ROME -- It is a paradox that the Americanism of which
Americans are so proud is the source of the pandemic anti-Americanism
throughout the world. Precisely the same Americanism of which Americans boast
generates a worldwide antipathy toward them. And today, not just toward the US
government, but in many places -- to begin with in Iraq, as testified by
bloggers from there -- that antipathy, that hate, is directed against Americans
�We hate Americans!�
One wonders if there is some great misunderstanding at play.
Is this a cultural matter? A lack of true information about Americanism and
what it stands for? Are Americans simply misunderstood in the world?
However that may be, the nature of Americanism as it is
understood by the majority of Americans and that perceived and experienced by
non-Americans are so diametrically opposed that sometimes the two concepts seem
to concern different historical times and different geographical places;
Americans and the others seem to inhabit different worlds.
So what is it, this Americanism? From my vantage point I
experience forms of Americanism chiefly in the context of the hegemonic
tendencies, bullying globalization, arrogance, militarism and imperialism of
the United States of America. One glaring, arrogant example is the construction
of yet another US military base in the ancient city of Vicenza in north Italy,
where (anachronistically) American soldiers in military dress jog over the
cobbled streets of the city center, as if it were wartime, as if it were
theirs, past cathedrals and Palladium architecture, weaving and dodging among
startled women and children. This military display is a form of the Americanism
become anti-Americanism in Europe. In this particular case the insistence on
making of small and vassal Italy an aircraft carrier at the service of
imperialistic America has alienated much of north Italy.
But speaking of Americanism I don�t have in mind only
American militarism and its preemptive wars! Not by a long shot. I have in mind
the homeland. For there is something in the exaggerated patriotism in the
homeland itself that the others out there experience firsthand. Those others
who know America well detest the super patriotic, Amerika �ber alles
America -- the foreign specialists and US-based foreign journalists and
academics and scientists, even those foreigners in the arts attracted by one of
the admirable aspects of "America" -- these days increasingly hard to
find -- i.e. the velocity and high ceiling afforded new ideas.
Even bedazzled non-American tourists of the kind who visit
Disneyland and Las Vegas, who know little about American life, instinctively
see the super patriotic flag-waving, Star Spangled Banner singing America as
vulgar expressions of Americanism.
Finally, such worldviews coincide with the Americanism
pinpointed, analyzed and criticized by a small but growing group of awakened
The implications of the term Americanism had long
lingered in my mind before recently I heard the word used in an Italian talk
show in reference to America�s foreign wars. My spontaneous thought was, okay,
but that�s much too reductive. The thing is, once you use the word in that one
context, it�s like opening Pandora�s box; you have to be prepared to take the
next step and delve into what Americanism really is.
Je vous demande pardon! if I immediately begin to
skirt too much around the edges. My excuse is that the subject is too menacingly
broad to undertake in a single article. Still, digressions sometimes inevitably
lead back toward the bull�s eye. Or, to use the old Italian seaman�s term, avanzare
di ritorno -- advance by return. And for that matter the first paragraph
above already pinpoints the target.
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
Somewhere over the rainbow
Way up high
There�s a land that I heard of
Once in a lullaby.
The overly sweet, overly optimistic image returns like a
leitmotiv. It both repels and attracts, the land that I heard of, the land that
exists only in the imagery of dreamers. What I have in mind is a pet theme, the
famous go-to-war-for �American way of life,� which for me again underlines
America�s persistent claims of a monopoly on morality.
What is it, this American morality? This righteousness? Is
it our religious roots in the fable of the Puritan settlers, those super
religious people who in their hardships were bigots, perhaps also practitioners
of incest and racists soon morphing into dogmatic chauvinists who early-on
labeled their dissidents and different-thinkers witches and demons.
Pre-Americanism! The same Americanism initiated then which
today fosters the rights of the rich to become richer, the strong to trample
the weak and the contempt for and the crushing of anything smacking of the social
in our land, real trade unions and, heaven forbid, universal health care.
