August 05, 2021
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Review Essay

America -- Love It . . . Or Dump On It

Anti-Americanism is an emotion substituting for an analysis, a morality, an ideal, even an idea about what to do.

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America -- Love It . . . Or Dump On It
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Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got to Be So Hated by Gore Vidal
Thunder's Mouth/Nation Books,
160 pages, $16.50

Why Do People Hate America? by Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies
Icon Books,
231 pages, $19.99

What We Think of America
Granta, Issue 77, Spring 2002
256 pages, $20.95

Anti-Americanism is an emotion substituting for an analysis, a morality, an ideal, even an idea about what to do. When the hatred of foreign policies sputters into a hatred of an entire people and their civilization, then thinking is dead and demonology lives. When complexity of thought devolves into caricature -- and all broad-brush hatred of any nation, whatever its occasions, is caricature -- intellect is on its way to reconciling itself to mass murder.

One might have thought all this obvious. On the evidence of two of the books under review, it is not. Consider the sad case of Gore Vidal, once "a great wit," in the words of Norman Mailer (who proceeded to skewer him), now a witless crank. Reposing self-dramatizingly in Ravello, Italy, he maunders from snippet to snippet, this latest volume of his musings being skimpy and redundant at once -- quite an achievement. Collecting one's Vanity Fair pieces as if they would stand up in book covers is an act of, well, vanity. But the portrait of Gore Vidal in the mirror is not a pretty sight.

Toward the likes of Timothy McVeigh and Osama bin Laden, who would define their mass murders as retaliations against the United States of America and its incidental citizens, Vidal burns with sympathy. Not for him so banal an act as moral condemnation, or investigation of what sort of person it is who commits mass murder out of political grievance. Rather, he thinks it is tough-minded to indulge his preoccupation with "the various preoccupations on our side that drove them to such terrible acts." Note: "drove them." These killers were presumably helpless heaps of machinery. All you need to know about them is "the unremitting violence of the United States against the rest of the world."

Not that Vidal is incapable of generosity -- from which one American does benefit: McVeigh, who in a 1999 letter to Vidal was so keen as to compliment him that "your work is the first to really explore the underlying motivations for such a strike against the U.S. Government [as the Oklahoma City bombing]." Presumably it takes one perceptive guy to recognize the genius of another: "McVeigh considered himself, rightly or wrongly, at war." Well, which is it? Vidal does not pause to worry the point. When McVeigh writes that "there is no . . . proof that knowledge of the presence of children existed in relation to the Oklahoma City bombing" (love that tortured syntax), Vidal's helpful translation is that McVeigh "denies any foreknowledge of the presence of children in the Murrah building."

In other words, Vidal has a good word for anyone who likes the sound of "a final all-out war against the 'System,' " or "deliberately risks -- and gives -- his life to alert his fellow citizens to an onerous government." In the end, McVeigh and bin Laden are pikers, you see. "Most of today's actual terrorists can be found within our own governments, federal, state, municipal." If you wonder what might be a better society, Vidal helpfully offers up "Tim's Bill of Rights," which includes (a) no taxes, (b) metal-based currency and (c) low legislative salaries.

Instead of ideas about what makes America tick, Vidal dabbles in conspiracy theory and invites the reader to chortle along. If McVeigh did not act alone -- and there is some interesting reportorial speculation to this effect -- then, in Vidal's cockeyed vision, McVeigh gets off the hook. He goes for the weird notion that if McVeigh had been more thoroughly investigated, the Sept. 11 plot might have been scotched. He blasts The New York Times for blindfolding itself against the parallel between the demolition of the Federal Building and the Reichstag fire.

To Vidal, as to his fellow paranoids, everything makes sense. Sources like the Strategic Investment newsletter and the inventor of the neutron bomb are drummed up to turn the trick. Vidal's long crank letter to FBI director-designate Robert Mueller is included not to make an argument -- it cannot -- but to demonstrate his superior knowingness. Vidal seems to think that to make a case he need do no more than append any item to which he has put his hand. His laundry lists would be as useful.

Unsurprisingly, Vidal's America is all of a piece, what '60s crackpots used to call Amerika. It is "a country evenly divided between political reactionaries and religious maniacs." Nobody here but us crackers. "For Americans, morality has nothing at all to do with ethics or right action. . . . Morality is SEX, SEX, SEX."

