[The Montana Professor 14.2, Spring 2004 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Defining "Anti-Americanism"

Paul Trout

The trouble with the term

The term "anti-American" is commonly used to characterize, and to discredit, a wide range of critical comments about the United States--too wide a range.

Since there is no widely accepted definition of "anti-Americanism," almost any criticism of the country can be smacked with this pejorative label--and has been. Unfortunately, efforts to define the term have not always succeeded in narrowing its scope.

In his 500-page compendium of criticisms of the United States, Anti-Americanism: Critiques at Home and Abroad, 1965-1990 (Oxford UP, 1992), Paul Hollander, who has written more about this concept than anybody else, used the term "to denote a particular mind-set, an attitude of distaste, aversion, or intense hostility the roots of which may be found in matters unrelated to the actual qualities or attributes of American society or the foreign policies of the United States" (viii). "Anti-Americanism" is exhibited in "a generally critical disposition toward existing social arrangements" (4). In short, "anti-Americanism refers to a negative predisposition, a type of bias which is to varying degrees unfounded" (viii).

This is, indeed, the way the term is most often used: to characterize a reflexive antipathy to the United States, a deep and sweeping hostility to what the country is and does (whatever the evidence to the contrary). This loose definition may be appropriate when talking generally and impersonally. One can say, for example, that many contemporary French intellectuals are "anti-American" with no one being terribly confused about what is being said about French intellectuals, or any particular French intellectual feeling personally affronted.

But there is a certain begging of the question when the term is used to characterize a "hostile" mind-set, attitude, motive, or feeling. As the term is often used, it is not always clear whether a person's "anti-American" mind-set is inferred from what that person is saying, or whether, indeed, what that person is saying is labeled "anti-American" because of a prior determination made about the speaker's motive or political orientation. In Paul Hollander's book, because the author has already identified the person or group as "anti-American" on the basis of their left-wing political beliefs, an awful lot of critical statements about the country are lassoed by this term. Obviously, the same critical statement about America attributed to, let's say, Osama bin Laden, stands a much greater chance of being perceived as "anti-American" than when attributed to a writer for The Weekly Standard (and, yes, I can imagine a negative claim about this country that both could make). If one operates from an a prior designation of "anti-Americanism" to the labeling of a specific claim, no wonder it's not hard to find all kinds of "anti-American" statements to quote. The logic goes like this: "Since the far Left hates America, any statement coming from them is, by definition, 'anti-American.'" This is why the term is primarily a pejorative epithet used by only one side of the political divide.

Moreover, this loose definition, acceptable when painting with a broad brush, does not do much to clarify when the term should be used to describe particular people and specific statements. Let me illustrate this problem more vividly by asking you to use Hollander's definition to determine which--if any--of the following statements is "anti-American." I focus on "statements" for this experiment because ultimately the only way to infer a person's predisposition or mind-set is from what that person says (and does):

  1. President Bush is using the attacks as a pretext to kill innocent people and colonize the Arab world to seize oil for the Bush family.

  2. The attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center are no more despicable than the massive acts of terrorism--the deliberate killing of civilians for political purposes--that the U.S. government has committed in my lifetime.

  3. The attacks on the United States were the predictable result of American foreign policy.

  4. The attacks were an understandable response to American foreign policy.

  5. The attacks were a justified response to American foreign policy.

  6. The attacks were long overdue.

  7. The attacks ought to be applauded.

What are the chances that a majority of your colleagues will agree with each of your decisions? I suspect that confusion will surface immediately over what constitutes an "anti-American" claim. (For reasons I'll explain, I would argue that B, E, F, and G should be labeled "anti-American.") Scholars, pundits, and polemicists will have to come to some firm understanding of the term's meaning and usage before statements can be assessed for their "anti-American" content. Any such definition will have to distinguish between "anti-American" claims (B, E, F, and G) and the constant blizzard of routine, predictable complaints and critiques arising from partisan politics, from quotidian social life, and from the inevitable failure of this country--no matter how humane, free, or prosperous--to live up to its ideals. As a very harsh Arabic critic of the United States warns, "The glib way in which genuine political differences are consigned to...anti-Americanism...is a recipe for ending debate, not for making greater sense of mutual differences" (Why Do People Hate America? Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies, 2002, 55). At least for some uses, the term "anti-Americanism" could benefit from a sharper, more stringent definition.

