by Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Online
Not long ago Pepsi Cola’s chief operating officer, Indra Nooyi, gave anaddress to the graduating class at Columbia Business School. In it, she metaphorically likened America to the middle finger on the global hand.
Denunciations and anger arose from her use of the silly metaphor (e.g., “This analogy of the five fingers as the five major continents leaves the long, middle finger for North America, and, in particular, the United States.…However, if used inappropriately — just like the U.S. itself — the middle finger can convey a negative message and get us in trouble. You know what I’m talking about… So remember, when you extend your arm to colleagues and peoples from other countries, make sure that you’re giving a hand, not the finger.”)
Then came her employer’s obligatory explication that she really did not mean what she said. And soon her defenders claimed hypersensitive Americans could not take well-meaning admonishment.
Pepsi is a $27 billion company. Those who run it, like Nooyi, make big money from its global sales and take-no-prisoners marketing approach. Pepsi is not known for worrying too much about putting indigenous soft-drink makers out of business. Here at home it does not often allow small businesses to offer both Coke and Pepsi in a spirit of consumer convenience and choice. Roughshod, no-holds-barred business gets such a company to the top — and allows multimillion-dollar salaries for its grandee hardball officers.
Former cricket-star-turned-Pakistani-politician Imran Khan in some ways jumpstarted the Newsweek-induced frenzy when in a May 6 press conference he demanded an apology for the alleged slight to the Koran. “This is what the U.S. is doing,” Khan boomed, “desecrating the Koran.” His mischaracterization, based on a lie, was then beamed across the Middle East — and, presto, Mr. Khan got the anti-American outburst he apparently wanted.
Khan may have made his fortune and name in the British tabloids as a cricket star and international playboy of the London salons, a lifestyle that had strong affinities with the West rather than the madrassas. But now he is back in Pakistan crafting a political career and catering to the Islamists, even though religious extremism is antithetical to what allowed him to succeed and prosper abroad.
Yet this same demagogue earlier urged Hindu extremists to remain calm during a recent cricket match between India and Pakistan. After all, religious extremism is valuable to beat up the West and the United States — but not to the point that such fervor might endanger playing a Western sport amid frenzied Hindus. Left unsaid is that there is no place for an Imran Khan in the world of the Taliban, where soccer stadiums were used to lynch moderate Muslims, not enrich pampered athletes.
Arundhati Roy, the Booker-prize-winning novelist, has developed a second career critiquing the United States, especially its promotion of the free markets and capitalism that she believes are the catalysts for righteous hatred against America.
Roy doesn’t quite get that the reason that the UK recognizes an Indian novelist like her, writing halfway across the globe — and that she is able to jet over to the United States for lucrative speaking engagements, and that her books are mass-produced and hawked aggressively over global Internet book marts — is precisely the system that this child of capitalism so vehemently detests.
Pakistan, well before 9/11, was the recipient of billions of dollars in U.S. aid, and, in response, its intelligence services created the Taliban that in turn helped al Qaeda pull off September 11. India is making billions from an American free-trade policy that encourages outsourcing business overseas, even if it means the loss of U.S. jobs. Neither country has much of a legitimate gripe against the United States, and surely has not objected that its elites are going to the West to be educated, to profit — and, in these above cases, apparently to master the easy anti-Western rhetoric.
But note the anti-American two-step. Immediately after her silly remarks, the corporate mogul Nooyi provided a recant. Neither Khan nor Roy has vowed to stay out of the U.K. or the U.S., where the Koran is supposedly not respected and where the homeless starve as a result of capitalism — a system that both created and enriched them all and which they apparently love to chide.
The anti-Americanism that we frequently see and hear, then, is often a plaything of the international elite — a corporate grandee, a leisured athlete, or a refined novelist who flies in and out of the West, counts on its globalizing appendages for wealth, and then mocks those who make it all possible — but never to the point that their own actions would logically follow their rhetoric and thus cost them so dearly.
