I visited Western Europe recently to learn more about the critical attitudes of intellectuals and other opinion makers (primarily academics and journalists) toward the United States. I was especially interested in how such European critiques resembled those produced by American intellectuals. I also wanted lo learn something about the connections between animosity toward the U.S. and the social-critical impulses of Western European intellectuals toward their own society. I suspected (partly on the basis of some earlier work) that there was a confluence of social criticism focused on particular Western European societies, a broader rejection of the West and the designation of the United States as a major source of evil and corruption in our times.
I do not equate specific criticisms of American society or foreign policy with hostility toward the U.S. By contrast I regard anti-Americanism as a broad predisposition to blame the U.S. for a wide variety of evils in the world today, a diffuse hostility which does not reduce to specific criticisms of the U.S., and is more than the sum of its parts. Such a hostility is not simply a response to the misdeeds or errors of American political leaders or to the greed of American businessmen or the vulgarity of American mass culture. The phenomenon I have for some time been interested in is the readiness to designate the United States as a global symbol of evil, destructiveness, injustice, and irrationality–a scapegoat for a wide range of problems in different parts of the world. To be sure, such a predisposition can be activated or intensified by particular policies of American politicians or the behavior of particular individual Americans (including ordinary tourists) or by exposure to particular products of American culture.
Although intense hostility toward the U.S. has been a cornerstone of the Soviet view of the world and a major component of its policies, I do not believe that Soviet efforts have been responsible for the hostility here discussed, though, of course, Soviet policy seeks to enlarge such sentiments.
While much is written these days about the intensification of anti-Americanism in West Germany and the sharp decline of corresponding sentiments in France, less attention has been paid to other Western European countries which may exemplify more enduring attitudes toward the U.S., or perhaps more enduring varieties of animosity. I decided to take soundings of such attitudes in England, Holland, and Sweden. In the course of my travels I had conversations or more formal interviews with TV and newspaper journalists, prominent columnists, newspaper and magazine editors, educators and academics (primarily in the social sciences and humanities), and lawyers active in labor and liberal politics. My informants included peace movement activists (leaders as well as rank and file), a member of the House of Lords (in England), English and Dutch specialists in both Soviet and American studies, both detractors and friends of the U.S.
One of the first things I found out was that at the present time animosity toward the U.S. tends to take the form of equating the U.S. and the Soviet Union as “The Superpowers.” This seemingly detached and objective formula accommodates attitudes far more critical toward the U.S. than the U.S.S.R. as it allows for equating the actions and policies of the two countries which bear only the _most superficial similarity. Thus, for example, many English, Dutch, or Swedish intellectuals find the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and American intervention in El Salvador equally deplorable–a comparison that overlooks the difference between an intervention with 55 military advisors (who are not even allowed to go into the battle zone) critically scrutinized by the mass media and the intervention of 120,000 Soviet troops using every nonnuclear weapon available in an indiscriminate onslaught on a country which no foreign journalist is allowed to cover, an intervention not subject to public opinion nor to any legal, constitutional, or moral restraint. Not only are these two forms of intervention equated; in fact the American one generates far greater critical publicity and moral outrage.
The Superpower equation conceals a profound incapacity or unwillingness to make distinctions. Protestors at Greenham Common in England compared the local authorities of the nearby Newbury to the KGB for seeking to restrain their protest activities. According to a Dutch sociologist, the program on Poland produced by the U.S. Information Agency elicited more fervent criticism than the military coup which the program sought to protest. A young English sociologist described these attitudes more generally as a feeling that “there is little to choose between the two Superpowers” (a feeling he himself shared). He thoughtfully observed that there were no concentration camps in the U.S. but hastily added that when it came to foreign policy there was little to choose between.
Notwithstanding such “evenhandedness,” disapproval of Soviet misconduct (e.g., in Afghanistan) tends to be perfunctory and lacking in emotional force or moral indignation. A leader of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in England may admit that the Soviet-inspired repression in Poland is regrettable but will not dwell on such a topic and move rapidly to a truly heartfelt denunciation of American policies in Central America or Grenada when such equations are made there is a quality of understanding reserved for the Soviet side and a respectful appreciation of the Soviet concern with security.