A possible solution: a claim-based definition

While the loose definition of "anti-American" may have some limited usefulness, I want to suggest a stricter definition based on the explicit, denotative content of a specific claim (but I am not concerned with the validity of the claim). In fact, I argue that the term "anti-American" should be used to describe a relatively narrow range of specific critical claims (or accusations) directed at the country. Using this claim-based approach, a statement would be labeled "anti-American" solely on the basis of what it is saying about America, not of who is saying it or why it is being said.

This is the approach taken 30 years ago by Arnold Beichman, in Anti-American Myths: Their Causes and Consequences (1972, 1993). Here "anti-American" claims are categorized under nine headings, each a general accusation leveled at the country (e.g., "America is Fascist"). I would like to continue Beichman's project by updating both the examples and the wording of his categories (some of which are dated, e.g. "The American Worker is a Honky"), and by reducing his list of "anti-American" claims from nine to seven. The fewer the better, if the object is to make this term less polemical and more descriptive and analytical.

So, what makes a specific claim clearly "anti-American?" To merit that designation, a claim should be saying, in essence, that the United States is fundamentally iniquitous. Not just flawed, but wicked. This very stringent definition should separate truly "anti-American" claims from even the most lacerating criticisms of the country's institutions, policies, and practices.

What follows is a list of critical claims that I think merit the designation "anti-American," used now not as a pejorative epithet, but as a description of the content of the claim.

A list of seven core anti-American claims

There are, I believe, seven specific claims that declare America to be fundamentally iniquitous.

1. The United States is evil.

If there is one claim--or "accusation"--that should be described as "anti-American," it is the claim that the United States is irredeemably evil. Not "sick," or "insane," or "guilty" (accusations catalogued in Beichman), but malevolent.

Here is the claim in action (throughout, examples are illustrative, and not exhaustive). According to one professor, "If any country's really an Axis of Evil, it's us" (in Why the Left Hates America: Exposing the Lies that Have Obscured our Nation's Greatness, Daniel J. Flynn, 2002, 133). According to international correspondent Anthony Lobaido, the United States is "akin to Satan. Let's look at the Satanic Bible. What are the values of Satan? Lust, greed, gluttony, revenge. Hmm. Sounds like American society. Is New York the head of the 'Great Satan'? All that is evil in the world can be found in New York" (Worldnetdaily.com, 13 September 2001, quoted in The New Republic, 8 Oct. 2001, 11). The notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal, in his recent book, Revolutionary Islam (2003), also describes the United States as an incarnation of Satan (Shaytan), as did the Ayatollah Khomeini and Osama bin Laden. For British playwright Harold Pinter, the United States "is now the most dangerous power the world has ever known--the authentic 'rogue state,'" which "has effectively declared war on the world. It knows only one language--bombs and death." Amir Muhammad, an American Muslim, calls America "the number-one oppressor in the history of the planet Earth, the number-one murderer on the planet Earth, and the number-one spreader of terror on the planet Earth" (said on C-Span, quoted in The New Republic, 19 Nov. 2001, 16).

2. The United States is genocidal.

Another way to say that America is evil is to say that it is genocidal (myth #2 in Beichman). Back in 1967, Susan Sontag wrote, "America was founded on genocide" (Partisan Review, Winter, 52). According to professor Philip Slater, "Americans have always been a people with marked genocidal proclivities" (in Beichmann, 47). For late professor Edward Said, the United States is a genocidal power with a "history of reducing whole peoples, countries and even continents to ruin by nothing short of holocaust" (in What's So Great About America, by Dinesh D'Souza, 2002, 26). Professor Eliot Fremont-Smith contends that America is "deeply...genocidal" (in Beichman, 44). Professor Morton J. Tenzer asserts that "everyday...the United States is guilty of committing genocide" (in Beichman, 45). Jeffrey Sachs alleges that the United States "lets people die by the millions as a matter of policy" (in The Weekly Standard, 28 April 2003, 13). Professor Ali Mazrui claims that the United States is "a breeding ground for racism, exploitation and genocide" (qtd. in D'Souza, 27). Gay advocate and playwright Larry Kramer maintains that the United States is committed to the "systematic, planned annihilation of some by others with the avowed purpose of eradicating an undesirable portion of the population" (in Hollander, 65).