We might expect that a chagrined Ms. Nooyi would resign from Pepsi since it is the glossy fingernail of the American middle finger that apparently so bothers her. We pray that Mr. Khan will stay among the mobs and rioters of the madrassas and mosques he stirred up. Perhaps novelist Roy can write in an indigenous Indian language, peddle her books at home, and thereby disinvest from this hegemonic system that drives her to fury.
Then there is the director of anti-American films from Denmark, Lars von Trier, who whined, “Mr. Bush is an a**hole. So much in Denmark is American. . . America fills about 60 per cent of my brain. So, in fact, I am American. But I can’t go there to vote and I can’t change anything, because I am from a small country. So that is why I make films about America.”
Memo to poor head-pounding Mr. von Trier: There is no compelling reason to have anything American in your country — except in the past to expel German invaders you either could not or would not keep out. Simply stop buying American. Don’t watch American movies. Admonish not us, but your own leaders to get out of NATO, pronto — the faster the better. Deny entry to all American troops — and tourists. Embrace the EU. It’s bigger and more populous than the U.S. Create an all-EU defense force. Go for it all!
Above all, be sure that your films are not marketed through any global organization that is either American-financed, directed, or substantiates a Westernized hegemony in the promulgation of intellectual property. Perhaps there are plenty of Danes who would see your films about Denmark at home — and that might cleanse your brain of what you hate, if make you a little less money.
There are easily identifiable constants in these sad examples. Rhetoric is always at odds with lifestyle: A novelist who tours and writes in English is the epitome of the Western liberal tradition that allows freedom of expression, promotes book sales through open markets, and enjoys unfettered peer review. Ms. Roy will always operate deeply embedded in the system she ridicules, and Western grandees will always pay her well for making them feel badly for a few hours. Islamists, Communists, and theocrats — in a Saudi Arabia, Iran, Cuba, or China — would not only not pay her, but might well issue a fatwa, jail time, or a death sentence for what they didn’t like to read or hear.
As a cricketer Khan made a fortune doing what most normal Westerners do not do. By some reports, corporate grandee Nooyi took in $5 million-plus a year — and lives a life that most Americans outside of Greenwich, Connecticut, and without her access to a globalized captain’s seat at PepsiCo could only dream of.
So it is not just the West per se that has enriched these megaphones, but the hard-driving, over-hyped culture of the West, as exemplified by marquee sports, highbrow publishers, and the Pepsi Corporation.
In other words, Khan, Roy, and Nooyi are, by their own volition, knee-deep in the supposed greed of the West in a way that most ordinary Americans surely are not. Maligned Americans on the tractor in Kansas or walking the beat in the Bronx have not a clue about the privileges that a Roy or Nooyi enjoy — and they are not whining, complaining, or biting the hand that feeds them far less well.
No, these ungracious operators all seem to gravitate to, profit from, and then spite the paradigm that created rich global business, media, publishing, and entertainment conglomerates — and themselves.
A second constant is illustrated by director von Traer’s remark: “America fills about 60 percent of my brain.” There is a sort of schizophrenia also common among the “other” who bumps up against the U.S. The extreme example of this syndrome can be seen in bin Laden and Mohammed Atta, who seemed mesmerized and yet repelled by their own thralldom to things Western.
In the case of von Trier, does he ever ask why the U.S. is so obtrusive in his gray matter, and why, for instance, Scandinavia is not — or for that matter a larger France or an even larger Russia? Instead in his movies and outbursts he retreats into the usual racist or exploitative mantra that serves a psychological need of reconciling what you want and enjoy and won’t give up with a feeling of unease and guilt about your own expanding appetite — or exploding brain.
A final suggestion for these unhappy and privileged few: To end your obsessions with the pathologies of America and the West, find a way to create your own alternative sports, literature, corporations, soft drinks, and filmmaking in the non-West.
It is not that we Americans are mad at what you say. It is just that you have all become so hypocritical, then predictable, and now boring — you are all so boring.
©2005 Victor Davis Hanson