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East European Perspectives: November 28, 2001

28 November 2001, Volume 3, Number 21
On Anti-Americanism: The Resources And Persistence Of A Political Myth

By Vladimir Tismaneanu

The period of relative calm that was characteristic of the 1990s -- in spite of the conflicts in the Balkans and the Gulf War -- has come to an end. Far from having ended, as Francis Fukuyama (1992) predicted in a moment of euphoric Hegelian elan, history continues to be haunted by neuroses, fantasies, and political myths. Ideological tensions have not exhausted themselves, and the new political and economic spasms have deep origins in not so new collective anxieties and anguishes. Ethnocentric tribalism, racism, rationalized by intellectuals with pretensions of national saviors, clerical and militaristic populism are rampant at this beginning of a new century and millennium. The age of extremes, which British historian Eric Hobsbawm regarded as the hallmark of the 20th century (1996), an era inaugurated by World War I and concluded with the collapse of the European Leninist regimes during the revolutions of 1989-91, sends its alarming prolongations into the new century.

The liberal revolution and the rise of a planetary open space have generated both immense hopes and excruciating fears. Not everybody is happy in this emerging globalized space (Shafir, 2001, pp. 410-411): from the French farmers to the Polish peasants, from the neo-anarchist movements to the Latin American neo-Bolivarian nationalists, we are witnessing the resurrection of romantic anticapitalist sentiment. Old nostalgia related to the agrarian-pastoral visions of the organic community have made a comeback -- this time under the banner of the struggle against the new inequalities provoked by "market fundamentalism." Ironically, this term entered the political and economic debates thanks to American financier and social thinker George Soros, himself one of the main promoters of the new civic globalism (Soros, 1998). As I anticipated in some of my earlier analyses, the post-Marxist age, the aftermath of the redemptive political-secular messianism, including their ultimate expression, communism, is dominated by a feverish search for a new set of values, or, better said, for a new axis mundi. Political myths respond precisely to these collective uncertainties, and intellectuals are more often than not those who articulate these utopian expectations and impulses (Tismaneanu, 1998). Some of these myths, including those referring to global civil society and democratization as inexorable engines of modernity, serve the affirmation of a world based on rationality and intercultural dialogue. They help us come to terms with a political and symbolic universe that favors diversity and pluralism and opposes self-absorbed forms of monistic determinisms (Bauman, 1995). Other myths, however, are imbued with vindictive passions and energies. They stem from the failure to find explanations for and solutions to the growing marginality experienced by the denizens of the peripheral areas of the new globalism. To mention but one example among many: Indian novelist Arundhati Roy has become one of the most vocal critics of the U.S. in its attributed posture of driving force of Western neo-imperialism (see Dugger, 2001).

