Confessions of an Anti-American

Credit: Tom DillonCredit: Tom DillonI would like to make a full public confession. Perhaps it could be in a Senate committee hearing, where, in the glare of television lights, a jowly senator would ask me, “Are you now, or have you ever been, an anti-American?” I would wave away my lawyer’s attempt to plead the Fifth Amendment, stare up at my inquisitor, and sadly confess that indeed it is all too true—I was once a card-carrying anti-American. Of course, I would have to admit that this was during my youth and that I am no longer associated with the worldwide anti-American movement. I would be expected to name names, as they say. This would not cause me any great pangs of conscience, since almost everyone who is not an American is, in some sense, an anti-American. In fact, I would probably accommodate the senators’ request with a random reading of names from the Parisian telephone directory. Presumably, the senators would quickly tire of this dull recitation and, wishing to regain the camera’s attention, thank me for my courage in coming forth to reveal this disturbing worldwide situation. After my confession, I would attend a press conference where the world press would closely question me. After all, it’s the worst-kept secret in the world America is almost universally disliked.

Before I explain what I mean, perhaps I should describe my credentials for speaking on this subject. I am a Canadian who grew up 30 miles from the American border during the late 1950s and early ’60s. We Canadians know a great deal about the United States from our shared history on the North American continent, exposure to the same cultural influences, and, of course, extensive economic and social interaction between the two countries. Indeed, it is my experience that the average Canadian would score well in any test of knowledge of American history or politics. On the other hand, it is a source of irritation to my fellow Canadians that the average American has great difficulty even distinguishing Canada’s capital, Ottawa, from our country’s most populous province, Ontario. I can remember from my own ill-spent youth of pumping gas for American tourists how many questions they asked me that betrayed profound ignorance of the country they were visiting. I remember one gentleman in particular who stared out over the expanse of Lake Ontario while I tended to his car and inquired of me as to the name of that particular wide river he saw before him. This lack of interest in a country with which they share a culture and a continent might have been responsible for the first stirrings of my dislike for these people called Americans. For most Canadians, there are additional reasons for animosity. Some 70 percent of Canadian industry is owned by the cousins to the south, and moving from a colonial status under Great Britain to a kind of economic colonialism under the United States is no easy matter for an independent people like Canadians to accept.

American companies, sensitive to the problem, sometimes camouflage their American roots by naming Canadian subsidiaries and products to satisfy Canadian sensibilities. For example, Standard Oil’s Canadian subsidiary is Imperial Oil, and Ford originally manufactured a car called the Monarch for Canadian consumption only. But these misguided attempts to appeal to Canadian nationalism by invoking Canada’s former colonial acceptance of the better standard of living that comes from being an economic “partner” of the United States.

Politically, a Canadian has enormous latitude for expressing anti-American feelings. I remember the smug satisfaction Canadians felt during the 1960s as America was convulsed by racial rioting and antiwar activities. For once, Canadians could feel morally and politically superior to their powerful neighbors. We would rush down to the US consulates and protest Washington’s latest irresponsible act in the world. We welcomed draft dodgers as men of moral courage who saw the error of their country’s ways and, by inference, the superiority of the Canadian way of life. We welcomed peace and saw America as a promoter of war. Of course, none of this was ever expressed officially by our government; that would have been inconsistent with Canada’s best interests. So we could have the best of both worlds: we could express our anti-American attitudes privately while enjoying the physical and economic protection that association with the United States brought us as a nation. But I was soon to find that this hypocritical attitude is not an exclusively Canadian phenomenon.


When I took up residence in London during the late 1960s, I arrived with a particularly sophisticated form of anti-Americanism. I and other Canadians knew the nuances of American life because we shared them, as a Lithuanian might have a more solid basis for understanding the Soviet Union than, say, a Cuban would. By contrast, the British wing of the anti-American movement betrayed an almost primitive understanding of the object of their enmity. It was in Britain that I first became a little embarrassed at being part of this movement. It became clear to me that the root of Britishers’ anti-American attitudes was a failing world power’s resentment of its successor. They would do bad’imitations of New York accents and, even worse, they made fun of the physical appearance of American tourists. Of course, people everywhere joke about national differences, but underlying Britishers’ jokes I sensed a sad bitterness.
Like everything else in Britain, anti-Americanism had two distinct accents, upper-class and working-class. The up- per class viewed Americans a s slightly barbarous. Indeed, they tended to regard Americans in much the same way they regarded their fellow citizens of the working class-and, for that matter, anyone who did not share the cultural com- forts of exclusive schools, cultivated accents, and privileges of position. For the first time in my life, I (along with Australians, New Zealanders, and Amer- icans) experienced upper-class Britishers’ silly belief in superiority based on class. We “colonials,” as we were collectively called, had some difficulty relating to this form of prejudice. We generally shared the belief that a person’s worth is based on his efforts, not his forebears.

