by Victor Davis Hanson
American Jewish Committee
With this autumn’s discussion in Washington over what to do about Iraq there arrived also the season of protests. They were everywhere. In the national newspapers, Common Cause published a full-page letter, backed by “7,000 signatories,” demanding (as if it had been outlawed) a “full and open debate” before any American action against Iraq. More radical cries emanated from Not in Our Name, a nationwide “project,” spearheaded by Noam Chomsky and affiliates, which likewise ran full-page advertisements in the major papers decrying America’s “war without limit,” organized “Days of Resistance” in New York and elsewhere, and in general made known its feeling that the United States rather than Iraq poses the real threat to world peace; at one late-October march in Washington, there were signs proclaiming “I Love Iraq, Bomb Texas,” or depicting President Bush wearing a Hitler mustache and giving the Nazi salute. In the dock with America was, of course, Israel: on university campuses, demands circulated to disinvest from companies doing business with that “apartheid state”–on the premise, one supposes, that a democratic society with an elected government and a civilian-controlled military is demonic in a way that an autocratic cabal sponsoring the suicide-murder of civilians is not.
Writers, actors, and athletes revealed their habitual self-absorption. The novelist Philip Roth complained that the United States since September 11 had been indulging itself in “an orgy of national narcissism,” although he also conceded, reclaiming his title as the reigning emperor of aesthetic narcissism, that immediately after the fall of the Twin Towers New York “had become interesting again because it was a town in crisis”–a fleeting, final benefit to connoisseurs of literature from the death of thousands. Barbra Streisand, identifying Saddam Hussein as the dictator of Iran, faxed misspelled and incoherent but characteristically perfervid memos to Congressmen, while Ed Asner, of sit-com fame, threatened publicly to “lose his soul” if we went into Iraq. The Hollywood bad boy Sean Penn, not previously known for harboring a pacifistic streak, demanded that the President cease his bellicosity for the sake of Penn’s children. Traveling abroad, the actress Jessica Lange pertly announced: “It makes me feel ashamed to come from the United States–it is humiliating.” And the jet-setting tennis celebrity Martina Navratilova, who fled here to escape Communist repression and has earned millions from corporate sponsors, castigated the repressive atmosphere of her adopted homeland, a country whose behavior is based “solely on how much money will come out of it.”
And so forth. Harbingers of this sort of derision were, of course, on view a year ago, in the period right after September 11 and well into the campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Thus, Michael Moore, currently making the rounds plugging his movie Bowling for Columbine and a sympathizer of Not in Our Name, bemoaned the 9/11 terrorists’ lack of discrimination in their choice of target: “If someone did this to get back at Bush, then they did so by killing thousands of people who did not vote for him!” Norman Mailer, engagingly comparing the Twin Towers to “two huge buck teeth,” pronounced their ruins “more beautiful” than the buildings themselves. In the London Times, the novelist Alice Walker speculated whether Osama bin Laden’s “cool armor” might not be pierced by reminding him of “all the good, nonviolent things he had done.” There was the well-known poet who forbade her teenage daughter to fly the American flag from their living-room window, the well-known professor who said he was more frightened by the speech of American officials than by the suicide-hijackers of 9/11, and the well-known columnist who decried our “belligerently militaristic” reaction to the devastation of that day.
Not all the criticism of the American response to terrorist cells and rogue governments has partaken of this order of irrationality; serious differences, responsibly aired, are also to be found, including in newspaper ads. But in the year since the slaughter of September 11 there has emerged an unpleasant body of sentiment that has little or nothing to do with the issues at hand but instead reflects a profound and blanket dislike of anything the United States does at any time. For a while, the New Republic kept track of this growing nonsense by Western intellectuals, professors, media celebrities, and artists under the rubric of “Idiocy Watch,” and the talk-show host Bill O’Reilly is still eager to subject exemplars of it to his drill bit method of interrogation. The phenomenon they represent has been tracked daily by Andrew Sullivan on his weblog and analyzed at greater length by, among others, William J. Bennett (in Why We Fight), Norman Podhoretz (in “The Return of the `Jackal Bins,'” COMMENTARY, April 2002), and Keith Windschuttle (in “The Cultural War on Western Civilization,” the New Criterion, January 2002), the last-named of whom offers a complete taxonomy of schools and doctrines. And yet the sheer strangeness of the overall enterprise, not to mention its recent proliferation and intensification, would seem to merit another look.
