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  • Variations on an Anti-American Theme
  • Robert Stam (bio) and Ella Shohat (bio)

This essay argues that anti-Americanism is not an invariant essence; it is conjunctural and context-specific. It examines anti-Americanism in diverse national contexts—but especially France and Brazil—to suggest that in every country where it exists—and thanks to Bush unilateralism it now does exist in almost every country in the world—anti-Americanism has distinct historical origins and serves distinct sociopolitical and even psychological functions. While based in legitimate grievances, it can also be put to neurotic and narcissistic uses. Here we will argue for an intelligent political anti-Americanism—one that Americans might share—and against a misconceived cultural anti-Americanism. Above all, we will argue against ethno-essentialist formulations of political positions.

But at the outset we have to express our reservations about the term "anti-Americanism" itself. The term is misleading because it implies membership in a paradigmatic club whose primary model is anti-Semitism; it implies that America is a powerless victim analogous to the Jewish community during the Holocaust, and that it is a helpless victim of an irrational, even pathological hatred or prejudice. But in fact the United States [End Page 141] is the most powerful country in the world, and its hawks unashamedly declare their aims of world domination. The United States has seldom been victimized historically—9/11 and Pearl Harbor being rare counterexamples—and it has often been a victimizer, first of Native Americans and Africans, and then Filipinos, Haitians, Chileans, Vietnamese, and countless other targets of imperialist interventions. But "anti-Americanism" unfairly puts any critics of U.S. policies—including U.S.-based critics of U.S. policies—on the defensive. A more accurate term would be "anti-U.S. policyism" or some equally awkward term. We will retain the term "anti-Americanism" as a convenient and generally recognized rubric, but one to be placed sous rature.

French Anti-Americanism

Despite the fact that the United States and France historically form two sister republics, despite the fact that France rescued the United States during the American Revolution and the United States helped rescue France during two World Wars, and despite the Marshall Plan, which catalyzed French recovery from the devastation of World War II, many commentators have suggested—and polls have confirmed—that France is one of the most anti-American of European countries. Indeed, "anti-Americanism" is the only instance in which the French language joins the prefix "anti" with the name of a country. For many French people, the United States calls to mind savage capitalism, rampant individualism, phobic Puritanism, imperialism, and anti-intellectualism. For the French left, the United States is also seen as orchestrating the globalization that imposes the English language, Hollywood blockbusters, and Big Macs on a reluctant world.

In the French case, concrete grievances against the United States come overlaid with the neuroses typical of dysfunctional kinship relations. French anti-Americanism, as has often been pointed out, is very much linked to a rivalry over who owns the concept of "revolution" and whose revolution might serve as a model for the world. Yet the two revolutions were intimately related through deep ideological and personal links. Familial metaphors lurk in the background of this rivalry: are the two [End Page 142] revolutions siblings, as the expression republiques seours suggests, or is it a relation between parent and child, father and son? (We would add "mother" and "daughter," but it would be inappropriate to two revolutions that barred women from full citizenship). And who is the father and who the son? Did the French Enlightenment give birth to the American Revolution, or did the American Revolution, as the first modern revolution, give birth to the French Revolution? Is America the legitimate child or the bastard offspring of Europe? Or is it a Frankenstein monster, the creation that comes to punish its creator? In The Old Regime and the French Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville argued that the American Revolution was the child of French thought. While most of Europe saw the American Revolution as merely a novel historical event, French intellectuals saw it as a confirmation of their own theories...


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pp. 141-178
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