In-Depth Analysis

How to be an Intelligent Anti-American

The original idea for this paper dates back to 1996. At that time, I was teaching in Cracow, Poland, in a summer institute on democracy and diversity. Since 1992, I had been teaching a course at that institute on democratic culture, utilizing both the political theory of major western thinkers, particularly Hannah Arendt, and major thinkers and political actors from around the old bloc, particularly Adam Michnik and Vaclav Havel. Since the early seventies, I had studied and worked with the developing democratic movement in Central Europe, particularly Poland. The course was a continuation of these activities. But something new and different presented itself in ’96. In a region where (outside official circles) Ronald Reagan could do no wrong, students started presenting fairly standard, but from this part of the world, very exciting, critical judgments of America.

The students came from East and Central Europe, Western Europe, North and South America. In the first years of the institute, the young Westerners automatic critical approach to liberal capitalism and their insufficient appreciation of the force of totalitarianism led to strong disagreements across the old political divide. Suddenly, in 1996, there was an informed and not so well informed anti-American consensus articulated around our seminar table, with some forceful dissenters. I found myself caught in between the consensus and the dissenters, between automatic condemnation and automatic celebration. With that in mind, for the last class, rather than proceeding with the seminar discussion and ending it on an informal note, as is my custom, I presented a formal lecture. It was my first anti-American advisory.

My second advisory was presented just a few months ago (but before 9/11/2001). One of the students in the original class, Jacek Kucharczyk, is now the vice-director of Poland’s major social science think tank. He had an idea for a conference on European Integration. There were sessions on political, economic and cultural integration. My paper framed a discussion about the cultural relationships between Poland, Western Europe and the United States. The paper was received well, meaning that it stimulated a spirited discussion. Particularly pleasing to me was my friendly public debate with the Polish film director, Krzystof Zannusi, over the films of Steven Spielberg. I was appreciative. He was dismissive.

The two advisories were presented to democratic and intellectual friends and colleagues. We were sympathetic critics of contemporary democratic practices talking among ourselves. I was trying to use irony to provoke a principled distinction between criticism of American practices with unthinking dismissal of the principles and promises of democracy. I present here the second of the two advisories. I believe the advisory to European colleagues is worth sharing more broadly. But I also must add a post 9/11. There are anti-Americans who need to be reminded of American democratic practice and promise to temper, refine and inform their criticism. They can become intelligent anti- Americans, which we Americans sorely need. But, there are also those who are anti-American because they are in principle against democratic practice and promise. In the twentieth century, totalitarians of left and right have held this position. In our young century, such figures again revealed themselves in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. They are much more than unintelligent anti-Americans. They are democracy’s enemies. Anti-Americanism in our young century first appeared as comedy, than as tragedy. I present this advisory from New York, with as sense of profound personal loss, with a hope that the best way that I can combat the new postmodern totalitarians is to try to inform democratic criticism. With this in mind, here is my part of my dialogue with Polish and other European colleagues.

The Polish fascination with things American has long been coupled with a sense that there is something underdeveloped and naïve about the American way of life. Fascination is centered on American economic, military and geo-political power. Dismissal is centered on the cultural, even the political cultural. The “American model” has been viewed with profound ambivalence. On the one hand, learning from the bitter lessons of Communism, America’s steadfast anti- communism has been viewed with admiration, as its anti- statist approach to the economy has been judged as the height of wisdom. On the other hand, at least among the intellectual elite, American “happy end,” and the Hollywood mentality more generally, have been viewed with disdain. Especially on the latter point, Polish intellectuals have been good Europeans. As with all good Europeans, there is recognition of the vitality of American popular culture, but this is combined with strongly critical appraisals.

Things are even more complicated than this, of course. As a certain segment of the intellectual elite has been persuaded by the American political economic model, others, those on the short end of shock therapy who do not understand the workings of the global economy, have been very critical. And as the Polish intellectual elite shares its critical judgment of American mass culture with its West European colleagues, their compatriots (East and West Europeans) vote with their feet, so to speak, selecting Hollywood productions and African American hip hop culture over indigenous cultural fare. Elite sensibilities run up against popular, dare I say, democratic choice.