Meanwhile, out in the empire, as long as it is distant, the
Puritan legacy instills blindness to the use of cluster bombs from the stratosphere
and hidden torture in places with foreign names like Guant�namo and Abu Ghraib
. . . and while our neighbors in Haiti eat dirt, literally.
When I asked a friend and writer colleague in heartland
America what he understands by Americanism, he stunned me and overwhelmed me
with the following: �From birth I have been immersed, enculterated, inculcated,
and surrounded by the myriad toxic components of the �American Dream� or
�Americanism.� There are some admirable aspects to �America� but by and large
we live in a spiritual/psychological sewer.�
He then listed two dozen aspects of Americanism, which I
repeat here: narcissism, greed, hyper-individualism, consumerism, capitalism,
corporatism, faux democracy, media whoredom, asphyxiation of the Left,
Christian fundamentalism, Mammon worship, moral retardation, militarism,
imperialism, celebrity worship, wars on drugs and terrorism, prison industrial
complex, mean-spiritedness, self-absorption, American exceptionalism, bullying,
anti-intellectualism and the abandonment of many uninsured and homeless in the
wealthiest nation on earth.
Whew! That is article, essay, denouncement and indictment.
The indictment raises many questions: Is that the
American way of life? Do you recognize the indictment -- for an indictment it
is -- as representative of �our way of life�? As Americanism? But most
important do you accept and hold to that �way of life?�
Meanwhile more and more people of the world are answering,
non merci, nein danke, no, grazie, no, muchas gracias, we can live without the
American way of life.
Isms and more isms
The Greek �ism� suffix is a devilish affair indeed. Those
three letters continue to create problems when applied to religious,
philosophic, political or artistic movements or to tendencies or qualities of
certain persons or groups: misunderstandings and disputes, hate and love, blind
faith and war on whomever doesn�t fall in line. �Ism� wanders from Classicism
to Futurism in the arts, from Romanticism to Realism in literature and from Nazism
to Communism in European 20th century politics.
Today the West -- the Occident! -- uses the word Islamism in
a negative sense -- much as the word Communism or terrorism still emerges from
a magician�s sleeve by a slick sleight-of-hand for our enemies in general -- to
slander Islam and the Islamic religion, its peoples and nations as something
negative or to condemn political adversaries.
At the same time others too are adopting the term
Americanism. The way it is viewed is crucial. The Americanism seen by the others
is America�s excessive admiration for non-admirable displays of American
culture. For its unjustified optimism . . . where troubles melt like lemons
drops. For its insistence on calling things by their opposites, such as
peace for war. For the political correctness and false questions of �taste� and
�sensitivity,� as Joan Didion once recalled, in the demand for more information
about what really happened on 9/11; it was not the �appropriate time.�
In this sense the difference between Americanism and
anti-Americanism is like the two sides of the same coin. The two concepts are
the black and the white. Americanism becomes the backside of the moon. In
Italian it is common to use the word Americanata to define an
ostentatious, negative and unreliable action; an Americanata reveals the
negative nuance of Americanism. A bad American film is always an Americanata.
The bitter truth is that the Americanism of many Americans,
who, sheathed in their false consciousness, believe they are exceptional and
the envy of the world, is an illusion. An illusion! A mirage in the desert. For
the others out there, there is something childlike about their blind
faith in their supposed superior lifestyle and phony democracy that sometimes
even sparks a feeling of commiseration and pity in other peoples who tend to
consider them at the very best spoiled but dangerous brats.
And they continue to sing where troubles melt like lemon
drops. . . .
There was a time after World War II when other peoples
imitated the way Americans speak, dress, walk and think. No longer! Once
Americans were welcomed everywhere. No more! The aura of the �American dream�
once made of Americanism a cult. Now the others do not understand why
they feel unwelcome in America; they do not understand the reigning terrorism
mania; they cannot understand the wars.
