After September 11, voices from many quarters have urged Americans to reflect on the reasons for the widespread hatred that the United States endures abroad. This is doubtless good advice: Such historical reflection is always worthwhile, and the pressing need for it is amplified in times of trouble.
But whether these voices genuinely seek historical reflection (as opposed to thoughtless ideological applause) is an open question. In particular, one quarter—we might call it the academic/Hollywood left or, more broadly, the NPR crowd—has been quick to assume, as usual, that an understanding of the sources of anti-Americanism will translate fluidly into a particular political attitude: left-liberal, vaguely pacifist, archly therapeutic, smitten with the abstract charm of human rights. This assumption is historically and politically inept, and more a cause of anti-American feeling than an analysis of it.
But what, precisely, is “anti-American feeling”? The specific grievances on the lists of anti-Americans around the world vary from year to year and from region to region, but the rhetorical melody of anti-Americanism remains fairly constant across many contexts. The old time has not changed much since the end of World War II, perhaps not since the annexation of Hawaii, or even, in a way, since Fort Sumter. It goes something like this: The United States is arrogant, powerful, self-righteous, and naive. America wishes to remake the world in its own image and congratulates itself heartily on the moral sensitivity it brings to this task, all the while knowing little and caring less about the distinctive civilizations it sets out to liberalize and homogenize in the name of a universal regime of human rights and free-flowing capital. In U.S. imperialism, so goes the song, two unlovely American types—the sadistic bully and the priggish schoolmarm—have joined to produce an ugly, preening, bastard offspring.
Now, this old song isn’t too far wrong, but most Americans have been reluctant to sing it—understandably perhaps, as it suggests that the land they justifiably love has made grave errors throughout its history, has taken the bad path at many an historical fork. Besides, this silent majority thinks, we are powerless: The domestic and international entanglements of the American administrative state are now so extensive that they cannot be controlled, much less curtailed. Leviathan America is quite beyond us now, too huge, too vast, too complex, and thinking about past mistakes will not undo them—better to close your eyes and hope for the best. This sort of historical amnesia, however pernicious, is quite understandable: For good or ill, forgetfulness is as much a necessary part of patriotism—or national loyalty, anyway—as are “the mystic chords of memory.” Indeed, such forgetfulness is the background silence against which those “mystic chords” become audible in the first place.
But the NPR crowd has never had much trouble warbling out at least one verse of the anti-American anthem: They are always ready to denounce America’s past, and to issue tear-stained, ahistorical apologies to perceived victims of that history. They are indignant partisans of peace and justice, passionate believers that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” They thus advocate a vigorous and comprehensive program of human rights, both at home and abroad, for they understand that many other Americans are prone to evil, backward in their patriotism, their religion, and their local attachments, and require restraint, as do many miscreants and monsters around the world. Members of the NPR crowd are in favor of culture, of all cultures: For them, the world is a vast museum of diverse cultural forms, and the quaintness of each should be preserved. Unlike the bulk of their benighted American countrymen, they know that culture is a harmless and sophisticated entertainment, save when it tries to interfere with a person’s right to self-development.
I hope the point of my sarcasm is clear: The attitude of the NPR crowd is precisely the mix of bully and schoolmarm—arrogance, power, self-righteousness, naïveté—that gives rise to anti-American feeling abroad. It is not only insensitive and hawkish boors who give America a bad name; refined partisans of uplift and enlightenment crusading “to make the world safe for democracy” have done their part as well. 1 he NPR crowd’s attitude is at least as triumphalistically Wilsonian as President Bush’s confused and disturbing intention to “rid the world of evil” in the name of freedom.
The condescending and unprincipled quasi-pacifism that has emerged in some sectors of the NPR crowd since September 11 makes this more evident than ever. Certainly, responding to the September 11 attacks is a delicate matter, requiring careful thought and a degree of tactical and strategic clarity too often absent in American foreign policy. Certainly, too, the attacks provide us with yet another occasion to ponder whether the costs of maintaining an homogenizing, historically oblivious, Wilsonian world empire of abstract human rights outweigh any ostensible benefits, to ourselves or to others. But a high-handed refusal to retaliate, coupled with an endless faith in negotiations and economic pressure, not only belittles the seriousness of the attacks, it—ironically—belittles the depth of anti-American feeling in the world at large, and behind the attacks in particular. Such a refusal says to the world: “The United States is so much better than you, so much stronger than you, so much more morally keen than you, that what any other country would feel as a devastating attack, inspires in us only pity. We are sorry for you, in your benighted fundamentalist rage; you must learn to control yourselves, not to lash out at those who would be your civilizing benefactors. Your hatreds are irrational and misguided: Don’t you know that the house of American multiculturalism has many mansions, that a comfortable place for you in the museum has already been set aside?” Is there any real doubt that such an attitude is as arrogant and naive—as historically careless, as infuriating—as any thoughtless “nuke ’em all” hawkishness?
Any serious anti-globalist position must allow for the possibility of disputes—wars—between sovereign entities, and indeed, between sovereign and non-sovereign political groupings—however unsatisfyingly amorphous the latter may be. Without the passibility of such conflict, the normative homogenization of the globe has already been completed.
Hegel, famously, once noted that to punish a criminal straightforwardly for doing wrong is to treat him with more rational respect than to medicalize or otherwise explain his crimes as a result of unpleasant forces beyond his control. A similar principle is at work here: A reasoned, well-planned, and limited military action of some sort against whatever limited group is ultimately shown to be responsible for the September 11 attacks is more respectful—to the victims, to the interests of the United States, to the world at large, and even to those behind the attacks—than either an indiscriminate military response or a non-military one. Such a limited response might also be the first step toward a reduction of anti-American feeling—if not at home, then at least abroad.