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Australian Anti-Americanism By: Rob Foot
Quadrant Magazine | Monday, July 19, 2004


I THINK IT WAS after the first Gulf War - technically, the second, if you count the Iraq - Iran conflict - when it became clear the times were definitely a-changing. Something was different; you could feel it. When George Bush Sr. visited Australia in 1993 to thank his old friend Bob Hawke for Australia's support during the war to liberate Kuwait (only to find himself greeted by Paul Keating), the demonstrators were predictably out in force, but there was something new in the air.

Large-scale organised protests against visiting U.S. leaders were nothing new; but something about these demonstrations was. The tone was new: not merely strident, but shrill, vindictive, intemperate; but most noticeably, the real target was new. The object of the massed demonstrators' fury was not America's foreign policies, nor its alliance with Australia, nor, it seemed, even the recent war. The target was the United States itself. It was not what the USA did that was the problem; it was what the USA was.

In some ways this was strange and to a degree unexpected. America had led the multinational coalition that had routed the forces of a ruthless dictator and liberated the horribly traumatised Kuwaitis. At the time, local rumour had it that Australian medical staff deployed to Kuwait refused to tell their friends what they had seen; but horrifying stories circulated about the discovery of buckets full of eyeballs.

It was the retreating Hussein who fired Kuwait's oil wells in an act of malignant spite, raising fears of environmental catastrophe - exaggerated, as it turned out, as so many others before and since. But it was coalition troops and America's specialist firefighters who put them out, not Greenpeace activists.

Back at the fort, with UN endorsement, and with consummate political skill, President Bush had put together a coalition that included Arab nations - the first time in the modern era that Arab states had fought against one of their own. And, honouring the commitment he made at the war's start, he refused to allow coalition troops to set foot on the territory of Iraq. The Arab states had made it clear from the beginning that if any did, they would pull out of the coalition. Bush agreed, even at the cost of an "unfinished" war whose resolution, ironically enough, fell to his own son, ten years later.

Conceivably, then, Bush should have been on a roll when he visited Australia in 1993. The war had been an astonishing success. A small, defenceless country had been liberated, civilian casualties had been minimised through the use of precision weapons, Arab sensitivities had been respected, and Hussein was, as was then thought, well on the way to being comprehensively disarmed of his WMD munitions (years of playing cat-and-mouse with the UNSCOM weapons inspectors still lay ahead). Bush's own leadership of the whole enterprise had been greatly praised, especially in Asia, where it was viewed as a model of international statesmanship.

But in Australia, the Left reacted to his presence not with opposition or reasoned objection, but with visceral, unremitting ideological hatred. The particular circumstance was irrelevant; any old excuse would do. America was the world's whipping boy, simply because it was America. That's what was different then, and it stayed different.

This hatred has been the hallmark of the Left's attitude to the USA throughout the ten years since, steadily strengthening, not at all mitigated - on the contrary, noticeably sharpened - by the events of September 11, and hugely exacerbated by the recent, second, war against Iraq, about which there was some real moral ambiguity. Today, it has reached the proportions of an epidemic, with disturbing additional characteristics.

Anti-Americanism has become a superstition. Fear, loathing, fury and resentment have combined to produce something that resembles nothing so much as a new form of virulent anti-Semitism. Within the USA and without, tirades are daily directed against America, its values, its founding fathers, its policies past and present, its very being. Intellectuals as notable as Gore Vidal have allowed themselves to descend to conspiracy theories about September 11 that would shame even an undergraduate. "Bush knew about it in advance and allowed it to happen in order to give him a pretext for invading Afghanistan and seizing its oil" - this summarises, I think, the startling truth Vidal unleashed on the world. Such a construction would do the authors of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion proud. And Vidal didn't even have to forge anything; his audience was never going to ask to see the evidence.

As Alice once remarked: "What on earth is going on?" The reasons are not all that hard to find. It's about an ideology in defeat and retreat, yet not acknowledging either.

THE TWENTIETH CENTURY was the site of the battleground of socialism and capitalism. Towards the end of the century, capitalism won. Its victory was unexpected, and unexpectedly swift, but near-total and unqualified. The free market triumphed over the command economy, and liberal democracy defeated the secret state, virtually everywhere they were in conflict.

True, there were and still are holdouts. China has ditched the socialist model for its economy, and political reform will doubtless follow, in time. For now, North Korea remains locked in the cage of its own insanity, its people forced to eat grass when they run out of food, and North Koreans when they run out of grass. In Vietnam, the most visible resurgence comes from the unconquerable spirit of entrepreneurial Saigon. Cuba continues to dine, however meagrely, off an almost-forgotten revolution, while its people, bereft of Soviet subsidies, look hungrily towards the United States.

The collapse of the Soviet empire, and the tearing-down of the Berlin Wall by its erstwhile prisoners, signalled the end of the socialist enterprise. Its story ended there and then, but it was a hard ending. By the late 1980s the international Left had, almost everywhere, ceased even to pretend it was the voice of the working class, and had instead become the spokesman for the disaffected middle-class elites. Even so, the old illusions held their grip on the Left's elder generation and its children.

