Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Against Anti-Americanism.

"You cannot conquer America."

--William Pitt, November 18, 1777.

"My America is as real as almost all of the other Americas that readers and writers around the world have fashioned for themselves. ... There is no reason to believe the novelist is not better equipped to deal with the possibilities of a mysterious and difficult situation than anyone else, since he or she is always trying to discover what the nature of reality might be. It's as if the novelist is out there, sprung early, with something most people never contemplate -- which is 'How and what is the nature of this little reality before me?' The novelist is the first to ask, 'Do I love my wife? Does she love me? What is the nature of love? Do we love our child? How do we love? Would we die for our child? Or do we let the child die for us?' The novelist has to deal with these unholy questions because living with them is the only way to improve his or her brain. Without improving that brain, without refining the edge of one's perception, it is almost impossible to continue to work as a writer."

Norman Mailer, "Foreword," The Time of Our Time (New York: Random House, 1998), p. xi.

The United States of America is not so much a nation or a country as it is an entire universe. A library of volumes devoted to the subject would be inadequate to describe the complexities of this society. There are many Americas. Hence, there are many ways of being an American. And much disagreement about what America is "all about" or what it should be seeking to achieve. No two of us have to agree about this fascinating nation in order for each of us to be right in what we say. Nearly anything you say about the U.S. may be true from some perspective, and usually is.

If it is "true," to take one example, that an African-American young man growing up in the South Bronx, with a life-expectancy comparable to that of a young man in the war-torn Middle East, and an upper-middle class white woman in suburbia are both "Americans," then we need to wonder again about what it really means to call someone an "American," besides using the term as a convenient political label. What does it mean to speak of an American today, especially when the designation is self-chosen?

In a foreign country, both the young African-American man and our hypothetical white woman are instantly recognizable to others as Americans. This is a point made by the essayist Stanley Crouch. The key to that recognizability, I think, is a kind of confidence and ease, a sense of entitlement resulting from possessing the "correct" nationality in this world. This is not intended as arrogance or presumption, but as a statement of fact. It is how people see themselves when they are raised in a society that is often much less self-examining (as opposed to self-obsessed) than many others.

The behavior of both young people immediately identifies them as Americans, because of their sense that the world is theirs for the taking, that it exists "for" them in a way that no person from a small or developing nation can ever feel, not even someone who is a naturalized American citizen, like myself. There is also the revealing attire. Americans on holiday resemble, as Alison Lurie suggests, children at play: they sport baseball caps, sometimes worn backwards, sneakers, denims, loud colors and t-shirts with slogans on them. (My t-shirt, inspired by Monty Python and the Holy Grail, says: "I fart in your general direction.")

The rest of the planet is regarded as a gigantic Disneyworld-like "theme park" to be explored by "us," while we're on vacation. Accordingly, one is entitled to be annoyed at failing to find a hamburger place somewhere in the section of the Great Wall that one happens to be visiting. These days, of course, one is likely to find several such establishments, including a Burger King or two.

What people in other countries often fail to realize is the lack of malice and sheer innocence in this attitude on the part of Americans who would, as the phrase goes, "bend over backwards" to help if there were a crisis or emergency anywhere. That same impatient attitude by Americans exists at home, when people shop or visit a government office. Americans do not like to wait and assume a level of "customer care" that is increasingly unrealistic in a crowded and resource-challenged planet. Americans are accustomed to things that are still dream-like for many people in the world. They are shocked to discover the scope of poverty and suffering for billions of people in the world.
What is mistaken for arrogance or insulting condescension by others, is often a lack of sensitivity to the realities of different national contexts. Appreciation of these realities usually results in a very different, much more helpful and concerned attitude, on the part of those same Americans. If you don't know the people of the U.S., believe this, they are a magnificent and brave people, generous, kind, and usually best at their worst moments of struggle. We are fearless in confronting power that is used to hurt people, anywhere -- provided that we are aware of that abuse. On the other hand, Americans are often at their worst when they feel unchallenged, supremely in control, as we did immediately before 9/11.

In Rome, my host Giuseppe only nodded his head and said sadly: "... the shoes, the shoes ..." He could not understand what I assured him was a Protestant religious requirement: the wearing of sneakers in church. Patiently, I explained that everyone in America wears sneakers at all times, especially at formal occasions and funerals. I will always remember the expression on his face for the few seconds before he realized that I was joking. Today, of course, I would say the same of "cowboy boots" and I would be even more accurate.

