US hate: a designer prejudice for our time

January 18, 2002

Clive Christie argues that anti-Americanism is a betrayal of intellectual integrity.

The Afghan crisis has concentrated attention on a phenomenon that is influential in academic, cultural and media circles, but attracts remarkably little comment or censure: anti-Americanism.

It is important, however, to distinguish between reasoned criticism of this or that aspect of policy conducted by an increasingly unfettered global power; unsystematic prejudice - akin to other forms of racial, religious or national prejudice - directed against the United States; and anti-Americanism as the foundation of a complete world-view. The first is necessary; the second is simply disagreeable, in the same way that all racial, religious and national prejudices are disagreeable. But anti-Americanism as the basis of a world-view is more than this: it is a real threat to liberal academic values, a flight from reason and a betrayal of intellectual integrity. In addition, the anti-American world-view tends to merge with other, less schematic manifestations of anti-Americanism, and helps to create a climate of anti-Americanism in important opinion-forming circles, thereby reducing their credibility and their capacity to influence important debates on the future of the post-cold war world.

By "anti-Americanism as a world-view", I mean as a complete explanation for world events: just as anti-Semitism, its 20th-century antecedent, went beyond mere racial prejudice and became the core of a "civilisational" explanation of global conflict, to use Samuel Huntington's term.

The link between the two is closer than one might like to think. The earliest manifestations of anti-Americanism were, indeed, expressions of prejudice without any deeper significance: a combination of envy and resentment, coupled with a compensatory sense of cultural superiority. But we can identify a more fundamental anti-Americanism that emerged as part of a world-view that emanated from the European right in the years between the first and second world wars. It stemmed from growing anxiety on the part of the right, particularly after the first world war and the Russian revolution, over what were seen as accumulating threats to European civilisation.

The "Jewish global conspiracy" was, of course, at the centre of this civilisational anxiety. But it was a central tenet of the anti-Semitic world-view that the Jewish conspiracy operated by indirection, and, essentially "rootless" as it was, by parasitic attachment to existing states, systems and ideologies. In this case, the right saw European civilisation as increasingly threatened by a pincer movement.

From the Soviet Union in the East, Jewish-inspired "rootless" international socialism infected the European working class and generated class conflict. From the "Anglo-Saxon", Anglo-American West, Jewish-controlled predatory international capitalism sapped the foundations of the European economy (the Depression) and a Jewish-inspired "mongrel" culture (Hollywood and the music industry) insidiously contaminated European culture.

The Vichy regimes of France and Indochina were probably the most vociferous proponents of the notion of an "Anglo-Saxon-Jewish conspiracy". Sinister echoes of this link between the US and a Jewish conspiracy are all too evident in Islamic anti-Americanism today.

After the second world war, anti-Semitism lost credibility and respectability. Anti-Americanism, however, survived, but migrated from the right to the left. American global power, decolonisation and the relative decline of Western Europe, the cold war and "neo-colonialism" all provide reasons for the persistence and indeed increase of anti-Americanism in the ranks of the left.

But it was not until the Vietnam war that anti-Americanism took its place firmly at the very centre of Marxist-Leninist, Marxist and generally leftist world-views. Among most Marxists and Marxist-influenced leftists, the US's role in Vietnam was seen as part - an overwhelmingly important part - of a broad confrontation between "reactionary" and "progressive" world forces. It was, however, during the Vietnam war that proliferating conspiracy theories specifically concerning the US's world role - some of which were staggeringly complex - began to cut anti-Americanism loose from its Marxist moorings. The broad notion of a global ideological struggle between capitalism and socialism took on a civilisational focus, directed specifically at the unique role of the US.

Gradually, through the late 1970s and the 1980s, as Marxism lost its ideological hegemony over the hard social sciences, the post-Marxist left regrouped and established a new ideological hegemony in the more loosely defined area of cultural, literary and social studies, and subsequently radiated this influence through cultural-intellectual sections of the media. Of the post-Marxist ideologies that emerged at this time - post-colonialism, postmodernism and multiculturalism - some key points can be made. Above all, they represent a definitive retreat by the left from the determination of Marxist socialism to compete with western bourgeois liberalism for victory in what had been seen as a universally valid progressive historical evolution towards human emancipation. The left's position was henceforth defensive and historically pessimistic. This is demonstrated by the fact that these ideologies' emphasis on diversity in all its ethnic, cultural, class and gendered varieties is clearly designed to thwart rather than to challenge the central global status and power of bourgeois liberal democracy; and, more particularly, the global status of that Other to dwarf all other Others, the US.

