by Roger Kimball
As members of Antifa and Black Lives Matter continue their nightly exercise of kinetic economic redistribution, and protestors assemble outside Walter Reed Hospital, where President Trump is receiving treatment for the Wuhan Flu, to shout anti-Trump slogans, I thought it might be useful to step back and consider this current wave of anti-American sentiment in historical context.
Anti-Americanism is not new, of course. It was, as many writers have noted, a staple of 1960s’ radicalism. What seems novel today, however, is the extent to which radical anti-American sentiment has installed itself into the heart of many institutions that, until about 15 minutes ago, were pillars of the American establishment. How odd that (Democratic) members of Congress should lament that America is guilty, and has always been guilty, of “systemic racism,” etc., etc. Somehow, the fact that Boston Mayor Martin Walsh hoisted the Chinese Communist flag in front of City Hall there epitomizes the rot.
Anti-Americanism is hard to argue with. I don’t mean that there are good arguments in favor of the phenomenon. Quite the contrary: insofar as arguments enter the arena at all, they usually lean heavily on assertion backed up by belligerence and cliché.
But it is seldom that argument does enter. Anti-Americanism has always been more a matter of attitude than argument. It depends on, it draws its strength from, the wells of passion, not reason. The composition of that passion is complex and shifting. Envy generally enters into it, as does a congeries of political attitudes that the literary critic Frederick Crews aptly dubbed “Left Eclecticism”: a bit of cut-rate Marxism to start with, leavened with a dollop of some trendy academic theory, a dash of utopian fantasy and snobbery, seasoned to taste with resentment and paranoia.
The late Paul Hollander provided a connoisseur’s overview of the favored configurations in his classic compendium Anti-Americanism: Irrational & Rational, first published in 1995. Reading through Hollander’s inventory, one is again and again struck by the combination of virulence and absolutism that fuels expressions of anti-Americanism. Hollander quotes the Russian writer Vasily Aksyonov, who emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States in the late 1970s:
Even now, after living in America for more than five years, I keep wondering what provokes so many people in Latin America, Russia, and Europe to anti-American sentiments of such intensity that it can only be called hatred. There is something oddly hysterical about it all.
Indeed. What Aksyonov omits is the prevalence of such hatred and hysteria among Europeans and even home-grown American expressions of anti-Americanism. There may be—in fact, there assuredly are—many things to criticize about the United States. But anti-Americanism has almost nothing to do with criticism. It is more of a pathology than a position, operating not by evidence but emotion.
Anti-Americanism as a Badge of Authenticity
Apparently, it was always thus. What we might call contemporary anti-Americanism—as distinct from the simple haut-en-bas snobbery and prejudice that preceded it—was born in the aftermath of World War II. In part, I suppose, it was an illustration of the old adage that “no good deed goes unpunished.”
As the French novelist and essayist Pascal Bruckner observed in The Tears of the White Man (1986), his brilliant anatomy of “third-worldism” and “compassion as contempt,” “Western Europe knew that, without the help of the Marines, they would purely and simply have been wiped off the map. But some forms of generosity are insulting.” The insult festered in the years following 1945, a period when Sartre’s explosive anti-Americanism set the tone of elite opinion in Europe and, increasingly, in the United States. Vietnam fanned the smoldering resentment into a raging conflagration.
“It must be understood,” Bruckner observed,
how in this emotionally overheated context, America could be the focus of so much hostility in the post-World War II period, and particularly during the 12 years of the Vietnam conflict. She provided the ideal guilty party. She was guilty on many counts, particularly because of the help she had given us. Neither France, nor Italy, nor Germany could forgive America for having liberated them from the Nazi and fascist yokes. . . .
The hatred was essentially aimed at the fact that America was what she was. America’s actions were seen as following from her perverted nature, and came to be simply consequences or illustrations of it. The polemical escalation went on and the controversy degenerated into a kind of metaphysical confrontation: America did not commit misdeeds, she herself resulted from a fundamental injustice. She was execrated not for this or that, but purely and simply for existing. Everywhere, at all times, it was necessary to denounce “the planetary empire of North American hegemonic capital,” the underlying pathology of barbarism.
