“I am willing to love all mankind, except an American.”--Samuel Johnson.
“ America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.” --Oscar Wilde.
“Why do they hate us?” The question seems to be on everyone’s lips these days, and everybody seems to have an opinion. According to some observers, people throughout the world simply, “hate our democracy.” According to others the United States sides with Israel against the Palestinian people, thus incurring their justifiable wrath. In Europe it is common to assert that Americans act like arrogant “cowboys,” and that we are religious fanatics attempting to impose our ways upon the rest of the world. Radicals and even moderates in Latin America insist that the United States is responsible for the squalor so common in that region. Throughout the world the consensus of opinion seems to be that the United States has constructed an empire that snuffs out the aspirations of its victims. This has given rise in recent years to a wave of paranoid hatred of the United States. But few seem to know that such loathing of America is nothing new.
Long before the United States was founded, Barry and Judith Colp Rubin inform us in their new book, Hating America: A History, enlightened Europeans were convinced that America was inferior to the Old World and that nothing good would ever come of it. During the eighteenth century European intellectuals attempted to explain why no great civilization had arisen on American shores (the Incas and the Aztecs did not count) as it had across the Atlantic. The greatest biologist and naturalist of his time, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, was convinced that climate was the critical factor in human development. Although he had never been to America, he read a great deal about the severe blizzards of New England and the heat of the tropics and concluded that it was impossible for civilized life to thrive there. In fact, he was convinced that life degenerated in American conditions. Without any evidence whatsoever, he contended that animals in America were smaller than their European counterparts. The American mountain lion for example, was “smaller, weaker, and more cowardly than the real lion.” He even held that animals such as horses, goats and dogs which had crossed the Atlantic to America diminished in stature after they arrived!
What was true of animals, naturally was also true of humans. Accordingly, Buffon wrote that the American Indian “is feeble in his organs of generation; . . . has neither body hair . . . nor ardor for his female . . . .” In terms similar to those often used by anti-American critics two hundred years later, he concluded that their “heart is frozen, their society cold, their empire cruel.”
The Rubins explain that Buffon was no exception in his bizarre estimation of America. The great French philosopher Voltaire echoed his opinions. Another eighteenth century popularizer of anti-American views was Cornelius DePauw of the Netherlands who contended in his popular 1768 book, Philosophical Research on the Americans, that everything across the Atlantic was “either degenerate or monstrous.” Immanuel Kant wrote in 1775 that Americans were “too weak for hard work . . . incapable of all culture, in fact even lower than the Negro.” So many European intellectuals accepted and repeated these and other similar claims that they formed the European consensus about America. In response to the prevalence of views such as these Benjamin Franklin wrote his Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, an essay demonstrating that Americans were not sickly, that the population was fertile and growing more rapidly than that of England. Thomas Jefferson’s famous Notes on the State of Virginia is an explicit defense of native creatures. American bears, he explained, were as twice as big as old world varieties, and the fossilized remains of American elephants were enormous.
Critics were not deterred however. Nikolas Lenau, a Hungarian poet went so far as to complain that he could find no nightingales or other songbirds in America. This he thought was emblematic of the region’s spiritual poverty. Unlike many European critics, Lenau had at least traveled to America in the 1830s, but he became ill, lost money in a land speculation scheme, and was embittered by his experience. He later wrote that “Americans are shopkeepers with souls that stink towards heaven. They are dead for all spiritual life . . . . The nightingale is right when he does not want to come to these louts.”
This enlightening new book places contemporary hatred of America in historical context by describing the trajectory of anti-Americanism over the course of three centuries. According to the Rubins, during the first phase of anti-Americanism, European intellectuals blamed the inferiority of America on the natural environment. During the second phase, which began with the Revolutionary era, they placed blame for American degeneracy upon the people. Even in Jefferson’s day, Americans were after all, the descendents of a polyglot collection of Europe’s criminals, outcasts, religious cranks, and failures—in short, the scum of European society. Furthermore, they were rebels who, having proclaimed the virtues of the common man, had rejected monarchy, the only system of government for which mankind had ever proven suitable. It was impossible that such a people could make a successful nation. European intellectuals dripped contempt as they discussed the United States. The democratic experiment across the Atlantic could not possibly last.
