October 19, 2003

Just Another Night Out in

Just Another Night Out in London

The world sure has changed a lot since 9/11. But no, this isn't going to be a post about the terror threat posed by the intersection of rogue regimes, WMD proliferation, and transnational terror groups. Rather, it's about the perception of Americans overseas. And there has been a sea change all right.

A few days after 9/11, I got this E-mail in my inbox from a nice Hungarian woman I had met in Bosnia when I was there in 1998 doing election monitoring as part of an OSCE mission.

"I am so so so happy to hear from you. You were the first one I was thinking of when I have seen the disaster at WTC. I think I can not imagine the mood and the scene in NY, I just assume it is very very sad and united. The word Americans has a different meaning as from now, everybody feels your sorrow and loos [sic.]. At the Hungarian Embassy in Israel we also put the black flag outside the building and tribute some minutes silence to those lost. I am very very happy that there is no close loved one among the dead or injured, it is still very hard to see those on TV who do. Here in Israel we are living with the 'fear' of terrorist attacks on a daily basis, but of course nothing comparable to this. Here everybody keeps eyes open, looking for suspicious subjects, faces. Otherwise it is very nice here, sunny, we actually live in a very nice area outside of Tel Aviv - I think I don't have to tell you that you are welcome for a visit to Israel any time, our guest!!"

Hard to remember, but those sentiments from a Hungarian living in Israel summed up a lot of world opinion at the time.

Fast forward a couple of years post-Afghanistan, post-Iraq. I'm at a dinner party in London last night. Lots of Oxford/Yale types about so you had a bit of the requisite left-leaning group think in evidence (most of the guests evidently weren't of the Oxdem variety!).

Among the crowd a Columbia academic (actually a really nice guy) sketching out the similarities between Roger Williams (or was it John Winthrop?) and Usama bin Laden.

You know how it goes. Early puritans viewed the Indians as heathen and massacred them in large number. There was, of course, a fervent reliogisity pervading the entire genocidal project. Put simply, America was born in dark shame.

Indeed, the academic suggested, Roger Williams types operated in a fashion that al-Qaeda's acolytes could learn from and appreciate--so rich the similiarities born of theocratic fervor and disdain for the infidels--be they Pequot Indians in colonial America or, you know, a Honduran waiter working at Windows on the World (the latter doubtless deeply implicated in the House of Saud's efforts to prevent pure Wahabism from flowering on the Arabian peninsula or plotting Sharon's latest military gambits).

Thus the relativism of the academic left reaches full circle! The apocalapytic theological barbarism that pervades al-Qaeda's thought--precepts that would lead its followers to be happy (nay, ecstatic) to massacre literally millions of Americans (if it only possessed the means to do so)--is compared by an Ivy League anthropologist to the actions and beliefs of some of our Puritan forebears.

Of course, all these allegedly evil-doings by the forebears happened about 400 years ago, while al-Qaeda is calling for the slaughter of innocents right now. Even as somewhat of a Burkean--I've espied some progress in human rights norms and such since then. You know, it's a basic belief (perhaps naive, but even hard-boiled cynics are allowed wisps of optimism every now and again) in some form of progress (tortured and slow, to be sure). But don't try those arguments over here.

You'll likely be pinned to the wall and treated to dogmatic seminars re: more recent historical episodes that showcase that omnipresent special breed of American nefariousness. Thankfully, this crowd spared me dark intimations about that "other" 9/11 (good guy Allende so bruthishly dethroned by the meanies of the CIA).

But, permit me to note in passing at least, that theme has been increasingly trotted out by varied dinner companions in the 7th arrondisment, Notting Hill and similar encampments--all of whom appear to have recently seen some movie on 9/11/73--one I was litererally forced to view at someone's apartment a month or so back (truth be told, I was underwhelmed).

It gets worse though. Since it was a Saturday night, and an easy Sunday loomed, I decided to go out post-dinner. I end up at a loft party in the environs of Shoreditch/Islington. I actually felt at "home" when I first walked through the door. Big loft space, a DJ spinning on one side of the room with an ethnically mixed crowd alternately hanging out, dancing, chatting. In a word, I felt like I was back in downtown Manhattan! Whoppie. (Take that dank, dark Isle Britannia)!

Felt at "home," that is, until one of the woman at the party insisted on introducing me (and a friend) to others as "Americans" in a tone and manner that evoked a tortured hybrid consisting of 1) disbelief that a couple hapless Yanks had happened upon the "hip" Shoreditch scene, 2) a strong dose of horror that we were indeed Americans (as, of course, we're pretty much ignorant, fascistic buffoons in the eyes of those who get their news from skimming the Guardian or intermittent pipe-ins from Auntie Beeb), and 3) a good deal of astonishment that we didn't pop out some grits, Freedom Fries, Pabst Blue Ribbon and start pounding our chests and going on about how Texas was the repository of all that was civilized, true and just in the world--starting with its speedy and efficacious enforcement of the death penalty--before discoursing on how imperial garrisons need to be erected with dispatch in Damascus, Teheran, NoKo, Tripoli, Kharthoum and Mogadishu.

Seriously, it almost felt like a couple of Einsatzgruppen types has waded in from the street. Fascists in the house, bespoiling the crib!

The solace of sleep loomed, thankfully. Sunday morning found me back in the (somewhat) safer precincts of Belgravia. Al hamdulillah!

UPDATE: Oh, check this out too. Amazing, isn't it?

Perhaps another day I'll blog about the "why they hate us" meme; and talk about the needs for more clarity and humility in the enunciation of American foreign policy by this White House. The interesting thing is, Bush's policies aren't that removed from Clinton's. But, for various reasons (some having to do with the cowboy gun-slinging caricature, some not) the Euro masses focus in on Dubya with a special consternation and revulsion.

Still, even if Dubya were unseated, the deep uneasiness and dislike of the U.S. in large swaths of the globe will still be very much present. So the issue of our plummeting popularity needs to be seriously addressed. But, to do that, you need serious listeners on the other side. The extent of the widespread curiousity re: crude 9/11 conspiracy mongering (peddled about with increasing alacrity) in sophisticated adult democracies like France and Germany is alarming. Better leadership is needed--both by the political and media elites. The anti-Americanism has become too primitive, as even Joschka Fischer had warned a few months back.

Tell us it's time we either try or release the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay. Tell us you have real worries about the ramifications of the preemption doctrine. Tell us we come off as heavy-handed in some of our diplomatic activity and handling of alliance relations.

But don't tell us Gitmo is akin to a concentration camp. Or that you are worried America is in danger of no longer being a democracy as it's becoming a hyper-militaristic society. Or that we solely issue diktats to friend and foe alike without any attempt at multilateral understandings.

Because those hyperbolic contentions are simply prima facie false.

On Iraq, tell us we were naive about being greeted as liberators--particularly in the Sunni areas. Tell us that our anti-resistance tactics are too often alienating the local populace and allowing for conditions of a more sophisticated and protracted guerrilla conflict to perhaps take root. Tell us we were dumb as hell to disband the Iraqi Army and not better secure all known munitions/weapons depots.

But don't tell us we went to war for oil or some form of neo-colonialist land-grab. Or that most Iraqis nostagically have a hankering for Saddam. Or that is was better under Saddam.

In a word, make the anti-americanism less primitive. That might help produce a more concerted effort to address valid (and soberly relayed) grievances.

Posted by Gregory at October 19, 2003 01:57 PM

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