The image of America as essentially evil was widely taken up and parroted by American intellectuals in the 1950s and 1960s. More and more, anti-Americanism became a necessary badge of authenticity for writers and intellectuals. One thinks of Norman Mailer and his excoriation of “the totalitarian tissues of American society” in “The White Negro” (1957) or Susan Sontag’s unending denunciations of American society as “inorganic, dead, coercive, authoritarian,” etc., etc. “America,” she wrote in 1969, “is a cancerous society with a runaway rate of productivity that inundates the country with increasingly unnecessary commodities, services, gadgets, images, information.”
It is often said that the Vietnam War was the great catalyst for the sudden upsurge of anti-American sentiment in the United States. Almost overnight, it seemed, the entire climate of elite opinion in the country underwent a startling metamorphosis. Opinions, like those of Norman Mailer, which hitherto had occupied the fringe suddenly went mainstream.
The ostensible issue was U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. But it soon became clear that Vietnam was merely the occasion for disruptions and demands that went far beyond any specific government policy. Vietnam became the banner under which the entire range of radical sentiment congregated.
Michael Lind was right when he observed in Vietnam: The Necessary War (1999) that the conflict in Vietnam “uncovered, but did not create, deep divisions in the American body politic.” Vietnam provided a rallying point, a crusade large enough to submerge all manner of ideological differences. Susan Sontag spoke for many left-wing intellectuals when she noted that “Vietnam offered the key to a systematic criticism of America.”
As Paul Hollander put it in Political Pilgrims: Western Intellectuals in Search of the Good Society, Vietnam was “more a catalyst than a root cause of the rejection of American society in the 1960s.” The Yippie leader Jerry Rubin put it even more bluntly: “If there had been no Vietnam war, we would have invented one. If the Vietnam war ends, we’ll find another war.”
As the ’60s evolved, it became increasingly clear that what was at stake was not only the war. The real issue was our way of life: what used to be called without apology “the American way of life,” with its social and political institutions, its moral assumptions, its unspoken confidences about what mattered.
One measure of the change wrought by this cultural offensive is the fact that even now, 50 or more years on, it is nearly impossible for anyone with a college education to speak of “the American way of life” without irony. To a large extent, that is because it is now practically taken for granted that going to college involves not so much the “questioning” as the repudiation of traditional moral and political values. (Or to put it another way: the academic “questioning” or “interrogation” of traditional values has only one right answer, “No.”) The greater the exposure to higher education, the more thorough the repudiation is likely to be. Topic for another day: why should taxpayers subsidize and parents pay for such extravagant training in self-hatred?
The Air We Breathe
Not that such exhibitions of adversarial animus are confined to the academy. Far from it. They are part of the air we breathe: implicit as much in our degraded pop culture as they are in our assumptions about our responsibilities as citizens and moral agents. To put it somewhat paradoxically: one of the most profound effects of the cultural revolution of the 1960s was to institutionalize the assumption of institutional illegitimacy. Accordingly, anti-Americanism became less a response to events than a simple reflex—less a matter of cynicism than a rejection of established authority, as if the very fact of being established undermined the legitimacy of an idea or institution. (This is an idea that one can trace back at least to John Stuart Mill’s attack on “the despotism of custom” and the “tyranny of [established] opinion” in On Liberty, but that, too, is a topic for another day.)
One of the most conspicuous and influential bastions of reflexive anti-Americanism in the 1960s (and since) has been The New York Review of Books, the highbrow near-weekly review that was started in 1963. The Review began to fill a void in American letters for the serious review and discussion of ideas. This it did with extraordinary energy and success.