Everyone, East and West Europeans, the cultural elites, along with broader cross sections of the population. have reasons to be anti-American. The elite is because of disdain for popular culture. The disadvantaged, and those concerned with the disadvantaged, are because of the perceived cruelties of the American economic model. This suggests a need to pause and reflect. If everything seems to be the responsibility of the new hegemonic power, if the banalities of popular culture, the cruelties of the market, the heartlessness of globalism, is there not a danger that a new unthinking ideology is replacing the old verities of the cold war?

It used to be that anti-Americanism was the easy ideology of the Communist authorities. It would be a terrible shame if in the future the mirror image of such foolishness came to be understood as an entrance fee for full European status. It is a mark of political maturity that all things American are no longer automatically viewed in a positive light. It is also the mark of maturity to not unthinkingly move in the opposite direction. Intelligent pro- and anti-Americanism are two sides of the same coin. This means looking at American actions concretely, not as a unified model but as a set of experiences to be observed and judged from ones own distinctive point of view.

As far as the distinctiveness of the Central European point of view: first I must say that I realize that the people in Poland, and in East and Central Europe, more generally, have themselves experienced remarkable changes in the past decade, with major transformations of the systems of governance and the economy. The dictatorship of the proletariat and party vanguards are with you no more, and instead you have groping efforts to establish liberal democracy. Five year plans are things of the past, and instead you have attempts at raising foreign and domestic capital to fuel the economic growth of a free market system. The ways the population gets through its days, weeks, months and years have been reorganized. No longer do they pretend to work, and the authorities pretend to pay them. Now is the time to carefully plan careers and get on with the projects of personal and societal development, working to avoid a crushing unemployment rate and to address the economic conditions that foster it.

The changed circumstances have not only meant a redirection of personal lives and economic prospects. It also presents fundamental challenges to the cultural and political life of society, with fundamental changes in the political culture of the region. Many of these are well known and often commented upon: the relative success of the countries of Central Europe in their efforts to establish a normal economy, the precarious nature of the democratization in Russia and its meaning for the stability of the region, the rise of xenophobic nationalism, which in the Balkans has meant a brutal war, the reemergence of anti-Semitism, without Jews, something which was present in the communist period, but which has reached new heights in recent years.

But the biggest surprise for an old East European hand, such as myself, is the rise of anti-Americanism in the region, although after the fact, upon reflection, it seems quite natural. There was a time, not too long ago, when it seemed that America could do no wrong in the eyes of East and Central Europeans. There was no place in the world where Americans were so openly welcomed. It seems like yesterday that I had to torturously explain to my bewildered friends why I did not think that Ronald Reagan was a perfect President, an ideal leader of the free world, and why the appearance of a McDonalds in Warsaw did not seem to me to be a sign of great cultural and economic progress. But today, dissatisfaction with American power and culture can be everywhere observed: from a resentment over the domination of American mass media, to a concern with the military strength of the American armed forces, to discontent with the presumption of American scholars and intellectuals with their models of economic, political and cultural life, which they propose to apply with happy results to the countries of the former Soviet bloc. American triumphalism is being rejected, and, as usual, we Americans are hard pressed to understand why this is.

I hope though that you would concede, at least for a little while, that good intentions are at the root of America’s active participation in the internal affairs of the post-communist world. To be sure, these good intentions include the identification of the interests of American corporations and the geopolitical interests of the United States with the principles of democracy and freedom. This is clearly something to be critically examined, but as good European realists you should not expect otherwise. You know that principles rarely wander far from interests. Yet, as an interested observer seeking to be objective, I would remind you that the specificities of the principles and the interests, and their relations, differ greatly, forcing us to examine both and judge them on their own terms. While democracy cannot simply be identified with the American way of life, the history and potential of modern democracy is intimately involved in the history and promise of this way of life. While “democracy in America” is not the only way to realize democracy, its accomplishments and problems are instructive for those who consider their democratic commitments seriously. They can be considered with benefit for Americans and non-Americans alike. To criticize American practices is a necessity; to overlook the meanings of the American experience is folly.

