices such as racism, as proposed by British historian Paul Johnson, besides being explained as a reaction to globalization by Crockatt and Thomas L.Friedman.
Hollander labels anti Americanism as less than fully rational, a free floating hostility or aversion that feeds on many sources besides the discernible shortcomings of the United States. Others have put down Anti Americanism as irrational and a fantasy ideology dressed up to look like Marxism, besides being analogous to anti-Semitism. Jean-François Revel and Philippe Roger tend to ascribe Anti-Americanism to a long standing feeling of aversion to Americans and everything American, which is fed by a concoction of non- liberalism and an irrational resistance to change. Anti-Americanism is also touted as the ideological basis upon which ruling elites gain power, this hostility being harnessed to concretize specific political or religious agendas. For instance, Francoise Thom highlighted the importance of anti-Americanism in fostering the political and ideological struggle in France, consolidating the various destructive forces in France including virulent Trotskyists, Islamic extremists, and the radicals of the anti-globalization movement within the paradigms of Anti Americanism.
Josef Joffe has as suggested five essentialist aspects of the phenomenon- Reductionism of Americans to stereotypes, believing America to hold an essentially evil nature, ascribing conspiracy theories to American establishment aimed at total world domination, holding America responsible for essentially all the evils in the world and cultural isolation from the ever pervasive influence of American culture and goods. Utilizing anti Americanism as a symbol of irrationality, the ‘anti’ part of the term becomes an epitome of something pure, against which the label of ‘anti’ implies the antithesis of that other ‘goodness.’ Using this model, ‘Americanism’ thus becomes the unpolluted version, but at the same time the root cause of ‘anti-Americanism,’ since a person using the term anti-Americanism implicitly affirms his belief in American exceptionalism.
All these often conflicting definitions have leant a certain incoherence to the term; an inherent paradox which is capable of being rendered articulately as critique of the opposing viewpoint by critics on both sides of the fence. In this context Pierre Guerlain argues for a two pronged approach in order to approach clarity. One is systematic or essentialist, which is a form of prejudice targeting all Americans. The other refers to the way criticisms of the United States are labeled anti-American by supporters of U.S. policies in an ideological bid to discredit their opponents. Guerlain insists that the two forms can morph according to certain situations, which makes analysis pertinent only in a particular paradigm, a view shared by some others as well. This is the middle way which at least accepts that Anti Americanism can be a manifestation of genuinely voiced grievances. It is not a coincidence that Chomsky draws parallels with the totalitarian state methods by comparing anti Americanism to “anti-Sovietism”, which was a label utilized by the Kremlin to demonize dissident or critical thought, a practice widely observed in the highly polemic and polarized pro American debate about anti Americanism.
This reductionist view is widely used by the American media in particular, which espouses that the essential goodness of the American culture produces a feeling of jealousy and awe in less inspired societies, which compensate for lack of freedom compared to America by turning their awe into hostility. ‘They shall not violate our way of life’, ‘We will protect our liberty’, and ‘They hate America for our way of life and freedom’ all become slogans associated with the eliciting of a schizoid response from an irrational wanna-be. This viewpoint of course blatantly ignores the fact that the peoples of the rest of world could be rational human beings, could hold genuine grievances, and may base the onus of their grudges on America’s foreign policy. The fact that the end of cold war and uni-polarity has been associated with an almost simultaneous exponential escalation of anti Americanism is supporting evidence of foreign policy as an alienating agent. Of course, many cogent arguments could be offered from both sides, and undoubtedly there are biased maligners of US out there on the other side, but the American viewpoint offered by some of the right wing American press and even academia that anti Americanism is an entirely irrational reaction to the American way of life just does not bear scrutiny.