But what began as a distinct liberal bias lurched sharply to the Left in the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the escalation of the Vietnam War. The Review reflected and abetted the growing anti-Americanism of America’s cultural elite. It was in the mid-60s, for example, that Noam Chomsky began contributing his lugubrious diatribes against American foreign policy, replete with such delicacies as his description of the Pentagon (in a piece called “On Resistance”) as “the most hideous institution on earth.” It was then, too, that Mary McCarthy filed her three-part report on the socialist paradise being prepared in North Vietnam and that I. F. Stone began bludgeoning readers with his interminable essays on the American military establishment (sample title: “The War Machine Under Nixon”).
In the mid-’60s, upper-class English dons and trendy American writers were joined by a more demotic element. Suddenly, political firebrands like Jerry Rubin, Stokely Carmichael, and Tom Hayden began appearing in the paper along with radical fellow-traveler Andrew Kopkind, a refugee from Newsweek. Of the 10 pieces that Kopkind wrote for the Review, the most notorious came in the issue of August 24, 1967. Headlined “Violence and the Negro,” the cover announced in outsize type Kopkind’s piece on Martin Luther King, Jr. and Black Power and Hayden’s report on the riots—what he called “The Occupation”—of Newark. Underneath was a large diagram instructing readers on the exact composition of a Molotov cocktail. According to former SDS leader Todd Gitlin, a Berkeley commune that habitually trashed neighborhood stores believed that “massive retaliation might be imminent, . . . and for that contingency they kept a Molotov cocktail in the basement, designed to the specifications of The New York Review of Books cover of 1967.” (Perhaps the thugs destroying Portland, Seattle, and other cities across the country today are using the same recipe.)
It was about this time that even some of The New York Review’s ideological allies began having doubts about the direction that the journal was taking. Irving Howe, himself a socialist and founding editor of Dissent, noted scathingly in 1968 that the Review had managed to achieve “a link between campus ‘leftism’ and East Side stylishness, the worlds of Tom Hayden and George Plimpton.” Howe continued:
Opposition to communist politics and ideology is frequently presented in the pages of the New York Review as if it were an obsolete, indeed a pathetic, hangover from a discredited past or worse yet, a dark sign of the CIA. A snappish and crude anti-Americanism has swept over much of its political writing. . . . And in the hands of writers like Andrew Kopkind . . . liberal values and norms are treated with something very close to contempt.
Howe was not the only former contributor to express alarm. The sociologist Dennis Wrong, who had appeared in The New York Review’s inaugural issue, wrote a lengthy and thoughtful piece on the journal for the November 1970 issue of Commentary. Noting, with basic approval, The New York Review’s early campaign against the Vietnam War, Wrong pointed out that
by 1966 and 1967 a new tone of extravagant, querulous, self-righteous anti-Americanism began to creep into the NYR’s reports on Vietnam, especially those of Noam Chomsky, Mary McCarthy, and I. F. Stone. The war seemed increasingly to provide the occasion for an extreme and bitter repudiation, marked by an unmistakable touch of Schadenfreude, of a great deal more in American life than the Johnson administration’s foreign policy, the Pentagon, the military-industrial complex, and the wretched clichés of cold-war propaganda.
The May 1971 Esquire went even further, predicting in a press note that “from among [The New York Review’s] authors the next Stalin, and his speechwriters, will emerge.”
As Wrong suggested, although the Vietnam War occasioned much of The New York Review’s radicalism, the real target was not America’s policy about Vietnam but America itself. Indeed, anti-Americanism—a prominent feature in almost all countercultural rhetoric—became a major leitmotif, almost a unifying theme, in The New York Review within a few years of its birth.
For example, when Mary McCarthy traveled to Vietnam early in 1967 for The New York Review, she began the first installment of her report—the cover story for April 20—with this acknowledgment: “I confess that when I went to Vietnam early in February I was looking for material damaging to the American interest and that I found it, though often by accident or in the process of being briefed by an official.” In the course of her reports, McCarthy naturally places the phrase “Free World” in scare quotes and consistently portrays Americans as venal monstrosities. (When she converses with a CIA agent, his “lips flexed as he spoke like rubber bands.”) Glorifying the industry and pluck of the North Vietnamese, she tells her readers that the “sense of fair play . . . has atrophied in the Americans here from lack of exercise.”
