Uncle Sam is innocent

September 5, 2003

To blame America for all the ills of modern culture is incredibly naive, writes Cheryl Hudson.

In the two years since September 11 2001, there has been much ink spilt about the causes and consequences of the terrible events of that day. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon managed, like few other subjects, to bridge public and academic interest. The academy has embraced the issue as one that needs close scrutiny because, it is argued, we cannot prevent a similar event if we do not understand what caused the original.

The same argument for reasoned understanding must surely apply to the subject of anti-Americanism, which has been escalating since 2001. While the 9/11 attacks were the supreme example of anti-Americanism, American retaliations in Afghanistan and Iraq have provoked growing discontent with US policy.

From Palestine to Kyoto and McDonald's to Iraq, the US is increasingly seen as a pariah on the world stage. In 2001, Chelsea Clinton's claim that students at Oxford University were anti-American seemed a little strange after the public outpouring of sympathy and support from around the world.

But she had a point, and negative attitudes toward America have only grown among the educated and articulate in the past two years.

Is this increase in anti-Americanism the consequence of more study, reflection and understanding of American culture, history and policy-making? Perhaps. There has certainly been a heightened level of interest within universities. Numerous conferences, lectures and seminars have taken place, including a seminar series that I organised last spring at the Rothermere American Institute in Oxford. The concepts of "Americanisation" and "anti-Americanism" are appearing more frequently on university course syllabuses. Alan Rice, director of the Americanisation and Teaching of American Studies (Amatas) programme at the University of Central Lancashire, agrees that the study of America, particularly its foreign policy, has become increasingly important in the past few years, and that both students and faculty have become more critical of things American.

And yet despite this greater interest, the widespread use of the term "anti-Americanism" can obscure and oversimplify matters rather than bring about understanding. It is important to try to understand the multiple and various sources of anti-Americanism and to examine the roots and growth of this prejudice in Europe and around the world. But the initial step is to examine the complexities of America itself, to try to understand what America is and what it is not; what it represents and what it does not; to discover what it is culpable for, and what it cannot be responsible for.

For many, America is the symbol of all that is wrong with modern life: globalisation, cultural imperialism, conformity, deracination, rampant consumerism, environmental destruction and so on. Yet these charges are surely better aimed at modernity and not against any single nation-state.

In parts of the developing world, where the sharper edges of US policy are felt most keenly, it is understandable that a defensive and reactionary position against all things modern is sometimes adopted. But in the West, and particularly among western academic elites, anti-American rhetoric can start to look like self-loathing.

Modern culture is our culture. As Mary Beard, the Cambridge classicist, notes: "It seems hard to separate out something that is American culture from a more general western position; we are all too much part of it to be classified as 'for' or 'against' it." America, the most modern nation, often looks like the agent of global modernisation, but modernisation has many sources and, while it might be regarded as sacrilege to say so, often brings great benefits.

Any reasonable person should be capable of criticising American policy, at home and abroad, without descending into emotional abstractions and demonising an entire nation and its people. But anti-Americanism has unfortunately become the lazy person's way of dealing with global change.

It should be the role of the university to puncture prejudices rather than perpetuate them. We should be asking questions about why America has become the scapegoat for all our modern-day ills and why and how we have become so sick of ourselves.

Cheryl Hudson is assistant director of the academic programme at Rothermere American Institute, University of Oxford. The RAI is hosting a one-day conference, "American Culture in Europe: Americanisation and anti-Americanism since 1945", on September . Details: cheryl.hudson@rai.ox.ac.uk Tel: 01865 282 711.

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