The secret of anti-Americanism

As a young American living outside the US I often found myself exposed to the odd belief system that’s often called “anti-Americanism.” I had trouble understanding how or why anyone could think this way. Reality, which my father brought home every night in the slim and serious form of the Herald Trib, was one thing, and anti-Americanism quite another.

And yet the creed seemed quite popular. Moreover, it was no peasant superstition. If anything, the local elites—with whose spawn I was of course raised, and whose wealth and sophistication were undeniable—tended to be the most anti-American around. If anyone was pro-American, it was the people farther down the food chain. This was a puzzle, and it was quite some time before I had any satisfying answer to the mystery.

Among American intellectuals today we see basically two views of anti-Americanism.

If you are a progressive intellectual, you probably believe that anti-Americanism is the natural consequence of the notorious crimes committed by America in the past and present. We could call this the Deathworld theory, after an old sci-fi novel by Harry Harrison. Without debating the details of America’s rap sheet, the basic problem with the Deathworld theory is that many other 20th-century powers committed notorious crimes—the Soviets, the Chinese, and of course the dastardly French—without creating any phenomenon even remotely similar to anti-Americanism.

If you are a conservative intellectual, you probably believe that anti-Americanism is more or less the modern equivalent of anti-Semitism, that is, an lie propagated by unprincipled politicians for the usual purpose of rising to power on a wave of hate. We could call this the Hitler theory of anti-Americanism—Hitler was certainly no fan of Jazz Age America, infested as it was by Negroes and Jews. The difficulty with the Hitler theory is that most (although not all) of the world’s anti-Americanists seem to hate Hitler even more than they hate America, so it’s a little difficult to imagine them borrowing his tricks.

There are certainly bits of truth to both the Deathworld and Hitler theories. But overall, they don’t really jump out at me and say “yes! I am an accurate representation of reality.” So perhaps it’s worth digging deeper.

I see four really puzzling facts about anti-Americanism.

First, the actual content of anti-Americanism is basically nonsense. I guarantee you that if anyone capable of reading this blog got to sit down for an hour and chat with Bush, Cheney, or any of their henchmen, they would come away with an impression of an enormously likable, intelligent and utterly sincere individual. Moreover, this impression is quite accurate. My father—a career Foreign Service officer with a PhD in philosophy—met quite a few of these people, because one of the tasks of an FSO is shepherding Congresspersons on junkets. Regardless of party affiliation, all American politicians are likable, all are fairly (if seldom extremely) intelligent, and all are quite sincere in their desire to improve not only America, but also the world. Why would they be otherwise? “Never ascribe to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence.”

Second, while it is not unusual for humans to believe nonsensical calumnies, anti-Americanists tend to be the best-educated, and generally most fashionable and sophisticated, people in their countries. It is not unusual for fashionable and sophisticated people to believe nonsense, but they need a strong psychological motivation to do so. Moreover, the obvious motivation—ethnic nationalism—tends to be quite unfashionable among these same elites. Not even French anti-Americanists believe that it’s wrong for America to rule the world, because France should be ruling it instead.

Third, anti-Americanists don’t actually seem to hate America or Americans. At least this is my experience, though of course there are exceptions. Often the line is that the US is the greatest country in the world, or would be if it lived up to its own values. Or they will tell you that they love the American people, but they hate the American government, Bush, etc.

Fourth, the world capital of anti-Americanism appears to be… America. Certainly, if there is a system of institutions in which anti-Americanism predominates, it’s the Western university system, certainly the West’s most prestigious universities are in America, and certainly anti-Americanism is no hardship to an American academic career. Where does Noam Chomsky teach? Not at the Sorbonne.

Here is my explanation of these four unusual facts. Your mileage, as usual, may vary.

First, I believe anti-Americanism is best described as an epiphenomenon of Universalism. The single most significant fact about the world today is that sixty-two years ago it was conquered by a military alliance whose leader was the United States, and whose creed of battle was this nontheistic adaptation of New England mainline Protestantism. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the European ruling class holds essentially the same perspectives that were held at Harvard in 1945. The US Army did not shoot all the professors in Europe and replace them with Yankee carpetbaggers, but the prestige of conquest is such that it might as well have.

It makes sense to view anti-Americanism as a postwar phenomenon, because it’s hard to find anything in Europe’s prewar political scene that corresponds to it. Before WWII, a European who found American influences pernicious was most likely a man of the Right, generally either an anti-Wilsonian aristocrat or a Bonapartist nationalist demagogue. After the war, and especially since the rise of the postwar-educated generation of 1968, European anti-Americanism has been overwhelmingly on the Left. Considering the animosity between these factions, it’s hard to find any continuity between them.