The most important part of being an American, for me, has to do with the political freedom to decide what it means to be an American and what America "is," something which -- to an astonishing degree by comparison with other nations -- is primarily each individual's responsiblity in this country. It is this magical (in the sense of liberating to the imagination) power that each person in the United States possesses merely by virtue of his or her freedom that makes the choice of citizenship the only moral one, in my opinion, if you are going to live here. To do otherwise is to live off the fat of the land, to be unwilling to bear your share of the national burden, including the burden of suffering on occasions like 9/11.

You know you are an American if 9/11 was shocking and painful. It sure was for me. I fear that the ingredients for another such terrorist incident continue to exist and may well have worsened during the past six years. One damaging ingredient in the explosive mix we live with is the failure to appreciate the powerful intellectual currents bringing cultures into an unnecessary headlong collision. ("How can we be Moderns again?)
Is this sense of entitlement and privilege that I mentioned something that Americans should feel guilty about, to the extent that they recognize it at all? Does it have something to do with the epidemic of anti-Americanism in the world at the moment? I think so.
"Let me make one thing crystal clear," as Richard Nixon used to say. I have no tolerance for the criminals and hoods abusing their offices or benefitting from corruption in legal positions in places like New Jersey. I make no apologies for referring to them as exactly what they are -- cheap hoods and goons, who will soon receive what they deserve. I hope. This is part of the American independence that I celebrate. The slogan on my t-shirt is aimed at them in New Jersey. Try this same freedom in most other countries and you will quickly return with a new appreciation for the United States of America. America may be the only place where an absolute imbecile -- like Ms. Tolentino of New Jersey -- could be employed as a judge.

No discussion of anti-Americanism will be very helpful unless some definitions and clarifications are established at the outset. By anti-Americanism I do not mean a willingness to criticize the United States government or the war in Iraq or any particular politician, whether Republican or Democrat. Criticizing the country and complaining about politicians is as American as apple pie, however American that is. I am told that apple pie is actually a Sweedish dessert, which makes it very American indeed. So are "tostones" (fried plantains), which are available at my local "Kosher" Chinese take-out restaurant and have become all-American "comfort food," at least in certain neighborhoods in New York. The tastiest ones are made at the Indian restaurant on 179th Street. Try them. I live in a city where some of the best bagels are available from a very famous establishment in Manhattan that is said to be owned by a Puerto Rican, New Yorker. When you visit Manhattan, try "H&H Bagels," at Broadway and 80th Street (I believe).

It is not anti-American to deplore, as I do, the tortures that took place at Abu Ghraib -- which are not too different from what happens in many places right here at home -- or to express the hope that those responsible for such tortures, wherever they occur, will be prosecuted and (if convicted) sent to prison. There are over fifty convictions so far. More are on the way. I hope the people altering the spacing of paragraphs or inserting other "errors" in these writings will also go to prison. This may be a matter of bribing prosecutors to go after the computer criminals. The great thing about America is that "money talks and bullshit walks."

I certainly do not care whether anyone, anywhere, disagrees with any particular president's policies. The U.S. Constitution encourages and protects the right of persons to do exactly what the Left has been doing -- criticizing the government, especially when that government pursues a controversial military policy. Protest is a good thing in a free society.

As for my views: although I was against the war in Iraq and said so when it began, I do not believe that the efforts of the U.S.-led coalition to help establish a democratic and stable government in that nation can now be permitted to fail. This is true whatever one thinks of the details of Mr. Bush's "War on Terror." And it seems clear that, in the aftermath of the 9/11 events, something like a massive effort against terrorism was called for, which should not result in making us terrorists of course. My fear is that this effort in Iraq may already have failed. (Spacing may be affected by N.J. hackers or Cubanazos on a regular basis.)
This need for a response is becoming painfully clear to others in the aftermath of the Beslan, Russia incident, in addition to the bombings in Madrid and London. New Yorkers were only the first target and (for that reason alone) the most visible. This conflict was a long time coming because it is reflective of profound cultural and economic tensions in the world that pre-date 9/11. This will come as a surprise to many in Washington, but this struggle against terrorism is as much about the tension between modernity and postmodernity as it is about Israel's conflict with portions of the Islamic world. I hope and pray that Washington's "big wigs" understand that this country as well as the free world must wage a battle of symbols and images. The next attack aimed at the U.S. will target one of our great symbols, almost certainly a symbolic structure located in one of the great media centers, probably New York.