A NUMBER of general truths emerge from any survey of anti-American invective in the context of the present world conflict. First, in each major event since September 11, proponents of the idea of American iniquity and/or Cassandras of a richly deserved American doom have proved consistently wrong. Warnings in late September 2001 about the perils of Afghanistan–the peaks, the ice, the warring factions, Ramadan, jihad, and our fated rendezvous with the graveyard of mighty armies gone before us–faded by early November in the face of rapid and overwhelming American victory. Subsequent predictions of “millions” of Afghan children left naked and starving in the snow turned out to be equally fanciful, as did the threat of atomic annihilation from across the border in Kashmir.
No sooner had that theater cooled, however, than we were being hectored with the supposed criminality of our ally Ariel Sharon. Cries of “Jeningrad” followed, to die down only with the publication of Palestinian Authority archives exposing systematic thievery, corruption, and PA-sanctioned slaughter. During the occasional hiatus from gloomy prognostications about the Arab-Israeli conflict, we were kept informed of the new cold war that was slated to erupt on account of our cancellation of the anti-ballistic-missile treaty with the defunct Soviet Union; of catastrophic global warming, caused by us and triggering floods in Germany; and always of the folly of our proposed intervention in Iraq.
That effort to remove a fascist dictator, we are now assured (most tediously by Anthony Lewis in the New York Review of Books), is destined to fail, proving instead to he a precursor to nuclear war and/or a permanently inflamed Arab “street.” On the other hand, a successful campaign in Iraq, it is predicted, will serve only to promote America’s worst instincts: its imperial ambition, its cultural chauvinism (a/k/a hatred of Muslims and Arabs), and its drive for economic hegemonism (a synonym for oil). Those who oppose preemption warn on Monday that the Iraqi dictator is too dangerous to attack and shrug on Tuesday that he is not dangerous enough to warrant invasion. “Fake your pick: easy containment or sure Armageddon.
The striking characteristic of such judgments is that they, too, are wholly at odds with the known facts. Confident forecasts of American defeat take no notice of what is the largest and best-trained military in history, and fly in the face of recent American victories in the Gulf war (where, at the time, Anthony Lewis likewise predicted quagmire and disaster) and Kosovo, both achieved at the cost of scarcely any American casualties. Alleged American hatred of Muslims hardly comports with our record of saving Kuwaitis from fascist Iraqis, Kosovars and Bosnians from Christian Serbs, or Afghans from Russian Communists and then from their own Islamist overlords, all the while providing billions of dollars in aid to Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. It was Jordanians and Kuwaitis, not we and not Israelis, who ethnically cleansed Palestinians; Iraqis and Egyptians, not we, who have gassed Muslim populations. And it is to our shores that Muslims weary of Middle Eastern despotism are desperate to emigrate.
IS THERE a consistent theme here? We are talking, largely though not exclusively, about a phenomenon of the aging Left of the Vietnam era and of its various progeny and heirs; and once upon a time, indeed, the anti-American reflex could be linked with some rigor to the influence of Marxism. True, that particular religion, at least in its pristine form, is just about gone from the picture these days. Some of its fumes, though, still linger in the doctrines of radical egalitarianism espoused by postmodern relativists and multiculturalists and by now instilled, in suitably diluted and presentable form, in several generations of college and high-school students. Hence, for example, the regular put-down of George W. Bush as a “Manichean”–for could anything be more self-evidently retrograde than a view of our present conflict as a war of good versus evil, or anything more simplistic than relying on such “universal” arbiters of human behavior as freedom, pluralism, and religious tolerance?
Eschewing any reference to truths of this kind, adherents of postmodernist relativism assess morality instead by the sole criterion of power: those without it deserve the ethical high ground by virtue of their very status as underdogs; those with it, at least if they are Westerners, and especially if they are Americans, are ipso facto oppressors. Israel could give over the entire West Bank, suffer 10,000 dead from suicide bombers, and apologize formally for its existence, and it would still be despised by American and European intellectuals for being what it is–Western, prosperous, confident, and successful amid a sea of abject self-induced failure.
