Trashing Uncle Sam
“Why Do People Hate America?” by Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies, The Disinformation Company, 240 pages, $11
One of the first and most authentic responses to the events of September 11 was that of a panic-stricken woman fleeing as the Twin Towers collapsed in New York. In shock, she asked the reporter who held a microphone out to her: “Why do they hate us?”
That question, etched in the collective consciousness of America and the world, and subsequently appropriated by President George Bush and his administration, is the point of departure of this book, which has now been translated into Hebrew by Maya Feld (Maariv/Iyun). However, from the perspective of the authors – Ziauddin Sardar, a Pakistani-born intellectual who lives and works in the United States, but does not consider himself an American, and Merryl Wyn Davies, a Welsh author and anthropologist who lives in Wales, but does not consider herself British – the question is totally superfluous. Both of them easily fit into the radical, multicultural, postmodern, anti-globalist, long-time-haters-of-America category. Their careers have been built on books, articles, interviews, lectures, radio and television programs, and seminars at leading American universities, the common denominator being virulent criticism of the United States and all it represents.
In effect, then, the book should have been called “Why Do Radical Intellectuals Hate America?” or “Why Do Sardar and Davies Hate America?” It is a concise, forcefully argued summation of all the debates on the subject that have been raging on campuses and research institutes in the West, and especially the United States, for the last 30 years. It is even readable. Its importance, however,
lies in bringing to light what the intellectual elites in the social science and humanities faculties of the West are thinking. It has also enjoyed a large measure of success, topping best-seller lists around the world.
The appearance of the book in Hebrew is important because Israelis have always been big fans of America. The oft-heard phrase “like in America” represents a longing for that which is good, progressive, efficient, democratic, cultural, even ethical. Israelis reading this book are thus in for a shocker: America is not progressive. It is a parasite that exploits the know-how of others. In the interests of efficiency, it is tyrannical and oppressive. It is not a democracy. Its culture is vulgar and provincial. It is imperialistic in the extreme and far from ethical.
From their bird’s-eye view, the authors see all the sins and ills of the American superpower, which they claim ruthlessly runs our lives and has every intention of imposing itself on the whole world. The economic policies of the United States serve the interests of mega-corporations that create artificial needs in order to plunder the world’s resources. America is poisoning the universe with its irresponsible ecological policy, ruining health with junk food devoid of nutritional value, and marketing standardized fashions in clothing and music that promote poor taste. It is spreading the American “virus” in cultures around the globe. Everything becomes merchandise that can be sold for a profit. To “replicate American abundance – the choice of goods, the service and lifestyle that it permits – does not involve a free choice of means, but adaptation to the constraints of the ’virus,’” they write. This “inevitably compromises the ’immune system’ of the host.” The primary victims of the American virus, say Sardar and Davies, are native Third World cultures, ancient Asiatic culture and European culture, of course, which gave life to this American Frankenstein monster that has risen up to attack its creator.
“The ascendancy of the ’hamburger culture’ has meant the eradication of indigenous Third World cultures everywhere,” the authors maintain. “The tsunami of American consumerist culture assimilates everything, exerting immense, unstoppable pressure on the people of much of the world to change their lifestyles, to abandon all that gives meaning to their lives, to throw away not just their values but also their identity, stable relationships, attachment to history, buildings, places, families and received ways of doing and being.”
American democracy is a farce, they say. It arouses apathy and disinterest, creates empty drama and decides who wins according to a vote by the Electoral College or appointed officials like Supreme Court justices, who do not always consider the will of the majority, as we saw in the presidential elections in 2000. America prides itself on promoting democracy around the world, but the “democracies” it supports are tyrannical terror regimes in South America, greedy despots in the Gulf states, power-hungry Third World generals who rob their people blind, and authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Then, of course, there is the State of Israel, an ethnic entity and occupier that refuses to comply with the resolutions of the international community, and “is seen by many in the Arab world as a U.S. armed and funded colony.”
But that it not all. The American media, notorious for their narrow-mindedness and provinciality, supply the masses with cheap entertainment and shy away from a serious approach to the news. The media refuse to deal with events that take place outside the brainless consumer village they have created. Viewers are brainwashed by commercials and light news programs that revolve around the stock market, the weather, entertainment shows and sports. “The commercialism of the American media enshrines the conventional wisdom of giving the people the lowest common denominator,” Sardar and Davies write. Media giants, together with conglomerates like the World Trade Organization and the World Bank, worm their way into every corner of the world, spreading a uniform language, blandness of taste and a conceptual system that everyone must accept: “America defines what is democracy, justice, freedom; what are human rights and what is multiculturalism; who is a ’fundamentalist,’ a ’terrorist,’ or simply ’evil.’ In short, what it means to be human.”