Although Americans have been spoiled, foreigners are
becoming aware that the former personal freedoms that were once the key to
Americanism have diminished. (Pardon these generalizations but sometimes in
such matters surveys and polls and data are useless.) Though without comparing
charts and scales on salaries and rents and economic aspects of life, Europeans
realize their living standards are higher. Admittedly on the other hand, they
do not yet appreciate the difficulties or the extent of the unfairness many,
many Americans face -- unemployment and precarious employment, lack of basic
health care, homelessness.
For arriving foreigners 10 fingerprints and body searches at
US entrance points serve to accentuate the sensation of
�America-fortress-against-the-world and aggravate America�s
globalization-imperialism urge. Europeans� former positive, envious feelings
toward America have vanished in the swirl and whorl of US militarism. The
reality is that except in personal cases, few Europeans aspire to live in the
USA today. As a rule only the very poor of the world seek to immigrate to the
Before 9/11, I had occasion to live in New York City for a
couple years in an apartment building on the Upper West Side in which the
16-man staff of service personnel were all Latin Americans, living frugally on
low pay. Each of them confessed his dream of returning �home� to Mexico or to
the Dominican Republic or to Peru as soon as he accumulated enough savings for
a house or to open a business there.
In that immigrant microcosm, the �American dream� was dead
Since the majority of people of the world seem to be
infected with the disease, anti-Americanism is a good starting point to
understand Americanism. But first, one wonders why has anti-Americanism
contaminated the world? Once, the US government blamed it on the nefarious
European Left and Radical Chic and Communists and also on Europe�s green envy
of the American way of life.
That the real European Left from Sartre on has always been
wary of America is true, but never as today.
Instead the real reasons as seen from Europe and Latin
America stem first of all from stupid, arrogant and self-defeating US foreign
policy. At the same time, French or Dutch can hardly believe the ignorance and
naivet� of Americans about the world. While many Americans boast of their
anti-intellectualism and their president has trouble finding strange places
like Kenya or even Afghanistan on the map, the �green� media inform French and
Italians that the waste and consumerism in the USA is destroying planet earth
and Germans and Scandinavians are realizing that American democracy is a sham
and has defiled the very word.
People are more and more aware that the USAPATRIOT Act and
legislation subsequent to 9/11 have eroded America�s civil liberties. That the
divide between rich and poor has never been more profound, the word �social� is
taboo, and American capitalism has become more and more savage and vicious. For
many others, American culture seems to be limited to mall shopping and
TV sports, while America�s absurd theories of exportation of democracy and
globalization as a solution to world poverty are widely scoffed at: exportation
of democracy means war and globalizations means loss of jobs in Italy or
Europeans are right to wonder why Americans, even well
intentioned people of the Left, cannot see the obvious. The answer is that
their continuing faith in a mythical Americanism blinds them. And their false consciousness
created and maintained by disgraceful corporate media that distorts the concept
of freedom of the press.
American conservatives twist things around and point out
that foreigners don�t know the USA. Nothing is more false! Europeans are
well-informed about the USA. In these months, day after day, arrive into
peoples� homes news and talk shows about the USA and its incomprehensible
money-based electoral system. People are familiar with South Carolina and New
England and Colorado. Italian TV and press have their correspondents following
the primaries today because it matters to Europe, to the world, who is elected,
they believe (naively). In this, Europeans show their good faith. They still
believe there is a difference between America�s two political parties, when
they could be suggesting and advising and pleading for third and fourth parties
in the USA -- in their own interest -- something Americans seem loath to do.
Each new school shooting somewhere in the USA, each new
massacre in Iraq and Afghanistan, the death tolls of US and European
casualties, and analyses and media coverage of US events, the decline of the US
economy, the falling stock market in New York and the threat of recession are
all part of Europe�s daily fare.
