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The last respectable prejudice: Anti-Americanism in Australia

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Thursday, 6 November 2003

Is anti-Americanism one of the last respectable prejudices in Australia, or are cries of anti-Americanism a way of silencing reasonable criticism? At the risk of being injured while straddling the fence, I will argue that while the Bush administration has often behaved like an imperial bully-boy, the US has become the whipping boy for the anxieties of many nations and people. A broader anti-Americanism seems on the rise among Australians, possibly due to the resentment many feel about US power and the policies of the Bush administration. Although I sympathise with many of its critics, the associated slide of many Australians into anti-Americanism is unfortunate.

Presidents come and go but America’s importance in our world and imaginations is much greater. Besides, the US is far too diverse to hate.

Salman Rushdie recently wrote that, whereas Muslim countries seem principally to resent US power and arrogance, Westerners outside the US seem more vexed by Americans themselves — their emotionality, patriotism and obesity. But which Americans are they referring to? There are 290 million of them. “America feels itself to be humanity in miniature,” said the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal.


This assessment reflects, on one hand, the self-centred view of many in the new middle kingdom. On the other hand, the US has a strong claim to being the most multicultural society on earth.

Hating Americans is surely misanthropic and hysterical; individually, they are no worse or better than Indonesians, New Zealanders or Iraqis. Most anti- Americanism in Australia is not based on pathological hatred of the US but rather on a pseudo-anti-Americanism, which tends to recycle a series of tired stereotypes.

“Americans are people too,” wrote a disgruntled Washington Post columnist recently, but for many non-Americans, they are a particular type of people. The false familiarity that most non-Americans have with Americans via our televisions and cinemas creates a strong set of stereotypes.

Our love/hate relationship with US culture is possibly the most contradictory aspect of Australian culture and identity today. We consume vast amounts of US popular culture in an addictive manner but, as with the daily consumption of Coke or cigarettes, this consumption comes with a guilty aftertaste for many. Recent surveys show Australians to be among the most enthusiastic consumers of US culture and one of the nations most worried about the Americanisation of our society. This paradox goes some way to explaining why Australian anti-Americanism is often inarticulate and not classifiable as pathological anti-Americanism.

Undoubtedly, US society and culture produces undesirable ideas and outcomes deserving of criticism and scepticism. However, there is a tendency in the Australian media to focus on the weird and bizarre or on the worst aspects of American society.

The 2003 Californian Recall election certainly has its strange elements but little is gained by constantly depicting such events as freak shows. The 2000 presidential election suffered a similar fate, with its delayed results described in one headline in The Australian as "anarchy" in the US. In truth, it was establishment politics as usual.


Worse than that newspaper’s coverage of the 2000 election was its tabloid coverage of the recent Iraq war. Objectivity was cast aside as it gave way to jingoistic pro-war headlines, accompanied by a boy’s own collection of war photographs. The coverage of the killing of Iraqi soldiers (as opposed to the ostensibly so different Iraqi civilians) was handled particularly poorly. The stable dissident, Phillip Adams, seemed drawn in his op-ed pieces towards the opposite exaggerations, often based on little more than conspiracy theories. The Australian’s coverage reflects a tabloid culture in which clichés and knee-jerk reactions to the US flourish among both pro- and anti-Americans.

There are many reasons to be critical of the current administration. Bush is, in my assessment, the worst US president in living memory. The political rhetoric of Bush and his Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, has been a public relations nightmare for the US’s image in every country I know. Worse still, the administration has managed to turn legitimate concerns about terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and rogue states into terms of mockery in the two years since September 11. This said, US foreign policy is more complicated than the designs of Bush and the so-called neocons. Despite this fact, there is a curious need for simplicity among many critics of US foreign policy, often among the same critics who argue for a more complex analysis of non-Westerners. A case in point is one recent visitor to our shores, Tariq Ali.

Ali was a crowd favourite at the recent Brisbane Festival of Ideas and at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. His book SiThe Clash of Fundamentalisms (2001), with George W. Bush depicted as a mullah on the front cover, has outsold other books on international politics. Ali rightly counsels a more complicated view of the Islamic world. However, when he discusses the US he presents a distorted and caricatural picture. In a chapter entitled "A short-course History of US Imperialism", which is short on evidence, and conspiratorial rather than historical, he sets out a beginner’s guide to blaming the problems of the world on US foreign policy.

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This article was first published in Australian Book Review, October 2003.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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Fullbright Symposium: Are we all American now?
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