Myth of violence
According to the authors, American society is built on the myth of violence. We see this in its cultural heroes – the conquerors of the frontier, the dispossessors of the Indians, the cowboys who resolve complicated disputes by pulling the trigger. America is a country whose citizens are killed in arguments over parking spots, where “disaffected teenagers take their guns to school and shoot people.” It is a “place where mass slaughter has become a commonplace for the depressed, disaffected and disturbed.” This is how America the superpower behaves in the world, too. Its foreign policy, “based on the western as myth and epic drama, was also the fulfillment of America’s notion of manifest destiny … American history is, on many levels, a war narrative. The motifs and rhetoric of its internal frontier war have been externalized as a means for understanding and shaping the world,” they write.
Sardar and Davies see Islam as a victim of a war of civilizations declared by the West, and Islamic terror as the oppressed and dispossessed striking back. The duo condemns terrorism, of course, but they distinguish between the serious way Europe has dealt with it and America’s violent, childish response. Europe, they say, has known political terror at home and lived under its shadow. The governments in that part of the world have resolutely opposed terrorism, but they also believed that “political resolution of grievances rather than wholesale extermination would be the necessary outcome.”
The book attempts to offer an original and in-depth analysis of the sins of the United States, but the result is shallow and ordinary – a kind of ideological manifesto in which the belligerent tone drowns out the content, some of which is truthful and worth paying close attention to, particularly on the part of those for whom the United States can do no wrong.
What this analysis lacks is a historical and human dimension that would bring the discussion down from the clouds. The Monroe Doctrine, for example, is portrayed as a 19th-century paper that sanctioned American imperialism on the North American continent by declaring the New World off-limits to European intervention. In fact, it was written by a president who was aware that his country was weak and needed to defend itself from Great Britain, France and Spain, which were considered the great empires of the time.
Sense of revulsion
While it is true that the winner of the presidential elections in 2000 did not receive the most votes, this was an exceptional case. Only three times in over 40 election campaigns has the Electoral College decided in favor of the losing candidate. On all the other occasions, the electoral vote has only reinforced the results of the national ballot. The discussion of the U.S. Constitution, a praiseworthy document in the eyes of those who wrote it, is openly sneered at. The authors say that the constitution is based on agreements between Indian tribes that made a great impression on Benjamin Franklin after he studied them in depth. But Franklin was also familiar with the English constitution, as well as Scottish thinking and the philosophy of the Continental Congress. On top of that, Franklin, who was quite old when the constitution was framed, served mainly in a honorary position and did not even contribute to the discussions, let alone write the draft, which was mostly the work of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay.
The survey of a “century of U.S. military interventions” in the middle of the book, which reads like a 10-page-long shopping list, is marred by a lack of historical insight. One after another, in chronological order, the authors enumerate instances of American force: against the Indians, against rioting blacks, against Nazi Germany and the Japanese in World War II, against the Russians during the Soviet siege of West Berlin. All these appear in a single list, creating the impression that every instance of military intervention is a symptom of American imperialism, no matter what the context or the consequences.
What the book does not sufficiently explain is why, despite the hatred, the lines of people applying for visas, green cards and U.S. citizenship are still so long, and why thousands of Cubans and Mexicans are willing to risk their lives to reach the land of opportunity. In the finest radical tradition, the authors cite the “fallacies” peddled by the United States as a possible explanation. I doubt they would employ the same terminology to explain why they, along with thousands of other radical intellectuals, are making a nice living off this detested place.
The source of the contempt in radical intellectual circles for America and everything it stands for is a complicated issue that has fueled scholarly debates for some years now. In his book “Tenured Radicals,” Roger Kimball argues that the young radicals of the 1960s, with their crazy politics that never came to anything, went on to become university professors and leading cultural figures. From the moment they received tenure, he writes, their reckless critical barbs changed direction, from politics to the intellectual and cultural world. This explanation, which should not be dismissed out of hand, has also come under fire. But the fact is, some of America’s leading intellectuals did grow up at a time when imperialistic America was exercising brute force in Vietnam and supporting shady practices and corruption in South America, the Arab world and many countries in Asia and Africa. This use of military force, along with the vulgarity, mindless consumerism, ignorance and violent behavior that characterize large sectors of American society, have contributed to the sense of revulsion in academic, journalistic and artistic circles.
Unfortunately, the publishers of the Hebrew edition skimped on editing. If the text had been properly reviewed, many mistakes could have been avoided – not only stylistic errors and typos like “Meddle East Report,” but more serious errors like describing Prof. David Brion Davis as an “eminent black academic.” Prof. Davis of Yale University is indeed a world-renowned expert on slavery in America, but he is Jewish and white.
Prof. Eyal Naveh teaches history at Tel Aviv University. His book “The United States: An Ongoing Democracy” is forthcoming from the Open University Press.