Anti-Americanism Essay - Critical Essays




The following entry discusses points of view that are opposed to or unsympathetic to the government, official policies, and culture of the United States of America.

Anti-Americanism as a political and cultural sentiment has grown steadily over the course of the twentieth century. Although there are records of anti-American sentiment in political and literary writings in previous centuries, the United States has attracted more negative attention for its policies and culture in the twentieth century than any other time in its history. Anti-American sentiment in this century is marked by various activities, including speeches, editorials, posters, media broadcasts, and countless demonstrations both within the United States and in and around American cultural and diplomatic missions abroad. In an essay on the rise of anti-Americanism in the twentieth century, Paul Hollander characterizes it as one of the “most significant, widespread, and intellectually neglected cultural, political, and social-psychological phenomena” in our times.

According to Hollander, the complex reasons behind the increase in anti-Americanism in the twentieth century make it difficult to define the scope of the sentiment. Calling it a global trend, Hollander writes that although anti-Americanism serves different needs, including political, economic, ideological, and cultural aspects, it can be largely sub-divided into three major areas. These are: 1.) Criticism of the American political and economic system, 2.) A critique of American culture, and 3.) A negative evaluation of American character. Critics such as Hollander and C. Vann Woodward attribute the rise in anti-American sentiment, specifically during the twentieth century, to a number of reasons. Partly, writes Woodward, the United States has gained prominence because it was the first republic established in the second generation of modern nation states. As the youngest in a group of established countries, older nations and cultures often assumed an almost parental role in critiquing America. Conversely, points out Woodward, Americans also invited the attention, both negative and positive, by soliciting opinions from countries of the “old world”—regardless of whether the response was negative or positive, Americans seemed to have an insatiable appetite, especially during the nineteenth century, for European response to their culture, economy, and politics.

Many travelers to the United States during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries remarked on the intensity of interest Americans had in how they were perceived by foreigners. Many writers who visited the United States in the early twentieth century, such as Maxim Gorky, Bertrand Russell, and H. G. Wells, among others, kept diaries of their visits to America, recording thoughts and reactions to both their visit and the American culture in general. While Gorky focused on the difficulties of life in American cities, detailing the misery of ordinary Americans, and by association critiquing the technical and economic circumstances that led to the creation of sometimes difficult living circumstances for Americans living in big cities, Wells focused his observations on interactions he had with black Americans. In contrast to most foreign writers, who tended to relegate the race question in America as a mostly Southern issue, Wells regarded it as an American problem that needed to be addressed. Other foreign writers, especially French intellectuals, tended to focus on critiques of American life and culture, which they felt was increasingly responsible for the dilution of the traditional and established cultures of Europe.

In the mid-twentieth century, especially following the end of World War II, attention has focused on the United States due to the economic disparity between it and other nations, as well as to the central role it plays as the foremost democracy in the world. Hollander points to the pivotal role played by the United States technologically, economically, and culturally, as the main reasons behind much of the attention it has garnered. The crux of anti-Americanism in the twentieth century, however, has shifted fundamentally—instead of criticism rooted in institutional arguments, such as those over political systems and culture, the debate in recent decades has moved to a more focused critique of America's political, social and economic systems as it interacts with the rest of the world. Several nations react negatively to the United States for its perceived commercialism, misuse of technology, and extreme capitalism. Others, especially Third World nations, including many African nations, pursue anti-Americanism as an almost official policy, based largely on charges of economic domination, neglect, or indifference.

One of the most significant rises in anti-American sentiment in the twentieth century has been centered in the Middle East. While some scholars attribute this hostility to a clash of traditional values and ways of life, others trace the origins of negativity towards the United States in the Middle East to the specific political policies adopted by Americans in the twentieth century. In a brief history tracing the relationship of the United States and various Middle-Eastern countries, Ussama Makdisi contends that anti-American sentiment in the Arab world is a fairly recent phenomenon, and one that has clear connections to America's political relationships with various Arab nations. In particular, Makdisi points to American support of Israel as well as its oil interests in the Middle East as key factors in dictating Arab response to America. He also writes that in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, a good understanding of the historical and political relationship between the United States and various Arab countries is crucial, especially if progress is to be made towards resolving the conflict.

