De Fabel van de illegaal 58, May/June 2003
Author: Eric Krebbers
The conservative roots of anti-Americanism
Ever since the war in Irak the concept of anti-Americanism is continually abused by politicians, journalists and opinion leaders. They label every criticism on the politics of the US "anti-American" in order to make it seem prejudiced and irrational. But this abuse of the term doesn't mean that anti-Americanism doesn't exist.
Anti-Americanism is originally a conservative way of thinking. It arose in Europe somewhere half way the nineteenth century. In those days rapid economic, technical and cultural changes started to take place, which were received with great hope by the Left and by liberals. Conservatives, however, were not so enthusiastic and would rather go back to the feudal times of before the French revolution. After some conservative authors who visited the US published their travel stories, certain bourgeois circles in Europe began to see America as a frightening future. Supposedly unlike Europe, America was the country of unbridled capitalism. All Americans were considered individualist and stupid, and they would only think of making dollars. They would not have any ethics which resulted in an unlimited "decadence". Later conservatives also complained about the loosening of sexual morale in America and about the emancipation of women and homosexuals. The conservatives hated the technological progress which made it possible to spread the "superficial American culture" around the world. Through better means of transport, the telegraph, the telephone, the cinema, the radio and finally the TV the "higher cultures of the European nations" would be replaced by the "monotonous American culture". In conservative eyes American Hollywood movies, new dances and new music, hamburgers and cars were all giant threats to Europe and the rest of the world. The hasty and caddish American machos versus the calm and refined European intellectuals, that was in essence the self serving picture they liked to paint.
In the first half of the twentieth century anti-Americanism met with some elements of anti-Semitism. According to anti-Semites Jews were also always trying to make profits. And weren't the Jews also a threat to Europes "own culture"? Add to that the fact that millions of Jews were at that time migrating from Europe to "the new world", and the myth of the Jewish power over America was born. "The Jewish bankers" supposedly all settled in New York. Hitler was strongly influenced by that myth and so are a lot of fascists today. And also Bin Laden thought that by attacking the World Trade Center in New York he could hit the heart of the so called "Jewish-American world power". An extremely powerful Jewish lobby operates from its base in New York, the story goes among for instance Muslim fundamentalists, Arab nationalist and many Europeans who are active in the Palestine solidarity movement. In some of those circles activists speak of "the big and the small Satan" when they mean the US and Israel. And in the tradition of the European conservatives, the anti-American Muslim fundamentalists strongly reject "the decadence" and the emancipation of women and gays.
But just like with other ideologies that try to justify oppression, like racism and sexism, anti-Americanism contains no actual information on the object of its hate: "America", "the Americans" or "the American culture". Anti-Americanism only has something to say about the anti-Americanists themselves. Just like in all other countries there are large differences in power and ideas among Americans. There's no such thing as "the American culture". And "Americans" are not fundamentally different than for instance Europeans.
After being liberated in 1945 by among others American soldiers, in Europa almost everything that seemed connected to America became popular. The same images of "America" were suddenly considered positive by almost everyone. And surprisingly little has changed since then. Movies and music from America are still extremely popular. To many Europeans and inhabitants of the "Third World" America still means a promise of individual freedom and prosperity. Although unreachable for most, this image of America will probably keep anti-Americanism from becoming the dominating sentiment.
In the sixties US politics came under heavy fire. In Leftist circles in Europe resistance against the colonial war in Vietnam evolved quickly. That of course was in itself not anti-American. Anti-Americanism was only incidentally heard, especially when the political criticism got somehow mixed up with conservative opinions on "the Americans" or "American culture". Things became more problematic in the eighties with its large peace movement. There was justified criticism on the arms race between the superpowers. But in time one could hear stereotype opinions on "the Americans" more and more often. The US president Reagan was for instance regularly depicted as a cowboy waving his pistols. And in Right and also some Left circles people started to see US soldiers as part of an occupying army coming to fight its wars in Europe. Instead of criticizing the part Europe played in the cold war, and also European colonialism, a lot of activists in those days regarded Europe as an oppressed colony. A colony that should wage some sort of national liberation war against "the American occupation forces". A colony which also was oppressed culturally by "America" with its Hollywood movies. Today we find traces of this kind of thinking with the activists who have for fun dug in at the beach near The Hague to stop a possible US attack at the International Court of Justice.
Since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 the two most powerful economic blocks, the US and the EU, continually fight trade wars. Within that political context European activists start to campaign against American corporations that can be seen as European chauvinism and anti-Americanism. Most certainly because European companies are no better and just as capitalist as their American counterparts. Yet very often only American companies were targeted by activists, such as McDonald's, Coca Cola and Nike. Especially the campaigners against McDonald's heavily leaned on traditional anti-Americanism. It wasn't by chance that soon the new Right started to also campaign against the hamburger restaurants. In the struggle against biotechnology something similar happened. Gradually the activists started to especially target American biotechnology corporations. As could be expected they were criticized for "an unbridled hunt for profits at the expense of the environment", for "the development of immoral techniques", and for "the reduction of the natural diversity". In the ecology movement activists were heard saying "that those dumb Americans" didn't care if biotechnology would destroy nature, as long as their food was tasty and cheap. At the end of the nineties activists in the anti-globalization movement complained of "the Americanization" of the economy and culture. As if capitalism and popular culture are typically "American" and certainly not something originally European. Even in the established media reporters seriously wrote that European corporations are more social than American ones, and that the same supposedly goes for European states.
The power struggle between the US and the EU has become more clear because of the war in Irak. Many European anti-war activists, but a lot of other Europeans as well, think that the US are more militaristic and more power seeking than the - in their eyes - much more peaceful Europe. President Bush is seen by more and more people as the most evil man on earth. But what happens in Irak? The US and Great Brittain try to violently enforce access to the Iraki oil. And they will put their little man in Irak afterwards to enforce their new 'order'. 'Peaceful' countries like Germany and France already have access to that oil. They use Saddam Hussein to control most of the local population. So these countries have no need of a war. All involved states fight for their own economic and power interests on the expence of the Irakis. And the earlier violent 'order' as well as the current war are horrible and criminal. In that sense the unilateral criticism on the US is anti-American, and the slogan "no blood for oil" should be shouted at the European governments just as loud. In short, European capital and European states do not operate from a higher morale than the US. European states also regularly send out troops to the "Third World" to ensure their 'order'. That most of these cases do not involve large scale conflicts is due only to a shortage of military power. But the military policy makers of the European Union are unfortunately working hard to solve that problem.