A dynamic contradiction
December 3, 2002
When Charles Dickens noticed his readers were losing interest in recent instalments of The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, he quickly rushed Martin off to America. Locals complained that the resulting portraits (Martin worked in a fraudulent company) were damaging stereotypes, but sales figures showed Dickens' intuition was right, the English were curious about their former colonies, even though they were not particularly sympathetic towards them.
Five generations later, American sympathies are the problem. Many outsiders now feel America's self-centredness reduces their lives to a cartoon. Modern America has the military strength and cultural dominance which Dickens' England took for granted, and it filters the outside world through many of the same distorting lenses. The crucial difference, of course, is that America was created by philosopher statesmen as a response to tyranny and colonial oppression. Its constitution is the most profound document of Enlightenment ideals and political wisdom and it has the potential to develop and shield human freedom in a way the British Empire never could. So, why is America so hated?
As the major geopolitical force of the last century, America has trodden on innumerable toes. It used the Monroe doctrine and other high rhetoric to license heavy-handed political chess which the Cold War extended across the globe. Whether it was Pinochet in Chile or Mobutu in the Congo, America picked a dog in each fight and the natives had to live with its choice. The American century, especially if you are not American, can be read as a series of military incidents in which they got their way. Zoltan Grossman, an American peace activist, has compiled a list of 134 US army interventions, domestic and foreign, between 1890 and 2001. A great deal of the current animus against the US stems from the items on this list.
There is also ample evidence of its cynicism towards weaker countries, not least Guyana. Writing about the slaughter which followed Indonesia's invasion of East Timor, and the UN Security Council's orders that it withdraw, Noam Chomsky quotes the memoirs of UN Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan who wrote: "The United States wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success." Chomsky notes: "He goes on to report that within two months some 60,000 people had been killed. The numbers reached about 200,000 within a few years, thanks to increasing military support from the US . . ." In the context of current manoeuvres over Iraq these words have a disturbing resonance.
Another source of anger is mainstream America's casual disparagement of other places. First Amendment freedoms seem to entice opinions like those of the conservative columnist Ann Coulter who recently wrote, "They hate us?
We hate them. Americans don't want to make Islamic fanatics love us. We want to make them die. There's nothing like horrendous physical pain to quell angry fanatics. So sorry they're angry - wait until they see American anger. Japanese kamikaze pilots hated us once too. A couple of well-aimed nuclear weapons, and now they are gentle little lambs. That got their attention."
Ms Coulter sounds like the US counterpart of al Qaeda's press secretary. That she has a large domestic following raises troubling questions about the media's role in inciting jingoism and bloodlust. The overall media landscape is however much more complex than this example suggests and for every Ann Coulter there is a Gore Vidal, who can write, with equally striking freedom that "the Supreme Court did a little dance in 5/4 time and replaced a popularly elected president with the oil and gas Cheney/Bush junta."
The paradox here is that a society which allows gross xenophobia to publish itself without concessions also elicits the most intense introspection and self-criticism. This yin-yang quality produces many regrettable things but it ensures that the spirit and not just the letter of the constitution remains alive. Openness to contradiction is the heart of America's strength and will probably prove its ultimate redemption. For although the US is nowhere near a resolution of its slave legacy, its genocidal policies against Native Americans, its lunatic gun culture or many other obvious moral failings, the fact that important minorities still debate, research and lobby around these issues speaks volumes about the endurance of the founding fathers' political vision.
There is also the Hollywood dream factory, Coca-Cola, Nike and four score other brands now globalized to every village on the planet. We increasingly live in an economic hall of mirrors, angled to reflect Uncle Sam. The universality of these symbols is innocuous in itself, but as a measure of cultural penetration it is frightening. All of us know Michael Jordan and Babe Ruth, but how many of them are likely to know Sobers or Bradman when many believe Germany was an American ally in WWII? Which developed nation chooses a B-movie actor for president and a professional wrestler for governor of a major state (Italy does have the distinction of a political porn star - La Cicciolina - who recently offered herself to Saddam Hussein in exchange for world peace.) Who else could dream up the fantastic strategy of the Strategic Defense Initiative, war on an abstract noun, the Doctrine of Pre-Emption or the state-sponsored prurience of the Starr report?
This kind of caricature is easy, and popular, but it misses the point. America is a dynamic contradiction, that is its promise.
Yes, it has a frightening military, but who saved Europe in two world wars and played bodyguard in the Cold War? Yes, it is awash with low culture, but it is also the home of jazz. Politically it produces Jessie Helms and Ralph Reed but also George Mitchell and Ralph Nader. There is also the small matter of a literary tradition which includes James, Melville, Twain, Eliot, Pound, Bellow, Roth . . . What single explanation can embrace all these? Walt Whitman understood the problem: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am vast. I contain multitudes." America cannot be understood as a monolith, it must be loved and hated and bargained with as a crowd.