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It was the humorist Art Buchwald who captured, in 1957, the American predicament; following a survey on what made people dislike America, he concluded: "If Americans would stop spending money, talking loudly in public places, telling the British who won the war, adopt a pro-colonial policy, back future British expeditions to Suez, stop taking oil out of the Middle East, stop chewing gum, ... move their bases out of England, settle the desegregation problem in the South ... put the American woman in her proper place, and not export Rock n' Roll, and speak correct English, the tension between the two countries might ease."
Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin have written an excellent book on what appears to be a timeless obsession -- hating America. What emerges most strongly from their narrative is not only how constant the hatred for America has been, but rather how adaptive -- tailored on an America that was emerging and marginal, to growing and influential, to powerful and omnipresent. This mutating anti-Americanism, always new and always old, has been passed down from the birth of the republic to the present day.
The early forms of anti-Americanism, the Rubins write, revolved around the European belief that the North American habitat was unwelcoming to civilization, producing inferior animals and inferior humans. While this took time to recede, the anti-American tide soon took issue with American manners, intellect, and social organization. Only in the twentieth century can there be a trace of hating America for what it does, rather than what it is; and even then, it is never fully convincing.
The themes that emerge most strongly from the book is how Europeans we born with a fear of America -- a fear that its democratic politics would infest their continent, a fear that its dynamic society would pose an alternative to their own, a fear that their people who be magnetized to the American sociopolitical and economic model at the expense of the European one.
If fear is one word that comes to mind when reading this book, impossibility is another -- the impossibility of Americans being loved. Much of the anti-American sentiment in France and the Soviet Union was hardly affected by America's assistance to those countries in World War II. America has been dubbed as infidel and fundamentalist, isolationist and omnipotent, naïvely optimistic and crudely calculating. Time and again, America has been charged with things it did not do or for things that others were more guilty of. Why has there been no enduring anti-Britishism, anti-Frenchism, anti-Russianism, or anti-Germanism?
The answer to this question lies as much with the nature of the American experiment and the character of its society as with anything America does in the world. What people dislike about America is what is good about it, rather than what is bad: its optimism, dynamism, practicality, diversity, tolerance. If this is so, then the American hopes for reversing this age-old obsession seem futile. For however the intensity of anti-Americanism in some places varies with American actions, its underlying appeal is timeless -- the product of political forces who fear America, what it stands for, and what it might mean for them.