Why it is right to be anti-American

Conservatives used to be the ones who hated the US; the left looked to it for inspiration. All that has changed - and justifiably, argues Nick Cohen.

The accusation is as predictable as late trains. You are arguing in a pub, or addressing a smaller audience on the wee-small-hours show on Radio 5. The chat may be about economics or multinationals or the entertainment industry or foreign policy or the corruption of politics - the subject is increasingly and revealingly irrelevant. Just when you are flattering yourself that you have got to the very nub of the issue, your opponent breaks in with a voice somewhere between a sneer and bray and announces that "your problem is that you're anti-American". To right-thinking - that is, left-leaning - people, the insult should be absurd. To be anti-American rather than, say, anti-corporate, is to make a reactionary substitution of nationality for politics. Like anti-Semitism, it is "the socialism of fools".

Deployers of the jeer assert racism and more: they are certain that anti-Americanism is the modern equivalent of collaborating with Hitler. I've been trying to keep count of the number of intellectuals who have responded to 11 September by disinterring George Orwell's worst piece of Second World War writing. So far, the Observer and Sunday Times, America's Voice and two other conservative websites have used his condemnation of conscientious objectors, in an admittedly tense 1941, as a text for our times. "In so far as it hampers the British war effort," Orwell said, "British pacifism is on the side of the Nazis and German pacifism, if it exists, is on the side of Britain and the USSR. Since pacifists have more freedom of action in countries where traces of democracy survive, pacifism can act more effectively against democracy than for it. Objectively the pacifist is pro-Nazi."

Orwell, of all people, ought to have known the sliminess of the Stalinist adverb "objectively" - "objectively the Kulaks are pro-fascist" - even if he'd forgotten that conshies filled the peacetime jobs of soldiers. Since 11 September, his emulators have held that "objectively the anti-American is pro-Bin Laden". Barbara Amiel, the Daily Telegraph commentator (and wife of the Telegraph Group proprietor, Conrad Black), quoted a speech Harold Pinter made on 10 September in which the playwright said: "I believe that this brutal and malignant world machine [America] must be recognised for what it is and resisted." To which Amiel replied: "For years Pinter's words, in speeches such as these, have been an incitement to violence. No amount of bons mots can quite distance him morally from what took place the next day." Noam Chomsky has, inevitably, received the same treatment. Mackubin T Owens, professor of strategy at the Naval War College in Newport Rhode Island, didn't feel the need to restrain himself by imitating Amiel's euphemistic style. "It is not an exaggeration to say that the terrorists who planned and executed the attacks of 11 September were merely expressing in more refined form the same anti-Americanism that has been a staple of the American university for three decades," he said. "The ravings of Osama Bin Laden and those of Noam Chomsky are interchangeable."

To pretend that Pinter and Chomsky are objectively on the side of Bin Laden ignores the blunt fact that al-Qaeda would happily sentence them to death for any one of the hundreds of positions they've taken. Before 11 September, the New Republic, a right-wing but by US standards not far-right journal, said that Democrat senators who opposed Bush's foreign policy were anti-American. After 11 September, the Washington Post, which was once a half-way decent newspaper, said that anti-capitalist protesters had been exposed by the suicide bombers. Critics of the conduct of - as well as the need for - the "war" against terrorism have been accused by new Labour of both appeasement and treason.

There we have it. "Anti-Americanism" is a transparent slur that libels and subverts the best of American freedom. It's a propaganda insult that is as contaminated as "terrorist". Right-wingers in London and Washington use it shamelessly to suggest that those who are not happy with their abysmal status quo are the moral equivalents of blood-drenched murderers.

To make matters much worse, they have a small point. Plenty of prejudices float in any self-respecting lefty's conversation. Hollywood has cretinised modern culture, the lefty says. All conglomerates are conspiracies against the public interest, though, oddly, arms manufacturers, European as well as American, are never protrayed as the most pernicious corporations, the lefty's fire being directed mainly at Monsanto (whose GM foods have never been proven to endanger public health) and McDonald's (which is just one supplier of industrial food among many others, including the local school's canteen). And, yes, a village in Texas advertised for a new idiot when George W Bush entered the White House.

I instinctively go along with a few of the above, but there's no use in pretending that they're ideas in which prejudice isn't a component, or that they are necessarily left-wing. For most of US history, anti-Americanism, particularly cultural anti-Americanism, has been a conservative characteristic. Underneath the standard accusations of uniformity and vulgarity was a fear of American democracy. The poet Heinrich Heine urged 19th-century Germans contemplating emigration not to think of living in "the colossal jail of freedom" where "the mob, the most disgusting tyrant of all" rules.

