21 February 2006

Hating America: New Olympic Sport?

If one grows up in Canada, it can be easy to learn to hate america, almost as much as palestinian children learn to hate jews and Israel. It is almost a reflex. It is interesting to observe how someone who moves to Europe from the US might be swayed by anti-americanism there, might reflexively come to adopt some of the same prejudice of his hosts. Bruce Bawer moved to Europe from the US in 1988, and started drawing comparisons. After discussing personal anecdotes, Bawer moves to reviewing recent anti-american popular publications that are selling well in Europe.

Bawer quotes briefly from Mark Heertsgard's "In the Eagle's Shadow" and concludes that:

America, in short, is a mess—a cultural wasteland, an economic nightmare, a political abomination, an international misfit, outlaw, parasite, and pariah. If Americans don’t know this already, it is, in Hertsgaard’s view, precisely because they are Americans: “Foreigners,” he proposes, “can see things about America that natives cannot. . . . Americans can learn from their perceptions, if we choose to.” What he fails to acknowledge, however, is that most foreigners never set foot in the United States, and that the things they think they know about it are consequently based not on first-hand experience but on school textbooks, books by people like Michael Moore, movies about spies and gangsters, “Ricki Lake,” “C.S.I.,” and, above all, the daily news reports in their own national media. What, one must therefore ask, are their media telling them? What aren’t they telling them? And what are the agendas of those doing the telling? Such questions, crucial to a study of the kind Hertsgaard pretends to be making, are never asked here. Citing a South African restaurateur’s assertion that non-Americans “have an advantage over [Americans], because we know everything about you and you know nothing about us,” Hertsgaard tells us that this is a good point, but it’s not: non-Americans are always saying this to Americans, but when you poke around a bit, you almost invariably discover that what they “know” about America is very wide of the mark.

....Yes, there’s much about the American news media that deserves criticism, from the vulgar personality journalism of Larry King and Diane Sawyer to the cultural polarization nourished by the many publishers and TV news producers who prefer sensation to substance. But to suggest that American journalism, taken as a whole, offers a narrower range of information and debate than its foreign counterparts is absurd. America’s major political magazines range from National Review and The Weekly Standard on the right to The Nation and Mother Jones on the left; its all-news networks, from conservative Fox to liberal CNN; its leading newspapers, from the New York Post and Washington Times to the New York Times and Washington Post. Scores of TV programs and radio call-in shows are devoted to fiery polemic by, or vigorous exchanges between, true believers at both ends of the political spectrum. Nothing remotely approaching this breadth of news and opinion is available in a country like Norway. Purportedly to strengthen journalistic diversity (which, in the ludicrous words of a recent prime minister, “is too important to be left up to the marketplace”), Norway’s social-democratic government actually subsidizes several of the country’s major newspapers (in addition to running two of its three broadcast channels and most of its radio); yet the Norwegian media are (guess what?) almost uniformly social-democratic—a fact reflected not only in their explicit editorial positions but also in the slant and selectivity of their international coverage.3 Reading the opinion pieces in Norwegian newspapers, one has the distinct impression that the professors and bureaucrats who write most of them view it as their paramount function not to introduce or debate fresh ideas but to remind the masses what they’re supposed to think. The same is true of most of the journalists, who routinely spin the news from the perspective of social-democratic orthodoxy, systematically omitting or misrepresenting any challenge to that orthodoxy—and almost invariably presenting the U.S. in a negative light. Most Norwegians are so accustomed to being presented with only one position on certain events and issues (such as the Iraq War) that they don’t even realize that there exists an intelligent alternative position.

Things are scarcely better in neighboring Sweden. During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the only time I saw pro-war arguments fairly represented in the Scandinavian media was on an episode of “Oprah” that aired on Sweden’s TV4. Not surprisingly, a Swedish government agency later censured TV4 on the grounds that the program had violated media-balance guidelines. In reality, the show, which had featured participants from both sides of the issue, had plainly offended authorities by exposing Swedish viewers to something their nation’s media had otherwise shielded them from—a forceful articulation of the case for going into Iraq.4 In other European countries, to be sure, the media spectrum is broader than this; yet with the exception of Britain, no Western European nation even approaches America’s journalistic diversity. (The British courts’ recent silencing of royal rumors, moreover, reminded us that press freedom is distinctly more circumscribed in the U.K. than in the U.S.) And yet Western Europeans are regularly told by their media that it’s Americans who are fed slanted, selective news—a falsehood also given currency by Americans like Hertsgaard.