It is a sign of cultural strength that you the citizens of East and Central Europe can now turn your critical eyes in the direction of America; but there is a danger that you will blinded by your visions. In Latin America, the United States often played the role of an imperial power. It made and broke dictators, and often undermined the development of indigenous democratic political forces. Yet, it is now clear to those with critical disposition in the region, from both the left and the right side of the political spectrum, that the obstacles to a democratic life and a free society in that part of the world had at least as much to do with the political culture and institutions of the Latin American countries themselves, as it did to do with the interference from the big brother to the North. The loud shouts of “Yankee Go Home!” distracted those of democratic disposition from considering their own problems closer to home. Some were alarmed by the communist threat that often seemed to be looming behind the slogan; others thought that the realization of the slogan’s intent would solve all problems.

Such distraction and preoccupation with the foreign other, I believe, may now exist on the East European horizon and it may be promoted from points more immediately West on the European continent. Yet, there is, no doubt, a need to develop a critical approach to the American role in the new world order that takes into account both the problematic influence of American power and culture and the importance of the democratic experiment that America is. There is a need to be an intelligent anti-American.

There is much to be critical about the American way of life. It is racist. It is unusually violent. The works produced by the American culture industry—the music, films, television programs and software products—often seek the lowest common denominator, a level of mediocrity that should not be acceptable to Americans or foreigners. We Americans are preoccupied with our own internal affairs and are remarkably ignorant of the rest of the world. There is only a dim recognition that some people beyond America’s borders live in fundamentally different ways than we do, and there is also little awareness that what we do and do not do as a nation have direct effects on their lives, and not always for the better. Ours is a society, which has confused the pursuit of consumer goods with the common good, and we propagate this confusion to the rest of the world. Overly individualistic, we have lost a sense of community; overly materialistic, all sorts of spiritual fundamentalisms have invaded our public life. From certain points of view, from the critical point of view of radical socialists, to the point of view of Burkean conservatives, to the point of view of traditional Catholics, America seems to be at the vanguard of the decline and fall of the West.

But the problem with this opinion is that it is based on half- truths, ill-considered appraisals and a rush to judgment. America is judged as a caricature of itself, not as the complex society that it is. Consider American racism.

The fact that the exclusion of African Americans is at the core of American political culture is undeniable. The very definition of freedom, as it is understood by Americans, emanates as the opposite of the condition of servitude of blacks in the United States. The long and harsh history of slavery, the unofficial reign of terror of the Ku Klux Klan in the South during the era of reconstruction following the civil war, the Jim Crow laws from the turn of the century to the 1960′s, which yielded a state enforced apartheid in the South and a socially enforced system of segregation and subordination in the great cities of the North, all point to the unfreedom that makes freedom so dear. On one side: there is the slave, on the other, the freeman, in the language of the antebellum era. On the side of servitude is the unfreedom of separate and decidedly unequal economic and political life, and on the side of freedom is America as the land of opportunity.

And the problem of race is far from one that is exclusively historical; it overshadows much of our public life. The injustices of our educational, social welfare and judicial system, as they process blacks and whites, yield incredibly depressing statistics. There are more young black men in their teens and twenties caught in our prison system, as prisoners, defendants or parolees, than there are in the system of education as students. The income disparity between blacks and whites is still systemic: at all levels of education and for both men and women. African Americans still face daily indignities in their everyday life in a white dominated society. There is a systematic assumption that blacks are not capable to do both menial and challenging intellectual tasks.

For those who have been to America, remember and take as significant that you came across more immigrants doing attractive service jobs, such as driving airport limousines and positions in sales in lucrative enterprises, than African Americans, and this is indicative of hiring policies in small factories as well. Surveys of employers reveal a marked preference for immigrant labor over African Americans even among African American entrepreneurs. This bias, in effect, systematically relegates a large portion of the African American population to the rural and urban underclass, beyond the system of steady jobs and salaries, beyond the hope of upward social mobility. On the other side of the stratification spectrum, affirmative action serves as an excuse for the racist to minimize the accomplishments of blacks who hold positions of power, prestige and privilege. For the racist, it seems that all these jobs held come off the backs of qualified whites. Black accomplishment defines a new white servitude.

