Why Do They Hate Us?

by Victor Davis Hanson

A shorter version of this review appears in the current issue of National Review.

Understanding Anti-Americanism: Its Origins and Impact at Home and Abroad. by Paul Hollander, editor (Ivan R. Dee, 388 $28.95)

Hating America is not new. Nor does it have much to do with the unpopularity of George Bush. Instead, primordial emotions like envy, resentment, and self-loathing explain why the world’s elites damn Americans for who they are and what they represent rather than what they actually do. Criticism of American policies and culture is fair game, but not hysterical venom. Left unsaid is why millions flock to our shores and still more emulate our society if it is so abjectly awful as writers, artists, politicians, and journalists attest.

Paul Hollander has spent much of his distinguished career pondering those questions and has now brought together a distinguished team of investigators to attempt a systematic study of this strange phenomenon. What the 18 assembled authors conclude is both fascinating and depressing. Most of the social problems of twentieth-century modernity itself—from urban crime and the destruction of traditional landscapes to the shedding of tradition and the laxity of morals—is attributed to the radically democratic and popular culture of the United States.

Indeed, it is almost as if people hate what they have become, aping American slang and informality and then decrying the erosion of global etiquette. Scapegoating America allows one in the concrete to enjoy jeans, birth-control pills, antibiotics, and video games, even while damning in the abstract the purveyor of both junk and life-saving appurtenances.

Hollander’s team also cites a variety of more recent developments that have accentuated the traditional and deductive dislike of the United States. The fall of the Soviet Union meant that one superpower was now responsible for all the major crises in the world, and could not be balanced by playing it off one against another. If American-style capitalism was bad, few once saw the alternative of a murderous Soviet Marxism as any better. But with the Bolsheviks’ fall from power, there arose the romance of a sort of earlier and purer unfulfilled Trotskyism—or at least the easy fantasy of thinking “something” must be better than the United States without experiencing what that something actually was and did.

The American military build-up of the 1980s came to fruition at precisely the time the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving the United States strong as never before and without a serious rival—allowing it alone to determine when, how, and where to use its usually unrivaled armed forces. No one likes an overdog—especially when it is easy to do so now in a world without major Soviet-sponsored enemies on the border.

Globalization is a force multiplier of the disease. It has allowed local and parochial gripes to be shared instantaneously worldwide on the Internet and television, even as multinational corporations have developed the ability to impose McDonald’s, Chicago Bulls jerseys, and Britney Spears into village life in Pakistan—and amid the coffeehouses of Paris.

While George Bush—his accent, public Christianity, embrace of southern NASCAR culture in lieu of Harvard and the New York Times, and willingness to use force unilaterally—may have acerbated anguish against the United States, the real recent catalyst has been Islamic fundamentalism. Indeed, the traditional Middle East feels most keenly the rampant culture of a freewheeling American presence on its televisions, billboards, video games, and movie screens.

While the rest of the world prospered under globalization and occasionally nibbled the hand that fed it, hundreds of millions of the Middle East still retain autocratic governments, statist economies, gender apartheid, censorship, state police, and religious fundamentalism and intolerance. Jihad is the alternative to Baathist dictatorship, as cheek-by-jowl dictators and terrorists blame the Jews and the Americans for their own self-induced misery.

All these arguments are offered with a wealth of detail, especially in the context of Europe where anti-Americanism is seen as the Trojan Horse that has the ability to undermine the unity of the West. Thus James Ceaser traces the philosophical assault on America as the crass soul-destroyer from Nietzsche to Heidegger, quoting Jean François Revel’s famous quip, “If you remove anti-Americanism nothing remains in French political thought today, either on the Left or Right.”

Anthony Daniels pursues that line in a more detailed analysis of the French, reminding us that we need not seek either deep explanations or concrete examples of their real grievance. It is simpler than all that: a once glorious culture has been saved by one deemed crass, and now finds its values steamrolled worldwide by its erstwhile liberator. And because America is both relatively self-absorbed and forgiving, the French simply go on hating America without repercussions, explaining why, for example, their complicity in the Rwandan holocaust draws no rebuke while America is blamed both for allowing and removing Milosevic.

In Britain and Germany the story is slightly different, if also similar in the shared fear of an all-oppressive and dominant American colossus. Both elite British Leftists and Tories, as Michael Mosbacher and Digby Anderson argue, deride American money-grubbing and hyper-individualism. The socialists think the United States is exploitive, the aristocrats find it in bad taste. Together they can focus their theoretical frustrations on us even as they grudgingly accept that their own country, to stay competitive and provide a decent living for its citizens, is becoming far more egalitarian, capitalistic, informal—and thus American—than ever before.

The Germans are again different. Expanding on Ceaser’s analysis, Michael Freund sees a once beaten country experiencing Schadenfreude, or amusement at our own present unpopularity. Whether that opportunism will continue with the withdrawal of American troops, and new responsibilities for a stagnant socialist economy, is another story.

We can see how European theory gets translated in Third World fact in the Middle East. Patrick Clawson and Barry Rubin fault us for not demanding from the Islamic world greater honesty in recognizing our own past support—tilting toward it in the Suez Crisis, freeing Kuwait, and saving Bosnians and Kosovars. Too often we either do not defend American values or allow our own elite critics to pose as grass-roots representatives of the much misused rubric “the American people”—the mythical good guys here at home who are also victims, hoodwinked by various conspiracies (read Jews, corporations, and modernists).

In Latin America, as Michael Radu, David C. Brooks, and Mark Falcoff show, we get blamed as a surrogate Spain who is the new colonizer. Yanquis are caricatured either as gunboat interveners or United Fruit puppeteers—even as well-heeled Spanish-speaking court jesters jet northward to fellowships, professorships, and grants in the United States to play on guilt-ridden American elites.

Yet the most fascinating part of Hollander’s collection is the analysis of anti-Americanism here at home. Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, Cathy Young, Adam Garfinkle, and Sandra Stotsky all make absorbing observations about the role of decades of communism, militant feminism, anti-Semitism, and utopian pacifism have had in creating the current American Left that we see turn up at televised ANSWER rallies and Moveon.org meetings with their potpourri of causes and gripes that appear on our C-span screens.

Bruce Thornton and Roger Kimball offer two brilliant essays. Thornton asks how do the intellectual and artist, in a sea of affluence and leisure, win status and acclaim from a nose-to-the grindstone, take-out pizza, 9-5 citizenry that make it all possible? A New York Times critic like Frank Rich or Sam Mendes, director of American Beauty, suggest that a few sensitive and compassionate sorts like themselves carry the thankless (but usually quite lucrative) burden of explaining to Jason and Nicole of the suburbs just how empty and inauthentic their lives really are.

Roger Kimball’s insights into the detritus of the 1960s are many, but he reminds us that anti-Americanism flourishes because we choose neither to question it nor to defend our values—and thus it will start to disappear precisely when we do.

Paul Hollander has performed a great service with this volume, one that explains Michael Moore’s popularity here and abroad far better than any ephemeral hatred of George Bush.

©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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