On closer inspection the equation of the Superpowers reveals peculiar double standards. Peace activists and leftwing intellectuals who are extremely judgmental about American policy claim that they expect more of the U.S. But, one may ask, if they expect more why are they so hostile to begin with? Why should one be predisposed to criticism and disapproval toward a country or political system more highly regarded? There are two possible answers. One is that these critics don’t really expect more of the U.S. but it is a convenient rationalization of their double standards. Secondly, it is possible that what they mean by “expecting more” translates into ambivalence.
That the equation of the Superpowers conceals a profound asymmetry of standards and sentiments is also shown in the nature of political protest emanating from the Peace Movements of Western Europe. When pressed on the one-sidedness of their protest, which rarely is addressed to the Soviet Union (although it long ago deployed the intermediate missiles NATO is seeking to deploy in the years ahead), peace activists usually admit that it is no use directing any protest at the U.S.S.R. Yet the U.S. gets no credit for being a political power which even its critics perceive as more responsive, more reasonable, and tolerant of protest. When I inquired about the apparent unconcern with the SS-20, I was repeatedly told that little was known about them and little information was provided by the media. Dutch critics of the peace movement brought to my attention a recent opinion poll which revealed that 25 percent of those polled expressed doubts about the existence of the Soviet intermediate missiles.
It does not take a lengthy investigation to reach the conclusion that animosity toward the U.S. and professed concerns with nuclear war are hard to separate in Western Europe. A similar relationship between critiques of American society and antinuclear protest can also be observed in the United States. As a matter of fact, critics of the U.S. tend to oppose all forms of military spending on the part of the U.S. and NATO. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in England, in particular, is more than a movement organized for the purpose of averting nuclear war. The CND is a classic protest movement–not unlike the Vietnam antiwar movement of earlier times–which brings together a variety of causes and grievances and a wide range of groups and individuals held together by a diffuse sense of discontent with their society. According to a Dutch academic, what members of the peace movements, and especially the activists, have in common is “a sense of the sinfulness of the West.” Such a generalized social criticism–which sees Western nuclear arms and military policies as the ‘culmination of the evil or folly of Western societies led by the U.S.–echoes the critiques of the 1960’s and early 70’s. Consumerism, materialism, impersonality, excessive individualism (or, the stunting of genuine individualism)–the old themes are all there, at any rate, in a residual form. Under the broad umbrella of the antinuclear or peace movement one finds assembled, first, the radical-left-wing critics of capitalism and bourgeois democracy (providing the leadership and activist core), radical feminism, homosexuals, crusaders for the physical environment, contingents of teachers and social workers and, in ever increasing numbers, clerics. They are especially important as they bestow upon these movements spiritual purpose and respectability.
Another asymmetry in the Superpower equation is that many who subscribe to it claim to feel far more threatened by the U.S. than the U.S.S.R. They claim that the Soviet Union is self-evidently less bellicose and more of astatus quo power, because of the losses it suffered in World War II. The personality of President Reagan is also frequently invoked to explain the sense of threat the U.S. today represents. A mild-mannered, generally reasonable and thoughtful english sociologist said to me that “the U.S. under Reagan is the most dangerous country in the world,” that “every escalation in the arms race came from the U.S.” and unlike tthe U.S. “the Soviet Union is encircled.” Soviet bases in Cuba are totally different from American bases in Turkey.
The perceived attributes of Reagan are significant factors in the recent upsurge of hostility toward the U.S. In the eyes of actual or potential critics of the U.S., Reagan has come to stand for most of the things generations of critics disliked about America, including his background as an actor. Such objections go well with a more traditional elitist cultural anti-Americanism which sees incompetence and inexperience in high places. Reagan is also seen as the symbol of everything inauthentic about American culture and society: Hollywood, public relations, the manipulation of the media, crass commercialism, the love of luxurious consumption, support of the rich and indifference to the poor, an old-fashioned, hollow patriotism, the defense of capitalism and American power.
Reagan is also regarded as trigger-happy, aggressive, and provocative toward the Soviet Union. His “evil empire” characterization of the Soviet Union was repeatedly men tioned with great consternation. (Even in Hungary, where hostility of any type toward the U.S. is rare, the cowboy image appeared to be imprinted in the minds of people suggesting the possibility that we may here also confront an example of a highly successful Soviet propaganda campaign that shrewdly capitalized on images and predispositions in search of a personified scapegoat. I should add that my visit to Hungary was unrelated to my interest in anti-Americanism.) On the whole, Reagan’s power and influence is vastly overrated both among the critics and friends of the United States. Highly educated people appeared to entertain a view of the American political system more appropriate to the personal dictatorship of Quadaffi of Libya or Kim Il Sung of North Korea than to a system in which “the chief executive” is subject to a vast network of controls, restraints, and countervailing forces.