Cut loose even from the theoretical constraints of Marxism, anti-Americanism has become a complete world-view in itself. The ideological and the civilisational have merged. Predatory international capitalism and its ameliorating adjunct, liberalism, have now become embodied in American culture and civilisation; conversely, the US has become not just a country but an ideological entity. While Germany could be detached from the ideology of national-socialism, and Russia could be detached from communism, in the full-blown anti-American world-view, ideology, culture and civilisation are one. It therefore follows that, in the anti-American world-view, the US's global role - like that of the Jews in the eyes of the anti-Semite - is inherently destructive.

As a world-view, anti-Americanism is perfectly self-contained. It provides an all-encompassing explanation for global events and can easily accommodate contradictions and even absurdities. It enables the lazy-minded to avoid having to cope with complexity and the dreary, often inconvenient world of facts. It furnishes instant off-the-peg explanations of international crises for those who do not wish to waste their time with painstaking and unbiased analysis. Gaps in analytical coherence are filled with inflexible moral certainty. Moral indignation can always serve as a cover for sloppy thinking.

Anti-Americanism as a composite ideology is, in the end, a flight from, and a fear of, the burdens and responsibilities of freedom of thought. Like similar world-views, it gives a patina of intellectual sophistication to what is, at root, a crude conspiracy theory. If anti-Semitism, "the philosophy of the doss-house", as Alan Bullock described it, appeals to the semi-educated, anti-Americanism appeals, above all, to the semi-intelligentsia. Unlike anti-Semitism, however, it has no need to be furtive: it is entirely respectable - indeed, a designer prejudice for our time.

But, given that the US can, unlike the Jews of Europe in the first half of the 20th century, manifestly look after itself, should we worry about anti-Americanism?

There are many reasons why we should, not least because the left's hegemony over certain sections of academia - particularly the broad area of cultural, literary and social studies - has saturated the anti-American world-view, not only through parts of the education system, but also beyond academia to the media and what might be called the cultural-literary milieu.

The ubiquity and acceptability of this world-view in academia is evident. How else could students have got the idea that an anti-American rant - normally devoid of anything but the most primitive form of analysis - is somehow intellectually respectable, and may even be rewarded as a sign of critical thinking? As I discovered when I took part some years ago in a mock A-level marking exercise, the possibly unconscious indulgence given to unsupported anti-Americanism is astonishing.

Of course the global power of the US demands that the consequences of the projection of American power and influence be subjected to constant and intense critical scrutiny. This is, in fact, a particular responsibility of those parts of the world that have, for various historical reasons, a special influence on the US. But this is the whole point. As recent comment on the Afghan crisis by the British literary-cultural elite has shown, the rigid orthodoxies of the anti-American mind-set cannot fulfil this role of intelligent, discriminating, critical scrutiny. By following the anti-American line - so predictable sometimes that it might have been read or written out, in sequence, from a crib-sheet, though leavened by occasional flourishes of portentous waffle - the left intelligentsia has greatly diminished its capacity to influence opinion where it really matters.

The role in the recent Afghan crisis of academic and professional experts from the left is equally disturbing. These experts have signally failed in their professional task of providing expert analysis and prediction, just as they have failed in all previous conflicts involving the US since 1990. Indeed, since the Gulf war of 1990, their predictions have been almost comically misleading. Crippled as they are by their pre-determined anti-American mind-set, they are simply unable to provide expert judgement: to distinguish between what they think will happen and what they want to happen. This replacement of objective expertise by ideologically driven spin is ultimately a serious failure of professional integrity, and it diminishes the ability of the public to make informed judgements on international affairs.

At a time when academia, the press and the world of informed opinion-shaping and debate are desperately needed to play their part in the post-cold war world of American dominance, we find the left intelligentsia trapped in a self-imposed ideological orthodoxy, just as it had been - to the intense frustration of George Orwell - in the turbulent years before the second world war.

Clive Christie is a senior lecturer in politics and international studies at Hull University.

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