From Admiration to Fear and Loathing
Anti-Americanism Left and Right
Pierre Tristam/Candide's Notebooks, April 8, 2006
André Gide, writing from Algiers in his journal on May 27, 1943: “The Americans, in our old world, get themselves beloved by everyone and everywhere. Such ready generosity, so genial and sunny, so natural, that we happily agree to be at their service.” (My anglicized translation of this original: “Les Américains, sur notre vieux monde, se font aimer par tous et partout. De générosité si prompte, si cordiale et souriante, si naturelle, que l’on accepte joyeusement de se sentir leur obligé.” May 27, 1943, Algiers.)
Adrian Wooldridge, writing from Washington in his Lexington column in the April 1Economist: “The most striking thing about Americans to many outsiders is how nice they are. They have none of the aloofness of the British or the froideur of the French. On the contrary, they go out of their way to be warm and welcoming. This is the land of the smiley face and the ‘have a nice day’ greeting. Put simply, Americans like to be liked.” From Gide to Wooldridge already there’s an inversion: In Gide’s time, Americans abroad projected likability to such a point as to seduce the foreigners among whom they mingled. World War II was in full swing of course, anything resembling the shimmer of a savior, even and especially to the French, would have evoked buckets of gratefulness by the Sanctus.
By the 1970s and 80s, the Me-Generation’s narcissism had retrenched Americans’ world view onto themselves. Americans were still likable. (I remember that quality being, along with those obsessively tended and fertilized lawns, one of the most remarkable thing about Kingsport, Tenn., when I first arrived in this country in 1979: the sheer tonnage of smiles on everybody’s faces, along with that effusive willingness to hug.) But what they liked most of all was themselves, the ease and pleasure and self-satisfaction merely of being American, and not having to worry much about what the rest of the world thought, or whether it even existed. The Iranian hostage crisis naturally was a shock to the American system, as were the 1973 and 1979 oil embargoes, and the first little explosions of that naïve question that would have such a tragic climax in 2001: Why do they hate us? It didn’t, of course, start with 9/11. It started with the complacency of the 1970s, with the rising arrogance, fueled and pumped from behind the genial smile of Ronald Reagan, of the 1980s, and with the globalism on American terms, without borders, of the 1990s under Bill Clinton, mostly at Wall Street’s behest. September 11, 2001, was the catastrophic culmination, though also the crumble of America as the benevolent, if occasionally misguided, giant. No, after that it became simply the America as a run-0of-the-mill superpower—crass, militaristic, willfully immoral, occasionally criminal.
“Under George Bush,” The Economist wrote in February 2005, “anti-Americanism is widely thought to have reached new heights—and, in the view of the Pew Research Centre, a Washington surveyor of world opinion, new depths. Its latest report says that ‘anti-Americanism is deeper and broader now than at any time in modern history.’” What remains as remarkable as ever is that the geniality of Americans Gide observed is still there, but now segregated, suspicious, shaded in the us-versus-them nativism of the blkue and the red (the conservative versus the liberal), or the white and the brown (the “American” versus the immigrant). It’s still easy for Americans to pass themselves off as likable. The simley face—even though co-oped as a logo by Wal-Mart, that most unsmiley of slimey farces of fairness—is still running about flashing its pearly brightness. But it has that canned, Hallmark-card quality now. It’s no longer so natural. It’s more brand than real, more ploy than heart. And at home, it’s fractured. Americans enjoy the act of disliking each other. The lines I quoted from Adrain Wooldrige’s piece earlier are taken from a column entitled “the rebirth of outrage” in the United States (though it’s not clear from the piece when its first birth was)—on cable, in Congress, in the blogosphere.
And still Americans ask themselves, in these false please for more civil discourse, what on earth may have gone wrong that it’s come to such a point. The New Republic’s Peter Beinart, writing about “Tom deLay’s America” in 2004, answered the question well enough when he described this born-again America “craven toward the economically powerful and vicious toward the economically weak, contemptuous of open debate and thuggish toward an increasingly embittered world.” No one should be surprised at the results. The problem is that no one seems to care about the problem, about this loss of the American identity that could once be summed up in Gide’s phrases. When Americans ask themselves “What Is an American,” as the Knight-Ridder news service did last week, the question was, ironically, inspired by these same surging feelings of nativism and xenophobia, by the immigration debate, by the defensive perspective on foreigners and foreignness that reached such a blistered pitch during the Dubai port controversy. The question isn’t being asked regarding its more fundamental meanings—what is an American to mean toward himself and his neighbors, and toward the world? Having the question answered by a world of resentments is bad enough. Not asking it is worse. As long as Americans refuse to ask it, their place as a people of admirable distinctions of the Gide kind are as good as dead, and what they have to look forward to is worse.
Many of us immigrants came here with grateful hearts, but hearts not nearly as warm and open as the America that took us in. That was, for me, the late 1970s. America’s heart is no longer what it was. There’s heart diseases, and then there’s heart disease: the physical and the cultural. America is suffering from both. It’s painful to see, it’s painful to live through, especially when the future doesn’t look as promising. But if there’s ever a place that knows its cardiology, this is it. We may be ailing. We’re not nearly past a remedy and a recovery.