One way to look at the relationship between American and European political creeds is an analogy I often find useful: comparing the transmission of traditions to the transmission of languages.

In the 1940s, America invaded Europe, rather than the other way around. Therefore, we would expect to see more political diversity in America than in Europe, for much the same reason there are more dialects of English in Britain than in the US. The Englishmen who came to the US were by no means uniformly distributed across England, Scotland and Wales, and the randomizing process of migration tended to homogenize their speech and create a lingua franca. Just as the English of Appalachia retains Elizabethan tropes which have long since disappeared in the home country, the Universalism of Europe has a kind of New Deal purity which the fray of American politics has long since diluted.

In Europe, Universalism has no significant natural enemies. It flourishes as a kind of clonal hypercolony, like the Argentine ant. The sort of right-wing populism one can see every day on Fox News barely exists even in Britain, in the degenerate lowbrow form of the Daily Mail, where it is clearly in the process of vanishing. On the Continent it is already extinct for all political purposes, reappearing only east of the Oder in figures like the Kaczynski twins. While anti-Universalist attitudes are socially unfashionable in the United States, they are socially unacceptable in most of Europe. (Though allegedly the Swedes are famous for spewing great masses of filthy wrongthink when extremely intoxicated.)

This is how the European Union can claim to be the culmination of democracy, while in fact being entirely free from politics. The truth is that, except for a tiny minority of carping malcontents, all respectable Europeans agree on all significant political questions. Europe’s educational system has simply done a fantastic job of eradicating dissent.

Fine. But what does this all have to do with anti-Americanism? How can an essentially American tradition be anti-American? This still makes no sense.

The truth, in my opinion, is that Europeans hate not America, but the American government. And they hate not the American government, but the red government—Defense, the White House, and maybe (quite anachronistically these days) the CIA. In other words, they are just like the San Francisco liberal who “loves her country, but doesn’t trust her government.” The fact that the overwhelming majority of American government employees work for the blue government simply does not occur to her in this context, and nor to the Europeans.

The foreign-policy institution of the blue government is, of course, the State Department—much as the foreign-policy institution of the red government is the Defense Department. So one way to see Europe is as a client state of State—much as Israel is a client state of Defense. No wonder they hate each other!

When Europeans express anti-American sentiments, in my opinion, they are actually acting as loyal servants of the America that conquered them six decades ago. Of course, Europe was invaded by tanks, airplanes and infantry—not diplomats, educators and aid workers. But the America that won World War II was a one-party state that had no place for the Right, and it recreated Europe in its own image. The cold war between State and Defense, eggheads and jocks, blue-state and red-state, broke out only after the shooting had stopped.

In fact, one theory is that this cold war is not just a cold war. It is the Cold War.

Here’s another puzzle: even long after it’s become clear that the atrocities of Communism met and exceeded those of Nazism, anti-anti-Communism remains our conventional wisdom. It has never been even slightly dislodged from its victory over the anti-Communist McCarthyites and Birchers. There is no hint, of course, of anti-anti-Nazism.

It’s interesting to read classic works of American anti-Communism today, like the all-time Bircher bestseller, John Stormer’s None Dare Call It Treason, which sold seven million copies in its day. From the benefit of hindsight, almost all the details in the book are correct—Castro and Mao really were Communist bastards, and so on—and at this low level its grip on reality is far stronger than anything which was taught at Harvard in its time.

But the overarching paranoid theory of anti-Communism, the idea that all American institutions had been infiltrated by the devious agents of Moscow, strikes us as nonsensical today—and rightly so. If you can’t afford a copy of None Dare Call It Treason—a bargain at only one cent, plus shipping—you can see Eric Raymond, who is an ass but certainly no dummy, promoting this theory as recently as 2005.

What Raymond sees, and what the anti-Communists saw, was the remarkable alignment of Universalism with the interests of the KGB. True enough. What they missed was that they’d drawn the tail wagging the dog.

It is not that the American left was the tool of Moscow. In fact, it was the other way around. From day one, the Soviet Union was the pet experiment of the bien-pensants. It was Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward in Cyrillic. It was the client state to end all client states.

True, the Soviet system never worked properly. Bellamy’s Industrial Army didn’t turn out to be as fun as it sounded, and in the end most Western intellectuals lost any faith that Russia, at least, was the planned society of their dreams. But if you imagine how American libertarians would react if Putin’s Russia declared itself a libertarian paradise tomorrow, you may get some idea of how and why the process of disillusionment was so slow and halting.