After the initial shock, it struck most of us as hilariously funny that anyone could seriously expect to be judged on the basis of his lineage. Unfortunately, it was not quite so funny to those sons and daughters of the working class who were attempting to rise into the British professional classes. Nor was it particularly amusing to Pakistanis, Indians, and Jamaicans who had to stay and endure this stupidity or return to a poorer life at home. On the other hand, we Americans, Canadians, and Australians did have a choice in the matter, and most of us eventually chose to go home.

For the first time in my life, I experienced prejudice as its object. What’s more, I was being categorized with Americans-the object of my own particular prejudice!
If the British upper class’s version of anti-Americanism was based on pre- sumed cultural superiority, the working- class version was more political and economic. Since the working class is the main constituency of the Labour Party, which still sings “The Red Flag” at its conventions, one would not expect much sympathy for the United States there. In- terestingly, though, I found that working-class hostility rarely took the form of personal animosity toward Americans. Rather, it was expressed as a generalized belief in the struggle of socialism against capitalism-and since America is the principal bastion of world capitalism and, in these circles, militarism, it was considered the enemy.

We “colonials” were most familiar with this type of anti-Americanism, which took the form of ban-the-bomb parades and solidarity meetings for the blacks in Alabama. These conspicuous displays of anti-Americanism received a great deal of attention in America. But an important point was consistently over- looked: any protest against America and its actions in the world is animated by a profoundly irrational resentment. If I required any further confirmation of this fact, I found it during a brief residency in Paris. One thing can be said for my French ex-colleagues in the anti- American movement: they do not suffer from the hypocrisy of their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. Even the dullest American, tourist from Wichita has experienced the full force of the Frenchman’s disdain. This admiration for Gallic honesty must be tempered, however. I once inquired of a Parisian taxi driver as to the source of this animosity toward Americans. He ex- plained, with some pride, that Parisians are not merely anti-American, they are simply against the entire human race. As a Canadian, I can attest to this. Despite my qualms about associating with this somewhat primitive European wing of the anti-American movement, I continued to persist in my belief that my anti-Americanism was based on an objective judgment. Whereas European anti- Americanism is founded on the envy of a people who no longer enjoy power in the world, mine was founded on a substantiated critique of American policy in the world and at home. Who could dispute the facts of Selma, Saigon, and Watergate? Not even most Americans could defend their country’s sometimes stupid and cruel behavior. Indeed, Americans themselves provide the best ingredient for the meal that we “antis” devour every day.

Yet it is difficult to persist in a perpetual negative belief system, and I cast about for alternatives.Perhaps a glance at the other side of the world would prove instructive. What lessons could be learned in East Berlin, Prague, and Budapest?

I had never quite accepted all that “evil empire” business, so I journeyed to the Communist world with a mind willing to believe the best. As a Westerner, I found myself being constantly accosted by people in restaurants and hotel lobbies who told me how terrible their lives were (as if I needed the confirmation of what my eyes showed me) under this repressive system. They told me of how they envied my freedom to travel, to read what I want, and to say what I please. Their painful sadness was not economic, political or cultural; it was the personal anguish of not being able to live freely. A young woman on a train from Prague to Brno in Czechoslovakia stands out in my memory. An engineer, she described the pleasure of that brief spring of 1968 when she could travel freely to Vienna just to see a movie. She told me how the majority of her fellow citizens hated the Russians and their own lives now I replied at one point with a passing reference to Orwell, and she told me that his works are now forbidden in Czechoslovakia. When I later sent her a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, she wrote to thank me and said that Orwell wrote as if he knew her own poor country.

I think sometimes about the callous, stupid American in his large car who doesn’t know anything about a lake in a country he cares nothing about, and that woman on the train who aches only to live life as she chooses, and I am embarrassed by my earlier lack of understanding of the difference. How petty is my resentment of the unlikely representative of American democracy compared to my anger over a very different system that stifles individuals’ purpose in life-sim- ply to live freely. Yes, we should criticize the American system, for freedom to criticize is part of our purpose, too. But we should not lose sight of what makes it possible for us to be anti-American-the best of the American tradition. I live in the United States now. I can find new reasons for criticizing Americans. We who sit in a tavern in Bonn or a club in Norwich or a restaurant in Lyon or a cafe in Barcelona or a trattoria in Milan or a bar in Rio or anywhere where people can gather and complain and argue-we all know, don’t we? We anti-Americans, we complainers and critics of America, we all know that our words come from our resentment of these people. We resent these people who dare to reflect the imperfections of us all-these people who possess the most incredible power the world has ever seen and yet use that power to leave us the freedom to criticize them. That’s my confession of anti-Americanism. I suppose that as long as I’m not an American, I’ll always be somewhat of an “anti.” Yet I know that if I decided to become an American citizen tomorrow, my views would not differ greatly from the average American patriot’s, because dissent is their curse and their salvation. Long live America.