3. The United States is terrorist.

A more recent anti-American claim is that the United States is terrorist, an au courant synonym, I believe, for "evil" and "genocidal." At a 2003 demonstration in Washington, D.C., signs claimed that the "USA Is #1 Terrorist" run by terrorists. According to professor Jennie Traschen, America is "a symbol of terrorism and death and fear and destruction and oppression" throughout the world (qtd. in D'Souza, 26). For professor Robert Jensen, the United States is guilty of "massive acts of terrorism" (Time, 8 Oct. 2001, 73). For Novelist Barbara Kingsolver, the American flag stands for "intimidation, censorship, violence, bigotry, sexism, homophobia, and shoving the Constitution through a paper shredder. Whom are we calling terrorists here?" (in Newsweek, 19 Nov. 2001, 67, and in The New Republic, 22 Oct. 2001, 10).

4. The United States is fascist.

Another term widely used to brand America as wicked is fascist, an epithet meant to evoke the ghastly butchery of Hitler's Germany (this claim is Myth #1 in Beichman). For professor Barbara Foley, the 9/11 attacks on the United States must be attributed to "the fascism of U.S. foreign policy over the past many decades" (in Campus Reports 13.2, Spring 2002, 13).

5. The United States is racist, sexist, and homophobic.

Although one might split this claim into three separate ones, the words racist, sexist, and homophobic are so often said in one breath that they have been fused into a composite single claim about the inveterate evil infecting the United States. In the words of professor Cornel West, the United States is "chronically racist, sexist, and homophobic." These three intertwined sins exist deep within the hearts of (white) people and in the hidden recesses of all social institutions (in Hollander, 62). They are so deeply embedded in the American psyche that they can never be extirpated or even lessened; instead, racism, sexism, and homophobia merely become more subtle and insidiously disguised.

6. The United States is fundamentally corrupt.

This claim is probably implied in the previous claims, but it is often made through a different group of words: American society is inauthentic, alienated, suffocating, repressive, materialistic, pathologically sick, violent, immoral, insane, dehumanized, etc. As in Claim 5, several of these words--or synonyms for them--are usually yoked together to make the accusation more sweeping and punishing. According to one professor, American society "tries its damnedest to tear our humanity from limb to limb and replace our real selves with an anxiety-ridden, materialist clone" (in Hollander, 29). For free-lance writer Sam Keen, Americans are controlled by anonymous bureaucracies, corporations, and governments, which determine "where we live, work, are educated; whether and with whom we fight, where we may travel, what we wear, and what we may say in public, what information we receive" (Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination, 1986, 140). During the 1990s, many Europeans, according to one professor, have come to see the United States as the "embodiment of a totalitarian society" (Dmitry Shlapentokh, "The New Anti-Americanism: America as an Orwellian Society," in Partisan Review 69.2, Spring 2002, 263).

If the United States is repressive and totalitarian (close to calling if fascist), then it follows that its political institutions also must be corrupt. The founding ideas of the franchise, republicanism, federalism and representative government are, according to this claim, pious frauds covering oppression, exploitation, and conquest. Sheldon Wolin contends that "every one of this country's primary institutions is antidemocratic in spirit, design and operation" (qtd. in Hollander, 57). The point is not that America is a flawed country or an imperfect democracy but that it is a perversion of democratic ideals.

7. The United States does not deserve to exist.

Another unarguably anti-American claim--or maybe it should be called a "hope"--is that the United States is too iniquitous (or evil or wicked) to exist (a milder but related claim is discussed by Beichman under the heading "The Bomber Left"; see also Daniel Flynn on those who hope for the country's demise, 198). This apocalyptic judgment follows logically and morally from the belief that America is evil.

The belief that the world would be better off without the United States has a long history, pre-dating even the Cold War. In 1940 Joseph Campbell in a talk at Sarah Lawrence College reassures the young women terrified by the success of Nazism that they need not worry should "Europe and America be blown away entirely." There are many "subtle disciplined human beings--who might even feel relieved to see us go!" (in From Plato to Nato: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents, David Gress, 1998, 452). Professor Andrew Hacker looks forward to the time when he can announce America's "terminal hour" (in Beichman, 97). Feminist theorist Andrea Dworkin wants to destroy patriarchal power "in its most hideous form, the nation-state. We want to destroy the structure of American culture as we know it" (in Hollander, 71).