It’s not just that Western intellectuals saw the Soviet experiment as a glimpse of the future. The Soviet Union was a true client state—it depended existentially on the support of its Western patrons, and its demise had much to do with the demise of that support.

The Soviet system was a military tyranny, but it was not just a military tyranny. Its security also depended on a pervasive state religion, and the essence of that religion was the belief that the Soviet Union was at the forefront of human development. The fact that large numbers, often even the majority, of Western intellectuals, agreed with that claim, was a keystone of the Soviet political formula.

Because not even the Soviets could convince their own citizens that Russia was the center of civilization. Not even the dumbest muzhik from Okhotsk would swallow this one. However, the idea that America and Europe had fallen under the domination of fascist plutocrats who oppressed enlightened social thought was not at all hard to believe—whether in Russia or elsewhere. This is why the Soviets made such herculean efforts to maintain the support of prestigious Western intellectuals such as the Webbs, Lion Feuchtwanger, Lincoln Steffens, and many others, surpassing any Potemkin in their production of tourism as theatre.

The theory of Russia as a client state of the American left helps us understand the behavior of the great Communist spies of the 1940s, Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White. Essentially all significant institutions of today’s transnational world community—the UN, the IMF, the World Bank—were designed by one of these gentlemen, whose role in passing American documents to Soviet military intelligence is now beyond dispute. John Stormer was right.

Or was he? The thing is that while, technically, Hiss and White were certainly Soviet agents, they hardly fit the profile of a traitor like Aldrich Ames. Hiss and White were at the top of their professions, respected and admired by everyone they knew. What motivation could they possibly have for treason? Why would men like these betray their country?

The obvious answer, in my opinion, is that they didn’t see themselves as betraying their country. The idea that they were Russian tools would never have occurred to them. When you see a dog, a leash, and a man, your interpretation is that the man is walking the dog, even if the latter appears to be towing the former.

Hiss and White, in my opinion, believed—like many of their social and cultural background—that the US had nothing to fear from the Soviet Union. They saw themselves as using the Soviets, not the other way around, helping to induce the understandably paranoid Russian leadership to integrate themselves into the new global order. Probably they had much the same picture of their actions that Larry Franklin, on the other side of the aisle, had when he passed documents to Israel.

In this theory, the Soviet Union is simply the first and largest of the many Third World states which America’s Universalist establishment played midwife to. From Mao, Castro, Nasser and Ho, down to Mugabe, Khomeini, and Chavez, the fingerprints of the State Department, the Times, and the universities are everywhere. The Bolsheviks are just the first of the series.

Not that the Polygon ever had control over these gangsters. No one can control a gangster. The likes of Hiss and White would have lasted five minutes in a power struggle with Stalin. If his name had been Heriberto de Mateo and his passport hadn’t been blue, Castro would have had Herbert Matthews locked in a dog cage. To these mafia dons of the 20th century, their American intellectual patrons were no more than “useful idiots,” and the entreaties of foreigners to actually implement freedom and democracy, as promised, the baaing of sheep.

And there were easy ways of defusing even this baaing. One way, still in use by Castro as I write, is to point to the hostility of America—i.e., more exactly, of the red government. If America would only make peace with us, we would become good and sweet and true, but for now it is necessary to take extreme measures to defend ourselves from the Pentagon and CIA.

Thus, devout Universalists could blame all the suffering of the Cold War, not least its numerous hot wars, quite credibly on their own political enemies. Rather than on the militarist mafias to which the State Department had helped hand over half the planet. At least Europe did not prove favorable to gang rule—at least, not quite as favorable.

Anti-Americanism, in this interpretation, is the organizing ideology of an empire. Call it the Blue Empire. The Blue Empire is an American empire, and its headquarters are in Foggy Bottom and Cambridge and Times Square. Anti-Americanists have no idea that they are in fact serving the needs and wishes of the Blue Empire. But then again, why would they?

The Blue Empire’s bitter enemy is the Red Empire, whose headquarters is in Arlington and (for the moment) Pennsylvania Avenue. The Red Empire is currently defending itself in Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan and Colombia—former clients such as Chile, Spain, Portugal, South Vietnam and South Africa having fallen to the Blue side. (The Red Empire still has strong clients in Asia, though, such as Japan, Taiwan and Indonesia.)

Meanwhile, a few countries have actually managed to escape the blue–red war and become independent. They have names like “China” and “Russia.” These places are doing quite well at the moment, although their continuing success is by no means guaranteed.

A nation is genuinely independent of America if its domestic politics are not correlated at all with American domestic politics. Iran and Venezuela, for example, are not independent of America, not only because anti-Americanism is a huge part of their internal political formulas (it plays a much smaller, if not undetectable, role in China and Russia), but also because their regimes both exhibit existential dependence on American political forces.