One is bound to point out that, as a way of organizing reality, this deterministic view of the world suffers from certain fatal defects, primarily an easy susceptibility to self-contradiction. Thus, a roguish Pinochet, who executed thousands in the name of “law and order” in Chile, is regarded as an incarnation of the devil purely by dint of his purportedly close association with the United States, while a roguish and anti-American Castro, who butchered tens of thousands in the name of “social justice” in Cuba, is courted by Congressmen and ex-Presidents even as Hollywood celebrities festooned with AIDS ribbons sedulously ignore the thousands of HIV-positive Cubans languishing in his camps. Kofi Annan gushes, Chamberlain-like, of Saddam Hussein, “He’s a man I can do business with,” while the ghosts of thousands slain by the Iraqi tyrant, many of them at his own hand, flutter nearby; for this, the soft-spoken internationalist is lionized.
Few have exploited the contradictions of this amoral morality as deftly as Jimmy Carter, who can parlay with some of the world’s most odious dictators and still garner praise for “reaching out” to the disadvantaged and the oppressed. As President, Carter evidently was incapable of doing much of anything at all when tens of thousands of Ethiopians were being butchered; but as chief executive emeritus, he has managed to abet the criminal regime of North Korea in its determination to fabricate nuclear bombs and lately, having been rewarded with the Nobel Prize for peace, has brazenly attempted to thwart a sitting President’s efforts to save the world from the Iraqi madman.
But all such contradictions are lightly borne. Since, for our postmodern relativists and multiculturalists, there can be no real superiority of Western civilization over the available alternatives, democracy and freedom are themselves to be understood as mere “constructs,” to be defined only by shifting criteria that reflect local prejudices and tastes. Like Soviet commissars labeling their closed societies “republics” and their enslaved peoples “democratic,” Saudi officials assert that their authoritarian desert monarchy is an “Islamic democracy”–and who are we to say them nay? (“To my ear,” the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof helpfully explains, “the harsh [American] denunciations of Saudi Arabia as a terrorist state sound as unbalanced as the conspiratorial ravings of Saudi fundamentalists themselves.”) In Afghanistan, the avatars of multiculturalism and utopian pacifism struggled with the facts of a homophobic, repressive, and icon-destroying Taliban, but emerged triumphant: according to their reigning dialectic, the Taliban still had to be understood on their own terms; only the United States could be judged, and condemned, absolutely.
AS FOR the roots of elite unhappiness with America, this is a subject unto itself. It would hardly do to reduce everything to a matter of psychology: a whole class of unhappy individuals motivated by resentment over the failure of their society to fulfill their own considerable aspirations. Nor does it quite satisfy, to say more globally, and theoretically, that they suffer at several removes from the paradoxes of the radical Enlightenment: the unquestioned belief that sweet reason alone, in the hands of its proper acolytes, and yoked to commensurate powers of coercion, can remake the world. But we need not discount other and much simpler factors–like the law of the pack.
As in the medieval church or among Soviet apparatchiks, the pull of groupspeak is always strong among compliant and opportunistic elites. For today’s intellectuals, professors, and artists, being on the team pays real dividends when it comes to tenure, promotion, publication, reviews, lecture invitations, social acceptance, and psychic reassurance. And the dividends are compound: one is a lockstep member of one’s crowd and one enjoys the frisson of dissidence, of being at variance, but always so comfortably at variance, with one’s benighted fellow citizens.
Our unprecedented affluence also explains much, although its role as a facilitator has been relatively scanted in most discussions of anti-Americanism that I have seen. The plain fact is that civilization has never witnessed the level of wealth enjoyed by so many contemporary Americans and Europeans. Vast groups are now able to insulate themselves from the age-old struggle to obtain food, shelter, and physical security, from enemies both natural and human. Obesity, not starvation, is our chief health problem; we are more worried about our 401(k) portfolios than about hostile tribes across the border.