Domestically, the Bush administration set out to be more liberal than people realize. And it would like to be even more so now, allegedly, if it had a better economy to work with. Some early White House proposals for increasing access to health care, for example, and coping with financial pressures to ensure continuing opportunities for higher education -- something curtailed, sadly, in the most recent budgets -- were admirable, whatever one's politics or opinions of Mr. Bush may be. It is true that there has been an alarming increase in the disparity in wealth in the country and, as I say, access to higher education for working people is now threatened, as politicians from both parties bicker and squabble, sometimes over petty ego issues.

These quality of life issues are serious concerns for voters, along with human rights worries arising from the war and threats to civil liberties from the Patriot Act and other post-9/11 legislation. The personality criticisms of President Bush and the "culture wars" are less central, to me, but the moral issues are vital too.

Senator Kerry's health care proposal would have provided coverage for about 95% of the population, if I remember correctly, but it allowed for law suits against health insurers that, I believe, would result in lengthy and costly delays in payments to medical professionals, and that would have made the system unworkable. Mr. Bush's proposal for individualized health care accounts might have been more workable. Whatever the mechanism, it is high time that this nation had national health insurance. It is a disgrace that we do not have it. It is also crucial that education through the university level be available to all, regardless of economic status. We must make life-long learning an option in today's world. It is not acceptable for the U.S. to rank 21 out of 22 nations in math, science and reading competitions. See Motoko Rich, "Study Links Drop in Test Scores to a Decline in Time Spent Reading," in The New York Times, November 19, 2007, at p. E1.

It is important to recall that a war on terrorism is being fought and that the nation is still coping with the economic and "geo-political" effects (that is, shifting and uncertain alliances) and other consequences of 9/11 and the aftermath of Katrina. No administration will be as liberal as it would wish to be under these circumstances.

Areas of continuing concern include encroachments on civil liberties, as I say, and the growing secrecy in governmental actions, but these are the sorts of criticisms that might be raised against any American administration under these trying circumstances. Besides, I doubt that Americans, or the citizens of most media-saturated and highly technological societies, had any real privacy left long before 9/11, given the realities of this information age. It is not only "truth that may be the first casualty of war," also individual rights that may be its first victims. Hence, it is important to be ever-vigilant in protecting national security after 9/11, while remaining clear about the values that we wish to see protected, like preserving some measure of autonomy from government scrutiny. I am not a "fan" of the Patriot Act.

An unfortunate and easily remedied criticism of the international politics of this administration is a lack of sentivity and cultural awareness when it comes to "exotic" others, which is just about everyone else in the world who is not from Texas. A little "sensitivity training" would not hurt. It is not a good idea, for example, to desecrate other people's holy books. The U.S. should never be in a position where such an allegation can be believed by serious persons anywhere, whatever any journalist may claim.

Jonathan Tepperman argues that criticism ceases to be constructive or meaningful (or sane), and becomes blatantly anti-American, when it is primarily vindictive and insulting. For instance, when the U.S. is caricatured as suffering from an "unfree press" by nations that imprison their critics, or as a non-functioning democracy by one of the world's dictatorships, I reach for my barf bag. To have European nations lecture the U.S. about human rights abuses, when some of them engaged in crimes against humanity in the late nineties, while others remained apathetic as they did so, renders their protests hypocritical at best. Do you speak to me of "ethics," Stuart? ("No More Cover-Ups and Lies, Chief Justice Rabner!")

To call President Bush a "Nazi" is more than irresponsible. To suggest that there is no "real dissent" in this country or that Americans are all "fat and stupid" is way off the mark. Some are (Judge Tolentino); some are not (Condi). Similar remarks made about any other country on the basis of such appalling stereotypes would immediately result in condemnations and outrage. You can say anything insulting about the United States and Americans and it is O.K., as far as the international community is concerned. It should not be. I am old enough to remember then "U.S. Ambassador" Moynahan's tirade against anti-Americanism at the United Nations before his sudden departure for the greener fields of the U.S. Senate. I wish I could find a copy of that speech. I am sure that it would be more timely today than when it was delivered.

