By Gaither Stewart
(Rome) It is a paradox that the Americanism of which Americans are so proud is the source of the pandemic anti-Americanism throughout the world. Precisely the same Americanism of which Americans boast generates a worldwide antipathy toward them. And today, not just toward the US government, but in many places - to begin with in Iraq, as testified by blog writers from there - that antipathy, that hate, is directed against Americans in general.
“We hate Americans!”
One wonders if there is some great misunderstanding at play. Is this a cultural matter? A lack of true information about Americanism and what it stands for? Are Americans simply misunderstood in the world?
However that may be, the nature of Americanism as it is understood by the majority of Americans and that perceived and experienced by non-Americans are so diametrically opposed that sometimes the two concepts seem to concern different historical times and different geographical places; Americans and the others seem to inhabit different worlds.
So what is it, this Americanism? From my vantage point I experience forms of Americanism chiefly in the context of the hegemonic tendencies, bullying globalization, arrogance, militarism and imperialism of the United States of America. One glaring, arrogant example is the construction of yet another US military base in the ancient city of Vicenza in north Italy, where (anachronistically) American soldiers in military dress jog over the cobbled streets of the city center, as if it were wartime, as if it were theirs, past cathedrals and Palladium architecture, weaving and dodging among startled women and children. This military display is a form of the Americanism become anti-Americanism in Europe. In this particular case the insistence on making of small and vassal Italy an aircraft carrier at the service of imperialistic America has alienated much of north Italy.
But speaking of Americanism I don’t have in mind only American militarism and its preemptive wars! Not by a long shot. I have in mind the homeland. For there is something in the exaggerated patriotism in the homeland itself that the others out there experience first hand. Those others who know America well detest the super patriotic, Amerika über alles America—the foreign specialists and US-based foreign journalists and academics and scientists, even those foreigners in the arts attracted by one of the admirable aspects of "America"—these days increasingly hard to find—i.e. the velocity and high ceiling afforded new ideas.
Even bedazzled non-American tourists of the kind who visit Disneyland and Las Vegas, who know little about American life, instinctively see the super patriotic flag-waving, Star Spangled Banner singing America as vulgar expressions of Americanism.
Finally, such worldviews coincide with the Americanism pinpointed, analyzed and criticized by a small but growing group of awakened Americans.
The implications of the term Americanism had long lingered in my mind before recently I heard the word used in an Italian talk show in reference to America’s foreign wars. My spontaneous thought was, OK, but that’s much too reductive. The thing is, once you use the word in that one context, it’s like opening Pandora’s box; you have to be prepared to take the next step and delve into what Americanism really is.
Je vous demande pardon! if I immediately begin to skirt too much around the edges. My excuse is that the subject is too menacingly broad to undertake in a single article. Still, digressions sometimes inevitably lead back toward the bull’s eye. Or, to use the old Italian seaman’s term, avanzare di ritorno—advance by return. And for that matter the first paragraph above already pinpoints the target.
WHERE TROUBLES MELT LIKE LEMON DROPS
“Somewhere over the rainbow
Way up high
There’s a land that I heard of
Once in a lullaby.”
The overly sweet, overly optimistic image returns like a leitmotiv. It both repels and attracts, the land that I heard of, the land that exists only in the imagery of dreamers. What I have in mind is a pet theme, the famous go-to-war-for “American way of life,” which for me again underlines America’s persistent claims of a monopoly on morality.
What is it, this American morality? This righteousness? Is it our religious roots in the fable of the Puritan settlers, those super religious people who in their hardships were bigots, perhaps also practitioners of incest and racists soon morphing into dogmatic chauvinists who early-on labeled their dissidents and different-thinkers witches and demons.
Pre-Americanism! The same Americanism initiated then which today fosters the rights of the rich to become richer, the strong to trample the weak and the contempt for and the crushing of anything smacking of the social in our land, real trade unions and, heaven forbid, universal health care.
Meanwhile, out in the empire, as long as it is distant, the Puritan legacy instills blindness to the use of cluster bombs from the stratosphere and hidden torture in places with foreign names like Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib … and while our neighbors in Haiti eat dirt, literally?