For seventy or so years, well-meaning Westerners, and some less well-meaning, had looked to the Soviet experiment to instruct them on how to reform their own morally and ideologically defunct societies, as they perceived them. Sure, the Soviet system had its problems, and perhaps even excesses; but the Soviets were really trying, and they meant well; that was all that really counted. After all, they were socialists.

Generations of credulous intellectuals went to the Soviet Union seeking tools and ideas to enable them to build a better society in the West. Why so many should have gone from a liberal democracy to a totalitarian police state in search of them is one of the twentieth century's great unanswered questions. But go they did, and usually came back invigorated and refreshed. Among them was Australia's own Manning Clark, whose 1958 claim that "Lenin was Christ-like, at least in his compassion" rang hollow even then, but now seems actually obscene, given what we have since learned of Lenin's mental condition, the atrocities of his dreaded Cheka secret police, and the wholesale murder of the kulaks.

All this sounds like ancient history now, but the symbolic importance of the Soviet experiment cannot be overestimated. When the Soviet Union fell, followed by its satellites, a dream fell with it. The light on the hill, which had burned so brightly for 150 years, flickered - once, maybe twice - then quietly went out. And, in fairness, it was a good dream and a golden light. It was a dream that somehow, somewhere, human beings could surely create a society where sharing was as important as having, where wealth was apportioned according to needs, not wants, where the economic machine could be configured against the imperatives of fairness and equity, not greed and acquisition, and where everyone could have some hold or claim upon the processes of political power, without fear of exclusion or discrimination. Any decent person could subscribe to such a dream, and millions did.

But, as it turned out, it did not work. Human nature itself defeated it. We weren't good enough for it; it asked too much of us: or, to put it another way, socialism asked too much of itself. The stark lesson of the twentieth century is that socialism is a marvellous idea that doesn't work, and capitalism is a terrible idea that does. Unbelievably, inexplicably (to socialists), it turned out to be capitalism which delivered what socialism always promised: not all at once, not without bad episodes; not evenly, not at first for everyone, or even now for everyone; not quickly, and, certainly, not always willingly. But, in the end, it delivered.

Yet nowhere did socialism fail to fail. Nowhere was it tried - and I mean real socialism, not welfare statism - where tyranny, misery, poverty, fear and oppression failed to follow. Capitalism delivered its share of the bad stuff, too; certainly oppression - witness Taiwan, South Korea, Chile. But capitalism's lackeys always seemed to recover, to get over it, and get better: witness Taiwan, South Korea, Chile. Socialism never did; it never found a cure for its ills. Where now are Romania's traditional villages, victims of Ceausescu's madness? How much of Russia's rich historical store will be found to have survived its KGB custodians, and the criminal gangs that succeeded them? What will be left of ancient Tibet when Chinese communism finally succumbs, apart from the ashes of gutted monasteries and the ghosts of murdered priests? Despite having over seventy years and most of half the planet - surely time and space enough to make it work, if it was ever going to - all the socialist experiments have failed.

Opinions will vary on when it was the socialist dream really died: Budapest, 1956; Prague, 1968; Tiananmen Square, 1989; Berlin, 1989. For my part, I think it died that day in 1989 when Czechoslovakia opened its borders to Austria. For the first time ever, an institutional socialist state said to its people, as all the democratic states say to theirs: "You are free to leave if you want to." As one, or so it seemed at the time, almost every physically able person in Eastern Europe packed a single bag and toothbrush, petrolled up the Trabant, and raced for the hole in the wall. Nothing could have made it clearer that socialism's prison had never been their choice, and they wanted out.

At about that time, the Australian media reported a demonstration in Prague, which included an old Czech woman's bitter malediction upon socialism. As I remember it, the cameras captured her shaking fists, her contorted face and angry tears attesting more eloquently than words to a lifetime lost to misery and terror as, furiously, she shouted - in English! - "They should have tried it on animals first!" It had probably never been possible to tell her that George Orwell had done just that, in Animal Farm, but had not been widely enough heeded. It seems not too bold a prediction to say that no sovereign state will ever again choose socialism for its forward pathway.

This is the font and source of the Left's rage and hate. The wrong side, the wrong ideas, the wrong attitudes and the wrong people had somehow contrived to win. And then, on top of the political and economic victories heralded by end of the Cold War, unsupportable enough in themselves, there came the USA's seemingly effortless military victory over Iraq in 1991 - in a war, as we remember, that the hard Left was unanimous in opposing, despite the fact it was unarguably just. The Left's fury and frustration boiled over. Who to blame for its immense, unimaginable defeat? To its question, "Why did the right side, the right ideas, the right attitudes and the right people not win?" the Left found a single, simple, one-word answer: Amerika. The rest, as they say, is polemics: the unending regurgitation of that helpless, futile response.

Indeed, America's victory in the Cold War seems to have opened a kind of psychic wound in the collective sub-conscious of the Left, poisoning its soul. Perhaps the anti-American pandemic represents the effluxion by which the Left hopes to purge its own pain, understand its hurt, and heal it.