Compare Heine to his contemporaries in the Chartist movement, who recommended that those who couldn't see the virtues of aristocratic rule in Britain should try a new life in an America where, Peter Murray McDouall said, the suffrage ensured that labour was "encouraged socially [and] protected politically".

The most anti-American British government of our time was John Major's. During the Yugoslav wars, the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence saw Washington as the home of gullible cowboys who lacked the sophistication to realise the pointlessness of stopping ethnic cleansing in a world that could never be made better. Ministers' determination to prevent America stemming the slaughter drove them to the edge of dementia and beyond. Unfinest Hour, Brendan Simms's account of British policy towards Bosnia, includes a marvellous moment when Malcolm Rifkind, an Edinburgh lawyer who became Tory Foreign Secretary, screamed "you Americans know nothing about war" at Senator Bob Dole, who had an arm maimed in the battle for the Pacific.

Because political discourse remains stuck within cold war limits, virtually no one has noticed how novel it is for the left to be more anti-American than the traditional right. With the large exception of a communist movement that was just obeying orders, the European left used to be animated by America. The protests of the 1960s were anti-American only in the technical sense that they were against Washington's conduct of the Vietnam war. European demonstrators were inspired by their American counterparts, by the fight against segregation and by the liberating promise of American youth culture. For all the petty tyrannies of political correctness, the demand of the 1980s for very American rights for minorities to test in the courts was and remains a noble one.

But there the stream of inspiration stops. However worthy individual thinkers and protesters may be, there are now no convincing radical movements in America, and haven't been for years. Instead, there is a system which demands that candidates raise fantastic sums to fight elections and has thus institutionalised the debasement of politics by business donors.

America should be a failed state. But just as Heine couldn't persuade German farmers to stick with their local princelings, and today's anti-globalisation protesters can't reverse the damnable success of McDonald's, so rampaging corruption has in no way inhibited America's growth into the world's sole superpower. The triumphs of junk culture, food and politics can embitter you if you hope for better: they confirm your impotence.

Put like this, anti-Americanism sounds like a howl of hopeless fury. American Jewish writers compare it to the hatred of modernity in anti-Semitism. Their linking of Israeli and American interests isn't as self-serving as it sounds. The Muslim tyrannies that merrily promote the historical authenticity of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion need Israel and Jew-dominated America to divert attention from their own manifest inadequacies. The tsars would have recognised and applauded their tactics. Nor is Europe as free from prejudice as we like to believe. The old European left wasn't opposed to industrialisation and science; quite the reverse. Their greenish successors are often irrationally suspicious of both, as the Monsanto example shows.

Yet when all the caveats have been made, and when you have wearily said for the umpteenth time that you don't support crashing 747s into skyscrapers as a rule, you do need to assert loudly that the suspicions are not so irrational.

If America, with 3 per cent of the world's population, produces 25 per cent of the world's greenhouse gases, it isn't New Age silliness to condemn it, but an urgent duty. If America, whose armed forces are equal to those of her six nearest rivals put together, wrecks international controls of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, it needs to be fought. If the richest country in the world prevents the developing world from creating its own industries and demands that public services be taken over by its corporations, it is a crass rhetorical trick to pretend that criticism is bigotry.

When Britain had the world's strongest navy, Whitehall was anxious to maintain the European balance of power. Most conceivable changes to the status quo would have resulted in Britain's decline. A desire to keep the world as it was explains why Britain found itself allied in the First World War with France, the traditional enemy, and Russia, which it had fought in the Crimea, against a rising Germany.

America eclipses its rivals economically and militarily to a far greater extent than Britain ever managed. It should be happy with the balance of power. But not a bit of it. The determination to destroy the Kyoto agreement, International Criminal Court and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty says in effect: "We are not content with our dominance. We want more." American unilateralism is contemptuous of the rest of the world, and the rest of the world can't be blamed for responding in kind.

If this is anti-Americanism, so be it. But the loudmouths who throw the insult around should recognise that there are very few people who can't be anathematised. No politician seems as pro-American as Tony Blair. Yet since 11 September he has been trying to persuade Washington to help the developing world and agree to abide by international law. I regret to say that he won't get anywhere and will also be condemned as anti-American if he argues his case too forcibly.

American politics cannot be reformed by Blair or anyone else. Anti-Americanism is a prejudice, and it remains crass to identify a people with their government. But with no alternative to the present regime in Washington in sight, a depressingly convincing justification for anti-Americanism remains: that there is little about modern America to be for.

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

This article appears in the 14 January 2002 issue of the New Statesman, A kosher conspiracy?