I was perplexed this morning when my wife, an Italian, asked
me in all sincerity as to why what happens in the USA is so important to the
rest of the world. My point is that though the world studies the USA, the others
out there in the world are terrified of what the next foolhardy, dangerous and
unpredictable act this big oaf of a child will pull off in the name of its
European American specialists often return to those Puritan
individualists I mentioned earlier �who so passionately believed that they
could individually establish a direct relationship with God,� who emigrated to
North America and invented �an explosively new and radical ideology� that
justified �an individualist rather than a social view of property.�
The decline of that idea we are all witnessing shows that in
an individualistic world that is wholly private we lose our bearings; deprived
of any public anchor, all we have are our individual subjective values to guide
us. According to even a minimum social philosophy (which for Washington and US capitalism
is straight out of Marx�s Communist Manifesto and Mao�s Little Red Book), one
simple but pressing need would be publicly owned TV with the (impossible)
mandate to provide a universal public service to guarantee ordinary citizens
core news and comment free of hype and spin. While the U.S. spends little money
on public TV, European governments finance and aggressively regulate
broadcasting content so that state TV has remained more complete and in some
countries surprisingly free.
American private broadcasters instead plead the First
Amendment�s commitment to absolute free speech, making public interest
regulation almost impossible.
The impusle for U.S. hegemony in the world
I often return to the passage from
Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes� masterpiece, The Death of Artemio Cruz,
the gist of which is that one cannot commit what North Americans have
committed against Mexico and expect to be loved. The historical imperialistic,
hypocritical, vicious, greedy and vulgar attitudes of the United States toward
its southern neighbor are the model for America�s drive for world hegemony and
its urge to control other peoples. From the beginnings of the nineteenth
century until the present era, the United States has attempted to export its
�American dream� to Mexico. Hypocritically that manifest destiny vision tried
to superimpose Protestant values, a capitalist free market and a consumer
society onto a culture foreign to such Protestant values.
The results: Shouts of �Long Live
Mexico� and �Death to the Yankees� today echo similar protests ringing out from
Afghanistan to the Middle East.
It is fact that more and more peoples of the world consider
America evil, distant and cut off from the rest of humanity. I believe American
people too, no less than Europeans, could bear up under the reality that the
message of Americanism is not true. You know, people do not need to be lied to.
Most can take the truth. Or they might prefer the truth after they get used to
it; our minds after all have the task of distinguishing between true and false.
Still, it continues to be bizarre that we live our little
lives inside our shell and have no idea of what is taking place on the outside.
Only a thin wall separates our shell of comfort and ease from the exterior
world where torture continues. In my mind, the kind of Americanism spoken of
here, a lifestyle based on comfort and ease, reflect anti-reality, anti-man,
If anything, we have to learn to live without illusions.
No matter how
clever, how perceptive and well grounded its positions, official America -- and
many Americans -- seem to see Iraq and Iran, Kosovo and Algeria, from a virtual
point of view. Europeans see those peoples instead as real places in a real
world. A fundamental difference in attitude toward war is that Europeans
know what war is on home soil. They know that war is not peace. War means
suffering and destruction and death. War does not bring democracy.
A glaring assumption of Americanism is that the US military
is a force for good (as reactionaries like to put it). That the US
is the guiding light for the world, and is in sole possession of moral
Cold War revisionism
Because I once felt lonely in my nascent revisionist ideas
on Soviet Communism and Stalinism and doubted the validity of my own thinking,
I have postponed the question of Soviet Communism, which is not as distant from
the power of Americanism as it might seem. Though as a rule I dislike the
constant revisionism (that ism suffix again!), it goes without saying that the
last word about Lenin�s heirs has not yet been spoken.
So careful here, for we�re speaking of 70 plus years of the
20th century that changed our world. Nor can one dispute that the Bolshevik
Revolution changed the face of America, too. The revolutionary myth and four
great events remain fixed in the memory of some of us: the American, French,
Mexican and Russian revolutions. However, in America the revolutionary legacy
morphed into one of the worst aspects of Americanism.