What does this have to do with the spread of anti-Americanism? Home-grown hostility to American society and the American experiment is hardly a new phenomenon, but in the 19th century it tended to be limited to tiny and insulated elite circles (see the writings of Henry Adams). Now, it is a calling card for tens and hundreds of thousands who share a once rare material splendor. That brilliant trio of Roman imperial writers, Petronius, Suetonius, and Juvenal, warned about such luxus and its effects upon the elite of their era, among them cynicism, nihilism, and a smug and crippling contempt for one’s own.
An ancillary sort of unreality has emerged in modern Western life alongside the reduced need to use our muscles or face physical threats. In a protected world, Saddam Hussein comes to seem little different from a familiar angry dean or a predictably moody editor, someone who can be either reasoned with or, if necessary, censured or sued. In this connection, it is not surprising that those most critical of America are not the purported victims of its supposedly rapacious capitalist system–farm workers, car mechanics, or welders–but more often those in the arts, universities, media, and government who have the time and leisure to contemplate utopian perfection without first-hand and daily exposure to back-breaking physical labor, unrepentant bullies, or unapologetically violent criminals. For such people, the new prosperity does not bring a greater appreciation of the culture that has produced it but rather enables a fanciful shift from thinking in the immediate and concrete to idle musings of the distant and abstract.
FOR MANY, todays affluence is also accompanied by an unprecedented sense of security. Tenure has ensured that tens of thousands of professors who work nine months a year cannot be fired for being unproductive or mediocre scholars, much less for being abject failures in the classroom. In government at every level, job security is the norm. The combination of guarantees and affluence, the joint creation of an enormous upper-middle class, breeds a dangerous unfamiliarity with how human nature really works elsewhere, outside the protected realm.
Such naivete engenders its own array of contradictory attitudes and emotions, including guilt, hypocrisy, and envy. Among some of our new aristocrats, the realization has dawned that their own good fortune is not shared worldwide, and must therefore exist at the expense of others, if not of the planet itself.
This hurts terribly, at least in theory. It sends some of them to their fax machines, from where they dispatch anguished letters to the New York Times about the plight of distant populations. It prompts others, more principled and more honorable, to work in soup kitchens, give money to impoverished school districts, and help out less fortunate friends and family. But local charity is unheralded and also expensive, in terms of both time and money. Far easier for most to exhibit concern by signing an ostentatious petition against Israel or to assemble in Central Park: public demonstrations that cost nothing but seemingly meet the need to show to peers that one is generous, fair, caring, and compassionate.
As if that were not hypocrisy enough, those who protest against global warming, against shedding blood for oil, or against the logging of the world’s forests are no less likely than the rest of us to drive SUV’s, walk on hardwood floors, and lounge on redwood decks. Try asking someone awash in a sea of materialism to match word with deed and actually disconnect from the opulence that is purportedly killing the world and its inhabitants. Celebrity critics of corporate capitalism neither redistribute their wealth nor separate themselves from their multinational recording companies, film studios, and publication houses–or even insist on lower fees so that the oppressed might enjoy cheaper tickets at the multiplex. Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin so hate George W. Bush that they threaten to leave our shores–promises, promises.
An even less appetizing quality of the new privileged is their palpable and apparently unassuageable envy. Intellectuals and people in the arts are perennially surprised–no, outraged–to find that corporate managers and Rotary Club businessmen, with far less education and infinitely less taste than they, make even more money. To the guilt they feel over what they have is therefore added fury at those who not only have more but seem to enjoy it without a necessary and concomitant sense of shame. Worse yet, because America is still a plutocracy where riches and not education, ancestral pedigree, or accent bring status, it can be galling for a sensitive professor of Renaissance literature to find himself snubbed at dinner parties by his own university’s president in favor of the generous but (shall we say) less subtle owner of a chain of Taco Bells. From there it is but a step to seeing the face of that same smiling and unapologetic plutocrat before him whenever he gazes upon the likeness of George W. Bush or Richard Cheney.