At the beginning of her second installment, McCarthy famously declared that “the worst thing that could happen to our country would be to win this war.” Years later, in 1979, after the horrific spectacle of the Vietnamese boat people and similar phenomena consequent on America’s losing that war, she was asked if she had changed her views on Vietnam. Noting that her ideal was still “socialism with a human face” (one might as well wish for wooden iron), she nevertheless acknowledged that
as for my current views on Vietnam, it’s all rather daunting. I’ve several times contemplated writing a letter to [the Vietnamese premier] Pham Van Dong (I get a Christmas card from him every year) asking him can’t you stop this, how is it possible for men like you to permit what’s going on? . . . I’ve never written that letter, though.
Liberal Disillusionment Gives Way to Hatred
The combination of arrogance and naïveté implicit in Mary McCarthy’s retrospective musings about Vietnam was a staple of The New York Review’s anti-Americanism. Jason Epstein provided a truly vertiginous example in an essay called “The CIA and the Intellectuals” (April 20, 1967). Following up on the revelation that the CIA had provided covert funding to some student and cultural organizations (including, most famously, Encounter magazine in England), Epstein’s piece was a meditation on how “organized anti-Communism had become as much an industry within New York’s intellectual life as Communism itself had been a decade or so earlier.”
Among other things, “The CIA and the Intellectuals” was an early masterpiece of what came to be called “moral equivalence.” In one remarkable passage, Epstein writes that Stalin
not only purged and tortured his former comrades, killed millions of Russians, signed the pact with Hitler, and suppressed the writers and artists. He had also done something which directly affected their own lives, much as the CIA and the State Department have not only burned the crops and villages and peoples of Vietnam, but have also brought so much anguish into the lives of so many young people today. What Stalin did to the generation of intellectuals who came of age between the Thirties and Fifties was to betray the idealism and innocence of their youth. By perverting revolutionary Marxism, he cheated them, as it were, in their very souls.
Epstein concludes sadly that certain radical intellectuals, robbed of their Communist ideals by nasty Joe Stalin, devoted “the rest of their energies to retribution.” It’s not simply that Epstein transforms a principled rejection of Communism into a psychological tic; he also insinuates an equivalence between the murderous behavior of Stalin and the activities of the American CIA. What Epstein does not see is that his friends who turned against Communism did so not because Stalin perverted “revolutionary Marxism” but because they finally understood that Stalinism was the natural fulfillment of revolutionary Marxism.
Epstein’s essay is notable for its exhibition of the way liberal disillusionment can be elevated into a kind of metaphysics of anti-Americanism:
The facts are clearer now than they were ten years ago. Then it surprised us to find that the country seemed to have fallen into a frenzy of self-destruction, tearing its cities apart, fouling its landscapes, poisoning the streams and skies, trivializing the education of its children, and not for any substantial human happiness, . . . but for higher profits and rapidly increased economic growth. . . . What we were experiencing was the familiar philistine expansionism (of which the Vietnamese are only the latest victims), this time attached to a formidable technology whose alarming possibilities were as yet unclear, but which was even then depressingly out of human scale and growing larger and more autonomous every day.
Now at last, Epstein concludes, it is clear that “pursuit of money and power became openly America’s main, if not its only, business.”
Which is worse, Epstein’s moralism, or his hypocrisy? By psychologizing politics and attempting to replace basic political commitments with a melodrama of virtue, Epstein is really engaged in a species of moral blackmail. As Diana Trilling observed in a withering response to “The CIA and the Intellectuals,” Epstein would have us believe that “depending on how we respond to the poisoning of our streams and skies we will take either a Left- or a Right-Wing position on—say—the Vietnam War. Whoever abhors polluted air and desecrated landscapes will have adequate grounds on which to judge American foreign policy. He will recognize it in all its ‘philistine expansionism.’ What further guide to decision in foreign affairs does anyone need?”
