However tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming.
—Mary Beard, about September 11
. . . the greatest source of terrorism on earth.
—Harold Pinter, about the United States
The real matter is the extinction of America, and God willing, it will fall to the ground.
—Mullah Mohammed Omar, Taliban leader
We are not fighting so that you will offer us something. We are fighting to eliminate you.
—Hussein Massawi, former Hezbollah leader
The first thing to note about these statements by the classicist Mary Beard, the playwright Harold Pinter, and the Islamofascists Mohammed Omar and Hussein Massawi is that they could quickly be multiplied tenfold. You will find similar statements circulating at almost any American or European university, throughout the American and European (and Arabic) press, in mosques and madrassahs—almost anywhere, in fact, that intellectual elites, or Islamic terrorists, congregate. Anti-Americanism, in both its patently murderous and fatuously sophisticated forms, is a growth industry.
Is there a connection between the Mary Beards and what Mark Steyn has aptly dubbed the weird beards of the world?—between the prattling intellectuals and the pragmatic terrorists? In an important sense the answer is Yes. “Ideas,” the political philosopher Richard Weaver observed in his signature phrase, “have consequences,” even bad ideas, even silly ideas, even ideas that could only come from the mind of a privileged Western intellectual too infatuated with his own importance to notice fundamental political realities. This is not to suggest that Harold Pinter (say) is responsible for Mullah Omar; it is to suggest that he helps create a climate of opinion where Mullah Omars have a better chance of thriving.
Pinterism (if I may thus eponymize this brand of intellectualizing self-hatred) is not a new phenomenon. George Orwell noted something similar in his anatomy of the pacifism that was rampant in English intellectual circles before and during World War II. The “unadmitted motive” of pacifism, Orwell wrote, was “hatred of Western democracy and admiration of totalitarianism.” Harold Pinter is no John Walker Lindh. You won’t find him joining up with the Taliban. But you will find him in sympathy with his spiritual colleague-in-rhetoric Susan Sontag, who explained that the assualt of September 11 was “not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions . . . . [W]hatever may be said of the perpetrators of [September 11’s] slaughter, they were not cowards.” Does she say, then, that they were murderous fanatics? Hardly. Sontag (like Pinter) is at once too ambivalent and too admiring for that: too ambivalent about the “world’s self-proclaimed superpower” (or “rogue state,” as Pinter put it) and too admiring of the insurrectionists. In this context, it is worth remembering Orwell’s observation about the “processes by which pacifists who have started out with an alleged horror of violence end up with a marked tendency to be fascinated by the successes and power of Nazism.”
Orwell noted that pacifism was “objectively pro-Nazi” because it inculcated an attitude that aided England’s enemies. Just so, anti-Americanism is objectively pro-terrorist. It was not surprising that the Nazis did all they could to encourage pacifism among the English (just as the Soviets actively aided the anti-War movement in America in the 1960s and 1970s). Similarly, anti-Americanism helps to create a climate where terrorism is excused, rationalized, explained—explained away. We deserved it; we had it coming; arrogance; poverty; the environment; root causes . . .
Pacifism was built around phrases that sounded pleasant (peace, love, non-violence) but that were essentially deceptive because they were unrealistic—that is, untrue to the nature of reality, to the way the world actually works (as distinct from the way we might wish that it did). “To abjure violence,” Orwell noted, “it is necessary to have no experience of it.” Looking back on the Spanish civil war in 1942, Orwell criticized “the sentimental belief that it all comes right in the end and the thing you most fear never really happens.”
Nourished for hundreds of years on a literature in which Right invariably triumphs in the last chapter, we believe half-instinctively that evil always defeats itself in the long run. Pacifism . . . is founded largely on this belief. Don’t resist evil, and it will somehow destroy itself. But why should it? What evidence is there that it does?
While pondering that question, let us also step back and ask what America’s role in the world has been over the course of the last century. The British journalist Brian Appleyard, writing in the London Times on September 23, 2001, registered his amazement at the orgy of anti-Americanism that greeted the terrorist attacks of Septmber 11. In one sense, he noted, there was nothing new about anti-Americanism.
I, certainly, have always lived in a world suffused with savage anti-Americanism. In my childhood the grown-ups were all convinced that the apparently inevitable nuclear holocaust would be the fault of the Americans. In my student years I saw the Vietnam war used as an excuse for violence and intimidation that would have made Mao Tse-tung proud—indeed, my contemporaries were waving his Little Red Book, his guide to mass murder, as they attempted to storm the American embassy. I saw many of those who now weep like crocodiles burning the Stars and Stripes.
But the excess of anti-Americanism that followed al Qaeda’s attacks proceeded in a shriller, more virulent register than most earlier examples. It also seemed less rational. Appleyard duly noted that America was far from a perfect society. But what role had Americans actually played in “that most awful of all centuries,” the twentieth?
