Rudi Bogni ponders how to help the US shed its self-satisfied myths about itself and the world
The authors of Why Do People Hate America? , Ziauddin Sardar, a broadcaster and cultural critic, and Merryl Wyn Davies, an anthropologist, begin with a rhetorical question: "If America cannot reflect upon itself, its history, its uses and abuses of power and wealth at home and abroad, the consequences of its lifestyle and abundance, the relations between quality of life and values, the relations between ideals and practical application of those ideals to all of its people, then what chance has the rest of the world of engaging America in reasoned discussion?"
More than 200 pages later, Sardar and Davies leave us with an improbable solution to the problem of hatred of America: "The key to a viable and sane future for us all lies in transcending hatred. Since America is both the object and the source of global hatred, it must carry the responsibility of moving us all beyond it."
This is a book packed with tightly argued points, each worthy of close consideration. But it is by no means a balanced analysis. Instead, starting with the third chapter, the authors formulate a cogent indictment of the US, supported by the words of self-critical Americans, members of that same intelligentsia that stands accused of cultural hegemony. And I was surprised - and disturbed - to find myself fully agreeing with the articles of indictment and experiencing an almost emotional release by allowing all these matters to come to the surface, as if I had been repressing them for a long time.
To be personal for a moment, I first set foot in the US in the early 1960s, when I was a 16-year-old exchange student. I lived for a year in Wyoming as a guest and soon as a son to a wonderful family who helped me shape my character and personality in a way that has subsequently made me feel always at ease with myself. For many years, I worked for a US bank in Europe and briefly in New York. My colleagues taught me selflessly and supported me throughout my career. I owe a lot to America and Americans.
And yet, I am compelled to concur with the authors' conclusion that "America relates to the rest of the world in terms of double standards".
Sardar and Davies are no old-school Marxists accusing America of imperialism. "AmericaI is not so much an old-fashioned imperial power seeking its 'spheres of influence' and competing with other imperial powers: it is a hyperpower with no equivalentI If the world is America, then it follows that the interests of America should be the interests of the worldI This has been the logic of American military interventions for well over a century."
The US is not only violent (the authors note 134 military interventions between 1890 and 2001), it is also predatory. It has manipulated the world in eight major ways: "The US has been financing domestic growth through the savings of the rest of the worldI The US denies democratic control over their own economic destinies to more than two-thirds of the world's populationI The US interprets 'trade liberalisation' to mean one-way, open access for American multinationals and businessesI The US promotes a type of 'economic freedom' that actually destroys the economic freedom of poor peopleI The US systematically undermines the efforts of the least developed countries to combat poverty and feed their populationsI The US defrauds the least developed countries, thus increasing their povertyI The US has consistently worked to bring down commodity prices in the developing worldI The US imposes unilateral coercive economic measures, otherwise known as 'sanctions', with regularity (against 75 countries in 1998)."
These are not the usual tired arguments against globalisation. They are specific accusations against the US alone, which are documented by the authors. Why would a nation of well-meaning people willingly go along with such a massive conspiracy? The finger is pointed at the US media. "When Americans survey the world, they see poverty and under-development that refuses to change. They believe, as they are regularly told by politicians and the media, that America is the world's most generous nation." The US media and entertainment industries are accused of rewriting and distorting history. That is nothing new. More damning is the authors' charge of fostering an American myth based on a culture of violence and a battle between good and evil. "As the American media has acquired a global reach, it has simultaneously, and paradoxically, become even more parochial and banalI This is not the outcome of a 'free market' operating as a natural law - it is the product of conscious state policy."