THIS BRINGS us to another element of the new anti-Americanism. All of us seek status in accordance with what we feel we have accomplished or think we know. This naturally selfish drive is especially problematic for radical egalitarians, who must suppress their own desire for privilege only to see it pop out in all sorts of strange ways. I do not mean the superficially incongruous manifestations: Hollywood actors in jeans and sneakers piling into limousines, Marxist professors signing their mass mailings with the pompous tides of their chairs, endowed through capitalist largesse, or the posh Volvos that dot the faculty parking lot. Rather, I have in mind the pillorying by National Public Radio of those who say “nucular” for “nuclear,” the loud laments in faculty clubs over the threats posed to rural France by McDonald’s, and all the other increasingly desperate assertions of moral and cultural superiority in a world where meaningful tides like earl, duke, and marquis are long gone and in theory repuguant. “Axis of evil? Totally banal,” scoffed Felipe Gonzalez, the former prime minister of Spain, not long before his own country swaggeringly recaptured an uninhabited and rather banal piece of rock that had been briefly snatched by Morocco.
The superciliousness of the educated knows no end, and may even betray a final anxiety. One million bachelor’s degrees are awarded in dais country each year, but under the new therapeutic curriculum there is little to guarantee that any of the holders of these certificates can spell a moderately difficult English word or knows which dictator belongs to which enslaved state. And what is true of students is too often true as well of their pretentious professors, as can be seen whenever Noam Chomsky pontificates about war (“Let me repeat: the U.S. has demanded that Pakistan kill possibly millions of people …”) and in place of references to historical exempla or citations from the literature raves on with “as I have written elsewhere,” “there are many other illustrations,” “as would be expected,” “it would be instructive to seek historical precedents,” “as leading experts on the Middle East attest,” and all the other loopholes and escape clauses that are the mark not of a learned intellectual but of a calcified demagogue.
But who has time to acquire expertise or exhibit patience with human frailty? The innate limitations of mortals matter little to our irritated utopians, nor can moral progress ever be rapid enough to keep up with a definition of perfection that evolves as quickly as the technology of cell phones. That Afghanistan a mere year after the fall of the Taliban is not yet as tranquil and secure as New England proves that our postbellum efforts there are not much better than the Taliban. “No one,” asserts Edward Said, “could argue today that Afghanistan, even after the rout of the Taliban, is a much better and more secure place for its citizens.” No one? That we once aided Saddam Hussein is a supposedly crippling fact of which we are reminded ad nauseam, as if, not before but after the Gulf war, France, Russia, and Germany did not proceed to sell him the components for weapons of mass destruction, or as if we ourselves did not once give the Soviets a third of a million GMC trucks to thwart Hitler, only to see them used in the Gulag. But in the perfect world of America’s critics, if Barbra Streisand can fly to Paris in four hours and fax her scrambled thoughts in seconds, and if Gore Vidal from his Italian villa can parse sentences better than the President of the United States, then surely we are terminally culpable for not having solved the globe’s problems right now.
IS IT because these elite Americans are so insulated and so well off, and yet feel so troubled by it, that they are prone to embrace with religious fervor ideas that have little connection with reality but that promise a sense of meaning, solidarity with a select and sophisticated group, moral accomplishment, and importance? Is it because of its very freedom and wealth that America has become both the incubator and the target of these most privileged, resentful, and unhappy people? And are their perceptions susceptible of change?
If the answer to the first two questions is yes, as I believe it is, then the reply to the third must be: I doubt it. The necessary correctives, after all, would have to be brutal: an economic depression, a religious revolution, a military catastrophe, or, God forbid, an end to tenure. At least in the near term, and whether we like it or not, the religion of anti-Americanism is as likely to grow as to fade.
But it can also be challenged. The anti-Americans often invoke Rome as a warning and as a model, both of our imperialism and of our foreordained collapse. But the threats to Rome’s predominance were more dreadful in 220 B.C.E. than in 400 C.E. The difference over six centuries, the dissimilarity that led to the end, was a result not of imperial overstretch on the outside but of something happening within that was not unlike what we ourselves are now witnessing. Earlier Romans knew what it was to be Roman, why it was at least better than the alternative, and why their culture had to be defended. Later in ignorance they forgot what they knew, in pride mocked who they were, and in consequence disappeared.
The example of Rome, in short, is an apt one, but in a way unintended by critics who use passing contemporary events as occasions for venting a permanent, irrational, and often visceral distrust of their own society. Their creed is really a malady, and it cries out to be confronted and exposed.
©2002 Victor Davis Hanson