The 9/11 attacks provoked a spate of fervent hopes that America's "terminal hour" is near. Chess master Bobby Fischer, upon hearing that his country had been attacked, said: "This is all wonderful news. It is time to finish off the U.S. once and for all. [...] I applaud the act" (in Flynn, 31). A college student wrote that if a missile were headed for the United States, "the American people, if they were a moral and enlightened people, would wait patiently for death" (in Campus Reports 13.2, Spring 2002, 13). Professor Nicholas DeGenova prophetically hoped that Saddam Hussein would defeat the invading multinational army and that the United States would undergo "a million Mogadishus." For French intellectual Jean Baudrillard, the attack on the United States was a dream come true, "because no one could refrain from dreaming of the destruction of any power that has become so hegemonic" (Le Monde, 2 Nov. 2001, in The New Republic, 26 Nov. 2001, 8).


Definitions raise the perplexing issue of inclusion and exclusion. Are statements that express delight in the death of Americans, especially fellow Americans, enunciating an "anti-American" claim within the scope of this category? Again, the way to answer the question is to examine the wording--the content--of the claim. Wishing for a "million Mogadishus" seems to me similar to wishing for the destruction of the country. So do many of the "We deserved it!" statements following the 9/11 attacks. Statements that proclaim that the United States "had it coming" must be assuming that the United States is guilty of heinous sins deserving of murderous punishment. When they explained "why" we deserved it, they often claimed that the United States is evil in one or more of the ways I've discussed above.

But I admit that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between anti-American "we deserved it!" claims and "moralistic" interpretations of the attack that view the death of Americans as a sign of condign punishment for one or another national infraction or sin. This may be splitting hairs, but I think there is a difference between wishing death and evil on the country (or delighting in it) and trying to explain the death and evil that has been visited on the country without condemning the United States or wishing for its extinction.

Keeping this distinction in mind, the following comments seem to merit the designation "anti-American." A spokesperson for the Syrian Arab Writers Association said of the 9/11 attacks, "My lungs filled with air and I breathed in relief, as I have never breathed before." An Egyptian columnist wrote "I am happy about the American dead" (in Flynn, 16). A "peace" activist looked forward to American soldiers "coming home in body bags" (The New Yorker, 8 June 1992, 108).

But I do not think that all efforts to "explain" the reasons for the attack are necessarily "anti-American." Many such explanations did not go on to posit or entail the claim that the United States is ineluctably evil. Instead, they attributed the attacks to, let's say, misguided foreign policy or cultural provocation of some kind or another. While many of these explanations may strike many Americans as odious and wrongheaded, they do not condemn the country as those other claims do.

It is wrong to brand as "anti-American" any and all attempts to provide analytical, even if critical, assessments of the "reasons" why the attacks occurred. As professor Neta C. Crawford explains: "What if our understanding of the causes of terrorism suggest that our own policies and actions are in part to blame for the resentment that fuels terrorism? Does that mean we are at fault? No, the murderers are still murderers and responsible for their actions. But we can look hard at our policies and change them so that they do not cause resentment. To urge such an examination is not unpatriotic--it is prudent" (in Chronicle of Higher Education, 11 Jan. 2002, B19). Such claims, whatever their logical or interpretive merits or demerits, are simply not enunciating the same sweeping indictment of the country that my list of "anti-American" claims enunciate.

A couple more negative claims that should not be considered "anti-American"

With any definition, what's in? What's out? While others have labeled the following claims to be "anti-American," I exclude them on the grounds that they do not attribute to the country the evil or wickedness that characterizes a true anti-American claim.

"Capitalism is evil."

Those who label this claim "anti-American" do so on the grounds that claiming that capitalism is evil is equivalent to saying that the United States is evil, since the country is capitalistic. While those who hate capitalism probably also hate the United States, the two claims are not logically equivalent: the economy of the United States is hardly pure capitalism, but a complicated mixture of capitalism, socialism, and other economic modalities. One can condemn capitalism as evil without necessarily condemning the United States as evil. But the statement that "The United States is evil because it is capitalistic" does meet my criterion for being "anti-American."