Fear and terror of revolution transformed Americanism into a
�way of life,� crusaded for in uninterrupted anti-progress wars ever since,
accompanied by the Nazification of America�s institutions.
Like the many questions today open to reinterpretation,
Communism is not a closed issue. Likewise, Soviet Communism is not a closed
issue. With the broadening of the European Union toward the East, the question
of Communism is recurrent today because the EU is formed by peoples with
opposite perceptions of it. For many East Europeans, Communism was a nightmare.
Nor was the exit from totalitarian regimes in East Europe a happy one in that
it led some of those countries to blind faith in a savage market economy and
abandonment of the spirit of social solidarity.
However, for many people in the world the word Communism is
not a dirty word. Former East Germans in Berlin have described to me the
nostalgia for the sense of social solidarity in former East Germany. Though the
totalitarian regimes in East Europe vanished and Communist parties are
marginalized, for the 450,000,000 people of the now 27 nations of the European
Union the sensation of something missing is real. Even though controversial,
the memory of Communism is alive. Though Communism in practice is no longer
considered a credible alternative to free market democracy, and though it no
longer aims at revolution and though it still suffers from the image of its
Soviet totalitarian past, its memory is alive. The question of Communism has not
George Washington, the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln,
John Kennedy have each been re-evaluated. I believe the time will come when
also Joseph Stalin will be regarded with different eyes. In the end, the 6 to
10 million or more dead will not all be charged to evil Uncle Joe. Most
certainly he will not be charged with the Cold War, which engaged America�s
chief energies for four decades and has now reawakened over oil and gas.
In the list of aspects of Americanism, anti-Communism is a
cornerstone. Revisionism of Stalin (the word means steel man!) rings seditious. The suggestion that
Josef (Koba) Vissarionovich Djugashvili was not the anti-Christ incarnate
overturns the history of Americanism. Yet that historical revisionism
circulates here and there among a small circle of academics who believe that
history will judge Stalin a great leader, as suggested by the historians Grover
Burr and Yury Zhukov in his Inoy Stalin, A Different Stalin. Maybe not in our lifetime, but Stalin will
one day be recorded as no worse and maybe better for Russia than many Russian
But the gulags? one objects. Gulags? Well, read Dostoevsky
among other Russian writers to experience the gulag existence since the early
phases of Tsardom and the formation of Russia.
Then what about his �Socialism in one country,� the abandonment
of world revolution and adoption of Russian nationalism? Lenin and Trotsky�s
program of world revolution was the romantic view: without a world Socialist
revolution, the Russian Revolution was doomed. Trotsky charged Stalin with
betrayal of the Russian Revolution because he aimed at limiting original and
necessary revolutionary goals. Now, in comparison, Stalin�s �Socialism is one
country� turns out to be Russian nationalism and paradoxically differs chiefly
in degree and methods from modern European leaders struggling for independence
within the European Union.
Thus the Cold War remains a sore spot. For Soviet Russia there was NATO and US
aggressiveness to contend with. There were the US-NATO military bases
encircling the USSR, symbols of many aspects of continuing Americanism. Many
Americans and Germans of those times agreed that the United States had fought
the wrong war. The generals were ready to march on Moscow, again. Post-war
German writer Wolfgang Borchert�s Verrostet tr�umen Waffen von Kriegen described
the nearly rusted arms (in the generals� fantasies) dreaming of wars to be
fought. They should combat the real enemy: the Russkies. Moscow had good reason to believe that the
US goal was the overthrow of the Soviet regime.
In post-war West Germany the former Nazi General Reinhard
Gehlen (1902-1979) and chief of Hitler�s Soviet intelligence service headed the
nucleus of surviving German intelligence . . . under American direction. Gehlen�s Org, a nest of former SS and Gestapo
killers, war criminals responsible for the deaths of millions in the Soviet
Union and East Europe, became a decisive component of the CIA�s growing
worldwide apparatus. Its thousands of experienced operatives, older and more
cosmopolitan than incoming CIA recruits, had a major effect on the future
culture of the CIA and thus on America.