The Larger Project
In the end, The New York Review’s anti-Americanism has to be seen as part of a larger project of political, intellectual, and moral delegitimation. For example, over the years, the Review has run some distinguished pieces on science. But it has also been prey to a kind of countercultural technophobia that borders on irrationalism.
Consider, for example, John McDermott’s “Technology: The Opiate of the Intellectuals,” a special supplement that appeared in July 1969. The amazing conclusion of this long and tedious piece is that the spirit of scientific curiosity and the promotion of technology
should be frankly recognized as a conservative or right-wing ideology. . . . It succeeds in identifying and rationalizing the interests of the most authoritarian elites within this country, and the expansionism of their policies overseas. Truly it is no accident that the leading figures of laissez innover . . . are among the most unreconstructed cold warriors in American intellectual life.
Truly, it is no accident, either, that this sort of politicized attack on science and technology became a prominent item on the menu of academic radicalism in the decades to come.
Although the Yippie leader Jerry Rubin made only one appearance in The New York Review, his “Emergency Letter to My Brothers and Sisters in the Movement” (February 1969), written while he was in custody, is nonetheless significant as a reminder of the kinds of views the Review was willing to countenance in its pages.
Rubin begins by boasting that, although the forces of repression are on the rise, “We are stealing the youth of America right out of the kindergartens and elementary schools.” After some remarks about how “America’s courts are colonial courts,” her jails “black concentration camps,” he goes on to declare that “smoking pot is a political act, and every smoker is an outlaw. The drug culture is a revolutionary threat to plasticwasp9–5america [sic].”
Who the hell wants to “make it” in America anymore? The hippie-yippie-SDS movement is a “white nigger” movement. The American economy no longer needs young whites and blacks. We are waste material. We fulfill our destiny in life by rejecting a system which rejects us.
Accordingly, Rubin calls for widespread demonstrations near jails and courthouses to “demand immediate freedom for Huey P. Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, H. Rap Brown, all black prisoners, Timothy Leary, the Oakland Seven, all drug prisoners, all draft resisters, Benjamin Spock, . . . me,” etc.
Of course, Rubin was always something of a buffoon. And his later conversion from Yippie freak to Wall Street investment counselor makes his adolescent antics seem even more puerile than they perhaps were. Today, it is tempting to look back on erstwhile countercultural heroes like Jerry Rubin as comic figures, more preposterous than menacing. But it is a great mistake to believe that the preposterous is the enemy of the malign. On the contrary, such qualities often feed upon and abet each other.
Anti-Americanism and the War on Terror
The malevolence of the preposterous has been reinforced by the upsurge of anti-Americanism in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11. Thus when the playwright Harold Pinter was granted an honorary degree in Turin in 2002, he explained that the attack of 9/11 was “a predictable and inevitable” “act of retaliation against the constant and systematic manifestation of state terrorism on the part of the United States over many years, in all parts of the world.”
Pinterism (if I may thus eponymize this brand of intellectualizing self-hatred) is not a new phenomenon. George Orwell noted something similar in his anatomy of the pacifism that was rampant in English intellectual circles before and during World War II. The “unadmitted motive” of pacifism, Orwell wrote, was “hatred of Western democracy and admiration of totalitarianism.”
Harold Pinter was no John Walker Lindh. You wouldn’t find him joining up with the Taliban. But you would find him in sympathy with his spiritual colleague-in-rhetoric Susan Sontag, who explained that the assault of September 11 was “not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions. . . . [W]hatever may be said of the perpetrators of [September 11’s] slaughter, they were not cowards.”