Most European critics were children of privilege, born into a class hierarchy they believed was the natural order of any society. They believed that all the benefits of culture, literature, the arts, poetry and the opera were the work of such an aristocracy of breeding. Yet Americans not only insisted on the revolutionary doctrine of equality, but practiced it. Americans refused to defer to their betters. Not only did Americans have offensive table manners, but they were filthy, crude and violent, prone as European visitors noted to knife fights, duels, and lynching. Europeans constantly complained that American women talked too much and didn’t know their place. Some sarcastically referred to the United States as a “paradise for women.” Even children were allowed to run wild without adequate discipline. The habit that repulsed them the most was, as the British traveler Francis Trollope put it, “the remorseless spitting of Americans.” With their eyes focused determinedly on the bottom line, Americans would never produce a culture worthy of note. Degradation was the natural, indeed the inevitable tendency of democracy.
What most bothered European intellectuals about Americans was that they neither appreciated the arts nor deferred to a refined upper class. In short, they refused to recognize their own inferiority and the natural superiority of the learned. To Americans, the latter were merely effete snobs unwilling to get their hands dirty with a little honest sweat. In 1824 a Jacksonian campaign slogan that ridiculed the highly educated John Quincy Adams expressed their contempt. According to the Democrats of that year, “Adams writes. Jackson fights!” Amidst the democratic mob, there was no place for an intellectual elite, certainly not in politics. One hundred-fifty years later little had changed as American politicians from George Wallace to Spiro Agnew made sport of “pointy-headed intellectuals,” and “eggheads” like Adlai Stevenson. Even in the twenty-first century, Americans prefer a plain talking Texas cowboy who expresses himself in sentence fragments to a Harvard educated liberal who speaks in nuanced paragraphs.
Through the middle of the nineteenth century few critics worried much about the impact of America because they knew it could not last. At most, the United States might be an obnoxious model that appealed to the lower orders of European society--a frightening prospect in itself. But when the Confederate states seceded from the Union igniting the Civil War in 1861, they were convinced that their predictions were coming true. When however, the Union triumph demonstrated that the nation was a permanent feature of the international landscape, they began to fear the impact of the United States. The third phase of anti-Americanism had begun. By the turn of the century, as the monster across the Atlantic began to out-produce the great powers of Europe, and compete with them in the imperial arena, some began to fear that the United States might at some time in the future impose its dreadful system upon them. Worse, their own people might prefer the boorish American mass consumption society to the cultured but sluggish class societies of traditional Europe. In short, the elites of “old Europe” feared “Americanization.”
During the nineteenth century anti-Americanism was an intellectual orientation of both the conservative right which loathed the “masses,” and of the romantic left which simultaneously championed and feared the “dangerous classes.” With the Bolshevik Revolution anti-Americanism acquired a state sponsor. Hostility to capitalism merged with hostility to the United States in the torrent of propaganda sponsored by the Soviet Union throughout most of its history. Fascists on the right conflated anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism. Accordingly one Nazi propagandist commented that “Uncle Sam has been transformed into Uncle Shylock.” Hitler himself once asked a friend, “What is America, but millionaires, beauty queens, stupid records, and Hollywood?” Demonstrating that he had accepted Buffon’s degeneracy theory, Hitler told another friend, “Transfer [a German] to Miami and you make a degenerate out of him—in other words—an American.”
During the forty-five years or so of the Cold War, western European anti-Americanism was muted because that region depended upon the United States for its defense against the Soviet Union. It was muted everywhere that is except in France, which has always been a prolific source of anti-American bile. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its dreary empire, hysterical fears of American “hyperpower” have arisen once again. After all, without the Soviet Union to restrain the Americans, what is to prevent the United States from extending its repugnant culture, not to mention its economic and military hegemony everywhere? Intellectuals throughout the world who embraced socialism during the Cold War, have embraced anti-Americanism as their new ideology in the wake of the Soviet collapse.
In a series of persuasive chapters, the Rubins describe anti-Americanism as it metastasized first throughout Latin America and then the Middle East, where it has acquired new state sponsors who use it to shift blame for the failures of Islamic societies to come to terms with modernity. The Rubins find that “third world” intellectuals have generally adapted old anti-American themes to the new circumstances of the post Cold War order. It is worth noting that the authors fail to discuss the emergence since the Vietnam War of American anti-Americanism, a disconcerting yet pervasive aspect of our contemporary intellectual life. It is however, a phenomenon which could be easily explained within the intellectual framework the Rubins adopt. Nevertheless, Hating America is an otherwise comprehensive guide to the development and spread of yet another paranoid ideology—one they note bears a disquieting similarity to anti-Semitism, its ancient and evil sibling.