Commentary Magazine


Anti-Americanism, by Paul Hollander

America-Bashing

Anti-Americanism: Critiques at Home and Abroad, 1965-1990.
by Paul Hollander.
Oxford University Press. 531 pp. $35.00.

After the cold war, what does the Left have left? The answer would seem to be anti-Americanism. Indeed, ever since the end of the conflict in Vietnam this may well have been the only real ideology of the Western Left, but only now, with the disappearance of Communism, can we see the matter clearly. How else, after all, to explain the assortment of pacifists, environmental activists, “anti-racists,” and self-appointed social critics in France, Germany, and the United States who were falling all over themselves a year and a half ago to excuse the conduct of a certified fascist in Iraq whose crimes included not merely torture, massive extinction of minorities, and suppression of his own domestic Left, but also the uninhibited use of oil pollution as a military weapon? Would these people have been so anxious to appease Saddam Hussein had he been an ally rather than an adversary of the United States?

These are the sorts of questions addressed in Anti-Americanism, a massive and at times unwieldy tome in which the sociologist Paul Hollander struggles with a subject admittedly elusive and yet too pervasive to be ignored. As in his justly acclaimed Political Pilgrims (1981), Hollander here takes us on a long tour through the adversary culture, first in the United States and then in other countries. His basic point is that anti-Americanism flourishes most vigorously in the United States itself; almost all of the foreign varieties are merely pallid (though sometimes bizarre) offshoots. As one prominent Swedish journalist put it, “I have tried to find some critiques of the United States that [are] uniquely Swedish, but I have not found a single opinion, a single nuance, that has not already been expressed [first] by American critics.”

The first half of Anti-Americanism is, therefore, a kind of catalogue raisonné of the domestic varieties of the phenomenon. Hollander believes that anti-Americanism at home is no longer politically eccentric; rather, since Vietnam the Left has effectively taken control of culture in the United States. “What was once daring and unconventional criticism and a form of nonconformity, and as such noteworthy, is today self-evident truth in many subgroups, settings, and enclaves of our society”—particularly the universities, the churches, and the media. Their message is that “no society can be inferior to this one and there are no deformities of social institutions and political behavior which do not flourish in the United States.”

It is in the refusal to compare the United States with other countries, except in ways intended to reflect unfavorably upon it, that normal social dissidence is elevated to something like national self-hatred. To be sure, the line between the two has never been entirely clear in the United States, since uniquely among nations it is a “proposition country”: it has no history or identity apart from certain 18th-century political notions embodied in its Constitution and common law. If most ordinary Americans instinctively understand this, their more privileged compatriots seem to have difficulty with it. No doubt Governor Michael Dukakis was genuinely shocked at the response to his nonchalant attitude toward the Pledge of Allegiance in the 1988 presidential campaign; nobody he knew took it seriously.

The uproar over the Pledge of Allegiance points to a crucial aspect of Hollander’s study: while it is obviously true that the American Left has not succeeded in imposing its political agenda on the country, it is no less true that the Left has periodically managed to introduce some of its notions into the mainstream cultural debate. For example, what might be called a soft-Left perspective now informs most of the reporting on world affairs in the prestige press and electronic media (where a “story” almost always establishes the culpability of U.S. policy, even in countries where Washington has never exercised much influence); the pronouncements of the major Protestant churches; and much of the output of serious book publishing (both trade houses and university presses) as well as many periodicals (Harper’s, Esquire, etc.).

Much of this cannot be news to anyone who has been following cultural developments in the United States over the last two decades, but it is useful to have so much of it on record. A tireless researcher, Hollander has combed the pages of both the mainstream and the adversary press, and anyone who imagines that he is exaggerating will simply have to come to terms with his abundant data.

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When he focuses on other countries, Hollander finds himself working furrows which have been turned over many times before. Thus, in Western Europe, propagators of anti-Americanism have long been found on both the Left and the Right since at least World War I. By no means are their views mutually exclusive—in the case of France alone, one cannot fail to note the convergence on this point between Vichy and the Gaullistes, Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front and the Socialist Jean-Pierre Chevènement. In the third world, anti-Americanism has been an integral part of the hand-me-down Marxism which has long served as a legitimizing ideology for newly independent African or Asian states, as it has done for third-rate Latin American politicians and intellectuals. If this sort of thing is wearing a bit thin these days, the “South” has yet to find an adequate replacement for it.

In a separate chapter on Mexican and Canadian intellectuals, Hollander manages to put a new gloss on the subject. The case of Canada is particularly interesting because it is a country that “owes its very existence to a conscious rejection of the American Dream.” To be a nationalistic Canadian perforce compels one to be anti-American. The same is true of Mexico, which has lovingly nourished its territorial and other grudges against the United States since at least the middle of the 19th century.

Though Hollander’s survey of the two countries is necessarily fragmentary—many Canadian and Mexican intellectuals, convinced that he was “doing research for the CIA,” refused to return his questionnaire—even his partial findings are striking. In Mexico, Ronald Reagan won the contest for “least admired” of 20th-century political leaders (16.5 percent), slightly besting Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet (13.5 percent), and miles ahead of Adolf Hitler (5 percent)! If anything, the Canadians put Reagan even lower: 29 percent considered him the worst of the bunch, followed by Hitler (a distant second) with 10 percent. When the same sample was directly asked, “Which countries do you find the most unappealing,” the Canadians put South Africa first (14 percent), but the U.S. tied with Israel for second (12 percent each), followed by Chile (9 percent), and, perhaps surprisingly, Cuba (5 percent). The Mexicans were less ambiguous: the U.S. was clearly the worst (17 percent), followed by Chile (14 percent), and, again perhaps surprisingly, the Soviet Union (10 percent).

To be sure, the Mexicans and Canadians who responded to Hollander’s questionnaires were far from typical citizens; many of the “Canadians” were actually expatriate American academics, and thus anti-American twice over. Perhaps the extreme marginality of the intellectual class in both countries—certainly it counts for much less there than its counterparts in the United States and Western Europe—may explain the grotesque distortion of these perceptions. Since both countries are constantly being compared (or comparing themselves) to the United States, an extra element of antipathy may exist there which would be more attenuated by geographical and historical distance.

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At this juncture, what foreigners think about the United States has ceased to be very important. Since we are no longer engaged in a great strategic and political competition with the Soviet Union, if Peruvians or Palestinians, Swedes or Sudanese now choose to dislike our country (or what they imagine it to be), that is their problem, not ours. More troubling is the persistence of such sentiments within the United States. Hollander attributes domestic anti-Americanism to frustrated utopian urges, as well as to the “determined effort to find meaning in life” on the part of deracinated intellectuals or paraintellectuals. Then, too, social protest has become a form of status-seeking; to be a critic of or active protester against society “has come to offer a combination of idealistic self-assertion and security, political commitment and group support.”

There is another catalyst which Hollander does not mention but which may be the most important of all: the radicalization of the major American foundations and, during periods of Democratic ascendancy in Congress or the White House, of government grant-giving agencies. For a growing number of Americans, left-wing activism has become a lucrative, upper-middle-class profession. This is an area which cries out for further attention; a sociologist as acute and as avid for hard data as Paul Hollander might well make it the subject of a book.

About the Author

Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.




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