Thursday, June 23, 2005


There have been a couple of very interesting posts at Europhobia and The Sharpener recently, concerning anti-Americanism. The major problem with Third Avenue's argument is that I would very strongly object to his definition of anti-Americanism, where mere geography is the key determinant of hostility. This masks his broader point, which is to argue that "anti-Americanism" is really "anti-Bushism". Now, there's a lot of merit in this argument. Indeed, it is striking how often symbols considered symbolic of America are rejected in Europe whereas the concepts behind them are greatly liked.

The classic example here is Starbucks. Whilst the coffee shop has a fine European tradition, the chain store of Starbucks haven't taken off on the continent in the same way they have in the US (with the exception of the UK). Yet when I go to Berlin next week, I will, at some point, sit on the Potsdamer Platz drinking a Balzac coffee. That's just as much a chain store as Starbucks, but isn't iconic, nor is it American.

There's a wider cultural point here. In Copenhagen last year, I was struck by just how American the habits of the youth were. The music they listen to is American; the movies they watch are American; their dress sense is recognisably American. Far more so than in Britain. I could repeat this in numerous other cities, or even the small town that I spent many weeks in on school exchanges in Germany. And yet in many ways, their hostility towards America is greater than that in Britain. That's not just a rejection of George Bush. The American stereotype of the fat idiot who travels abroad to proclaim US superiority and to be loud and obnoxious existed before Bush got the Presidency, and it will remain long afterwards.

What Bush provides is a hate figure, who makes a much more overt anti-Americanism possible. Now, I question strongly how fair this is (although I am a self-confessed ardent Americanophile). I'd certainly like to see what the reaction of the Daily Mirror's editor would have been if an American newspaper had asked how Britain could be so dumb as to re-elect Tony Blair. No doubt we'd have gotten the usual tripe about how ignorant the Yankees are.

Why is there this hostility? Well, I think we can find it in the quasi-religious nature that runs right throughout American national identity. Paul Simon's American Tune, which questions the limitations of American identity, and the direction Nixon's America was taking, identifies this incredibly well. Adapting its melody from Handel's St Matthew's Passion, he sings at the end of his song:

We come on a ship they call the Mayflower,
We come on a ship that sailed the moon,
We come in the ages most uncertain hour,
And sing that American Tune.

There's a clear religious component to this. America is right; its values are right, and their expression in the flag, the constitution, the Founding Fathers, the presidency is more than mere symbols. Belief in them is an article of faith. Singing the national anthem is the public act of profession.

And there's something about that certainty that sticks in our craw. Especially when it takes on the missionary zeal that European society associates with dangerous radicals. Americans were able to tame the frontier of the West; by the 1950s the West was the most vibrant and growing area of the nation. The search has since taken on a new frontier - space, or the rest of the world. Because an integral part of the American identity is the quest for more. When the Founding Fathers declared independence, they were part of the "Continental Congress". They weren't going to stop at 13 colonies - indeed, almost everyone desired western expansion.

I'm going to go into the realms of wild hypothesis here. But in Western Europe, especially since the war, we've never had that certainty. Indeed, our relativism often prevents us from taking stands when we should, and in many cases poses grave dangers to our civil liberties. But that is a side issue - we find the American political religion as difficult to take as we do any other vibrantly expressed religious standpoint. Whilst the American sense of mission makes them desire to sail - and ultimately conquer - the moon, we are left somewhat wondering the devotion to the flag. But it's the political version of wearing a cross.

Because anti-Americanism is a rejection of the American Dream. And when America is represented by another potent symbol - the Bush Presidency - the old prejudices come out. We're jealous, and, to be frank, we're a little scared. We can't comprehend the certainty of the Americans, and because it's so foreign, we try and denigrate it. That's the nub of the "idiot" argument. The Americans may be more successful than us, but we're smarter than them, so we can take our own satisfaction. These feelings are underlying at the best of times. But it's hard to pin them to anything. Now, on the other hand, there's a President who seems to reflect much of the negative stereotype. So anti-Bushism has become the pretext for anti-Americanism. We can't let our opinions of the President hide the fact that behind much criticism of him is something far more sinister.