can’t see the forest

Stop, Listen–What’s that Sound? Anti-Americanism and "The New McCarthyism"

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In an upcoming essay of Project -ism (It’s coming—it’s on its way, I tell you–none knoweth the hour!), I will discuss the systematic absurdities of nationalism in some detail. But an interesting article recently posted at Reclaiming Space, Larry Cohler-Esses’ “The New McCarthyism” from The Nation, got the gears turning prematurely with regards to the phenomenon of “anti-Americanism” and its close associate, what has come to be identified with “anti-Semitism” even though, in reality, it is something else entirely. While, as history clearly evidences, both anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism unfortunately exist in their own right, in contemporary context it seems apparent that, for most common usages, these labels would be more accurately grouped under the heading of “anti-imperialism.” This twisted terminology, when repeatedly amplified through the mouthpieces of the mainstream media, affects a transformation whereby criticism of policy becomes ad hominem criticism, whereby the rational becomes the irrational. It is a most perilous and yet eerily compelling association which plays upon basic social psychology with results entirely deleterious to both personal self-determination and peaceful diplomatic relations worldwide, but equally lucrative for the wealthy and powerful captains of the military-industrial ship of state.

Ted Rall anti-American

(cartoon by Ted Rall, from Liberty News)

In a thickly sourced article, Wikipedia defines anti-Americanism (courtesy of Random House, incidentally) as being “opposed or hostile to the United States of America, its people, its principles, or its policies.” The article goes on to state that “in practice, a broad range of attitudes and actions critical of or opposed to the United States have been labeled anti-Americanism. Thus, the applicability of the term is often disputed.”

Consider a rough analog in interpersonal relationships. If one feels that one dislikes a person—that is, if one were to characterize one’s self as, absurd as it may sound, anti-John or anti-Paula, etc.—this would perhaps be because the actions of the person in question had caused friction or displeasure of some sort, fostering a general mistrust of his or her character. Perhaps John boxed one’s ears for no apparent reason; perhaps Paula obnoxiously cut one off at a busy intersection. In most cases, and of course dependent on innumerable factors, the object of displeasure might later behave in such a way as to redeem himself or herself in one’s eyes; just because one is anti-John today does not mean necessarily that one must be anti-John tomorrow. We are capable, in most instances, of separating the person from his or her immediate actions to a high degree, by contextualizing those actions against the larger framework of what we know of the person and of personal character in general. This seems self-evident enough, and happens to be a moral cornerstone of many of the world’s religious faiths.

Of course, as human beings, we often harbor grudges that are most irrational in character. All such sentiments of the type we are discussing are in some measure subjective, but subjectivity is not the same as irrationality. One might be anti-John because John earned a promotion for which one had been overlooked; or because John criticized one’s favorite impressionist painter at last night’s dinner party. These types of judgments, one can see, are of a different species than the former.

Therefore, we are (or, at the least, should aspire to be) continually questioning our own evaluations of others. It is not so much a question of being non-judgmental, since this is essentially the same as being non-subjective, which is something that, in the absolute, lies quite beyond the capacity of human cognition. It is principally a question of the proper qualification, justification, and contextualization of judgment, and of, in the appropriate cases, keeping certain judgments to one’s self and under watchful guard.

The same is true of one’s evaluation of the character and behavior of a nation-state. And, thus, we can identify at least two prevalent and diametrically opposed views on anti-Americanism: one which seeks to group any sentiment in opposition to the character and policy of the United States government under the heading of the irrational ad hominem against the “American people,” the “American way of life,” and other such nebulous and chameleonesque conceptualizations; and another which recognizes that some of these sentiments—in all probability, a huge majority of them—are in fact sober and calculated judgments based on specific statements and actions of the U.S. government, judgments in which cultural and situational relativism stand as ubiquitous factors.

As an exhibit of the former, take A.S. Markowitz’s statement in Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America (the title of which, alone, goes a long way towards suggesting the sentimental, forcibly dualist character of the argument within):

The fundamental role of anti-Americanism in Europe in general, and particularly among those on the Left, is to absolve themselves of their own moral failings and intellectual errors by heaping them onto the monster scapegoat, the United States of America. For stupidity and bloodshed to vanish from Europe, the U.S. must be identified as the singular threat to democracy (contrary to every lesson of actual history). Thus, during the Cold War, it was dogma among Europeans from Sweden to Sicily, from Athens to Paris, that the “imperialistic” power was America, even though it was the USSR that annexed Eastern Europe, made satellites out of several African countries, and invaded Afghanistan, even though it was the People’s Republic of China that marched into Tibet, attacked South Korea, and subjugated three Indochinese countries. A similar dynamic applies today in the war on terror.

This, then, is akin to the case of one disliking Paula because of how very comfortably her home is furnished, because of how verdant and velvety her front lawn appears to one’s wayward eye. If only Paula’s life were not so perfect in every discernable detail, one’s own would not seem so dreary. The United States of America, because of its unshakable moral fortitude and alabaster principles, is merely the “scapegoat;” that the United States aided and abetted a host of brutal dictatorships during the same period, that it turned numerous Latin American countries into satellites, and that it later unilaterally invaded and occupied both Afghanistan and Iraq under premises not markedly different (except, perhaps, in their emotional intensity) from the earlier justifications of the Soviet Union in south Asia, seems hardly of consequence.

