The Australian Literary Review

By Brendon O'Connor

I came to know New York better a few years later when I worked briefly in the World Trade Center for an organisation researching drug abuse and HIV-AIDS. This gave me a particular familiarity with the twin towers, a familiarity I would soon share with millions of television viewers around the world as we watched, over and over again, the towers being hit and then collapsing.

The twin towers were one of the most recognisable monuments to American wealth and power. In the days after their destruction much was written about the symbolism of targeting these particular buildings. French provocateur Jean Baudrillard wrote that the attacks joined "the white magic of movies and the black magic of terrorism". Although Baudrillard was criticised for trivialising the attacks, his words very effectively hit on how both Americans and non-Americans have fantasised about the destruction of America's might.

In countless dramas millions have cheered for Americans to triumph against adversity, and, more than occasionally, get their comeuppance. Sensational attacks on the World Trade Centre existed in the celluloid world long before 2001: the twin towers were the target of Islamic terrorist attacks in the 1982 film Right is Wrong, were partly destroyed by aliens in the 1996 movie Independence Day, and damaged by meteor hits in 1998's Armageddon (footage that was removed when the movie appeared on American network television in 2002).

The US has long been viewed with a mix of admiration and antagonism. In the 18th century Thomas Jefferson wrote in that "every man has two countries, his own and France". At the time France was at the forefront of struggles for human rights and the quest for greater knowledge. By the mid-20th century America, not France, had become the popular "second country".

A fascination with America existed well before it became a great power, a fascination often tinged with hope or fear. America has long been seen as humanity's "last best, hope" and, conversely, as a nation whose garrulous and uncouth culture was assiduously inserting itself across the world. Thus America is perceived as the land of inspiring politicians and innovators such as Washington, Franklin, Gates and Obama but also as the home of dumb and her cousin dumber (cue Reagan, Bush Jr, Sarah Palin and Miss Teen South Carolina).

Of course we should not forget the supply side of this equation. America receives a disproportionate level of attention because of the reach and muscle of its media and corporations, and because of the power and influence of its government.

Given the ubiquity, power, and influence of the US it is hardly surprising that it is the subject of hatred and even the target of violence. What was surprising in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks was the reaction of many Americans. From the president down, they seemed unaware of just how much anger and resentment their country inspired around the world. No better example of the level of American insularity and naivety exists than president George W. Bush's statement soon after the attacks: "Why do they hate us when we're so good?"

Anti-Americanism is a peculiar word: we have no equivalent for any other nation. Anti-Finlandism is incomprehensible and even anti-Frenchism is unknown in the English language. It is tempting to declare anti-Americanism oxymoronic, as it is surely impossible to hate a whole nation and all of its people.

Some have suggested the word is merely moronic: a "boo-word" crudely employed to silence criticism. In a searching essay in 1990, French scholar Marie-France Toinet asked "Does Anti-Americanism Exist?", and according to German intellectual Josef Joffe "most Europeans will argue that anti-Americanism does not exist". Jean-Paul Sartre foretold these responses with his riposte in 1948 that "I am not anti-American. I don't even know what the word means."

Many political words lack a certain basic logic, neo-conservatism being an obvious example. Nonetheless regular use and circulation gives them meaning and importance. The word anti-Americanism cannot be waved away like a naughty child. It is here to stay and thus requires discussion and analysis.

The best way to understand anti-Americanism is as a collective prejudice, hence the point of the "ism" at the end of this unusual word. There is a long tradition of stereotyping the worst or most gauche aspects of America.

In a reflective moment, Oscar Wilde commented that "the English people are far more interested in American barbarism than they are in American civilisation".

Anti-Americanism's origins are most sensibly traced to the Jacksonian period (the 1820s and 1830s) in American history. Just as expressions of anti-globalisation existed before the late 20th century, forms of anti-Americanism existed before the 1820s. But anti-Americanism and anti-globalism have a key period that was crucial in shaping their tropes and language.

In the case of anti-Americanism, it was under president Andrew Jackson that the American frontier dramatically expanded (often in rough-and-ready circumstances) and Europe experienced an equally dramatic surge of interest in America. As a result there emerged a greatly increased volume of travel writing about the new nation. This literature and commentary, widely read at the time by a public looking for ways to understand this new force in the world, gives a great insight into perceptions of America.

In this key period, Europeans were forming their views about the nature of America and Americans. The results were often not pleasing. Most commentators of the day painted Americans as unsophisticated, boastful and financially untrustworthy.

One of the most widely read travel books of the Jacksonian era was Frances Trollope's Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832) which lampoons the rough and ready eating habits of Americans on the frontier, decrying the "total and universal want of manners, both in males and females". A decade later Charles Dickens, in American Notes and The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit added to the existing picture of the ugly American by satirising Americans for "their worship of the almighty dollar" (a phrase he coined), for being swindlers and for their love of national and personal puffery.

Dickens's America books regularly highlighted how every other American seemed to have some trumped up title as general this or professor that; and how people constantly told you how great a man such and such was and how wonderful America was.

Proclaiming the US to be "the greatest country in the history of the world" is of course a long standing favourite line of American politicians.

At her best Trollope offered a searing critique of American hypocrisy over slavery and Dickens very effectively pinpointed the contradictions in America's claims that it was an egalitarian society. However, both helped create and perpetuate anti-American stereotypes by portraying behaviour in the backwoods and frontier as typical of the whole. Further, their commentary was as often snobbish as it was insightful.

America is frequently a nation of opposites: the home of much of the global pornography industry and of the most prominent anti-pornography movements; the Mecca of fatty food diners and the birthplace of the raw food movement; and the home of a tradition in many ways diametrically opposed to that of Jacksonianism.

