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To be anti-Bush is not anti-American
31 January 2002
'President Bush's State of the Union address reminds one very clearly what is loathable about this administration'
If this is the state of the union, it seems almost pointless grumbling about it. In his address, George Bush rode forward on a tidal wave of moral superiority. He pitted, yet again, that good old "civilised world" and the "rule of law" against "outlaw regimes" and "the axis of evil". The battle lines that were drawn up nearly five months ago are being toughened, and extended.
Clearly, the administration's sense of moral certainty has not been dented one teeny little bit by anything that has happened in the last few weeks not by the collapse of Enron, and certainly not by the criticisms of aspects of the war on terror that are being heard throughout the world.
Yet such criticism is being heard constantly even within America's closest ally in the West. Look at the outcry over conditions in Guantanamo Bay that has extended throughout even the tabloid press in Britain. Look at the speech that one of Britain's most prominent strategic thinkers, Sir Michael Howard, gave yesterday, in which he warned that the US administration, in its isolationism and desire for vengeance, "is in danger of spoiling a historic opportunity to mould a better world".
Strains are also appearing between the US and its closest ally in the East. Relations between the US and Saudi Arabia are now said to be at breaking point, and an "anonymous Saudi official" was recently quoted in The Washington Post calling for US troops to be withdrawn from Saudi Arabia.
But are these criticisms resonating within the American government? Why should they, since the administration sees the nation as powerful enough to wage this war all by itself? Although Bush's address began with glancing references to "our coalition", he quickly moved on to the understanding that it was "our nation" and "our military" who had to be patient, persistent and steadfast in the pursuit of the war.
Even when criticism is heard, it is easily dismissed. The idea is popular in Britain as well as America that anyone who criticises the American government simply enjoys knocking America out of pure jealousy or contrariness or wickedness. It is not real criticism, it is just blanket hostility "anti-Americanism".
Anti-American. The label has been so often stuck on me that I feel that it is worth pointing out how absurd it is. Just as many journalists have reminded us recently that if you criticise the state of Israel you are not necessarily anti-Semitic, so I would like to put on the record that many of my best friends are American.
Joking apart, it may be worth reminding ourselves that only a mad fundamentalist, either religious or political, could pretend that the US isn't, in so many ways, admirable. Of course it's vast, and, as Walt Whitman suggested, it contains multitudes. Multitudes of examples of tolerance and dissidence, multitudes of examples of bigotry and conformity. You can no more say you love America, full stop, than you can say you hate America, full stop. What do you love? Guantanamo Bay? What do you hate? Susan Sontag? Saul Bellow? The civil rights movement?
That's why it feels just a little irritating to me when I write articles that criticise American foreign policy only to receive 150 e-mails from Americans accusing me of hating them. I am no more against the American people than Robert Fisk is anti-Semitic. What I loathe is the current administration.
And Bush's State of the Union address reminds one very clearly what is loathable about it: above all, its impregnable sense that whatever is in America's interest must be morally superior. No other leader has used a more intensely moral rhetoric. "You will not escape the justice of this nation," he warns the terrorists, or, in one section that his audience understandably adored: "America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity, the rule of law and equal justice".
But how oddly such rhetoric sat with the images of the men hooded and bound in Guantanamo Bay, or the reports of literally thousands of Taliban and al-Qa'ida prisoners who are still being held in Afghanistan in conditions that have just been criticised, by Physicians for Human Rights, as "a quiet atrocity".
And how odd Bush's division of the world into the "axis of evil" and the "civilised world" felt when you look at how he divides it up. Iran is definitely in the axis of evil, because it "represses the Iranian people's hope for freedom". Saudi Arabia, with a corrupt government that also represses its people's hope for freedom, is presumably still to be included in the civilised world. While he is happy to deal out warnings to some regimes who leave "mothers huddled over dead children", he will deal out none to the Israeli government that continues to use unjustified levels of violence.
It is easy to criticise his moral posturing, but clearly Bush is reading the mood of many in his country. His popularity is at unprecedented levels, and this speech was interrupted more than 70 times by clapping. "The tableau was that of a celebration of a war hero," said The New York Times.
Sure, this kind of celebratory mood is making some critics feel anti-American as well as critical of the American government. It does sometimes look as if the decadence of American political discourse is affecting more than just politics. We are seeing a lowering of energy in American journalism, where even erstwhile critics have gone soft on Bush. And sharper edges may have been dulled far from politics, in aspects of film and literature and television that seem to be expressing a more conformist cultural mood. Look at Hollywood movies with all their renewed enthusiasm for gung-ho history, from Pearl Harbor to Black Hawk Down.
But even if you feel anger with the American government and impatience with aspects of American culture, what on earth would be the point of demonising the American people? Thank God that, as well as being a superpower, America is an open society, with all the potential for change and dissent that implies. Its grand diversity means that, just as soon as you think you've surveyed its currents, you find other channels trickling in quite the opposite direction.
British critics love to mock American conformity, but the US still has its dissenters, its Naomi Kleins and Noam Chomskys, its anti-capitalist groups and its peace and human rights movements. A group of Americans who had been affected by 11 September are currently in Kabul, forging links with Afghans who have been affected by the American bombing. The visit was organised by Global Exchange, a human rights group that believes in building a more ethical world, in the face of criticism from American media and trepidation from the State Department.
And when I read about Rita Lasar, whose brother was killed in the World Trade Centre, saying how sorry she was to the family of Najiba Shakar, whose body was buried in rubble in central Kabul, I knew that the part of America that you simply can't help but love and admire is still very much alive. "There is no heroism in bombing innocent civilians," she said. I doubt that she, for one, was cheering George Bush yesterday.