In addition to anti-American sentiment abroad, there is a strong sense of opposition to American political and social systems amongst Americans themselves. American writers and intellectuals regularly criticize their own country, often focusing heavily on the “deadening qualities of American life.” Authors such as Norman Mailer, Herbert Marcuse, Philip Slater, and Susan Sontag are cited by scholars as some of the most vocal and well-known critics of American values and society, and in part, hold them responsible for the growth and attention to anti-American sentiment abroad. Critics note, however, a distinct gap between the sentiments expressed by American intellectuals versus ordinary American people. For example, writes Hollander, anti-American intellectuals often feel alienated and estranged from ordinary American society, and partly, their criticism of American society rests on a fundamental opposition to ordinary American tastes, values, habits, and way of life. To some extent, scholars point out, this chasm is normal, reflecting a conflict between intellectuals living in a largely business society. Similarly, anti-American sentiment in Europe and many Western countries is largely based in and around intellectual circles. Troubled by the penetration of American cultural products, many conservative European intellectuals feel threatened that American culture will supplant their own traditional values and cultures. In contrast to the Middle-East, political opposition to American policies is not a central concern among intellectuals in most Western European nations.

Anti-Americanism in this century, then, encompasses a large number of attitudes and beliefs, and is based on a variety of circumstances, including nationalism, political differences, a clash of traditional values, and a host of other reasons—political, cultural, and social. As the foremost technological and democratic nation in the world, many critics of the United States, both within the country and abroad, hold her to a high standard of accountability, focusing strong and sustained interest on every significant political and cultural trend that emerges in the country.

Representative Works

Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid's Tale (novel) 1985

Daniel Berrigan
Night Flight to Hanoi (nonfiction) 1968

Noam Chomsky
American Power and the New Mandarins (nonfiction) 1969
Sphere's of Influence in the Age of Imperialism (nonfiction) 1972

Henry Fairlie
“Anti-Americanism at Home and Abroad” (essay) 1975; published in Commentary

Maxim Gorky
“The City of Mammon” (essay) 1906; published in Appleton's Magazine

J. L. Granatstein
Yankee Go Home? Canadians and Anti-Americanism (nonfiction) 1996

Gunter Grass
Our Backyard (nonfiction) 1983

Graham Greene
The Quiet American (novel) 1955
Getting to Know the General: The Story of an Involvement (biography) 1984

Knut Hamsun
The Cultural Life of America (nonfiction) 1889

Lillian Hellman
Unfinished Woman (memoir) 1969
Scoundrel Time (autobiography) 1976

George F. Kennan
Sketches from a Life (nonfiction) 1985

William Kunstler
Our Pleasant Vices (nonfiction) 1941
… and justice for all (nonfiction) 1963
Deep in My Heart (nonfiction) 1966

Dwight MacDonald
Discriminations (nonfiction) 1974

Norman Mailer
The White Negro (fiction) 1957
An American Dream (fiction) 1965

Herbert Marcuse
One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (nonfiction) 1964

Kenneth Minogue
“Anti-Americanism: A View from London” (essay) 1986; published in National Interest

Jan Morris
“Land of Paradoxes” (essay) 1975; published in Encounter
“Down, Down on America” (essay) 1983; published in The New York Times

Andreas Papandreou
“If Capitalism Can't, Can Socialism?” (essay) 1987; published in New Perspectives Quarterly

Bertrand Russell
Principles of Social Reconstruction (nonfiction) 1916
Why Men Fight (letters) 1917
Authority and the Individual (lectures) 1949
War Crimes in Vietnam (nonfiction) 1967

Philip Slater
The Temporary Society [with Warren G. Bennis] (nonfiction) 1968
The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point (nonfiction) 1970

Susan Sontag
Trip to Hanoi (nonfiction) 1968
I, etcetera (memoir) 1978

Peter Weiss
Vietnam (nonfiction) 1967

H. G. Wells
The Future of America: A Search After Realities (nonfiction) 1906

Edith Wharton
The Custom of the Country (nonfiction) 1913

Tom Wolfe
Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Wine (nonfiction) 1976

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Paul Hollander (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Hollander, Paul. “Reflections on Anti-Americanism in Our Times.” In The Many Faces of Socialism: Comparative Sociology and Politics, pp. 299-311. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1983.

[In the following essay, Hollander characterizes anti-Americanism as one of the most significant cultural, social, and political phenomena of the mid-twentieth century and offers an analysis of the major dimensions of this global happening.]

In the course of the last quarter century or so, the United States has become a nearly universal scapegoat symbol. It has been denounced in countless speeches and editorials, on posters, in radio broadcasts, and over television, as...

(The entire section is 5487 words.)

C. Vann Woodward (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Woodward, C. Vann. “The Pursuit of Happiness.” In The Old World's New World, pp. 40-62. New York: The New York Public Library/Oxford University Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Woodward explores early- to mid-twentieth century European perceptions of America as a materialistic society, devoid of the happiness that American zeal and industry seemed to promise.]

From the early years of the Republic, Americans have lived with an international reputation for excessive love of money and the obsessive pursuit of gain. They became accustomed to it. It came from all sides, friend and foe, and appeared to amount to an international consensus. It was expressed...

(The entire section is 7381 words.)