When I asked a friend and writer colleague in heartland America what he understands by Americanism, he stunned me and overwhelmed me with the following:
“From birth I have been immersed, enculterated, inculcated, and surrounded by the myriad toxic components of the ‘American Dream’ or ‘Americanism.’ There are some admirable aspects to ‘America’ but by and large we live in a spiritual/psychological sewer.” He then listed two dozen aspects of Americanism, which I repeat here: narcissism, greed, hyper-individualism, consumerism, capitalism, corporatism, faux democracy, media whoredom, asphyxiation of the Left, Christian fundamentalism, Mammon worship, moral retardation, militarism, imperialism, celebrity worship, wars on drugs and terrorism, prison industrial complex, mean-spiritedness, self-absorption, American exceptionalism, bullying, anti-intellectualism and the abandonment of many uninsured and homeless in the wealthiest nation on earth.
Whew! That is article, essay, denouncement and indictment.
The indictment raises many questions: Is that the American way of life? Do you recognize the indictment—for an indictment it is—as representative of “our way of life”? As Americanism? But most important do you accept and hold to that “way of life?”
Meanwhile more and more people of the world are answering, non merci, nein danke, no, grazie, no, muchas gracias, we can live without the American way of life.
ISMS AND MORE ISMS
The Greek “ism” suffix is a devilish affair indeed. Those three letters continue to create problems when applied to religious, philosophic, political or artistic movements or to tendencies or qualities of certain persons or groups: misunderstandings and disputes, hate and love, blind faith and war on whomever doesn’t fall in line. “Ism” wanders from Classicism to Futurism in the arts, from Romanticism to Realism in literature and from Nazism to Communism in European 20th century politics.
Today the West—the Occident!—uses the word Islamism in a negative sense—much as the word Communism or terrorism still emerges from a magician’s sleeve by a slick sleight-of-hand for our enemies in general—to slander Islam and the Islamic religion, its peoples and nations as something negative or to condemn political adversaries.
At The Same Time
others too are adopting the term Americanism. The way it is viewed is crucial. The Americanism seen by the others is America’s excessive admiration for non-admirable displays of American culture. For its unjustified optimism … where troubles melt like lemons drops. For its insistence on calling things by their opposites, such as peace for war. For the political correctness and false questions of “taste” and “sensitivity,” as Joan Didion once recalled, in the demand for more information about what really happened on 9/11; it was not the “appropriate time.”
In this sense the difference between Americanism and anti-Americanism is like the two sides of the same coin. The two concepts are the black and the white. Americanism becomes the backside of the moon. In Italian it is common to use the word Americanata to define an ostentatious, negative and unreliable action; an Americanata reveals the negative nuance of Americanism. A bad American film is always an Americanata.
The bitter truth is that the Americanism of many Americans, who, sheathed in their false consciousness, believe they are exceptional and the envy of the world, is an illusion. An illusion! A mirage in the desert. For the others out there, there is something childlike about their blind faith in their supposed superior life style and phony democracy that sometimes even sparks a feeling of commiseration and pity in other peoples who tend to consider them at the very best spoiled but dangerous brats.
And they continue to sing where troubles melt like lemon drops….
There was a time after World War II when other peoples imitated the way Americans speak, dress, walk and think. No longer! Once Americans were welcomed everywhere. No more! The aura of the “American dream” once made of Americanism a cult. Now the others do not understand why they feel unwelcome in America; they do not understand the reigning terrorism mania; they cannot understand the wars.
Although Americans have been spoiled, foreigners are becoming aware that the former personal freedoms that were once the key to Americanism have diminished. (Pardon these generalizations but sometimes in such matters surveys and polls and data are useless.) Though without comparing charts and scales on salaries and rents and economic aspects of life, Europeans realize their living standards are higher. Admittedly on the other hand, they do not yet appreciate the difficulties or the extent of the unfairness many many Americans face—unemployment and precarious employment, lack of basic health care, homelessness.
For arriving foreigners ten fingerprints and body searches at US entrance points serve to accentuate the sensation of “America-fortress-against-the-world” and aggravate America’s globalization-imperialism urge. Europeans’ former positive, envious feelings toward America have vanished in the swirl and whorl of US militarism. The reality is that except in personal cases, few Europeans aspire to live in the USA today. As a rule only the very poor of the world seek to immigrate to the USA.
Before 9/11, I had occasion to live in New York City for a couple years in an apartment building on the Upper West Side in which the 16-man staff of service personnel were all Latin Americans, living frugally on low pay. Each of them confessed his dream of returning “home” to Mexico or to the Dominican Republic or to Peru as soon as he accumulated enough savings for a house or to open a business there.