A new world system has been emerging for the last two decades, dominated not only by the globalization of information and markets, but also by the universalization of the classical principles of liberal democracy, especially the sovereignty of the individual. The United States -- as the symbol of this new globalism -- makes it the target of enduring anti-imperialist resentment. For reasons that need thorough analyses, America and its closest allies among the Western advanced democracies have become the target of political, psychological, and terrorist attacks with catastrophically tragic consequences. In spite of countless soothing declarations, dictatorial regimes from countries like Iran, Iraq, Syria, Cuba, etc., perceive America's hegemonic position within the post-Cold War international political, military, and economic system as a threat to their very survival. One thing needs to be clear: it is not the defense of local cultural and religious identities that harbors this anti-American resentment, but the fear that in a world emancipated from absolutist constraints the old forms of domination -- justified via religious or ideological mythologies -- will fall apart. To the extent that globalization means the universal expansion of American mass culture, there are sufficient reasons to defend and assert the local identities. On the other hand, one needs to remember, there is no strategic plan meant to impose this expansion. It is a spontaneous phenomenon, driven both by market forces, consumerism, and mimetism, and it is linked to the general decline of high culture in mass societies. But American values mean much more than fast food chains and Hollywood. In a famous book, political philosopher Hannah Arendt demonstrated that the main distinction between the French and the American revolutions lie in their paramount guiding principle: equality for the former, liberty for the latter (Arendt, 1985). More recently, a similar position -- inspired by Arendt's seminal volume -- has been taken by the former Polish dissident Adam Michnik, one of the most profound thinkers on post-Communist evolutions (see "Intellectuals and Social Change," 1992, pp. 621-627). Once again, I hasten to add, we deal with political myth, not with fiction or chimera. By myths I understand the symbolic narratives that motivate, organize, and mobilize actions of political communities. Their force, as authors like Ernst Cassirer (1946, pp. 47-48) and Isaiah Berlin (1982, pp. 318-319) showed, depends on their credibility, not on their truthfulness. From this perspective, nationalism -- especially in its primordialist-fundamentalist versions -- is a political myth opposed to the cosmopolitan dimension of liberal democracy. Nationalism stakes on sentiments of dignity, wounded pride, psychological vulnerability, and social alienation. It is equally related, as Yugoslav writer Danilo Kis memorably wrote in a tragically illuminating essay (1995), to the paranoid attempts to explain historical defeats and setbacks. Conspiracy theories abound in this type of fantasy-ridden compensatory discourses. As of the writing of this essay, important figures in the Muslim world's mass media unabashedly maintain that behind the terrorist attack on 11 September were not the Islamic mystical revolutionary extremists, but the Israeli secret service. The disgraceful and long-since debunked slanders that form the perfidiously anti-Semitic pamphlet "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" have resurfaced in forms only slightly refurbished. More than ever, the liberalism that the civilized world can oppose to these explosions of resentment is one of lucidity and skepticism: one rooted in the awareness of the threats that we have confronted and will continue to confront, including the proliferation of movements inspired by hatred, fanaticism, and unswerving rejection of pluralist modernity (see Hollander, 2001).

Communism and Fascism, in their traditional incarnations, have failed. The same cannot be said about the psycho-ideational structures that made their rise possible. There is a primordial form of radicalism that cannot be effectively opposed with quotations for the philosophers of the Enlightenment. The struggle of the foreseeable future will oppose those who defend, at any price, the vision and practices of an open society, and their opponents, recruited from the most diverse countries and social zones. Contrary to Samuel Huntington's initial (1991) approach, the "clash of civilizations" is a divide within each political culture, East and West. Whether we like it or not, we are living in an age of acute ideological warfare. To resume a statement attributed to Leon Trotsky, it is irrelevant whether we are interested in war. What matters is that the war is interested in our lives and us. Indulging in sophistries about culpability, denying the basic contradiction between civilization and barbarism, looking for the culprits among the victims and not among the authors of terrorist atrocities, means simply to close our eyes to the mortal threats to the very destiny of the democratic world, as U.S. political scientist Benjamin Barber recently argued in an interview with the French weekly "L'Express" (20-26 September 2001).

Thus, the 11 September catastrophe has revived a very important discussion on the presence of the anti-American political myth in the ideological structures (intellectual "dispositiffs," to use Michel Foucault's terminology), inspiring fundamentalist terrorist movements. Without understanding the motivations of these fanatic sects there will be no way for a comprehensive and systematic response to their terrible challenge (it is symptomatic that for weeks, the title of "The New York Times" special section dealing with the war on terrorism and its consequences has been "A Nation Challenged" -- a formulation quite different from the almost universal media reference to "America Strikes Back."). In his discourse to the U.S. Congress delivered in the aftermath of the terrorist attack, President George W. Bush correctly pointed out the connection between the extremist ideologies inspiring these movements of "true believers" and the 20th century's totalitarian disasters. Indeed, we deal with the same type of one-dimensional thought, obsessed with conspiracies and impregnated with eschatological ardor. In both of these incarnations, religious and secular, fundamentalism erases the separating line between the City of Man and the City of God. It promises immediate redemption through the destruction of all the presumably corruptive and perverting factors.*

