Interview: Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin on Anti-Americanism
Frontpage Interview’s guests today are Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin, co-authors of the new book, Hating America: A History. Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center of the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel. He is also editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. Judith Colp Rubin is a journalist who has reported worldwide for several different North American publications and was publisher/editor-in-chief of Women's International Net Magazine. The couple also co-wrote Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography.
FP: Rubins, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Judith Colp Rubin: Great to be here.
FP: Anti-Americanism has always been with us. You talk about the six phases of historic anti-Americanism. How did they develop and why has the situation today become different?
Judith Colp Rubin: Anti-Americanism is as old as the nation itself. Ever since there has been an America to love there has been an America to hate. There have been five phases in this anti-Americanism, and even now, in this last phase, the historical continuity, the repetition of the themes from each of the different eras, remains striking.
The first phase began in the eighteenth century with the so-called degeneration theory, the belief that there was something inherently wrong with America that made animals there smaller and people physically and mentally inferior. Those of both species that came here from Europe were due for the same fate. This theory was propounded by leading 18th century European scientists such as Georges Louis LeClerc, the Count de Buffon, and found support among such prominent thinkers as Germany’s three greatest philosophers of the era – Immanuel Kant, G.W.F Hegel and Friedrich von Schlegel-- and even the father of evolution, Charles Darwin. The second phase of anti-Americanism began around the 1830s when the United States was an undeniable reality. The American character replaced the American climate as the focus of explanation regarding its inferiority. Increasingly, stress was placed on the idea that the American democratic experiment -- with its absence of monarch, aristocracy, strong traditions, official religion, or rigid class system -- was a failure, leading to a degraded society and culture. The American model was clearly a potential threat to many Europeans, even though it was never considered to be an example that any country would seek to emulate.
After the civil war when the third phase of anti-Americanism began, the disdain for the American way grew into a growing fear abroad that the bad American model – populist democracy, mass culture, industrialization – might in the future take over the world and change everyone’s way of life. It was this fear that prompted many in Europe to support the confederacy as much closer in values to European aristocracy. The fear increased as just as the century was about to turn when in 1890 American showed its strength in its military victory over Spain and was greatly strengthened with the rise of American power in both world wars and the growing decline of Europe.
In the fourth phase of anti-Americanism, from the end of WWI I to the end of the cold war, the fear of American domination was moved from an abstract future notion to the present. The US was supposedly in the process of taking over the world, and had to be prevented from so doing. A striking illustration was the battle over exporting coca cola, that quintessentially American drink, into Europe after World War II. The popular communist newspaper in Italy warned that it would turn children’s hair white while French critics spread a rumor that the company wanted to put an ad on the front of Notre Dame Cathedral. Similar criticism eventually spread to the opening of McDonald’s and Disneyland in France which, along with coca cola, remained o the French market. Of course by this time the United States was also being battered by the extreme left, the Soviet Union and the extreme right, European fascists. The extreme right argued that America had changed European society too much, while the leftists claimed that it had not gone far enough. Marxists said that that America was racist, while fascists insisted that it was a mongrel society based on race mixing.
By the time the cold war ended, the United States was the sole superpower so beginning the fifth and current stage of anti-Americanism. The long feared America takeover of the world had arrived. Those who hold anti-American views see a dominant U.S. as a terrible model for civilization, the centerpiece of those supposed ills of globalization, modernization, and Westernization. This has stimulated the most angry and widespread anti-Americanism ever seen. Moreover, hatred is reinforced by claims that America’s higher level of development comes at everyone else’s expense and, by the same token, America deliberately brings about the failure of others to duplicate its success
Barry Rubin: We make a clear distinction between criticism of the United States and anti-Americanism. Briefly, there are three points of specific importance here.
First, to say that the United States is wrong or making a mistake is criticism; to say the United States is deliberately committing evil deeds is anti-Americanism.
Second, to oppose U.S. policy or American values on any given issue is criticism, to say that the United States is seeking world hegemony or is a terrible society—in other words to make the condemnation across-the-board—is anti-Americanism.
Finally, to present U.S. policy or values with reasonable accuracy and then to take issue with them is legitimate criticism, but to distort these things in order to make them seem evil is anti-Americanism.
FP: Is anti-Americanism, in part, the result of the ideals of the U.S. as juxtaposed with its policies and actions in a world full of danger and enemies?
Barry Rubin: This is the most controversial issue regarding anti-Americanism and it has become so heavily politicized that it is necessary to explain it very carefully and clearly. It is misleading to use this framework. On the one hand, obviously, specific American policies anger various people and countries and this aspect can have an important impact on the level of anti-Americanism in any given place or time.
But saying this does not really explain the phenomenon. One must also ask what these people actually know about American policies and activities. If there is systematic misinformation or misunderstanding, it is not the policies themselves that cause the antagonism. For example, if people are told and believe that the United States invaded Iraq in order to steal that country’s oil or to dominate the world or control the Middle East, it is meaningless to say their anti-Americanism is a result of U.S. policies.
