The first cause
Why Do People Hate America?
Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies Icon Books, 231pp, £7.99
Behind the debate about anti- Americanism that has featured so prominently in the British media since 11 September (and is now appearing increasingly in book form) lies a genuine fear within the political establishment that the Atlantic split may soon be too wide to be bridged. For the first time since the Atlantic Charter was issued more than 60 years ago (in August 1941), European politicians are beginning to think the unthinkable: might not the western alliance be coming to an end?
As usual, the politicians are way behind public opinion. Most Europeans had washed their hands of the Americans and their Israeli ally long before the events of last September. Indeed, the horror of the atrocity may actually have slowed the anti-American tide for a brief moment rather than speeded it up.
Now that tide is in full flood again (to be witnessed on any television show or radio phone-in), given added momentum by the unflinching US support for the present leadership of the Zionist state, by corporate scandals on an unimaginable scale, and by the excesses of the Christian fundamentalist right on issues such as abortion and Darwinism - issues that were sorted out and settled in Europe years ago. Why people hate America is all too obvious, and should need no extended analysis.
Yet what is noticeably absent from the current debate is the worst-case scenario. What if it were to become clear that the United States is creating a global menace of the kind once posed by Napoleon or Hitler, a threat not just to the weak and feeble countries of the developing world, but to the heartland of European civilisation itself? What if the sophisticated US missiles that rain down on Baghdad, Belgrade or the Hindu Kush were to be aimed towards London, Paris or Berlin? A world in which "the west" breaks up into its individual units might be easily managed - indeed, it might even be preferable to the current arrangements - but what if America itself were to be perceived as the enemy?
Peering into the chaos and the void that have begun to characterise the nascent 21st century, any think-tank of worth would surely be examining this possibility, and trying to think what might be done about it. Yet, while preliminary research may be going ahead, very little of it has percolated through to the public realm. Most of the discussion about anti-Americanism is still at a familiar and elementary level.
In their original and thought-provoking book, Messrs Sardar and Wyn Davies make a gallant attempt to say something new. Their overview is informed by an analysis of the American domination of popular culture on a world scale. Their principal concern (and indeed, this is where they are least prone to factual error, and at their most knowledgeable) is with Islamic countries and the Arab world, and the effect on them of America's jihad.
This is attractively topical, but the rest of the world is mentioned only obliquely. There is little reference to the anti- Americanism of mainland Europe, except for the very public objections of the French to hamburgers from McDonald's and to the invasion of their cultural space by Hollywood.
The writers' bold central thesis is that, although "there are hardly any universals left in our postmodern times . . . loathing for America is about as close as we can get to a universal sentiment". However, Sardar's familiarity with debates within cultural studies, and his penchant for irony, make the book more than a simple diatribe. It is an angry but entertaining look at America's global role, seen from an unconventional angle.
Each chapter takes a Hollywood film, or a television mini-series available all over the world, and examines what it tells us about the nature of American society and its imperial ambitions. The authors argue, correctly, that free trade in the cultural sphere is one-way. We get their movies, they don't get ours.
But the book is much more than a text for a seminar on cultural hegemony. In philosophical terms, it argues how America has replaced God as the "first cause" of everything. It is the ultimate arbiter, and the resolver of all conflicts. Its power is so overwhelming, that it is actually difficult for other peoples to exist on the same planet. Some are destroyed by missiles, but America's non-military power is more insidious, and ultimately more dangerous. It can occupy a country without being physically present - "a stark reality for the majority of the world's population".
A weakness of the book is that the authors are concerned solely with the global reach of the United States and the adverse reaction this receives. They are only marginally concerned with the hypocrisy and humbug that characterise American society itself.
However, this intelligent summary provokes a further thought: why is it that the members of our ruling elite love America? They worship it. They cannot get enough of it. Each summer, they travel to Martha's Vineyard. In winter, they get on flights to New York. News reporters grapple to be sent to Washington, and slaver over the latest chit-chat from within what they soon smoothly refer to as the Beltway. Tony Blair is the most pro-American prime minister that the British have had for more than half a century - and at least the last one, Winston Churchill, had the excuse of an American mother and a world war to fight. This sycophantic enthusiasm for America, regardless of who leads it, receives very little attention in the press, as though the subject were in some way in bad taste.
Sardar and Wyn Davies have made a good attempt at demystifying popular global hatred of the Americans. Now they should go on to examine why western elites are so in thrall to American power. Why Does the British Government So Love America? should perhaps be the title of their next book.
Richard Gott is writing a history of Cuba