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Book review: people hate that self-righteous American attitude

By Peter McMahon - posted Thursday, 14 August 2003


Why Do People Hate America? by Ziauddin Sadar and Merryl Win Davies.

How things have changed since George W. Bush came to power! Until recently the idea of books with titles like this being published and popularly read would have been laughable. Bush and his minions appear to have achieved the notable feat of turning the US from probably the most admired nation into the most feared.

Why Do People Hate America? (Icon Books, 2002) is written by two British authors. They argue that, yes, indeed, America is increasingly hated by people around the world, and with good reason. They discuss the usual contentious issues of US power but they have other points of criticism as well. In particular the book focuses on American popular culture as both an example of growing American cultural imperialism, and as a manifestation of the core attitudes of American society.

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Sadar and Davies argue that there is a basic attitudinal problem at the core of American society in relation to other cultures. Emerging from a disdain for old Europe, and a self righteous notion that America was inherently the perfect society, this attitude promoted the destruction of indigenous cultures in America and the spread of American culture north and south. Subsequently, as the US became the dominant world power, the rest of the world was perceived as merely a place for Americans to carry on their own interests.

Sadar and Davies use cinema and television in particular to develop this theme. Shane, that quintessential western, is trotted out to examine the rise of the new society in the American west, bringing order to a lawless land. This idea of law-making was then translated internationally as American military power was projected, especially in the two world wars. The current TV show Alias is put forward as a contemporary expression of the same basic attitude. In Alias, the authors argue, the rest of the world is simply America's backyard where American values must be imposed and enforced.

The idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way the US sees and relates to the rest of the world differs from the less critical perspectives put forward by writers like Chalmers Johnson in his book Blowback. Johnson, like many authors, sees the US as basically sound, but being led astray by wayward forces. In Blowback the bad guys are the Pentagon, which he views a sort of rogue institution.

It is sometimes necessary to look from a longer perspective, and certainly too few commentators give due attention to America's bloody history. The destruction of the native Americans and the regular periods of aggressive expansionism north and south are ugly but important aspects of the development of the world's most important nation. The view that this aggression, finally metamorphosing into open imperialism with the war with Spain is still a part of the overall US posture is a valid one, comparable to the argument that British empire began with the English colonisation of Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and Scotland.

We should, however, also recall that the American Civil War was the first full-scale industrial war in history, and reflects the fact that the US is and always has been an entity of many different and sometimes opposing qualities. But the violence of America has always been matched by its openness, which is why Fascism never got a foothold there, as it did in Europe. The US has had its own witch hunts but they never led to the consolidation of a reactionary socio-political norm.

To a large degree the real political achievement of Bush Jr. has been the neutering, if not suppression, of this American plurality. Undoubtedly the war on terror, a very weak Democratic opposition and the acquiescence of the mainstream media have helped this dominance but dissent continues to bubble away under the surface - perhaps expressed most clearly in that excellent example of American inventiveness, the Internet - and it will only take some signal event to crystallise this dissent into a viable form of opposition.

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In the end the US is too socially and technologically dynamic to make a suitable imperial overlord. American popular culture - which Sadar and Davies rightly excoriate for promoting American chauvinism - also has a tendency sooner or later to present dissenting voices. Even West Wing, the fictional portrayal of a US presidential administration, maintains the idea of a possible liberal Democratic presidency in stark contrast to the actuality.

Sardar and Davies present an America that is far too introspective and concerned with its own issues to be a functional world leader. When the election of the world's most important leader is dominated by domestic issues, this is indeed a cause for real concern. But the US is also home to the most sophisticated class of technical and business people and it is unlikely that they will sit by for long while the world is destabilised by a bunch of gung-ho neo-cons and techno-generals. It is just too dangerous for the long-term process of maintaining innovation and making money.

Meanwhile, books like Why Do People Hate America? and Blowback should cause Americans to think, not just about what their government and military are doing in their name, but also about how much and how quickly the world is losing faith in the only existing hyperpower.

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Article edited by Betsy Fysh.
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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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