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How not to understand anti-Americanism

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Thursday, 4 September 2008

On the popular networking system Facebook, a particular group exists calling itself the “Petition to Revoke the Independence of the United States”. It is a playful thing, though some of its participants tend to become too serious. It’s such sentiments that have prompted the web antics of one unabashedly pro-American Englishman and conservative pundit Tim Montgomerie.

Montgomerie is on edge. He dislikes what he considers to be a vicious tide of anti-Americanism in Britain, indeed, the world. Nor does he believe an Obama administration will necessarily put to rest that unruly beast. Hence his newly established group “America in the World” (AIW). The organisation opposes two things: anti-Americanism and American isolationism. It is also quick to point out to critics that they are not in the pocket of American finance.

Montgomerie has taken the bright colored end of the American dream and run with it - America is good, and questioning its handling of power, bad. As he says in a statement that was actually culled by the Guardian editor, “World opinion, rightly called the second superpower, should not stop America from taking the toughest decisions.” Even, evidently, when they involve the hokum of unstable regimes intent on annihilating the West with weapons they do not have.


A collection of publicity videos are available on the site. One, A World Without The American Soldier, is particularly liberal with history and, to borrow a term from Donald Rumsfeld, unknown unknowns. The absent American soldier becomes the metaphor of global instability - without him, the world will devour itself in sanguinary fury. What would have happened if the US had not sent its soldiers to fight Hitler, for instance? None of us know, but AIW is happy to throw out various scenarios.

Montgomerie reflects that sentiment described by Geir Lundestad, Director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute as that of the inviter: the US did not create an empire on its own accord - it was invited to do so by its European auxiliaries. Some states create them in fits of “absentmindedness” (that’s the British variety); others are asked to create imperiums like well-moneyed guests at a fundraising event. The assertion is of cause naïve: Europeans were happy to take the money, but not always happy with what came with it: American personnel and bases were less welcome.

A few points of the AIW are worth challenging, and they apply broadly to those concerned that an Obama administration will somehow retreat, mollusk-like, into an isolationist shell. If the new administration winds back the global imperium by closing some of its 737 bases (according to Chalmers Johnson), then a bit more of that might be better than a bit less.

In more than one sense, the AIW and those who believe in rampant anti-Americanism in Britain, have missed the point. It falls down to poor definitions - what is anti-Americanism in the first place? Its taxonomy risks being unnecessarily complicated and cluttered by academic jargon. But no pointers are given by Montgomerie or his group as to what that might be: is anti-Americanism a prejudice, a structured hatred, perhaps an ideology? Some thought might have been given to consulting the recent four-volume compilation of essays Anti-Americanism: History, Causes and Themes edited by Brendon O’Connor.

There is, for instance, a poor understanding about how countries and their citizens can feel compelled to embrace parts of Americana (the jeans for instance) and still take up arms against the Great Satan. Again, that’s the dilemma that AIW does little to resolve, when it would be best served doing so.

Most of all, the AIW is aggrieved at the failure of Britain and fellow Europeans to love. They must feel a fondness for America. The truth is that many do, and had Washington allowed its cultural representatives to do the colonising rather than its military personnel, it might not have been quite in this mess. Few should forget the famous headline in the French paper, Le Monde immediately following the attacks of September 2001, which stated, in no uncertain terms, the bonds of transatlantic friendship: “We are all Americans Now.” Such invaluable currency was rapidly devalued with Middle East adventurism. Many European citizens, and that goes for many around the globe, just don’t like the vicissitudes of American power.


Besides, the British, or to be more exact, the English, are renown in a historical sense not so much for being just anti-American, but hostile to everyone, including themselves. A brief consultation of any reference book on insults will find an assortment of English nasties for every race and nation on this planet. Don’t privilege one dislike - acknowledge them all. To paraphrase a comment once made by director Billy Wilder, one can’t have any prejudices if one hates everyone equally.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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