The Ugly American?
The Historical Roots of Anti-Americanism,” a presentation by five Sarah Lawrence faculty members, packed the Esther Raushenbush Library Pillow Room on April 3. Its contention: the origins and features of anti-Americanism vary by country; and, while particularly bold and pervasive now, anti-Americanism is by no means a new phenomenon.
“In the media you always read about anti-Americanism without any further specification,” explained German and literature faculty member Roland Dollinger, who organized the panel. “Journalists seem to believe that anti-Americanism in South Korea—which was very popular a few months ago when the new president was elected—is the same thing as anti-Americanism in France, Germany, India or the Middle East. Anti-Americanism is a concept that describes many different things.”
The panel—which also included Fredric Smoler ’75 (literature), Jefferson Adams and Fawaz Gerges (history), and Sandra Robinson (Asian studies)—largely agreed that a selective reading of events governs most anti-Americanism: particular opprobrium is attached to U.S. traits or actions, though they might be shared by many countries. In other cases, sentiments that are currently anti-American were directed elsewhere in the past. For example, Smoler noted that popular British criticism of the U.S. (for our perceived hypocrisy, vulgarity and crassness) mirrors common denunciations of Britain during the ascendancy of its Empire.
European anti-Americanism is historically rooted in a sense of cultural superiority. In the developing world, by contrast, maintained Gerges and Robinson, it reflects opposition to U.S. political and economic policies. Osama bin Laden, asserted Robinson, is the “dark family secret” of the U.S. “Terrorism,” she said, “is the symptom, not the disease.”
Dollinger noted that in his native Germany after World War II the U.S. was treated as both liberator and occupier. Divided between a materialist West and a Communist East, Germany “became a stranger to itself” through outside domination. Some Germans came to see the current rise of the U.S. as the dark side of modernity.
That the discussion attracted so many students and neighbors of the College reflects, perhaps, the uncertainty, and ambiguity, of our times. “Did students come to defend the government against anti-Americanism?” wondered Dollinger. “Or do they believe that anti-Americanism tells the true story about the U.S.?”