Wilsonian America stands against the inward looking populist tendencies of the Jacksonian tradition. Named after Woodrow Wilson (president of both Princeton University and the US), this tradition champions the promotion of human rights, international laws and institutions, and world peace. However, it can also be viewed as naive, preachy, and culturally tone deaf.

French prime minister Georges Clemenceau at the Versailles peace conference said talking to Wilson felt like "talking with Jesus Christ". Elsewhere he said, "God himself was content with 10 commandments. Wilson modestly inflicted 14 points on us . . . of the most empty theory".

In many ways Graham Greene's The Quiet American offers a Wilsonian archetype in its protaganist Alden Pyle (at least as often seen by foreigners). Quoting book knowledge and proclaiming his wish to bring democracy to Vietnam, Pyle is introduced as a naive American abroad; however, his idealism is soon shown to be stained by a deadly imperialism that involves the secret importation of military equipment and the bombing of civilians to create pro-American ferment in Vietnam. The most quoted line of the novel about Pyle (and implicitly about the US) is: "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused."

In a case of life imitating art, Bush quoted this line in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention in 2007. Bush went on to question Greene's thesis that Indochina would really have been better off without American intervention given, he said, what we know about "boatpeople", "re-education camps" and "killing fields". This is a fallacious argument as violent American intervention was in part responsible for the rise of Pol Pot and the refugee crisis at the end of the Vietnam war.

What Bush typifies here is a general unwillingness by recent American politicians (and much of the American media) to admit any foreign policy mistakes by America in the present or in fact at any time in the past. Whenever President Barack Obama has made mild references to possible errors of judgment, or has reflected on how American policies may have stirred up foreign resentment, he has been often attacked as unpatriotic.

From the outside, this inability to admit mistakes and apologise looks suspiciously like the continuation of what Senator J. William Fulbright called the "arrogance of American power".

What frequently most bewilders and annoys foreigners is when Jacksonian brutality and Wilsonian pronouncements are employed simultaneously. The Jacksonian tradition is inward looking by inclination; however, if drawn into a conflict as in 1941 or 2001 this tradition unleashed a strong belief in crushing America's opponents. Bush drew on both Jacksonian and Wilsonian traditions to create a toxic cocktail of policies that were rightly criticised as self-righteous, delusional and deadly.

We can see this bewildering combination of ideas in his promise to "ride herd" on the Middle East peace process, or his claim in his second inaugural address in 2005 that the ultimate goal of US foreign policy was "ending tyranny in our world", or in his government's assertion that it was bringing democracy to Iraq.

However, as much as Bush deserves forceful criticism, much commentary on him and his government misfired because, rather than examine the details, commentators and media treated Bush as a halfwit and wrote off all of his government's pronouncements as being insincere.

Further, as shown by the Daily Mirror headline in 2004, the American people were often dismissed as just plain "dumb" in the Bush era.

Admittedly it was hard not to be angry at the policies of Bush and his vice president Dick Cheney. Bush's election and re-election were tragedies as far as I was concerned. However, name calling, abuse and anti-Americanism seldom wins a political argument.

A case in point is the Guardian newspaper's ill fated 2004 "Operation Clark County" letter writing campaign. Guardian readers were encouraged to send a letter to a voter in Clark County, Ohio trying to convince them to vote for John Kerry not Bush. The three sample letters the paper published - from Richard Dawkins, John Le Carre and Antonia Fraser - could all be described as abusive.

The operation's lack of success became apparent as soon as the Guardian website began posting responses from Clark County. Arranged under the headline of "Dear Limey assholes", the responses ranged from "Real Americans aren't interested in your pansy-ass, tea-sipping opinions" to regular references to 1776 and Britons as "yellow-toothed snobs". The ultimate results of course were not in the tea-leaves but in the voting records on November 2, 2004. Al Gore won Clark County in 2000 by 324 votes; Ralph Nader garnered 1347 votes. In 2004, Bush won the county by 1620 votes. Of the 15 Ohio counties Gore won, Clark was the only one Kerry lost.

National stereotypes are hard to avoid, and have some utility. However, when they become overused touchstones for analysis, they can easily reflect certain prejudices about foreigners. Americans have a unique word to describe this negative outlook towards them and their nation: anti-Americanism. It is a word that partly exists because foreigners have been so drawn to America and had so much to say about it (with much commentary being extremely negative).

At the same time Americans themselves frequently overreact to criticism, showing a tendency toward "annoying patriotism", as Alexis de Tocqueville called it. This attitude leads to much commentary on America being falsely called anti-Americanism.

Smug foreigners and self-righteous Americans have often shed more heat than light on the question of what makes the US and its people tick. The reactions to September 11, 2001 were yet another chapter in this three-centuries-old story of fascination with the US. The rights and wrongs of the US were debated widely.

Given the unexpected and dramatic nature of the attacks, and the emotional responses to them, it is no surprise many of the books written in their immediate aftermath have dated badly. At the time, and since, there was much hyperbole about the epoch-changing potential of the attacks. Distance from these events gives us the opportunity to reflect on them more soberly.

Ten years on from 9/11 I am struck by the fact that these events did not "change everything" as some claimed. Rather they amplified certain existing tendencies. Finally, the Bush administration's use of these attacks to justify an ill-planned war in Iraq severely dented the credibility of the US in the world. However, the global enthusiasm generated by the election of Obama shows that, despite America's many failings, the world holds a great reservoir of hope for the US to be true to its much pronounced ideals.

Brendon O'Connor