This is reasoning in the fashion of McVeigh and bin Laden. And it is close to the prosecutorial logic of Pakistani-born British writer and information scientist Ziauddin Sardar and British writer, anthropologist and former BBC producer Merryl Wyn Davies, who helpfully alert the reader from the outset: "This is . . . not a book about the positive sides of the United States." Why Do People Hate America? (which has been out for some time now) is a book of talking points for what they consider the global majority, for "loathing for America is about as close as we can get to a universal sentiment." To them, America "forms an immensely coherent whole." It is, they maintain at one point, a "hamburger." Love it or leave it, chew it or spit it up. They do not seem to have trouble deciding.

Though their documentation is spotty, the strong point of their argument with America is corporate and Washington economic policies that magnify poverty elsewhere and despoil the environment. That America might have allies in this despoliation -- Japanese corporations, European corporations, Brazilian corporations, yes, Canadian corporations -- does not attract their attention. No Japanese video games hook the world's urban youth. Does Mecca have multilane motorways? Cherchez les americaines!

Indeed, in their accounting, American culture is like the HIV virus: infectious, self-transforming and lethal. It doesn't much interest them that, loathsome and silly as much of Hollywood and U.S. pop product is, people everywhere mix the stuff into hybrids. It does not merely usurp their right to be different. They play, hum, watch and read it because, in strange fashion, it serves not only aggressiveness but (perverted as they are) ideals of freedom from the anti-modern traditions that Sardar and Davies lionize but many wish to transform or escape.

For these British writers, a few idle moments excepted, America and its works amount to nothing but unbridled wickedness, a brief for gunplay, willful stupidity and closed-mindedness. "Within the U.S. it often seems that the hardest topic to debate is the idea of America itself and its problems. . . . It is the prime reason for infuriation, antipathy, hostility and even hatred beyond the bounds of America." As if those who would slaughter Americans would sweeten up and address their troubles if we had better debates. As if it began when Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, or when George W. Bush's clique took power in the 2000 coup d'état -- against the political values of most Americans, by the way. As if the hatred did not have a history in Europe's and Asia's fascist and imperialist pasts.

Until late in the game, Sardar and Davies have no qualms about demonizing the demonizers. Toward this end, they trundle out a potted history of American Manifest Destiny and racism, as if the struggle against racism were not also American -- as well as the struggle for the rights of minorities, for women. In the end, their answer to the question their title poses is: Because America is Hateful. "What most people hate," they acknowledge, is not most Americans but " 'America,' the political entity based on authoritarian violence, double standards, self-obsessed self-interest and an ahistorical naivety that equates the Self with the World." (That this "political entity" belatedly defended Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo is of no interest to them.)

Then, after deploying a chain of half-truths for 204 pages, the authors go pious, preaching that "hatred always simplifies." Suddenly, on page 209, "the United States is a very complex country." Too bad we're two pages from their last word. It's the shabbiest of Hollywood endings.

In Granta's special spring issue, What We Think of America, the same Ziauddin Sardar contributes a fine, observant, funny first-person essay on Mecca, where he did research for five years. In the co-authored cartoon under review, however, his delicate skepticism toward tradition is not in evidence. Most of the 24 contributors to the Granta symposium, however, draw on experience and display curiosity about the actually existing America, where people live.

The Canadian Michael Ignatieff praises America's "democratic reinvention." The Indian Ramachandra Guha recalls that the sight of the dean of the Yale Law School carrying his own baggage "was a body blow to my anti-Americanism." The Chilean Ariel Dorfman indispensably warns "how comfortable it is to employ anti-Americanism as a way of avoiding the faults and deficiencies of our own societies, even though such self-criticism should not prevent us from assigning blame to Americans when that blame is due, which it often is." To the contrary, Harold Pinter contributes the sort of rant that one of his stumbling, punch-drunk characters might commit, to the effect that the United States is murderous, period, so there.

Almost all the other contributors, writers from many countries, display some or much grace striving to navigate through America's contradictions. Their political positions are less significant than their attentiveness. Blessedly, they look the abstractions up and down -- and dance away from them.

In a terrible time, as the Washington putschists in power busily dare the world to hate the country they bestride, this is a bright achievement. Americans need to hear more in this vein from our exasperated friends. The small-minded, bullying Bush cadres are so benightedly self-interested, so contemptuous of world (and American) opinion, so heedless of argument, they will for the next 28 months pose an immense challenge to people of good will everywhere -- to resist their barbarous designs without succumbing to barbarism. A goodly proportion of Americans -- on many issues, a majority -- are straining to leave them behind.

The challenge is to sustain complexity of thought about the America these plutocrats command. Quite literally, they do not represent America. There is a fighting chance that they will not have their way, and that the America that will succeed them will be more thoughtful and constructive. Intellectuals must not permit sloppy thinking to cede these usurpers an American future they have not earned, and that, with luck, they will not inherit.


Todd Gitlin's most recent book is Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives. He is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University.


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