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  • The Late P Brooks||

    They told me of how they envied my freedom to travel, to read what I want, and to say what I please.

    This is all currently being rectified.

    It's all for the best, Citizen.

  • Almanian!||

    STOP RESISTING!

  • Dweebston||

    it is a source of irritation to my fellow Canadians that the average American has great difficulty even distinguishing Canada’s capital, Ottawa, from our country’s most populous province, Ontario.

    Don't has a sad, Canada! I have trouble distinguishing fly-over capitals in the U.S., too.

  • ||

    What the fuck's an Ottawa? Is it a species of otter, or some shit?

  • Dweebston||

    You otter be ashamed of your ignorance, Res.

  • Dweebston||

    But these misguided attempts to appeal to Canadian nationalism by invoking Canada’s former colonial acceptance of the better standard of living that comes from being an economic “partner” of the United States.

    I'm waiting in vain for the verb that ties together the endless clauses.

  • ||

    My familial connections, studies, and eventually my occupation gave me an opportunity to travel extensively, and what I've seen a lot of the time isn't pretty.

    In fact, I'm openly contemptuous of Europe as a direct consequence of my exposure to many of its inhabitants' unholy arrogance, and the destructive unknowledge by which any mention or discussion of the United States is invariably engulfed.

    Brits, Frenchmen, Belgians, and Spaniards are (by far) the worst offenders on the matter. Holy fucking shit. I was ready to swim across the Atlantic a week into my stays in each of those countries.

    They don't know anything about ius. They don't understand our culture. They're just pernicious little shits who like reaffirming their own smug superiority with a regimen of daily craps on America and its people.

    I don't even care whether their hostility is due to envy or just rabid ignorance. I just want them to stay the fuck away from me.

  • Redmanfms||

    They don't know anything about ius. They don't understand our culture. They're just pernicious little shits who like reaffirming their own smug superiority with a regimen of daily craps on America and its people.

    I've found this is less true if you leave the cities, with the notable exception of Britain.

    I don't even care whether their hostility is due to envy or just rabid ignorance.

    I've found it is a mixture of both, and in some cases (mixed with the ignorance) and superiority complex. Most Europeans have no fucking clue just how much wealthier Americans are. For example, real estate listing that still prominently mention "mod cons." If the listing doesn't have it, odds are the property doesn't either. The average American family has a car for every adult member, a minority of European families do (and it's not because of Europe's supposedly superior public transportation, it's because nobody but the upper middle class and above can afford to own a car). Europeans spend vastly more of their budget on basic necessities, but they aren't necessarily getting a better product (in the case of unprepared food they manifestly are not). The same is true of "health care." Their standard of care fucking sucks, universally, regardless of country, though Britain is probably the worst (being only marginally better than the horror stories I've heard of Cuban hospitals).

  • Redmanfms||

    I think many Europeans, especially the America-hating ones, learn everything they know about the US from TV shows and movies.

    They are also highly collectivist. They treat America like it's a cultural monolith. Brits get their panties in a knot if you dare suggest that there is a "British accent" or even fail to recognize regional English accents, but they will blithely declare that there is a universal American accent.

    The most infuriating thing about Europeans is that as you noted, most of them don't know shit, but they think they do and they'll physically confront anybody who challenges them on their bullshit. They'll also note how ignorant Americans are of European politics and geography, but when it's pointed out to them that Americans don't know because they don't fucking care and even the dumbest American at least has the intellectual honesty to admit he doesn't know, they go fucking ballistic.

  • Arn0||

    "They treat America like it's a cultural monolith"

    Isn't what you do with... Europe ?

  • Redmanfms||

    Isn't what you do with... Europe ?

    Look at first post in thread:

    I've found this is less true if you leave the cities, with the notable exception of Britain.

    I suppose I should have made it clearer that at that point I was only talking about anti-American Europeans.

  • np||

    I don't it's fair to paint with a broad brush. Though I admit, most people associate "Europe" with those countries. In my experience, the Brits were nice folks, though I didn't talk politics, but the French on the other hand.. yeah. Even Italians, don't catch the shopkeepers on their traditional after-lunch afternoon break (or whatever it is) when they effectively close shop, or they get real grumpy.