While much of the animosity toward the U.S. is ostensibly focused on its foreign policy, there are deeper layers of sentiment and historical memories which undergird the current criticisms. In particular, Vietnam and Watergate loom large, the first symbolizing recklessness and brutality in foreign policy, the second corruption and the abuse of power at home.
My conversationsal so confirmed that specific critiques of the United States almost invariably rest on a bedrock of anticapitalist sentiments. Critics of capitalism in Western Europe (and elsewhere) are bound to be hostile to the U.S., the guardian of the “world system” of capitalism, the most powerful capitalist country. Anticapitalism is also congenial with the peace activists who readily fix the blame for every political conflict upon profit hunger and the lucrativeness of the arms business (“weapons manufacturers seeking to expand their multi-billion dollar market,” as a booklet of the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament puts it). By contrast, the Soviet contribution to the arms race is unknown or unappreciated or legitimized by the honorable motives of self-defense. That motives other than profit could play a part in the militarization of a society and its rise to a military superpower status eludes such critics of the U.S.
It appears that CND has abandoned even a pretense of even handedness as far as American and Soviet contributions to the arms race and a possible military conflict are concerned. Its publications overflow with undisguised hostility toward the U.S. The women of Greenham Common “recognized with horror that Britain was becoming a nuclear dump for a foreign power.” The base itself “is a small American town in which the U.S. dollar is the currency and the British criminal law counts for little” (Greenham Women Against Cruise Missiles–apparently an American publication of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City). In another pamphlet discussing life at the U.S. bases in England one can read:
Luxury is cheap and abundant…. In the officer’s mess at Mildenhall a champagne brunch is laid on…. A young pilot clad in a very zippy flyingsuit festooned with bright badges, flashes, emblems, decals, numbers and bars, sits at a table covered with fine linen eating a giant cream puff with a silver fork. He has champagne there and three other types of cream cake and, as he quaffs away at both, he is deeply absorbed in the pages of a child’s comic (Sanity, May 1984).
It is all there: the childlike American technological savage with the pea-brain and vast power luxuriating on British soil. Only the theme of drug addiction is missing (I was also told by CND sympathizers that one reason Americans should not be trusted with nuclear weapons is because drug-taking is rampant among the troops). The U.S. air base, according to CND literature, is not only the setting of such bizarre contrasts (as the infantile American guzzling champagne over comic books), but “a major U.S. air base is a strange, different, alien and menacing world.” Presumably, military air bases of other nations are warm, friendly, and familiar spots.
American reconnaissance planes “aim to provoke” the Warsaw Pact countries. On the whole, “The use of U.S. troops around the world has a number of consequences, chiefly the stifling of the rights of people to determine their own destinies…. This tendency to intervention has an added sinister dimension. By multiplying confrontations of conventional forces, it multiplies the opportunities for conventional confrontations to turn into nuclear ones.” The booklet also asserts that “currently more than half the U.S. Federal tax dollars are spent on the military.” It is in fact less than a third.
While the part played by the churches in the peace movements and their highly critical attitudes toward the U.S. have been analyzed before, some new light was shed on the matter in my conversations. Virtually everybody I talked to observed that the peace issue and the activism it generates has been a great boon to the churches anxious to retain or regain their flock. A Dutch historian suggested that for the churches the nuclear issue is especial ly congenial as it represents “the exploitation of fear.” After all, he added, “the churches don’t like truly liberated people; they need people with fear.” Perhaps even more to the point is that the peace movement offers an easy path to virtue and a set of new certainties. Such strongly moralistic movements also need an image of evil which can conveniently be projected upon the U.S. In addition, it appears that it is much easier for Western European peace activists, including intellectuals, to imagine–with the assistance of the media–the horrors of nuclear war (accidental or other) than the disagreeable aspects of life under a Soviet-type political system. And even if that could be imagined, it is hard to see the connection between unilateral nuclear disarmament, shifts in global power relations, and the approach of Soviet domination. But I also heard–especially in Holland–that “Finlandization” is not such a terrible fate, after all.