But when you, in this part of the world, think about the problems of American society as they relate to you, I suspect that you are not much concerned with the problems of American racism. You all too readily understand the nature of our problems. Such a high level of heterogeneity as it exists in the United States is practically beyond East and Central European imagination. You may be sympathetic with our race problem. You may understand that the problem of American violence is somehow related to it. Your understanding may or may not have racist qualities. But given the different problems of race, ethnicity and nation here, you can hardly look in a self-satisfied way to our problems and contrast yourselves with us in a completely positive fashion. You know that we confront problems in the course of our domestic relations which have led here to modern barbarism, and while you may cast a critical glance on the problems of race in America, you would be well advised to consider how Americans struggle to deal with the problems of difference, with successes and failures, as the ugly face of xenophobia again raises its head in the lands of the European killing fields.

But lest you think that I am suggesting that the way to be an intelligent anti – American is to be pro-American, I should concede that your critical approaches to the American way of life are both important to the viability of your cultural identity and, in my judgment, may as well help us in our democratic life.

Probably the most unfortunate and problematic aspects of American life observable abroad are the products of our culture industry. There is much to dismiss here, much to be against, and, it seems to me that resistance to the idiocies of our mass culture wherever it comes from is welcome, the more forceful the better. But be forewarned. The critique of American mass culture can easily slide into the rejection of democracy and the rejection of democratic cultural forms. The most famous case of this is the completely wrong headed rejection of jazz by Theodor Adorno.

An extraordinary American comic strip, Pogo, comes to mind. One of its characters famously announced concerning an apparently nonsensical interaction: “we have met the enemy and it is us.” During the Vietnam War, when this strip was created, the referent hardly needed explanation. But remember that the key to the success of American mass culture is its popularity, both in the United States and abroad. We, as intellectuals, indeed as intellectuals who attempt to be intelligent anti-Americans, should be cautious in our condemnation of American mass culture, unless we are comfortable with the role of philosopher kings. Do we really want to hold an intellectual position that boldly declares we have met the enemy and it is the people? Can we commit ourselves to a politics or even a cultural position that claims to know better what is in the people’s interest after the close of the bloody century of ideological wars?

Perhaps not, I hope you would reply, but surely we should take some care to distinguish the banal from the fine, the enriching from the stupefying. I agree. But an intelligent anti-American will proceed with caution. Some things are easy. The mindless violence of much American TV and films which more and more dominate the European and American markets should be condemned, boycotted; perhaps, even forms of national cultural policies, short of official censorship, should attempt to assure the creation of alternative local, national and regional markets to compete with Hollywood productions. The economies of scale make it so that Hollywood dominates the world market for slick film and broadcasting entertainment, disseminating a world view that is clearly often objectionable not only here in Europe, but also in the U.S., not only in South Africa, but also in Latin America and Central Asia. Our politicians attempt to make political points out of this and surely so will yours. The stuff Hollywood produces creates the greatest audiences:

establishing the conditions for the profitability of smaller audiences, clearly, is desirable, both here and there.

But I am referring so far to relatively easy matters. What about the situation where the line between trash and excellence is not so easily drawn? What about the exportation of works that intelligently address a mass audience in effective aesthetic fashion, but which with the power of wealth and know how overwhelm smaller, more difficult alternatives? To refer to a specific and telling case in point, what about films such as Schindler’s List?

It is one of the oddities of life in Cracow [where this lecture was originally given], that one can go to the former Jewish section of Kazimierz and go on a guided tour of the sites of mass killings, the liquidation of the Ghetto, the Holocaust, as they were depicted and gained significance for a mass audience in Steven Spielberg’s film. Given the facts of what actually happened on (at least very close to) those grounds, this is grotesque to the extreme, an awful Americanization of the perception of modern evil. It seems that for those who sponsor the tour and for those who would go on it, the grounds of great suffering gain a higher reality for having been represented in a movie, than for the reality that they are.