    Ok, so I just did some broad brushing myself, but still, people are different and countries even more so and there are a ton of countries in Europe.

    Europe isn't homogeneous as it's perceived. I've also been around and UK, France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Netherlands are all pretty damn different, even the more so with the many smaller countries and Eastern Europe. The Spanish find their relief from taxes in Andorra and the French in Monaco.

    Even right smack in the middle of Italy, San Marino is entirely different.

  • mtrueman||

    Being anti-american is only one side of the coin. It refers to people from Canada, Britain etc who dislike America. Go any where in the world and you'll find people who dislike a powerful country. Anti-americanism is not all that interesting, or unique.

    The other side of the coin is unamericanism. To be unamerican is to be an American who is strongly critical of his own nation. I'm not familiar with any other nation that employs similar wording. Unbritish? Unchinese? Unrussian?

    I think the existence of the concept of "unamerican" undermines the author's smug assurances that America is a bastion of tolerance and freedom. It implies a pressure to conform.

  • Redmanfms||

    The other side of the coin is unamericanism. To be unamerican is to be an American who is strongly critical of his own nation. I'm not familiar with any other nation that employs similar wording. Unbritish? Unchinese? Unrussian?

    Oh please, "othering" people who don't conform to political/cultural standard is hardly unique to America or Americans.

    But it's always soooo nice to see that we can count on you to construct a strawman only tangentially related to the topic and beat the Hell out of it.

  • mtrueman||

    "Oh please, "othering" people who don't conform to political/cultural standard is hardly unique to America or Americans."

    Absolutely correct, and my sincerest, most abject apologies to you if my comment led you to think otherwise.

    As I mentioned, the topic on hand is not terribly interesting, so I take up another topic, tangential maybe, but I think a treatment of anti-americanism is incomplete without at least a nod to its unamerican, and more interesting counterpart. You may well find this offensive. No apologies offered.

    There is no straw man here. You may not understand the meaning of the expression.

    My point is that regardless of the universal tendency to other those who don't conform, only Americans have gone as far to apply the term unamerican to their own countrymen. This coinage is unique and universally recognized. It formally, through a change in the language, cements into the culture this pressure to conform.

  • Gladstone||

    My point is that regardless of the universal tendency to other those who don't conform, only Americans have gone as far to apply the term unamerican to their own countrymen. This coinage is unique and universally recognized. It formally, through a change in the language, cements into the culture this pressure to conform.

    That's because in other countries the Other don't even count as countrymen.

  • mtrueman||

    Other countries haven't been built on opening the floodgates of European emigration. Whatever it is the number of Irish saved from starvation is impressive, I'm sure.

    Now since those days, I suppose that the numbers of needy people welcomed as refugees to the USA has declined, but at the same time the international scope of their origins has spread wildly. In a sense, the USA is so dominant globally, everyone on earth can claim some strong and even personal ties to America. Nobody is truly a foreigner in America.

  • Gladstone||

    My point is that regardless of the universal tendency to other those who don't conform, only Americans have gone as far to apply the term unamerican to their own countrymen. This coinage is unique and universally recognized. It formally, through a change in the language, cements into the culture this pressure to conform.

    That's because in other countries the Other don't even count as countrymen.

  • Mark22||

    "My point is that regardless of the universal tendency to other those who don't conform, only Americans have gone as far to apply the term unamerican to their own countrymen"

    Really? Whatever gave you that idea? Defining who and what is and isn't French or German seem to be national pastimes, and with serious consequences for the individuals concerned if they end up on the wrong side of the dividing line.

    Merkel, for example, said a couple of years ago that in order to be German, you had to "accept the Christian view of humanity" and that if you didn't, you should get out of Germany. Imagine if Bush or Obama tried to define being an American the same way.

  • ||

    This lack of interest in a country with which they share a culture and a continent might have been responsible for the first stirrings of my dislike for these people called Americans.

    And now, we cross the threshold of pretentiousness.

    I love the way that everyone assumes that, if you're not completely fascinated enough by their geographic locale and culture to study it before visiting, that you have some kind of special ignorance, worthy of ridicule.

    I mean, ignorance is ignorance, but it's silly to avoid getting particularly pissed off if someone doesn't know the deep culture and geography of a particular place, unless it turns out to be your own hometown, in which case, it's wonderful and special. Practically everywhere is someone's backyard.

  • Gladstone||

    Considering that most anti-Americans think the US is too libertarian then yes it is difficult for libertarians to attach themselves to such a movement.

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