They saved Europe from barbarism in two world wars. After the second world war they rebuilt the continent from the ashes. They confronted and peacefully defeated Soviet communism, the most murderous system ever devised by man, and thereby enforced the slow dismantling—we hope—of Chinese communism, the second most murderous. America, primarily, ejected Iraq from Kuwait and helped us to eject Argentina from the Falklands. America stopped the slaughter in the Balkans while the Europeans dithered.
Does it all come under the heading of “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”? In part. There is a sense in which anti-Americanism—certain aspects of it, anyway—is the predictable function of envy, a phenomenon pointed to by the authors of 1066 and All That when they noted that since the time of the First World War America has been the world’s Top Nation. As political thinkers since Pericles have noticed, distinction breeds envy, envy breeds resentment, and, unchecked, resentment breeds hatred. But that sort of animus—lavished on Athens in her day, on Rome in hers, and on Great Britain in hers—is not by itself the sort of “anti” sentiment with which we need to concern ourselves.
Walter Bagehot came closer when he noted, in Physics and Politics (1872), that the enormous benefits that the English had conferred upon India—education, hygiene, the rule of law—were received with distinct ambivalence by the native population. The benefits were real, but, Bagehot apostrophized,
What puzzles them is your constant disposition to change, or as you call it, improvement. Their own life in every detail being regulated by ancient usage, they cannot comprehend a policy which is always bringing something new; they do not a bit believe that the desire to make them comfortable and happy is the root of it; they believe, on the contrary, that you are aiming at something which they do not understand—that you mean to “take away their religion”; in a word, that the end and object of all these continual changes is to make Indians not what they are and what they like to be, but something new and different from what they are, and what they would not like to be.
The journalist Henry Fairlie made a cognate point in 1975 in his essay “Anti-Americanism at Home and Abroad.” “The energy of the American presence in the world,” Fairlie wrote,
is both welcomed and feared, both a cause of hope and a source of anxiety, because with its idea it keeps unsettling the established forms of the past. Not merely old but ancient customs are surrendering to a presence that is not imposed and yet seems irresistible, to an idea that appears to be more powerful than the slogans of any revolution.
The unsettling of what Bagehot called “fixity” is a great source of cultural anxiety. It is, I suspect, a much larger ingredient in foreign complaints about the baneful influence of “vulgar” American culture than is usually acknowledged. (Not, I hasten to add, that those complaints are without merit: it is a curious irony, though, that the most effective criticisms of American culture have tended to come from conservative pro-American sources rather than from the anti-American Left.) But explanations, however accurate, however deep, can take us only so far. They always bring with them a tendency to dismiss the thing being explained—“tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.” It is wise to take account of illuminating explanations. But it is a mistake—a mistake to which well-meaning liberals are especially prone—to believe that by understanding why a vicious character came to be that way we thereby purchase immunity from the effects of viciousness.
It has been suggested that the current outbreak of anti-Americanism, although broad, is not necessarily deep. There may be some truth in that, at least in so far as it applies to European and American anti-Americanism. (The Arab version is a more resilient strain.) Certainly, anti-Americanism comes in several versions and in differing levels of toxicity. But there is not a lot of comfort to be gleaned from that fact. For anti-Americanism is like certain infections: it can begin as a minor nuisance and, if untreated, blossom into a life-threatening condition.
Nor is there much comfort to be had from the contention that anti-Americanism in its home-grown versions is synonymous with political dissent: that it is merely a vigorous form of self-criticism. In the first place, it isn’t true. Dissent is one thing; anti-Americanism is closer to its opposite. Indeed, anti-Americanism, because of its adversarial moralism, tends to short-circuit self-criticism. This was a point that Henry Fairlie underscored when he observed that the expression of anti-Americanism is “not criticism of one’s own society; in fact it prohibits just and effective criticism” by substituting utopian fantasies for political realities.
One of those realities concerns the responsibility that accrues to those states that wield great power. It is a lesson that liberal regimes are continuously tempted to forget, to their own peril and the peril of the societies they influence. The dissolution of the British Empire—one of the most beneficient and enlightened political forces in history—took place for many reasons, including, it pains me to say, pressure from the United States. But part of the reason for its dissolution was inner uncertainty, weariness, a failure of nerve. By the middle of the last century Britain no longer wished to rule: it wanted to be liked. The promiscuous desire to be liked, for states as much as for individuals, is a profound character flaw. It signals a faltering of courage, what Pericles castigated as malakia, “effeminacy,” and a dangerous loss of self-confidence. At the height of the Cold War, the political commentator James Burnham observed that “Americans have not yet learned the tragic lesson that the most powerful cannot be loved—hated, envied, feared, obeyed, respected, even honored perhaps, but not loved.” Have we now, some forty years on, finally learned that lesson?
In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, we saw plenty of deplorable outbursts of anti-Americanism: the dancing “Death to America” multitudes in the Middle East as well as the predictable responses of the Chomsky-Sontag-Pinter brigade. But we also witnessed a vast outpouring of sympathy. Some of the sympathy no doubt was genuine; much of it was oleaginous and depended on the novel spectacle of America appearing as a victim. The trouble was that America was not content to remain a victim. And when a victim fights back, he may earn respect but he forfeits sympathy and kindred sentimentalizing emotions.