Iran needs the American left to defend it from attacks by the American right. The woman-stoning, gay-hanging mullahs of Iran, like other Islamic fundamentalists, don’t really strike a chord in the Universalist heart, except with a few real misfits like John Walker Lindh. But to paraphrase Churchill, in a fight between the Pentagon and Satan himself, San Francisco can be relied upon to side with the latter.

Venezuela is not seriously threatened by the US military, except perhaps in its imagination. But Chavez, like the Soviets of yore, basks in the adulation he receives from the likes of Chomsky. One can assume this is a nontrivial aspect of his political formula.

And then, of course, there is Palestine—the pearl of the Blue Empire. But hopefully the pattern is clear by now.

From a strictly Machiavellian perspective, we have to regard the Blue Empire as a work of genius. It removes every inessential element of imperialism, and strips it down to its pure functional necessities. As St. Exupery put it, the machine is complete only when there is nothing left to take away.

The entire process of “decolonialization” was no more than the transfer of the Third World states from the old European Optimate empires to the Blue Empire. By shifting indirect rule from the regional to the national level, decolonialization could define itself as “liberation.”

In fact the “liberated” states were left in the hands of Blue Empire advisers, who offered them aid and planned to use their countries as experiments in Universalist nation-building, and corrupt local thugs. Sometimes the relationship was good, sometimes it was bad. When it was good the money flowed, when it was bad it didn’t. In every case, however, nations were not so much built as destroyed, and “postcolonialism” brought nothing but murder, theft and decay.

However, this was no skin at all off the Blue Empire’s back. The purpose of empire is not actually to civilize the natives—that is 19th-century colonialist propaganda. The purpose of empire is to provide political validation for the imperialist party back home. The old British and French empires were always money-losing propositions—but great showpieces and patronage parks for the militarist, aristocratic conservative parties that sponsored them.

But at least they provided some civilization, and at least they didn’t lose too much money. The river of money that American and European taxpayers have poured into the Blue Empire has produced a neo-feudal corruption economy throughout Africa—as one Kenyan economist puts it, “just stop the aid!”—but so what? Who gives a rat’s ass about Africa? Aid makes Universalist politicians look caring and statesmanlike, and that’s what counts. No wonder Barack Obama wants to double foreign aid. Somehow I suspect he isn’t thinking of Israel, although the legislative process being what it is no doubt they will get a taste as well.

In a sense, we see, the Deathworld theory is exactly right. Anti-Americanism is indeed the result of American foreign policy. But not in quite the way most people imagine.

My favorite quote on American foreign policy is 157 years old. It was originally written about Britain, but I think the transformation is fairly straightforward. The author is the original dark prince of conservatism—Thomas Carlyle—who said, in his Latter-Day Pamphlet #4:

And at all times, and even now, there will remain the question to be sincerely put and wisely answered, What essential concern has the British Nation with them and their enterprises? Any concern at all, except that of handsomely keeping apart from them? If so, what are the methods of best managing it?—At present, as was said, while Red Republic but clashes with foul Bureaucracy; and Nations, sunk in blind ignavia, demand a universal-suffrage Parliament to heal their wretchedness; and wild Anarchy and Phallus-Worship struggle with Sham-Kingship and extinct or galvanized Catholicism; and in the Cave of the Winds all manner of rotten waifs and wrecks are hurled against each other,—our English interest in the controversy, however huge said controversy grow, is quite trifling; we have only in a handsome manner to say to it: “Tumble and rage along, ye rotten waifs and wrecks; clash and collide as seems fittest to you; and smite each other into annihilation at your own good pleasure. In that huge conflict, dismal but unavoidable, we, thanks to our heroic ancestors, having got so far ahead of you, have now no interest at all. Our decided notion is, the dead ought to bury their dead in such a case: and so we have the honor to be, with distinguished consideration, your entirely devoted,—FLIMNAP, SEC. FOREIGN DEPARTMENT.”—I really think Flimnap, till truer times come, ought to treat much of his work in this way: cautious to give offence to his neighbors; resolute not to concern himself in any of their self-annihilating operations whatsoever.

If America were to adopt a Carlylean foreign policy—disbanding the Blue Empire, the Red Empire, and all their agents, functionaries and administrators—I suspect the concept of “anti-Americanism” would very quickly enter the history books.

As for the world? I wouldn’t be too surprised if it actually turned out to be able to fend for itself. Of course, this is just a hunch—I could be wrong. I suppose in that case the dead would have to bury the dead.