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Protector of the free world deserves better

Anti-Americanism has a long pedigree, but that only makes it more irrational.

BY all means unfurl the banners, dust off the placards and prop up the distorted effigies of George W. Bush. Start practising those chants of "Down with America" and "America, the Great Satan" and stop bathing and brushing your hair (a less commented on pre-requisite for some protesters) for another anti-American protest. With US Vice-President Dick Cheney in Australia next week, it's not an opportunity to be missed for those who hate the US.

But before the crowd tail-gates Cheney as he meets Australian political leaders, maybe it's time to check what it is that drives animosity towards the US. It is not anti-American to disagree about US policies in Iraq or on Kyoto or in Guantanamo Bay; reasonable people can differ over how the Bush administration handles critical issues. And if protesting in the streets is your thing, go ahead. Ain't democracy grand?

But the problem with what Martin Amis calls the rodeo of anti-Americanism drawing crowds across the globe is that the antagonism is fuelled not just by what America does but also, in no small part, by what America is. It's here that rationality vanishes among even the most intelligent Westerners. British author Margaret Drabble summed it up thus: "My anti-Americanism has become almost uncontrollable. It has possessed me like a disease. It rises in my throat like acid reflux."

Actually, it's more akin to reflex than reflux. And a new book on anti-Americanism in Europe offers an insight into the reflexive hatred of the US: a hatred that has travelled beyond its traditional home of European elites.

Andrei S. Markovits, author of Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America, is no neo-con Bush cheerleader. Markovits told The Australian he is a card-carrying progressive signing up to every seminal Left issue. But he cannot stomach the toxic anti-Americanism, a staple of his side of politics. A bunch of people opposing US policies is not anti-Americanism. Instead, something new has emerged, he says. "European anti-Americanism is becoming an unprecedented Europe-wide lingua franca" - a "key mobilising agent" for a common European identity. It has, quite literally, become the last acceptable prejudice, sanctioned by the highest levels of government. Europeans may bicker over an EU constitution, but they can agree on who they hate. They hate America.

Where once it was relegated to the far Right and the far Left to despise American culture and capitalism in equal doses, now it's become part of the respectable mainstream. Markovits augments countless surveys and opinion polls with myriad examples of quotidian life in Europe where anything nasty is blamed on the US, from the Americanisation of European accounting practices, electoral campaigns, urban planning and credit card use to the US infecting sport, film, music, language, habits. If it's nasty, it's America's fault. Even reality television is bagged as an American blight. (For the record, Europeans invented that gem of a genre.)

Anti-Americanism has less to do with US politics and policies and more to do with what Markovits calls the "perfectly respectable human need to hate the big guy". Half a century ago, Hannah Arendt commented on the same psychology of mistrust aimed at the US. It was, she said, the inevitable plight of the big, rich guy to be alternately flattered and abused, remaining unpopular no matter how generous they were.

And so Norwegian Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun hated the US for being too big and too fast. Anti-Americanism has morphed into a desire to bring America to heel, something that coincides with the goal of Islamists. But if the big, fast rich guy retreats, it's worth asking who will step up to the plate when the West needs things fixed. The dawdling burghers of Europe may recall that small and slow did not help the Kuwaitis, Bosnian Muslims, Kosovars, Afghanis or the tsunami victims.

It would be churlish not to recognise that Bush Derangement Syndrome, a term coined by Charles Krauthammer, has a role to play here. Originally levelled at Democrats in Florida who raced off to their shrink, complaining of staring listlessly into space when Bush beat John Kerry in 2004, hating George W. is also a common affliction abroad. A few years ago our own John Pilger described the Bush administration as "the Third Reich of our times".

But anti-Americanism runs deeper than Bush. "Anti-Bushism," says Markovits, is simply the "glaring tip of a massive anti-American iceberg." One immune to reason or climate change for that matter. As he explores, anti-Americanism dates back to 1492 and the discovery of the New World. Long before America became Mr Big, European cultural superiority meant that the US was regarded as venal, vulgar and mediocre - a lack of authenticity pervaded every part of American life. Australian playwright Stephen Sewell succumbed to the same lazy stereotyping in his play, The United States of Nothing.

Anti-Americanism cannot be explained simply by US policy stances or as anti-imperialism either. The US was hated during its isolationist periods and under its pacifist presidents. Under Bill Clinton, the US was a hyperpower according to French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine. (Clinton is now lionised by European elites as a effete kind of non-American). The hapless Jimmy Carter, so cautious of bloodshed that 52 hostages were held captive in the US embassy in Tehran for 444 days, was equally despised. Should he become president, even Barack Obama will also incur the anti-American wrath.

And, of course, US policy is not always right. Indeed, big countries make big mistakes. Pick a decade and you'll find a major stuff-up by American political leaders, from the passing of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act by US Congress in 1930 that led to worldwide protectionism, to the CIA overthrowing the government of Iran in 1953 which unleashed anti-American sentiment across the Middle East.

But the distinguishing features of anti-Americanism are its intellectual dishonesty and irrationality. US malevolence is assumed, not proven.

So the Islamic world will complain the US is anti-Muslim while overlooking Bosnia. Europeans regularly overlook the fact that American power, resolve and, yes, idealism, delivered them from both Nazism and communism. Nor, when they nip down to the corner store for some foie gras in their BMWs or Citroens, do they remember the contribution the Marshall Plan made to their postwar prosperity.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin was railing against US power at an international security conference in Munich on Saturday, a respectable case can be made that, as hegemonies go, the US is the most benevolent history has ever seen. Not perfect by any means, but certainly deserving of better treatment than the acid reflux and bile of Western elites. America is big, rich and makes mistakes. But for the past 50 years at least, it has been the ultimate guarantor of the Western way of life. Surely it deserves a more balanced press from its critics.

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The protector of the Free World does deserve much better! Looking in from the Middle East, the America-hating Europeans look like a bunch of whiney adolescents who live off of Daddy's largess while trashing his character. After saving the Europeans from the Nazis, the Americans proceeded to save them from Communism. For 50 years Americans posted 10's of thousand of their soldiers on European soil to protect Europe from Soviet encroachment. Life was easy and comfy under the American umbrella. Easy to build a welfare state when you don't invest in your own defense. Easy to criticize those that are doing something while you sit in your easy chair looking on. Here in Israel we send our own sons and daughters to defend us and understand the terrible price America has been paying to keep the world safe. Does America err? Of course! There is a Hebrew proverb: those who do, err. Only those who don't do don't err.

Posted by naomi on 2007-02-14 07:34:20 GMT

The Anti-Americanism of today has its roots in 20th century totalitarian beliefs. The extreme left and extreme right alike hate real democracy and would do or say anything to bring it down. Well said Janet Albrechtsen for bringing this situation to the attention of your readers.

Posted by Warren on 2007-02-14 03:55:17 GMT

Well said Janet. That reflex hatred she describes has sent the clueless anti-US leftists into the arms of the Islamists, who would cut their throats in an instant when it suited them.

Posted by MT on 2007-02-14 01:49:08 GMT