Another example is the fact that anti-Americanism is usually not strongest among people who can legitimately claim to have been the direct victims of American policies. Surveys show, for example, that anti-Americanism is low in Chile and Vietnam but high in France.
A third point that should be made is that anti-Americanism supposedly motivated by U.S. policy could arguably be just as intense if the United States followed the opposite policy. There are factions and ideologies striving for power in many countries and regions where the United States has taken sides or is perceived as having done so. If the United States did not intervene or supported the opposite side, there would be antagonism from that standpoint. The classic example is that if the United States deals with another country’s government it is accused of supporting dictators but if it pressured that regime to change it is accused of imperialistic interference.
Is anti-Americanism then the result of American values? Sometimes, as with the policy argument, this is true. Yet anti-Americanism is often very high—even highest—among countries with relatively similar values, which focus attention on the specific American variations. Again, by the way, one should stress that the distortion of American values is often the basis for anti-Americanism, the idea that Americans believe and practice terrible things at home which may be half-truths or falsehoods.
So what is the basic cause of anti-Americanism as such, of which the policies and values points are often derivative? We argue that it is the belief that the United States represents a distinct civilization, society, and way of life which may come to dominate the world either through direct aggression or through the power of its example, economic might, and cultural influence. The story here, as Judy pointed out earlier, has been developing for two centuries.
Thus, American policies and values are interpreted through this lens. American policies and values both are thus put in the most negative possible light. They are a threat. And in the post-Cold War world they may be seen as the greatest threat of all. It is the principal alternative to the view that radical regimes and terrorists pose the main threat to the world today.
There is also the simple fact of politics. Who are the main purveyors of anti-Americanism? Countries opposed to U.S. goals, regimes—both democratic and dictatorial—that want to mobilize their own people around nationalist appeals, and classes or sectors which think a more American-type world or the transformation of their own society threatens their interests.
The main carriers of anti-Americanism are intellectuals for whom the American type of society is repugnant both in itself, as a challenge to their own existing society, and a new world in which they will be of little importance. And since these people have such influence in the realm of ideas—books, media, universities—they are successful in spreading their concepts. It is also a substitute ideology for a radical left, and sometimes a radical right, that can no longer pose a positive vision of the society they would build. Instead, there is a call for a united front against America.
FP: France and England were both super powers in their own way. Yet I think it would be fair to say that they were never hated the way the States is hated. How come?
Judith Colp Rubin: Yes it is interesting because both countries were colonial powers who for many years posed a far bigger threat to the world than the United States. And yet while Latin American intellectuals in the early part of the last century were bashing the United States, they were waxing poetic about French culture! One explanation is that neither France nor England ever offered an alternative way of governing and living as did democracy. We cannot overestimate the extent to which democracy was a revolutionary concept that was threatening to many people who benefited from the aristocratic system.
FP: Why do you think George W. Bush is the source of so much hatred worldwide? This greatly confuses me as, along with Ronald Reagan, he is my favorite U.S. President. What gives here?
Judith Colp Rubin: Aside from his actual policies, Bush fits many of the main historic negative stereotypes that Europeans and others hold about the United States. He comes from Texas, the purported land of the cowboy and death penalty and has a drawl which plays into European prejudices about cowboys and violent, ignorant, impulsive frontiersmen. Being neither an intellectual, erudite or articulate, he is an European intellectual's worst nightmare. His professed religiosity further rankle Europeans as fitting the stereotype of Americans as religious fanatics.
FP: You noted how many liberal-minded individuals, such as Sigmund Freud, helped promote anti-Americanism. Why?
Barry Rubin: Generally speaking, the center of the political spectrum has been the place where the most pro-American sentiments can be seen, from social democrats through to moderate conservatives. The exceptions have come from those who genuinely point to shortcomings of the United States or worry about certain features affecting their own societies. In the past, the main fear was that industrialization, urbanization, and other features of modern life were dehumanizing, too fast, and anti-intellectual. America was seen as the symbol of those things, many of which are now accepted as norms in the West at least. For example, two of the most persistent themes of anti-Americanism were that women were too equal and that the American masses did not respect their social betters but thought themselves as good as anyone else.
Freud’s personal views emerged partly from his being a bit of a German cultural snob. Remember that in his day—even aside from anti-Semitism—he was once told at a spa that his child were not good enough to be German but that they had at least reached the level of the Italians.
One intriguing aspect of anti-Americanism that we bring out in the book, though I am not saying this applied to Freud, is that all Europeans—and in some respects today everyone in the world today—has to justify their not going to live in America. The easiest way to do that is to focus on its negative points. Yet in polls, in such places as France and in the Arab world, people often indicate they would like to study or live in the United States.
FP: Anti-Americanism is quite a dysfunctional illness. I find the French variety especially eerie. What’s up with the French? Does it have something to do with the fact that the notion of them winning a war causes so much comic relief?