So dependent was American intelligence on their Nazi
brothers that it has been said that the new CIA was built around the Gehlen
Org, the history of which is still misty today. The creation of the Gehlen Org thus constituted the most extreme
provocation, contributing to the general climate of hostility, which came to be
known as the Cold War.
The Cold War deformed our immature minds; not only two
generations of Americans were brainwashed and hoodwinked; a whole world was
brainwashed and hoodwinked. But, in the long run, I like many others concluded
that despite the brainwash and the Cold War, Russia was Russia, complex, grand,
enigmatic; but it was Russia.
For anyone with eyes to see it is clear that the reasons for
the clash of the United States with the world today -- while its presidential
candidates traipse around the electoral circuit speaking of the new wars to
come -- are to be found in that complex of historical, social and political
factors and the false values, which constitute today�s Americanism. That is,
�our way of life,� in the name of which our increasingly illegitimate political
leaders pontificate and send our troops, �our boys,� around the world, which,
far from defending social justice or the downtrodden, serves to separate the
people of America from the rest of the world.
A growing number of Americans realize that the time has
arrived for a radical shift in American thinking. All those little placards of
the electoral campaign bearing the word change reflect the necessity.
Yet, with the Americanism mindset described above, revolution is still hardly
conceivable in the minds of the masses.
A close analysis and dissection of the American values that
constitute Americanism will be necessary in order to create a new set of values
-- a new mindset that will include a basic conception of social justice to
counteract and replace the pervasive and visible sense of gloom and
hopelessness in the obesity of consumerist America.
And that, I hope, I believe, is where people like us count.
# # # # #
���Addendum: I have excerpted a few lines from my
short story of New York: �Brooklyn Bridge-Arch Number Six� about a Hispanic
muralist and Americanism.
�I�m painting the history, past, present -- and future -- of
the city,� he (the Hispanic immigrant, painting his mural on arch number six.)
From clouds and nocturnal mists of memory emerged outlines
of arriving ships -- they were the Anglo-Saxons and the Dutch. Ghostly
silhouettes of Indians with their indistinct faces painted white looked toward
the sea. Out of ocean mists then came waves of blacks, with round faces and
frightened eyes. New houses crept up the island of Manahatta like waves of the
sea. Blue and gray uniforms and cannons and flags and luxurious mansions rose
from the ground. Layer after layer -- boatloads of dark foreigners with
cardboard suitcases and packed ships departing with soldiers, railroads like
spokes of a wheel and subway tracks in tunnels, parks with mansions on one
side, slums on the other, dandies and rag pickers. The colors were speaking,
crying and screaming, brilliant under powerful searchlights from above, the
colors of the skins, white, yellow, red, brown, black. Palaces, cinemas and
vaudeville halls, beer parlors, art galleries, train stations and stadiums,
ships on white rivers turning black, smoke and steam, pale women and silent
girls seated in long lines of old urban factories. In the night his story was
exploding onto the walls of Arch No. 6. The banks, the Stock Exchange fa�ade
shrouded in ticker tape and bands of strikers whose ranks are gradually
transformed into homeless sleeping in doorways, in parks, in subway stations.
And in the lower right corner ranks of policemen in blue face to face with
legions of the city�s homeless.
Stewart is a senior contributing editor at Cyrano's Journal Online. Originally
from Asheville, NC. he has lived his adult life in Germany and Italy,
alternated with residences in The Netherlands, France, Mexico, Argentina and
Russia. After a career in journalism as a correspondent for the Rotterdam
newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad, he began writing fiction. His collections of short
stories, "Icy Current Compulsive Course, To Be A Stranger" and
"Once In Berlin" are published by Wind River Press. His new novel,
"Asheville," is published by www.Wastelandrunes.com
He lives with his wife, Milena, in Rome, Italy. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org