LET ME JUMP forward to where we are now, ten or so years later. In 2002, long before the Left became exercised by the USA's war plans for Iraq, Icon Books in the UK published a curious little book, entitled Why Do People Hate America? by Ziauddin Sardar, a postmodernist cultural critic, and Merryl Wyn Davies, said to be a writer and anthropologist. It was written as a commentary on the events of September 11. Not encouragingly, its cover carries an endorsement from Noam Chomsky.

It's not a non-mainstream book. It is commonly found in bookshops around Canberra, and presumably elsewhere in Australia. So it can be reasonably taken to be a book with some popular cachet. From page 195 on, it articulates what the authors see as the principal reasons for the hatred in which America is allegedly universally held.

First, the existential: "The U.S. has simply made it too difficult for other people to exist." The USA has contrived to structure the international economy to guarantee perpetual enrichment of itself, and abject poverty for everyone else (at least, the non-Western world).

Second, the cosmological: America has replaced God as the "cause of everything." Further, imperial America is engaged on a project that involves the consumption of all time and space, and aspires to consuming all non-American people; "Inducted into the cosmological structure of America, the rest of the world will vanish."

The third is ontological: America has replaced the notion of "good" with the notion of itself, as the binary opposite to "evil". Thus, America can only be good and virtuous, and only America can be such.

The fourth is definitional: American has assumed the right to define what it means even to be human, and that only in terms of its own identity. American values are therefore the only ones that any longer actually are.

Two things might immediately be said about this. One: it is transparent nonsense, evidencing a seriously deformed kind of intellectualism. (The whole world is no more than items on America's fast-food menu - literally the imperialist's snack, for heaven's sake.) Two, and more disturbingly: replace "America" with "the Jews," and you begin to get some idea of where this is coming from.

The "facts" of American evil and the hatred felt for it are not argued from circumstance or evidence: they are derived from an intellectual horizon wholly indifferent to logic. The evil is pre-assumed, cosmic and all-encompassing. It impacts the very basis of our reality, evidenced by the philosophies by which we understand it. America's evil is inherent, insistent and inevitable. And it is intended, deliberate and engineered, out of a spirit of pure, unadulterated malignance towards the non-American world. To Sardar and Davies, America is not a country at all, but rather a poisonous psychic space, and an infectious effluvium.

At this point, if not before, one realises that Why Do People Hate America? is purely the invention of its own malevolence. It resembles a scene from German Expressionist cinema, with strange splashes of light and dark, foreshortened figures, distorted shadows and an eerie, sinister mise-en-scene. Its underlying psychological state is reminiscent of nothing so much as Nazi hate literature, where you will find the Jews huddled in the same livid half-light, viewed through the same pornographying prism of delusional paranoia. This is worse than superstition; it is superstitious hatred; worse yet, it is hateful superstition.

This is bad stuff, indeed: alarming, even frightening; and it's breaking out all over. The internet both propagates and fuels it, and you'll find it on a host of websites, from ZNet.org to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). Is this then the ground that what's left of the Left wants to occupy, and is this really the best it can do? It needs to look around and see what company it keeps, past and present, including in the contemporary Middle East. In parts, Why Do People Hate America? reads like bin Laden out of Edward Said. It argues, for example, that Christianity's ancient struggle against Islam, then triumphant in Europe, somehow transmuted, by some kind of logical extension, into a Muslim-circumventing colonial enterprise in the New World - not that the authors offer any objection to Islamic imperialism. On this reading, even the colonisation of America was part of the Crusaders' anti-Islamic project.

This is plain lunacy. If the radical Left is to recover some kind of intellectual respectability, it has to do better than this, and find another way of accommodating itself to its own defeat. There is still work to be done in mitigating the worst effects of capitalism, even if socialism can no longer dream of replacing it. No one has ever claimed that capitalism is perfect; but at least it's always been more open to correction than its old enemy was ever revealed to be. So it's not the end of the road for the rational Left. The true dinosaurs are beyond recovery, of course, but one day they will at least do the rest of us the favour of putting us out of their misery (or themselves out of ours) by shutting up, and confining themselves to sulkily reading - and re-reading, and re-reading - their Chomsky and Pilger.

AS A PARTING SHOT, might I offer a coda to truly horrify them - the dinosaurs, I mean; one which I suspect dwells somewhere in the sub-terrain of the irrational Left's collective sub-conscious, and fuels its implacable hatred of the United States.

In the past five hundred years, perhaps in all history, there has only been one genuinely successful revolution - one that delivered on its promises for a better world, based on the principles of freedom, equality, enterprise and endeavour; one that actually succeeded, despite the acknowledged imperfection of some of its outcomes. And of these latter, thanks largely to the failure of socialism, we now understand rather better that politics cannot be relied upon to correct the human condition.

It was not the English Revolution of 1641, nor the French of 1789, or the French or German of 1848, or the Russian of 1917, the Chinese of 1949, or the Cuban of 1958, the essays of the Parisian students in 1968, nor the host of abortive adventures in Asia and Africa.

It was the American Revolution of 1776. That's the only one that has ever really worked.




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