Did she say, then, that they were murderous fanatics? Hardly. Sontag (like Pinter) was at once too ambivalent and too admiring for that: too ambivalent about the “world’s self-proclaimed superpower” (or “rogue state,” as Pinter put it) and too admiring of the insurrectionists. In this context, it is worth remembering Orwell’s observation about the “processes by which pacifists who have started out with an alleged horror of violence end up with a marked tendency to be fascinated by the successes and power of Nazism.”
Orwell noted that pacifism was “objectively pro-Nazi” because it inculcated an attitude that aided England’s enemies. Just so, anti-Americanism is objectively pro-terrorist. It was not surprising that the Nazis did all they could to encourage pacifism among the English (just as the Soviets actively aided the anti-war movement in America in the 60s and 70s and the Russians and the Chinese encourage Antifa and BLM today). Similarly, anti-Americanism helps to create a climate where terrorism is excused, rationalized, and explained away. We deserved it; we had it coming; arrogance; poverty; the environment; “root causes” . . .
Pacifism was built around phrases that sounded pleasant (peace, love, non-violence) but that were essentially deceptive because they were unrealistic—that is, untrue to the nature of reality, to the way the world actually works (as distinct from the way we might wish that it did). “To abjure violence,” Orwell noted, “it is necessary to have no experience of it.” Looking back on the Spanish civil war in 1942, Orwell criticized “the sentimental belief that it all comes right in the end and the thing you most fear never really happens.”
Nourished for hundreds of years on a literature in which Right invariably triumphs in the last chapter, we believe half-instinctively that evil always defeats itself in the long run. Pacifism . . . is founded largely on this belief. Don’t resist evil, and it will somehow destroy itself. But why should it? What evidence is there that it does?
While pondering that question, let us also step back and ask what America’s role in the world has been over the course of the last century. The British journalist Brian Appleyard, writing in the London Times on September 23, 2001, registered his amazement at the orgy of anti-Americanism that greeted the terrorist attacks of September 11. In one sense, he noted, there was nothing new about anti-Americanism.
I, certainly, have always lived in a world suffused with savage anti-Americanism. In my childhood the grown-ups were all convinced that the apparently inevitable nuclear holocaust would be the fault of the Americans. In my student years I saw the Vietnam war used as an excuse for violence and intimidation that would have made Mao Tse-tung proud—indeed, my contemporaries were waving his Little Red Book, his guide to mass murder, as they attempted to storm the American embassy. I saw many of those who now weep like crocodiles burning the Stars and Stripes.
But the excess of anti-Americanism that followed al-Qaeda’s attacks proceeded in a shriller, more virulent register than most earlier examples. It also seemed less rational. Appleyard duly noted that America was far from a perfect society. But what role had Americans actually played in “that most awful of all centuries,” the 20th?
They saved Europe from barbarism in two world wars. After the second world war they rebuilt the continent from the ashes. They confronted and peacefully defeated Soviet communism, the most murderous system ever devised by man, and thereby enforced the slow dismantling—we hope—of Chinese communism, the second most murderous. America, primarily, ejected Iraq from Kuwait and helped us to eject Argentina from the Falklands. America stopped the slaughter in the Balkans while the Europeans dithered.
There is a sense in which anti-Americanism—certain aspects of it, anyway—is the predictable function of envy, a phenomenon pointed to by the English authors of 1066 and All That when they noted that since the time of World War I America has been the world’s top nation. As political thinkers since Pericles have noticed, distinction breeds envy, envy breeds resentment, and, unchecked, resentment breeds hatred. But that sort of animus—lavished on Athens in her day, on Rome in hers, and on Great Britain in hers—is not by itself the sort of “anti” sentiment with which we need to concern ourselves.