Sardar and Davies find the American foreign-policy process undemocratic and lacking in accountability. "The lobbying of competing vested interests in the US is not a political debate, it is a whorehouse auction. Foreign policy without effective scrutiny at the ballot box is a recipe for quasi-elected tyranny." As a teenager in the US, I had the privilege of experiencing an American presidential campaign from a unique observation point. I met President Lyndon Johnson and his challenger, Barry Goldwater, heard them speak, and witnessed the media's manipulation of the campaign at first hand. Though not a whorehouse auction, I did find the foreign-policy debate, more often than not, to be facile, ill-informed and ruled by considerations of domestic voters' arithmetic rather than by a clear vision of US leadership in a US-centric world. In fact, the inability of the US political system to create a foreign-policy consensus outside the lexicon of a John Wayne film is why US foreign policy is today a modest subset of domestic law-and-order and commercial policies. We must consider ourselves lucky that Condoleeza Rice and Dick Cheney are not famous ex-sportspeople - or the policies on Palestine, Iraq and North Korea and the "axis of evil" would have been couched in the language of American football and baseball.
The emotions surrounding September 11 2001, the much-discussed conflict with Islam and the war in Afghanistan have temporarily clouded the fact that the Bush administration is probably the most intransigent since that of Theodore Roosevelt. The Kyoto Protocol, World Trade Organisation issues, the International Criminal Court and Palestine are all areas of substantial disagreement - between the administration and its closest foreign allies, rather than between the US and its enemies. Not that it is isolationist: like the first Roosevelt, Bush is pursuing almost missionary policies abroad. What else would US troops be doing in the Caucasus training Georgian armed forces?
It is this missionary element - and its impact on human rights - more than the economy, that seems to incense the authors most. The US "suggests that, on the one hand, abiding by the constraints imposed by human rights is mainly for others, not for America; while on the other hand, it delivers a clear message to developing countries: adopt economic policies recommended by America, even at the expense of human rights. Not surprisingly, this approach generates a great deal of hatred for the US."
While intellectually convinced by some of the book's economic, political and cultural arguments, I missed very much the arguments for the defence: America's encouragement of science, creativity and the free spirit. Of course, it has plenty of offensive exports - fast food and fizzy drinks, the obsession with banning smoking, Hollywood movies, and the majority of its brands - but one does not have to succumb, one can hold these at arm's length.
Whenever I am forced to queue at JFK, Miami or Houston passport and customs control for hours, whenever I get into a dilapidated taxi, I cannot avoid the thought that I have landed in a third-world country, albeit a very rich one. But despite this, I feel the world would be much poorer, in every sense, if the US did not exist. And I believe that hatred of the US, whether deserved or not, hurts us all.
Unfortunately, the authors' simplistic recipe of letting the Americans solve the problem will not wash. It is tantamount to diagnosing someone as mentally ill and then recommending a self-cure. More important, what gives us, the rest of the world, the right to feel more just and less worthy of hatred? Are our foreign policies so much better? The British poodle? The Italian opportunist? The German Hamlet?
Curing hatred of America is not easy. The European intelligentsia, because of the value its educational system places on knowledge for its own sake, tends to develop a highly critical sense and a healthy scepticism. US elites, despite being trained to think for themselves, tend to be less self-critical, perhaps too focused on getting rich. This creates a big communication gap. I concentrate on Europe versus America because if there is anybody who can help America to shed its self-satisfied myths and treat the rest of the world as equals with whom it is OK to disagree, it is us Europeans. US and European interests often converge, even when our hearts and minds do not meet.
What is certain is that half-educated people, with puerile, dogmatic, self-centred half-knowledge, are the salt of tyranny. The greatest tyrants of the century we have just survived, Hitler and Stalin, were half-educated men of hatred. Only knowledge accompanied by self-deprecating critical spirit can dispose of hatred, whether of America or of the rest of the world.
But I must admit - and this is why this book created a sense of emotional release - that until now I have never seriously confronted my close American friends with what I did not like about their country. I used the same polite diplomacy to avoid taking to task my Jewish and Arab friends over Palestine. This is wrong. Discourse is the stuff of civilised life; complacency is the crystallisation of ignorance and the begetter of lost lives.
Rudi Bogni is a former banker, currently a director and trustee of several corporations and foundations.
Why Do People Hate America?
Author - Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies
ISBN - 1 84046 383 X
Publisher - Icon
Price - £7.99
Pages - 231