Judith Colp Rubin: This French belief in the superiority of their own culture is a major reason for the fact that France had the longest tradition of anti-Americanism than any country in the world. There was also the factor of the absence of French immigrants to America – in contrast to those from England or Germany -- who could help soften public opinion back in their native land. Nor did they have what some call the “Anglo Saxon” heritage that all English speakers share. By the 20th century, despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that America came to the rescue of France in both world wars, the French left and right could agree on one thing: the United States was the land of harsh and brutal “absolute capitalism” that threatened to engulf the world with its malformed society. A series of influential books throughout the 1920s and 1930s had such unambiguous titles as The America Cancer” and “America’s conquest of Europe” as everything American was open to criticism from jazz music to refrigerators to the American woman, a figure allegedly wielding too much power. But it is important to note that as in many other countries the anti-Americanism in France has always been largely confined to the upper and intellectual class –those who have the most to lose by the popularity of the United States.
FP: What examples are there of countries where anti-Americanism existed and then declined and why?
Judith Colp Rubin: One of the best examples are several countries in South America where, in contrast to France, for example, there are many real grievances against the United States. Anti-Americanism was very high here for much of the 20th century. But in the past 20 yearss, anti-Americanism has declined in several Latin American countries such as Chile, Nicaragua and Panama. There are several reasons: One, the cold war's decline has reduced American intervention in the region and even transformed it into support for democracy; two, free market economic ideas challenged economical theories that American economic success was linked to Latin America's economic failure and the declining status for intellectuals and panaceas of the left, the main purveyors of anti-Americanism, undercut that argument's popularity and three, the enormous Latin American immigrant population in America ensures that it is easier to get firsthand, more accurate information about the country.
FP: What similarities and differences are there between the anti-Americanism of the Arab world and that of Europe?
Barry Rubin: When you get past some of the localized rhetoric and priorities there is an amazing similarity. This is in part because there are many in European left and intellectual circles (and sometimes on the right as well) who implicitly or explicitly endorse the idea of a Euro-Muslim alliance against the American threat. This sometimes becomes amusing as in an article by a Guardian editor who denounced the anti-Syrian demonstrations in Lebanon as being part of an American plot and praised Hizballah for supporting a continued Syrian occupation.
As noted above, many of the statements on U.S. policy are based on distortions. For example, one would often hear in both places that a prime complaint about U.S. policy is its stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict, neglecting to notice that the United States has promoted a peaceful resolution for thirty years and that President Clinton made the issue the main priority of his administration. If he had his way, there would have been an independent Palestinian state for several years now.
Underlying and alongside the talk about American policies or values is the bedrock theme that the United States is seeking world conquest, a very large or global empire, and that this is a threat to all the world’s peoples. Obviously, there are people who emphasize many specific points, whether it be the war in Iraq, the infiltration of fast food, or any number of specific points. But the phenomenon of anti-Americanism as such is based on this broader fear.
FP: What is the future of anti-Americanism? Is there anything that can be done to diminish it or is it inevitable?
Judith Colp Rubin: A year after President Nixon's disastrous trip to Venezuela in 1958 where he was spat on by angry crowds, the U.S. Information Agency studied anti-Americanism and come up with solutions to prevent it. One suggestion was that if American tourists have to chew gum, they should do it as inconspicuously as possible! In the countries where anti-Americanism existed and declined, the decline was due more to political, cultural and economic upheavals in these countries than any dramatic changes in American policies. So a great extent, anti-Americanism is inevitable, something we will just have to accept even while agreeing that it may not be a good idea for American tourists to pop bubbles in the Louvre.
Barry Rubin: Obviously the precise level of anti-Americanism will go up or down depending on the specific issues of the day. The war in Iraq was very controversial and George W. Bush is particularly hated. The key point we want to make on the issue is that we are in an era in which anti-Americanism is going to remain an extremely important phenomenon because it suits the interests of different groups and of the time.
For 200 years, anti-Americans have been warning that the United States will either become the world’s model or master. Now, for the first time in history, the situation makes this a credible claim. Political extremist groups of many types have seized on this as a way to promote national unity around their struggle at a time when class and other such appeals have fallen by the wayside. Governments manipulate the issue for their own interests, as a scapegoat and distraction from their own shortcomings or divisive policies. Having said this, though, the location and priority of anti-Americanism will rise and fall depending on short-term developments as well.
FP: Rubins, it was a pleasure to speak with you today. Thank you for joining us.
Judith Colp Rubin: Thanks for letting us discuss this very important topic.
comments powered by Disqus
- Election results are in for the American Historical Association
- Nial Ferguson warns Obama’s bet on Iran has low odds of success
- Sven Beckert’s List of the Ten Books on Slavery You Need to Read
- Jonathan Zimmerman says homosexuality is not alien to Africa
- Historian Howard Segal says the cost of paying for expensive commencement speeches is diverting funds from where they’re most needed