Confessions of an Anti-American

A former anti-American tells why Americans are so unpopular in Bonn and Milan and Rio-and what changed his mind


Credit: Tom Dillon

I 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 status do not fool the Canadian. He knows that his economy is the property of his southern neighbors and, for a variety of reasons, he seems condemned to have a lower standard of living than they.

Periodically, Canadians lash out at America, as in the recent abortive attempts by Ottawa to nationalize the oil industry. But eventually, after these fits of economic nationalism, they come back to their senses and resign themselves to 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 upper 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 comforts of exclusive schools, cultivated accents, and privileges of position. For the first time in my life, I (along with Australians, New Zealanders, and Americans) 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 presumed 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. Interestingly, 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 explained, 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—simply 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.

Peter MacKinnon is a free-lance writer and the co-owner of an architectural firm in Los Angeles.