It did not take long to recognize that the critiques of American society and policies voiced in Western Europe were almost identical with the major strands of social criticism directed at American institutions and policies at home. While such a convergence is presumably largely a matter of osmosis,·I was also given examples of situations in which American social critics instructed their European counterparts or provided them with cues to follow. A Swedish professor of economics insisted that “all Swedish Marxists learned their Marxism in America.” A Dutch historian told me that not long ago Stanley Hoffman of Harvard lectured a Dutch academic audience on the perils and flaws of American foreign policy. An English journalist noted that, when in London recently, Gloria Steinem dwelt on “the lack of freedoms in America” and referred to President Reagan as a “smiling fascist.” The Missing was a huge success in Western Europe. Western European critics of the U.S. readily refer to American sources and supporting material. Indirectly, the products of American mass culture also support denigration of the U.S. more at the cultural than political level. “They look at Dallas and their heart swells,” said an English intellectual, commenting on the kind of confirmation such programs provide of the stereotyped, negative views of life in the United States. A leader of the CND told me that on his visit to the U.S. he was surprised at the vehemence of criticism directed at American policies from the pulpits of the churches in this country. According to an English educator, many critics of the U.S. in England rely heavily on the Bowles-Gintis critique of American education and society.
In trying to understand why the temptation to criticize and disparage the U.S. in Western Europe seems so irresistible, one is led to ponder the impact of the available visual images of this country. There are documentaries and pictorial reports (on television) which offer vivid, visual images confirming and substantiating in concrete detail the various critiques and negative predispositions. Western Europeans (like Americans) can readily call upon mental pictures of American slums, the homeless, victims of assassinations or crime, lines waiting for unemployment assistance, photos of American machines of war, and many other unappealing images of American society and power. By contrast, the muted and perfunctory criticisms of the Soviet Union can at least in part be explained by the almost total absence of any visual image of the ills and injustices of Soviet society which could provide vivid and powerful emotional substantiation and support for the typically lukewarm disapproval of Soviet domestic policies and exercise of power. The victims of war in Central America are prominently displayed on the evening news in the U.S. as in Western Europe; Afghan villages daily obliterated by Soviet air power or artillery are not to be seen. Soviet poverty, in the absence of visual documentation, remains an abstraction. Thus, in the final analysis, the Soviet Union reaps considerable benefits from its elaborate policies of censorship (and the self-censorship it imposes on resident Western correspondents). It allows her to present a seamless monolithic and somewhat mysterious facade which interacts with the high levels of Western public ignorance and lack of interest. It is difficult lo muster moral indignation against something about which one knows very little and of which one has no conceptions, visual or other.
Several conclusions might be drawn from these impressions and experiences. The first one is that hostility toward the U.S. is, in large measure, independent of what this country does; it is not necessarily a response to identifiable policies or actions, although the latter may and often do deepen or aggravate the negative predispositions noted. If so, there is a limit to what the U.S. can do to make itself popular or well liked in many parts of the world.
Second, critics of the U.S. in Western Europe also tend to be critics of their own society and its real or imaginary defects. Whatever they find wrong with their own society has its counterpart in the U.S. multiplied severalfold. In the words of a Dutch student of American society, “the disaffection with America [is] part of a much wider disaffection with the complexities and contradictions of modern society.”
Underneath such animosities lurks at least the memoryof high expectations. Anti-Americanism in its virulent, irrational form may only cease when unreasonable expectations are laid to rest. My landlady in Budapest asked me, “Have the Americans found a solution to the food smell in refrigerators?” Such concerns illustrate the evolution of expectations in Hungary. While the U.S., as Hungarians see it, is neither any longer the powerful champion of human freedoms around the world nor paradise on earth, it may still hold the key to the solutions of problems vital to the new generation of consumers in Hungary. Needless to say, there is no animosity toward the U.S. in Hungary. Nor do Eastern European intellectuals harbor high expectations about the perfectability of social systems and human beings. By contrast, many Western European (and American) intellectuals blame the United States for the discomforts of living in a world which has not only become an increasingly dangerous place, but also one which cannot gratify their longing for a sense of purpose and meaning. cc