As an example of knee-jerk anti-Americanism, I might point to the work of the critic and theorist Terry Eagleton, whose brilliant and learned books I generally admire, but whose loathing of Americans can get on one's nerves: "If we perish, it will not be of failure or finitude but of breathless, bright-eyed idealists for whom the sky's the limit. Most of these are known as Americans." The Nation, June 13, 2005, at p. 20. You can count on a statement like this, or worse, every other sentence from Professor Eagleton.

I prefer to be criticized for "hopefulness," however naive it may be, than to be admired for a fashionably cynical hope that there is no hope. The trendy nihilism of those who have "seen through it all" is much more grating on my nerves than enthusiasm. If there is something that we can use at the moment, then it must be a little enthusiasm about the possibilities of politics, nationally and internationally. I remember a television interview with James Baldwin in which, with tears in his eyes, Baldwin burst into a lovely smile and said: "Can we tell our children that there is no hope? Of course not."

The United States is powerful and rich. American culture and entertainment media are overwhelmingly popular in the world not because Americans are all "fat and stupid," but because many (including the present writer, I hope!) are not. Americans are sometimes hated because of their freedom and creativity, because of what they have done in the twentieth century -- and I mean culturally and not just scientifically -- which has led to a success that everyone now wishes to emulate. They are hated because they are envied. They are also, sometimes fairly criticized for their -- no, our -- mistakes, sometimes horrendous mistakes. Is there any powerful nation that has not made those? I doubt it.

If you deny this U. S. cultural influence, then look at the way that people are dressed anywhere and everywhere these days. Take a look at the movies they go to see, the expressions they use, the music they listen to, and so on. To condemn the U.S. while doing your best to resemble an American cinema star and mouthing pop music lyrics sung by Brittany Spears is a little ridiculous. (I wonder whether Judge Tolentino and Luisa, her law clerk, were having sex?)

Both India and China pose a real challenge to the U.S. in the twenty-first century in terms of manufacturing electronic appliances and other products for the world market, but neither of those countries comes close or will do so in the foreseeable future, when it comes to the content of the entertainment created for electronic products. Culture is what gives value to all those DVDs, CDs, and T.V.s -- and culture is overwhelmingly supplied by the U.S. and other free societies, which will continue to be dominant for the foreseeable future in the popular arts and in information technology. No great, thrilling, or edgy art will come from a social setting in which expressive freedom is circumscribed. The more freedom exists, the more great art will be produced. This alone says something important about the United States of America. No more "errors" to be inserted in my essay today?

It cannot be a coincidence that the segment of the population both in India and China that is most affluent and best educated, also prefers American and European cinema and fashions. There is an increasing tendency to blend cinematic styles and influences in a new global cinematic culture and language that sees Hollywood as home, regardless of where film-makers come from. See what I mean about images and symbols? Fusion approaches are best for multicultural persons.

James Cagney in a disagreement with Luis B. Mayer said: "Without me, you have a blank screen." He passed on this advice to John Travolta. The true value of the global "soft" electronic product -- i.e., films, music, art, not to mention books -- will remain substantially American, and my own city of New York will be well-represented in this regard. Nobody wants to stare at a blank screen. Never count out the nation that supplies what goes on many those blank screens. Never underestimate a country that has a great influence on what young people everywhere will be wearing, the music they will listen to (at least voluntarily), and the nation which is the source of many of the world's dreams, fantasies and humor, also fears and nightmares.

The United States is a superpower in the supply and content of imagination in the world. And imagination is both more scarce and infinitely more precious than oil or gold. Perhaps this is because the U.S. is itself a product of imagination. America is (in my opinion) the world's greatest political invention. If the U.S. were a movie, then it would have to be described as the all-time "megahit," the greatest success in world politics. Best of all, the project of being an American -- like the revolution that gave birth to the nation -- is always an incomplete or unfinished adventure. There is always room for a sequel. In their recent book, Roberto Unger and Cornel West summarize their critique of contemporary America:

"An America triumphant in the world nevertheless seems unable to solve its own problems. Class injustice, racial hatred, and rationalized selfishness thrive today in a climate of disillusionment and feed on an experience of disengagement and disconnection. In this circumstance, the work of the progressives is so to speak, within and outside the Democratic party, [to provide] a clear alternative."

The Future of American Progressivism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998), pp. 92-93.

Notice the optimism and hopefulness in the authors' conclusion:

"To understand your country you must love it. To love it you must, in a sense, accept it. To accept it as it is, however, is to betray it. To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that in it which shows what it might become. America -- this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, [emphasis added] this long, halting turn of the no into the yes -- needs citizens who love it enough to reimagine and remake it." Ibid.