Years ago, Venezuelan political thinker Carlos Rangel published a book (1976) that needs to be carefully reread. He traced the road "from the virtuous savage to the good revolutionary." Later, the same author dwelt at length on the radical hostility to liberal values among both Western and Third World elites (Rangel, 1982). The main idea in the earlier volume was that the behind the frantic revolutionism of Latin America's radical left one could detect a painful inferiority complex generated by the political and economic success of the United States. Even now, the partisans of Colonel Hugo Chavez, the populist president of a country rebaptized the "Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela," do not hesitate to question the terrorist nature of the activities undertaken in the 1970s and 80s by Ilich Ramirez, the notorious Carlos "the Jackal." Nobody denies the fact that we live in a world of glaring economic contrasts. Rangel's argument, however, was that the causes of both success and failure are to be found within one's own country, not outside its borders. It is not North America's fault for the Argentine debacle in the 20th century, but rather the Peronista populist demagoguery, and the failure of the home elites to seriously address the challenges of modernity and to accept the spirit of capitalism, including its less convenient consequences. It is much easier to promise the pie in the sky to the "descamisados" of this world, the celebrated wretched of the earth, than to organize economic and political life in accordance to the principles of a free and open society. Never ever did populist radicalism offer more than what Max Weber once called "sterile excitation" (Weber, 1957, p. 115). The attacks on "mondialism" coming from the anti-American Left and the Right attached to the values of "Blut und Boden" (blood and soil) have one common denominator: the angst, the fear provoked by the dislocations of modernity, the rise of the middle class (bourgeoisie), and the dissolution of traditional forms of state and religious control over citizens. Hence the fascination exerted by leftist -- in fact neo-Leninist -- theories of dependency on the ideologues of the radical Right (in Russia, Hungary, Romania).

The anti-American mythology consists of constellations of emotions, attitudes, sentiments and vaguely structured ideas that reject pluralism, the state of law, modern secular humanism, and freedom as a self-constitutive value. Communism and Fascism have opposed these principles on behalf of holistic visions, which claimed to propose revolutionary alternatives to liberal modernity. They were themselves forms of modernity, but structurally different from the experiment that made its historical debut with the Renaissance and has culminated in the vision of a world emancipated from any form of absolutism. Without any doubt, the anti-American myth is most powerful in non-democratic societies. There are of course anti-American outbursts in Europe and Asia, but the virulence and vehemence of the myth are particularly notable in closed societies-secular despots (Cuba, Syria, Iraq) or theocracies (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan). Anti-Americanism, as a political myth, conjures up the image of a "soulless" country (the U.S.) enslaved by the God of money. In this demonology, America means thirst for profit, mercantilism, cupidity, plutocracy, militarism, imperialism, and all the rest. And, of course, as in the Nazi (or Stalinist) scenarios, the power of the money (banks) means the power of the international Jewry and its accomplices. The myth ignores the fact that for decades America has been the main source of humanitarian aid for the underprivileged nations. It does not matter, in this hallucinatory amalgam, that the U. S. military had no other reasons to intervene in Somalia but to stop the local warlords from completely exterminating their unfortunate population. And, again, it is irrelevant, within the mythological framework, that America intervened in Kosova in 1999 to prevent the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic from completing the macabre, anti-Muslim, Albanian ethnic-cleansing operations.