Walter Bagehot came closer when he noted, in Physics and Politics (1872), that the enormous benefits that the English had conferred upon India—education, hygiene, the rule of law—were received with distinct ambivalence by the native population. The benefits were real, but, Bagehot apostrophized,
What puzzles them is your constant disposition to change, or as you call it, improvement. Their own life in every detail being regulated by ancient usage, they cannot comprehend a policy which is always bringing something new; they do not a bit believe that the desire to make them comfortable and happy is the root of it; they believe, on the contrary, that you are aiming at something which they do not understand—that you mean to “take away their religion”; in a word, that the end and object of all these continual changes is to make Indians not what they are and what they like to be, but something new and different from what they are, and what they would not like to be.
The journalist Henry Fairlie made a cognate point in 1975 in his essay “Anti-Americanism at Home and Abroad.” “The energy of the American presence in the world,” Fairlie wrote,
is both welcomed and feared, both a cause of hope and a source of anxiety, because with its idea it keeps unsettling the established forms of the past. Not merely old but ancient customs are surrendering to a presence that is not imposed and yet seems irresistible, to an idea that appears to be more powerful than the slogans of any revolution.
The unsettling of what Bagehot called “fixity” is a great source of cultural anxiety. It is, I suspect, a much larger ingredient in foreign complaints about the baneful influence of “vulgar” American culture than is usually acknowledged. (Not, I hasten to add, that those complaints are without merit: it is a curious irony, though, that the most effective criticisms of American culture have tended to come from conservative pro-American sources rather than from the anti-American Left.)
But explanations, however accurate, however deep, can take us only so far. They always bring with them a tendency to dismiss the thing being explained—“tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.” It is wise to take account of illuminating explanations. But it is a mistake—a mistake to which well-meaning liberals are especially prone—to believe that by understanding why a vicious character came to be that way we thereby purchase immunity from the effects of viciousness.
It has been suggested that the current outbreak of anti-Americanism, although broad, is not necessarily deep. There may be some truth in that, at least insofar as it applies to European and American anti-Americanism. Certainly, anti-Americanism comes in several versions and in differing levels of toxicity. But there is not a lot of comfort to be gleaned from that fact. Anti-Americanism is like certain infections: it can begin as a minor nuisance and, if untreated, blossom into a life-threatening condition.
Nor is there much comfort to be had from the contention that anti-Americanism in its home-grown versions is synonymous with political dissent: that it is merely a vigorous form of self-criticism. In the first place, it isn’t true. Dissent is one thing; anti-Americanism is closer to its opposite.
Indeed, anti-Americanism, because of its adversarial moralism, tends to short-circuit self-criticism. This was a point that Henry Fairlie underscored when he observed that the expression of anti-Americanism is “not criticism of one’s own society; in fact it prohibits just and effective criticism” by substituting utopian fantasies for political realities.
One of those realities concerns the responsibility that accrues to those states that wield great power. It is a lesson that liberal regimes are continuously tempted to forget, to their own peril, and the peril of the societies they influence. The dissolution of the British Empire—one of the most beneficent and enlightened political forces in history—took place for many reasons, including, it pains me to say, pressure from the United States.
But part of the reason for its dissolution was inner uncertainty, weariness, a failure of nerve. By the middle of the last century Britain no longer wished to rule: it wanted to be liked. The promiscuous desire to be liked, for states as much as for individuals, is a profound character flaw. It signals a faltering of courage, what Pericles castigated as μαλακία, “effeminacy,” and a dangerous loss of self-confidence.
At the height of the Cold War, the political philosopher James Burnham observed that “Americans have not yet learned the tragic lesson that the most powerful cannot be loved—hated, envied, feared, obeyed, respected, even honored perhaps, but not loved.” Have we now, some 50 years on, finally learned that lesson?
In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, we saw plenty of deplorable outbursts of anti-Americanism: the dancing “Death to America” multitudes in the Middle East as well as the predictable responses of the Chomsky-Sontag-Pinter brigade. But we also witnessed a vast outpouring of sympathy. Some of the sympathy no doubt was genuine; much of it was oleaginous and depended on the novel spectacle of America appearing as a victim.