"The United States is imperialistic."

Almost everyone who hates the United States accuses it of being "imperialistic" or of being an "empire." But I do not think that this claim necessarily constitutes a sweeping condemnation of the United States (except in the minds of some people who make it). As an article in The Washington Post puts it, "at forums sponsored by policy think tanks, on radio talk shows and around dinner tables, one topic has been hotter than the weather in Washington this summer: has the United States become the very 'empire' that the republic's founders heartily rejected? Liberal scholars have been raising the question but, more strikingly, so have some Republicans with impeccable conservative credentials." Although this claim is, for some, pejorative, for others it is descriptive, or even honorific.

Of course there are many other critical claims often labeled as "anti-American" that do not measure up to my standard. My definition of "anti-Americanism" is designed to be narrow, and to exclude a number of critical claims about the country often labeled as "anti-American."

For me, a claim should be described as "anti-American" only when it accuses the United States--whatever the words used--of being fundamentally iniquitous, or deserving destruction. Such claims could hardly be called anything but "anti-American."

Problems and conclusions

As I have argued, the claim-based approach to defining anti-Americanism, first used by Arnold Beichman 30 years ago, focuses attention on the denotative meaning of a claim, and not on the feelings, intent, or motivation of the person making the claim. All too often, criticisms of the United States are labeled "anti-American" not so much because of what they say as because of the presumed "hostile" motives or adversarial political values of the people making them. (It is not out of bounds, however, to infer from a specific claim the motivation and feelings of the person making it.) A claims-based approach to defining "anti-American" would likely curtail the free-wielding use of the term, an effect that may displease many conservative polemicists.

Note that the claim-based approach to defining "anti-American" that I have described does not entail the assessment of the "truth-value" of the claim. This is a decided departure from current practice, wherein the alleged "falsity" of a condemnatory claim is a determining factor in labeling the claim as "anti-American." For some commentators, most recently Jean-Francois Revel in Anti-Americanism (2000, 2003), a critical statement about the country reveals itself to be "anti-American" because the statement is not "true" (not supported by cogent evidence, or falsified by evidence or argument). The motive for making such an untrue statement, the argument goes, must be antipathy to or hatred of the United States, thus presumed antipathy thus rendering the statement "anti-American." My approach dispenses with the veracity criterion. A statement should be described as "anti-American" on the basis of its content--not because the claim is (to one degree or another) false.

Granted a claim-based definition, the issue then becomes how to determine what claims should be described as clearly "anti-American." I have argued for a stringent definition: the claim should be saying--in effect--that the United States (1) is profoundly and fundamentally wicked in one of several ways, or (2) that it does not deserve to exist. A statement that is not making either sort of claim should not be labeled "anti-American," no matter who made it or what emotion or political purpose motivated it. The more stringent the definition the better, if the goal is to render the term less polemical and more analytical and descriptive. While a claim-based definition that is less stringent is possible, a restrictive one increases the chances of agreement about which claims deserve to be described as "anti-American." But even a stringent claim-based definition is open to interpretation. Is this or that statement really saying that the United States is elementally evil, or that the country should be liquidated? Is the claim that "the United States is pathologically puritanical" an "anti-American" claim, according to my definition? I would argue that it is not, because "puritanical" is simply not a widely accepted synonym for "evil." There will always be claims that will prove difficult to categorize, but these hard cases do not weaken my argument for a stringently defined claim-based definition.

Let me end by suggesting that the approach outlined here may have a benefit that could please both the Right and the Left. I have noticed that people never describe themselves as "anti-American," even when professing their hatred of the country and their hope for its destruction. I suspect this peculiar reluctance to embrace the label is because even those who loathe the United States are not sure what the term "anti-American" could mean to others. But anyone making one of the sweeping condemnatory claims that I have cited (or synonymous ones) should be eager to be labeled "anti-American." After all, if one truly believes that the United States is evil, or terrorist, or genocidal, or fundamentally morally corrupt, etc., then one would logically also believe that hating the country and wishing for its dissolution is morally justified and courageous.

[The Montana Professor 14.2, Spring 2004 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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