July 17, 2009
Last week’s suicide attacks on two American hotels in Jakarta represented yet another vicious act of anti-Americanism. And yet just hours after the bombings on the websites of the Washington Post and New York Times the story was buried beneath the rubble of other headlines (including news of large second quarter profits for banks and that two politicians were backing Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor).
It wasn’t much on the mind of Americans I spoke with. Even President Obama hardly took time to blink. “The American people stand by the Indonesian people in this difficult time,” he said in a statement, couching it simply as an Indonesian tragedy.
The collective response reveals how desensitized the nation has become to anti-Americanism.
On one level this is admirable. Americans are not the kind to see themselves as victims, nor much worry whether they are liked; they find strength in focusing their energies elsewhere.
But anti-Americanism is hardly without consequence. It is based on a fierce determination to believe. It is hostile to contrary evidence. It is a world of black and white, of us and them, that ignores complexity and shared commonalities. It stands in sharp contrast to valid criticism, yet throughout the Bush years it gained currency to the point that it is now widely accepted as a rational position. And in failing to check anti-Americanism, Americans give license to ignorance and hatred.
The solution is not to be found in adopting a with-us-or-against-us approach. Nor in force-feeding America’s enduring values to those who reject them. It should be well understood by now that you can’t make others like you let alone be like you, and if you try, they are likely to inure themselves against you.
At a minimum, Americans and their leaders should forthrightly condemn bigotry when subjected to it, just as Jews, blacks, Muslims and a host of other peoples, are wont to do. They should urge the world to move beyond lazy, convenient assessments of America—to see that the nation is not a simple canvas of blue and red, that it’s not merely the sum of the Bush years, that Iraq is not the measure of America’s foreign policy, that the US is not just about always the bad guy. To the contrary, America is exceptionally complex and diverse—and that bears frequent repeating in a world rife with soundbites that cater to base instincts.
Despite its metastasis in recent years, anti-Americanism has attracted very little scrutiny. Even scholarly work on the subject is slim (though two outstanding collections come by way of The Rise of Anti-Americanism, edited by Brendon O’Connor and Martin Griffiths, and Understanding Anti-Americanism, edited by Paul Hollander). To most people it’s just a word, rationalized or rejected, but rarely understood. Thought given to it tends to end with the conclusion that anti-Americanism will cease to be a global menace if and when US foreign policy shifts dramatically from its current course. This is wishful thinking. Notwithstanding legitimate grievances over America’s role in the world, anti-Americanism is often deaf to changes in American policy. For more often than not it is rooted in greed, bigotry, and envy, the goal not being a more humane application of power but its transfer. (Indeed the minds of some who accuse America of global hegemony are governed by nostalgia for colonialism or the caliphate.) And, thus, no doubt some among us rejoiced at news that Jakarta’s Ritz-Carlton and Marriott, both symbols of American “imperialism,” had been bombed.
Their right to their feelings must be respected. What’s unpardonable is that not a single global leader or media voice that I know of drew attention to the irrationality of that view.
Conversely, some will use bombings to justify hating Muslims (investigators say the blasts bear the hallmarks of the Muslim militant group Jemaah Islamiah). That temptation, too, should be resisted. Of course Muslims could help their cause by holding rallies denouncing this latest act of terror committed in the name of Islam. But short of that they deserve of Americans what Americans should expect of them: less demonizing coupled by greater attempts to understand.