The trouble was that America was not content to remain a victim. And when a victim fights back, he may earn respect but he forfeits sympathy and kindred sentimentalizing emotions.
A National Crisis of Confidence
When Susan Sontag said that the terrorist assaults on the United States were “undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions,” she offered that observation as a partial justification or extenuation of the attacks, which it most certainly was not. But there is, I believe, another sense in which growing anti-Americanism, together with a growing climate of terrorism, can be seen as a predictable result of American actions or, more to the point, of American inaction.
I am not offering a candidate for the “cause”—much less the “root cause”—of terrorism. Determining the cause of terrorism is not a difficult hermeneutical problem. Jonathan Rauch had it essentially right when he argued that the cause of terrorism is terrorists. Nevertheless, when we ask what nurtures terrorists, what may be counted on to allow them to flourish and multiply, one important answer concerns the failure of authority, which is the failure to live up to the responsibilities of power.
In the course of his reflections on anti-Americanism, Henry Fairlie observed that “Anti-Americanism abroad tends to be strongest when America itself seems to have lost confidence in its own idea.” Some such loss of confidence has repeatedly afflicted the American spirit at least since the end of the Vietnam conflict. It is by now a familiar litany, but is nonetheless worth reviewing. From the mid-’70s, the United States has vacillated in discharging its responsibilities to power. Whatever the wisdom of our involvement in Vietnam, our way of extricating ourselves was ignominious and an incitement to further violence. The image of that U.S. helicopter evacuating people from our embassy in Saigon is a badge of failure, not so much of military strategy as of nerve.
Even worse was our response to the hostage crisis in Iran in 1979 and 1980. Our hesitation to act decisively was duly noted and found contemptible by our enemies. And the fiasco of President Carter’s botched rescue attempt, when a transport vehicle and one of our helicopters collided on the sands of the Iranian desert, was a national humiliation. President Reagan did effectively face down the Soviet Union, but his halfhearted response to the terrorist bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 contributed to the tattered reputation of America as (in Mao’s phrase) “a paper tiger.”
The Clinton Administration sharply exacerbated the problem. From 1993 through 2000, the United States again and again demonstrated its lack of resolve even as it let its military infrastructure decay. In Somalia at the end of 1992, two U.S. helicopters were shot down, several Americans were killed, the body of one was dragged naked through the streets of Mogadishu. We did nothing—an action, or lack of action, that prompted Osama bin Laden way back then to reflect that his followers were “surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers and realized more than before that the American soldier was a paper tiger and after a few blows ran in defeat.”
It was the same in 1993, when terrorists bombed the World Trade Center, killing six people and wounding scores. It was the same in June 1996, when a truck bomb exploded outside a U.S. military barracks in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 Americans. There were some anguished words but we did—nothing. It was the same in 1998 when our embassies were bombed in Kenya and Tanzania, killing hundreds. The response was to rearrange some rocks in the Afghan desert with a few cruise missiles.
It was the same in October 2000, when suicide terrorists blew a gigantic hole in USS Cole, killing seventeen sailors and almost sinking one of the U.S. Navy’s most advanced ships. Like Hamlet, we responded with “words, words, words,” and only token military gestures. The harvest was an increase in contempt and a corresponding increase in terrorist outrage, culminating in the terrible events of September 11.
My own judgment is that the current orgy of anti-Americanism, fanned to a fever pitch by racialist hooligans who in turn are supported by America’s enemies, finds purchase only because of the habit of liberal accommodation has precipitated a crisis in what one used to be able to call, without apology, manly self-confidence. The extent to which the word “manly” causes discomfort is an index of the depth of our pathology.
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Roger Kimball is editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the president and publisher of Encounter Books. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St. Augustine’s Press), The Rape of the Masters (Encounter), Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse (Ivan R. Dee), and Art’s Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (Ivan R. Dee).
Photo “Flag Burning” by Elvert Barnes CC BY-SA 2.0.