The outraged reactions among exponents of some traditions that feel threatened by the invasion of modernity express panic created by an undesired contact with values that subvert presumably sacred hierarchies and order. In the 1960s, a famous Iranian writer, Jalal Al-e Ahamad, deplored the cultural disease that had allegedly infected the urban intellectual milieus. To describe this malady he proposed the term "Westoxication." Two decades later, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini started his own war against this "pathology," imposing a theocracy that claimed to be immune to the siren songs of liberal democracy. In the fall of 2001, the most wanted terrorist of all time, Osama bin Laden, proclaims as the ultimate reason for his actions the presence of the American ("infidel") troops in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden announces that we have entered a new era of religious warfare against the "crusaders" (read Christians) and the Jews. Obviously, the Arab world's hostility to Israel is linked not only to historical-territorial issues. The ultimate cause for this adversity is that Israel is a democratic and prosperous society, despite the absence of natural resources comparable to those held by its Arab neighbors. In its radical versions, at the extreme left and right of the political spectrum, anti-Americanism is synonymous with anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Explicitly or implicitly, it repudiates the foundations of Judeo-Christian morality in the name of completely opposed norms. The result is the shaping (indeed the invention) of a tradition of victimhood, sacrifice, martyrdom, and sacred duty to kill in the name of the ultimate sacred goals. The end, once again, sanctifies the means.

The anti-American myth is present not only among the intellectual elites in the Arab countries, or, more generally, in the Third World. It can be encountered, under various populist disguises, even in highly sophisticated Western circles, including the U.S. Immediately after the 11 September attacks, famous historian Paul Kennedy maintained, during a debate at Yale University, that it is the military, diplomatic, cultural, and economic power of the United States that provokes adversarial and resentful reactions. Things are, of course, much more complex than these disembodied ideological schemes (see Hartocollis, 2001, as well as Sciolino, 2001, for a generally thoughtful and informative discussion of the anti-American reactions linked to envy, anguish, and resentment). Anti-modern nihilism includes, but is not limited to, anti-Americanism: its origins are related to the zealot mentality of the true believer and the regimented fanaticism of charismatic-salvationist movements. For the members of such groups death is the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of an alleged heroic cause. The fanatic cannot accept the modern world with its real perplexities and risks. He does not find in its satisfactions a sufficient reason for life. The ultimate cause, the destructive exorcism bound to defeat what appears to him as a crooked universe provides the true believer with an exhilarating "ratio moriendi."

In spite of its inner logical contradiction and shocking historical simplifications, anti-Americanism is credible precisely because it appeals to the infrarational zones of the collective psyche, especially in disconcerted societies, among marginal and frustrated social strata -- including the Islamicizing, disenchanted post-Marxist intelligentsia of the Arab world (see Keppel, 1991). What the members of Bin Laden's terrorist cells have in common with the Italian Red Brigades, or the Baader-Meinhoff "Red Army Faction," or the Russian nihilists of the 19th century (Sergei Nechayev, Andrei Zhelyabov, Sofia Perovskaya), or the mystical revolutionaries of Romania's Iron Guard, or the Nazi and Bolshevik ideological maniacs, is the horror toward a world of risk and free competition of values. For them, there is only one truth, revealed in the dogma they cherish.

The liberal West and those who share its values reject precisely this exclusive, intolerant monism, proposing a political order based on tolerance, moderation, and recognition of individual rights. At this moment, whatever reservation one may have toward the historical experiment called the United States, anti-Americanism has become synonymous with anti-humanism. It is hard to make any prediction regarding the denouement of the ongoing struggle. The only thing we can safely say is that the struggle oppose those who favor a world based on tolerance and diversity to the exponents of a destructive radicalism whose hatred for the West is just a rationalization of tormenting inferiority complexes. Anti-systemic fundamentalism, not patriotism, is the source of this aggressive revolt against the internationalization of the world. This fundamentalism is not a negation from within or an attempt to creatively transcend the many forms of existing injustice. It is rather an effort to abolish all the principles of the imperfect liberal modernity in the name of a terrifyingly perfect, fully controlled world. Anti-Americanism is the main ideological ingredient of the ongoing revolution against bourgeois, liberal modernity.

*The author wishes to acknowledge the illuminating comments by the distinguished Israeli sociologist Samuel N. Eisenstadt on the essence of modern fundamentalism, religious and secular alike.

Vladimir Tismaneanu is professor of government and politics, University of Maryland at College Park.


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