In a 2002 newspaper interview, Noam Chomsky offered an opposing, and, one grasps, far more realistic and relativistic conception:

“The concept “anti-American” is an interesting one. The counterpart is used only in totalitarian states or military dictatorships… Thus, in the old Soviet Union, dissidents were condemned as “anti-Soviet.” That’s a natural usage among people with deeply rooted totalitarian instincts, which identify state policy with the society, the people, the culture. In contrast, people with even the slightest concept of democracy treat such notions with ridicule and contempt. Suppose someone in Italy who criticizes Italian state policy were condemned as “anti-Italian.” It would be regarded as too ridiculous even to merit laughter. Maybe under Mussolini, but surely not otherwise. Actually the concept has earlier origins. It was used in the Bible by King Ahab, the epitome of evil, to condemn those who sought justice as “anti-Israel” (“ocher Yisrael,” in the original Hebrew, roughly “hater of Israel,” or “disturber of Israel”). His specific target was Elijah.”

Markowitz speaks of anti-Americanism from without, while Chomsky describes it from within—but the underlying rationale (properly, the lack thereof) is the same.

In “The New McCarthyism,” the article mentioned above, the author writes:

This is the modus operandi of the New McCarthyism. It targets a new enemy for our era: Muslims, Arabs and others in the Middle East field who are identified as stepping over an unstated line in criticizing Israel, as radical Islamists, as just plain radical or as in some way sympathetic to terrorists. Its purveyors include Campus Watch, run by Arab studies scholar Daniel Pipes; the David Project, supported by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation; and David Horowitz’s FrontPage Magazine (in October Horowitz organized an “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week” on campuses across the nation).

The article discusses mounting attempts from certain quarters in academia to discriminate against accomplished academics who have expressed contempt for the policies of the U.S. and Israeli governments in the Middle East. One cannot seriously question the existence and expansion of the State of Israel without being labeled anti-Semitic; one cannot criticize U.S. political hegemony unless one is suffering from a pre-existing illness of anti-Americanism.

The widespread execution of Jews in Europe as a response to the Black Plague was anti-Semitism; the relentless and unspeakably horrible persecution of Jews by Hitler’s Germany was anti-Semitism; an employer’s refusal to hire a qualified Jewish applicant solely on the basis of his faith is anti-Semitism. Cogent, historically informed criticisms of the cruel, remorseless, and anachronistically colonialist policies and actions of the Israeli state do not constitute anti-Semitism.

Similarly, when a group of extremists crashes fully populated airplanes into fully populated U.S. landmarks, that is anti-Americanism; when North Korean propaganda posters exclaim “Death to America,” that is likewise anti-Americanism. But criticism of the actions and root motivations of the U.S. government in its obsequiously obtuse response to such threats does not in any sense equate with this kind of glandular discrimination.

As Seneca observed millennia ago, “Men love their country not because it is great, but because it is their own.” And, to quote G. K. Chesterton’s response to a famous one-liner, “‘My country, right or wrong’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying, except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.'”


The somber subject matter notwithstanding, the effect of such imagery as this upon the honest, forthright, well-read person is generally a mixture between the macabre and the comical. To those unquestioning, devout souls yoked to the chariot of nationalism, though, the impression given is likely to be altogether different.

Specifically in the case of the United States (but not unlike the situations in Nazi Germany, Axis Japan, or apartheid South Africa), underneath the nationalist rhetoric and fascist imagery lie the illusions that the nation is actually a fully functioning, unassailable bastion of heavenly perfection—that, unlike every other nation in the history of the world, its idealistic principles somehow have not been repeatedly marred by the pragmatic requirements of survival and by gruesome missteps. So, then, to criticize the actions of the government must be to criticize the character of the people, since it is the people that constitute our country’s identity on the world stage. Correct? Hardly.

In the simplest sense, nothing could be further from an accurate representation of reality. The citizens of the United States did not, in my recollection, vote to set up the CIA-sponsored training camps which created the sophisticated “terrorists” of today, people who were “our guys” until they detached themselves from the Washingtonian agenda; nor did we vote to fund the Israeli genocide of Palestinians, nor did we elect to invade and occupy two sovereign nations in response to terrorist acts on our own soil. As a habit, we do not even directly elect our own leadership, nor do we appear sufficiently moved to officially rebuke that leadership when it tramples on our Constitution.

But, for our failure to hold ourselves accountable for the shooting, spending, and spouting-off sprees which have characterized U.S. foreign policy for decades running—and in the “freest country of the world,” no less, with resources at our disposal far outstripping those of many of the world’s other cultures—perhaps, as Americans, we are deserving of “anti-American” sentiment after all. Perhaps dissent really is the highest form of patriotism, a quality in which we may be sorely lacking as a culture.


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