When Susan Sontag said that the terrorist assaults on the United States were “undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions,” she offered that observation as a partial justification or extenuation of the attacks, which it most certainly was not. But there is, I believe, another sense in which growing anti-Americanism, together with a growing climate of terrorism, can be seen as a predictable result of American actions or, more to the point, of American inaction. I am not offering a candidate for the “cause”—much less the “root cause”—of terrorism. Determining the cause of terrorism is not a difficult hermeneutical problem. Jonathan Rauch had it essentially right when he argued that the cause of terrorism is terrorists. Nevertheless, when we ask what nurtures terrorists, what may be counted on to allow them to flourish and multiply, one important answer concerns the failure of authority, which is the failure to live up to the responsibilities of power.
In the course of his reflections on anti-Americanism, Henry Fairlie observed that “Anti-Americanism abroad tends to be strongest when America itself seems to have lost confidence in its own idea.” Some such loss of confidence has repeatedly afflicted the American spirit at least since the end of the Vietnam conflict. It is by now a familiar litany, but is nonetheless worth reviewing. From the mid-1970s, the United States has vacillated in discharging its responsibilities to power. Whatever the wisdom of our involvement in Vietnam, our way of extricating ourselves was ignominious and an incitement to further violence. The image of that U.S. helicopter evacuating people from our embassy in Saigon is a badge of failure, not so much of military strategy as of nerve.
Even worse was our response to the hostage crisis in Iran in 1979 and 1980. Our hesitation to act decisively was duly noted and found contemptible by our enemies. And the fiasco of President Carter’s botched rescue attempt, when a transport vehicle and one of our helicopters collided on the sands of the Iranian desert, was a national humiliation. President Reagan did effectively face down the Soviet Union, but his halfhearted response to the terrorist bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 contributed to the tattered reputation of America as (in Mao’s phrase) “a paper tiger.”
The Clinton administration sharply exacerbated the problem. From 1993 through 2000, the United States again and again demonstrated its lack of resolve even as it let its military infrastructure decay. In Somalia at the end of 1992, two U.S. helicopters were shot down, several Americans were killed, the body of one was dragged naked through the streets of Mogadishu. We did nothing—an action, or lack of action, that prompted Osama bin Laden way back then to reflect that his followers were “surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers and realized more than before that the American soldier was a paper tiger and after a few blows ran in defeat.”
It was the same in 1993, when terrorists bombed the World Trade Center, killing six people and wounding scores. It was the same in June 1996, when a truck bomb exploded outside a U.S. military barracks in Saudi Arabia, killing nineteen Americans. There were some anguished words but we did—nothing. It was the same in 1998 when our embassies were bombed in Kenya and Tanzania, killing hundreds. The response was to rearrange some rocks in the Afghan desert with a few cruise missiles.
It was the same in October 2000, when suicide terrorists blew a gigantic hole in USS Cole, killing seventeen sailors and almost sinking one of the U.S. Navy’s most advanced ships. Like Hamlet, we responded with “words, words, words,” and only token military gestures. The harvest was an increase in contempt and a corresponding increase in terrorist outrage, culminating—this time around—in the terrible events of September 11.
My own judgment is that the current orgy of anti-Americanism, fanned to a fever pitch by talk of war with Iraq, will dissipate in proportion to the resoluteness demonstrated by the United States. If America acts decisively and successfully in Iraq, with or without the support of the United Nations, if it topples Saddam Hussein and establishes a reasonably benevolent alternative, there will, I predict, be a corresponding diminution in the fury of anti-American sentiment. I do not expect it will end the mad drivel of fantasists like Harold Pinter or connoisseurs of contempt like Susan Sontag. Nothing could do that. But I am confident that it would help move anti-Americanism off the agenda.
In his much-maligned poem “The White Man’s Burden,” Rudyard Kipling makes a dour prediction. “Take up the White Man’s burden” of helping to civilize uncivilized parts of the world and you will, he warns, “reap his old reward”:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard.
Kipling was on to something. But I wonder whether he did not overstate the case. Part of the white man’s burden (let’s be less politically incorrect and call it the “West’s burden”) he says elsewhere in that poem is conducting the “savage wars of peace.” And the result of these wars is to
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease.
Blame? Maybe. Hate? Perhaps. But time and again history has shown that strength legitimately exercised has a sedative effect. It instills a sense of security, backed up by an attitude of respect. And in that atmosphere anti-Americanism ceases being a threat to world stability and recedes to its proper role as the pastime of cranks and impotent malcontents.
- The essays in this special section are adapted from papers presented at a conference on anti-Americanism that was held in Tunbridge Wells, England, October 3–4. The conference was sponsored jointly by The Social Affairs Unit and The New Criterion. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 3, on page 4
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