Yet, Schindler’s List, the film with its popularity and power, has made the destruction of the Jews a reality for a mass audience. It facilitates memory, where horror and forgetting interacted in the service of ignorance. But I wonder, as I am sure some of you do, whether the melodramatic qualities of its story line, the focus on the good German and its happy ending, makes for a kind of memory which is worse than ignorance. If this should become the Holocaust on film, there is a danger that there will be little room to remember anything and anyone other than its memorable characters and their fate: the sadistic prison commandant, the loyal Jewish accountant, the German rogue who helps it all work out in the end, the hero of the story. From the perspective of what we know about the makers and victims of the Holocaust, the simplification is overwhelming.

Yet, simplification is not all that is there, and there is more to this brilliant film than the melodrama of its story line. Its incredible portrayal of the liquidation of the Jewish Ghetto, the absolute horror of the experience of the Nazi terror, becomes accessible to those who were not there. Using all the tricks and wealth of the American film industry, the world is able to remember things easily forgotten, to imagine things which are beyond the imagination of most of us. And, most importantly, all the problems of its presentation, as they exhibit the limitations of American movies, as opposed to the refinements of European films, contribute to the fact that it has reached a large and broad audience, many of whom have hardly ever thought about the Holocaust. The democratic art form that film is attains its distinction. Yes, the limitations of an American happy end are evident. Yes, more sophisticated treatments of the horrors of our century are available in all sorts of forms, often presented with far greater insight. But the great bulk of the Schindler’s List’s audience would never have turned to these. Intelligent anti – Americans, refine your criticisms, even when they generally apply.

Serious criticism of American activities in foreign lands are especially concerned with the anomaly that Americans are both remarkable ignorant of the world about them and remarkably willing to interject themselves in the world in which they are so ignorant. Perhaps even this presentation is vulnerable to this objection. Who am I to indicate to you what an intelligent form of anti-Americanism should be? Why do Americans think they can best advise people on the form their democracies can or should take? Is American advice on the problem of democracy too similar to the advice people in Poland and elsewhere received from the big brother to the East? Is democracy á la Americain just another dominant ideology?

These are difficult questions. But I think they can be answered simply. It requires a perception of the texture and not just the formal structure of democracy, America and anti-Americanism. When we consider the problems of democracy in a non-utopian way, in a way that is practical and not simply idealistic, we think of specific modern institutions: constitutions and elections, competing political parties, modes of representation and association, liberal rights of free speech and property, the rule of law. But we must remember that these institutions require, if they are successful within a supportive cultural context, a democratic culture. Such a culture, in contrast to an authoritarian one is far from being univocal. It is filled with paradoxes and anomalies, tensions and dilemmas, which in principle cannot be resolved definitively. It is unclear whether democracy requires more a common set of cultural commitments, as the advocates of Americanism believed at the turn of the century, or if differences can work to hold the democratic polity together, as advocates of multi-culturalism (and the pluralists before them) have maintained. Democracy is about the robust and open contestation between these positions. With such openness, it cannot easily function as an instrumental ideology in the fashion of Soviet Marxism.

Criticism of the American way of life is a basic part of the American way of life. In a sense, anti-Americanism is a great American tradition. When I propose to you an intelligent anti-Americanism as opposed to one that it is not so intelligent, I suggest it be based on knowledge of the problems of democracy in America. I suggest it be critical, but not cynical, informed about the accomplishments and promise of the American experiment in democracy, judged against existing practices.

Americans may, especially when they travel abroad, confuse the promise with the on going realities. This may be especially convenient for those who work in and for official government institutions. But it would be a pity if this tendency overshadowed attempts to overcome them. It would be a shame if independent voices of criticism were not heard, along with the voices of appreciation. When advice comes from America, you should judge the quality of its understanding of American society and its practices, and its understanding of the situation of the countries being advised. Likewise, when I hear anti-Americanism from abroad, I will judge it for its self-understanding and its confrontations with the complexities of American life. If it has such qualities, it will substantiate the prospects of the democratic project. For we in America, like you in this part of the world, need intelligent anti-Americanism, i.e., a critical democratic culture.