Bawer moves through a long line of authors who write scathingly about the US, who obviously hate america and have many friends and sympathizers. Then he moves to an immigrant to america who tells a different story:

Dinesh D’Souza seeks not to encourage or explain anti-Americanism but to counter it by answering the question posed in his book’s title: What’s So Great about America?13 D’Souza, a former Reagan aide and longtime fixture at right-wing think tanks, reminds us that many of the Third World societies that leftists such as Hertsgaard and Hutton affect to admire are (hello!) fiercely reactionary. Indeed, D’Souza makes it clear that his own conservative moral perspective owes much to the traditional cultural values of his native India. “The critics of America,” he asserts—referring not to European socialists but to reactionary Muslims—are “onto something.” Their critique, he says, is moral in character, and D’Souza (a Catholic) gives little indication of disagreeing with their moral criteria, including their equation of morality with religious orthodoxy. “The West,” he proposes, “is a society based on freedom whereas Islam is a society based on virtue.” How about: Islamic societies enforce stifling Koranic notions of virtue, and punish infractions with brutal Sharia justice, while democratic societies do not presume to dictate individual moral convictions? D’Souza shares the Islamic view that “there is a good deal in American culture that is disgusting to normal sensibilities.” (He never tells us what he means by “normal”—and one is not sure one wishes to know.) Muslims, he notes, “say our women are ‘loose,’ and in a sense they are right.” (Yes, if by “loose” you mean that they have the same sexual freedom as men; it’s called “equal rights.”) The father of a young daughter, D’Souza says he has “come to realize how much more difficult it is to raise her well in America than it would be . . . to raise her in India.” (Yes, if by “raise her well” you mean—oh, never mind. You get the idea.)

Despite America’s lack of virtue, however—all the “crime, drugs, divorce, abortion, illegitimacy, and pornography” (given his track record, the omission of homosexuality from this list is surprising)—D’Souza chooses the U.S. over India. Why? Because “I know that my daughter will have a better life if I stay. I don’t mean just that she will be better off; I mean that her life is likely to have greater depth, meaning, and fulfillment in the United States than it would in any other country.” For he’s come to see that there’s “something great and noble about America”: namely, the fact that in the U.S., you’re “the architect of your own destiny.” He tries, not with undivided success, to distinguish between the founding American principle of self-determination (good) and the narcissistic do-your-own-thing mentality of the 1960s (not so good). As an example of the former, he movingly describes how his talk of feeling “called to be a writer” and of wanting “a life that made me feel true to myself” baffled his Indian father; as an example of the latter, he unfeelingly mocks a young man with “a Mohawk, earrings, a nose ring, tattoos” who waited on him at a Starbucks and whom D’Souza dismisses as “a specimen.” Not a pretty performance.

Then Bawer moves to Jean Francois Revel's "Anti American Obsession:"

Item by item, Revel refutes the European media’s picture of America. Poverty? An American at the poverty level has about the same standard of living as the average citizen of Greece or Portugal. (Indeed, according to a recent study by the Swedish Trade Research Institute, Swedes have a slightly lower standard of living than black Americans—a devastating statistic for Scandinavians, for whom both the unparalleled success of their own welfare economies and the pitiable poverty of blacks in the racist U.S. are articles of faith.) Crime? America has grown safer, while the French ignore their own rising crime levels, a consequence of “permanent street warfare” by Muslim immigrants “who don’t consider themselves subject to the laws of the land” and of authorities with “anti-law-and-order ideologies.” Revel contrasts France’s increasingly problematic division into ethnic Frenchmen and unassimilated immigrants with “America’s truly diverse, multifaceted society,” pointing out that “the success and originality of American integration stems precisely from the fact that immigrants’ descendants can perpetuate their ancestral cultures while thinking of themselves as American citizens in the fullest sense.” Bingo. (Most Americans, I think, would be shocked to realize how far short of America Europe falls in this regard.)

Media? Revel recalls that when he first visited the U.S., he “was struck by the vast gulf that separated our [French] state-controlled television news services—stilted, long-winded and monot- onous, dedicated to presenting the official version of events—from the lively, aggressive evening news shows on NBC or CBS, crammed with eye-opening images and reportage that offered unflinching views of social and political realities at home and American involvement abroad.” (Take that, Mr. Hutton.) He also observed a difference in the populace: “whereas in France people’s opinions were fairly predictable and tended to follow along lines laid down by their social role, what I heard in America was much more varied—and frequently unexpected. I realized that many more Americans than Europeans had formed their own opinions about matters—whether intelligent or idiotic is another question—rather than just parroting the received wisdom of their social milieu.” True: by Western European standards, I’ve come to realize, Americans are very independent thinkers.

To Revel, the tenacity of European anti-Americanism, despite historical developments that should have finished it off once and for all, suggests “that we are in the presence, not of rational analysis, but of obsession”—an obsession driven, he adds, by a desire to maintain public hostility to Jeffersonian democracy. The European establishment, Revel notes, soft-pedals the fact that Europeans “invented the great criminal ideologies of the twentieth century”; it defangs Communism (at “the top French business school,” students think Stalin’s great error was to “prioritize capital goods over . . . consumer goods”); and it identifies the U.S., “contrary to every lesson of real history . . . as the singular threat to democracy.” Revel’s vigorous assault on all this foolishness might easily have been dismissed in France (or denied publication altogether) but for the fact that he’s a member of that revered symbol of French national culture, the Académie Française.

The bulk of Bawer's article discusses the many recent books detailing the evils of america, and why america should be hated and feared far more than any threat from violent muslim fanatics or expansionist nationalist China with its puppet dictators. He discusses where this hatred and fear of america came from and why it is a virtual inevitability regardless of the foreign policy actions of the US government. Read the whole thing.

Hat tip: Donald Sensing's One Hand Clapping.


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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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