Anti-Americanism Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


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.