I believe that this re-making of the nation should take place with the coming of age of every generation of Americans. So did Thomas Jefferson.

It is, regrettably, true that Americans are often ignorant of the cultural achievements of others. But then, they are also often equally ignorant of their own cultural achievements. Americans are not inclined to bother learning about subjects that are unlikely to lead immediately to practical benefits, with some notable exceptions. On the other hand, many of the world's greatest scholars, on the "impractical" subject of your choice, are located right here in the U.S. This includes some of the world's most fascinating philosophers: people like Richard Rorty, Martha Nussbaum, Cornel West, Robert C. Solomon, Robert Pippin, Rick Roderick (get some of those Teaching Company tapes, you'll see what I mean) and lots of others, who are also popular among European and Latin American intellectuals. There is no country with greater talent for theoretical imagination and scholarship. Imagination means many things, including political and philosophical achievement. Professor Rorty, the patron saint of the radicals, writes:

"Most of us, despite the outrage that we feel about governmental cowardice or corruption, and despite our despair over what is being done to the weakest or poorest among us, still identify with our country. We take pride in being citizens of a self-invented, self-reforming, enduring Constitutional democracy. We think of the United States as having glorious -- if tarnished -- national traditions."

Philosophy and Social Hope (New York: Penguin, 1999), p. 252.

If American cultural ignorance is a national character flaw, something I admit, then by comparison with the national character flaws of others -- such as the tendency to replace political leaders by assassination or the stoning of adulterers who happen to be women, both practices which made a comeback recently in some countries that have since criticized the U.S.! -- cultural ignorance simply does not seem like such a terrible thing. In some European countries, the lack of cultural ignorance is balanced by deeply entrenched ethnic hatreds and a rigid class system, which are far worse.

While the U.S. is far from perfect, it is better than many, if not most or all other places in the world. Our criticisms of America are often the result of our high or maybe unrealistic expectations for this country, together with our tendency to forget that it is a human society like any other. This is something that its critics should bear in mind too. I have to force myself to remember, when I think about some of the injustices that take place here, that things are far worse in many or most other places. At least here I can get on the Internet and scream -- in italics -- about all of the terrible things that go on in the world. At worst, I will only be subject to computer sabotage and viruses, "hackers and crackers," I have been told, are at the service of state political "operatives," just ask Senator Lieberman.

After the recent Tsunami, the U.S. was immediately criticized by a U.N. official for "only" contributing 35 million dollars. Actually, the U.S. contributed more like 350 million dollars in the first week and the logistical means by which aid could be distributed to the needy. The U.S. is still the single greatest donor of humanitarian aid in the world, a fact that hardly fits the "greedy-American-capitalist" stereotype and which gets little publicity. Individual European nations with their own shameful histories of colonialism and empire are often, proportionately, far less generous and are hardly in a position to denigrate the moral achievements of others. But they do anyway and I am tired of it.

True, Japan will contribute 500 million dollars to relief efforts, which is highly commendable, but factor in the cost of the security provided by the U.S. that makes it possible for Japan to do so and the benefits -- yes, benefits -- derived by that country from the U.S. war on terror, not to mention the U.S. "promised" financing of the U.N. and its agencies' efforts in this crisis, and the balance begins to tip in favor of the U.S. once again. I have no doubt that the total amount of aid provided in the end by the U.S. will exceed that of any other single nation. This is a fact that should be mentioned as well as the criticims. Private donations from Americans will also certainly exceed those of citizens of any other nation.

Let us have no more visceral anti-Americanism. Rather, let us try to focus on the shared humanity of persons of all nationalities, who may always agree to disagree with us, even as they join us in a commitment to the fundamental values of freedom with social justice. It is for this reason that torture must never go unpunished in America or be associated in world opinion with the United States. Americans may choose to balance the tension between these values by favoring freedom over social justice; others may prefer to favor social justice and equality over individual liberty. Yet we may still cooperate and help one another to alleviate human suffering wherever it occurs.

Most importantly, we can agree to place some actions -- for example, the indiscriminate murder of innocent civilians as a form of political protest or torture, at home or anywhere, including Iraq -- beyond the pale, in order to cooperate in punishing those who engage in these practices, whatever ideological justification they offer for such crimes. ("American Hypocrisy and Luis Posada Carriles.")



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