In that immigrant microcosm the “American dream” was dead and gone.
Since the majority of people of the world seem to be infected with the disease, anti-Americanism is a good starting point to understand Americanism. But first, one wonders why has anti-Americanism contaminated the world? Once, the US government blamed it on the nefarious European Left and Radical Chic and Communists and also on Europe’s green envy of the American way of life.
That the real European Left from Sartre on has always been wary of America is true, but never as today.
Instead the real reasons as seen from Europe and Latin America stem first of all from stupid, arrogant and self-defeating US foreign policy. At the same time, French or Dutch can hardly believe the ignorance and naiveté of Americans about the world. While many Americans boast of their anti-intellectualism and their President has trouble finding strange places like Kenya or even Afghanistan on the map, the “green” media inform French and Italians that the waste and consumerism in the USA is destroying planet earth and Germans and Scandinavians are realizing that American democracy is a sham and has defiled the very word.
People are more and more aware that the Patriots Act and legislation subsequent to 9/11 have eroded America’s civil liberties. That the divide between rich and poor has never been more profound, the word “social” is taboo, and American capitalism has become more and more savage and vicious. For many others, American culture seems to be limited to mall shopping and TV sports, while America’s absurd theories of exportation of democracy and globalization as a solution to world poverty are widely scoffed at: exportation of democracy means war and globalization means loss of jobs in Italy or France.
Europeans are right to wonder why Americans, even well intentioned people of the Left, cannot see the obvious. The answer is that their continuing faith in a mythical Americanism blinds them. And their false consciousness created and maintained by disgraceful mainline media that distorts the concept of freedom of the press.
American conservatives twist things around and point out that foreigners don’t know the USA. Nothing more false! Europeans are well-informed about the USA. In these months, day after day arrive into peoples’ homes news and talk shows about the USA and its incomprehensible money-based electoral system. People are familiar with South Carolina and New England and Colorado. Italian TV and press have their correspondents following the primaries today because it matters to Europe, to the world, who is elected, they believe (naively). In this, Europeans show their good faith. They still believe there is a difference between America’s two political parties, when they could be suggesting and advising and pleading for third and fourth parties in the USA—in their own interest—something Americans seem loath to do.
Each new school shooting somewhere in the USA, each new massacre in Iraq and Afghanistan, the death tolls of US and European casualties, and analyses and media coverage of US events, the decline of the US economy, the falling stock market in New York and the threat of recession are all part of Europe’s daily fare.
I was perplexed this morning when my wife, an Italian, asked me in all sincerity as to why what happens in the USA so important to the rest of the world. My point is that though the world studies the USA, the others out there in the world are terrified of what the next fool-hardy, dangerous and unpredictable act this big oaf of a child will pull off in the name of its Americanism.
European American specialists often return to those Puritan individualists I mentioned earlier “who so passionately believed that they could individually establish a direct relationship with God,” who emigrated to North America and invented “an explosively new and radical ideology” that justified “an individualist rather than a social view of property.”
The decline of that idea we are all witnessing shows that in an individualistic world that is wholly private we lose our bearings; deprived of any public anchor, all we have are our individual subjective values to guide us. According to even a minimum social philosophy (which for Washington and US capitalism is straight out of Marx’s Communist Manifesto and Mao’s Little Red Book) one simple but pressing need would be publicly owned TV with the (impossible) mandate to provide a universal public service to guarantee ordinary citizens core news and comment free of hype and spin. While the U.S. spends little money on public TV, European governments finance and aggressively regulate broadcasting content so that state TV has remained more complete and in some countries surprisingly free.
American private broadcasters instead plead the First Amendment’s commitment to absolute free speech, making public interest regulation almost impossible.
To be continued.
Senior Contributing Editor for Cyrano’s Journal/tantmieux, is a novelist and journalist based in Italy. A longtime student of Russian culture he maintains particular interest in developments affecting Russia. His essays and dispatches are read widely on many leading Internet venues. His collections of fiction, Icy Current Compulsive Course, To Be A Stranger and Once In Berlin are published by Wind River Press. (www.windriverpress.com). His recent novel, Asheville, is published by Wastelandrunes, (www.wastelandrunes.com).