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Interview: Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin on Anti-Americanism

FP: France and England were both super powers in their own way. Yet I think it would be fair to say that they were never hated the way the States is hated. How come?

Judith Colp Rubin: Yes it is interesting because both countries were colonial powers who for many years posed a far bigger threat to the world than the United States. And yet while Latin American intellectuals in the early part of the last century were bashing the United States, they were waxing poetic about French culture! One explanation is that neither France nor England ever offered an alternative way of governing and living as did democracy. We cannot overestimate the extent to which democracy was a revolutionary concept that was threatening to many people who benefited from the aristocratic system.

FP: Why do you think George W. Bush is the source of so much hatred worldwide? This greatly confuses me as, along with Ronald Reagan, he is my favorite U.S. President. What gives here?

Judith Colp Rubin: Aside from his actual policies, Bush fits many of the main historic negative stereotypes that Europeans and others hold about the United States. He comes from Texas, the purported land of the cowboy and death penalty and has a drawl which plays into European prejudices about cowboys and violent, ignorant, impulsive frontiersmen. Being neither an intellectual, erudite or articulate, he is an European intellectual's worst nightmare. His professed religiosity further rankle Europeans as fitting the stereotype of Americans as religious fanatics.

FP: You noted how many liberal-minded individuals, such as Sigmund Freud, helped promote anti-Americanism. Why?

Barry Rubin: Generally speaking, the center of the political spectrum has been the place where the most pro-American sentiments can be seen, from social democrats through to moderate conservatives. The exceptions have come from those who genuinely point to shortcomings of the United States or worry about certain features affecting their own societies. In the past, the main fear was that industrialization, urbanization, and other features of modern life were dehumanizing, too fast, and anti-intellectual. America was seen as the symbol of those things, many of which are now accepted as norms in the West at least. For example, two of the most persistent themes of anti-Americanism were that women were too equal and that the American masses did not respect their social betters but thought themselves as good as anyone else.

Freud’s personal views emerged partly from his being a bit of a German cultural snob. Remember that in his day—even aside from anti-Semitism—he was once told at a spa that his child were not good enough to be German but that they had at least reached the level of the Italians.

One intriguing aspect of anti-Americanism that we bring out in the book, though I am not saying this applied to Freud, is that all Europeans—and in some respects today everyone in the world today—has to justify their not going to live in America. The easiest way to do that is to focus on its negative points. Yet in polls, in such places as France and in the Arab world, people often indicate they would like to study or live in the United States.

FP: Anti-Americanism is quite a dysfunctional illness. I find the French variety especially eerie. What’s up with the French? Does it have something to do with the fact that the notion of them winning a war causes so much comic relief?

Judith Colp Rubin: This French belief in the superiority of their own culture is a major reason for the fact that France had the longest tradition of anti-Americanism than any country in the world. There was also the factor of the absence of French immigrants to America – in contrast to those from England or Germany -- who could help soften public opinion back in their native land. Nor did they have what some call the “Anglo Saxon” heritage that all English speakers share. By the 20th century, despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that America came to the rescue of France in both world wars, the French left and right could agree on one thing: the United States was the land of harsh and brutal “absolute capitalism” that threatened to engulf the world with its malformed society. A series of influential books throughout the 1920s and 1930s had such unambiguous titles as The America Cancer” and “America’s conquest of Europe” as everything American was open to criticism from jazz music to refrigerators to the American woman, a figure allegedly wielding too much power. But it is important to note that as in many other countries the anti-Americanism in France has always been largely confined to the upper and intellectual class –those who have the most to lose by the popularity of the United States.

FP: What examples are there of countries where anti-Americanism existed and then declined and why?

Judith Colp Rubin: One of the best examples are several countries in South America where, in contrast to France, for example, there are many real grievances against the United States. Anti-Americanism was very high here for much of the 20th century. But in the past 20 yearss, anti-Americanism has declined in several Latin American countries such as Chile, Nicaragua and Panama. There are several reasons: One, the cold war's decline has reduced American intervention in the region and even transformed it into support for democracy; two, free market economic ideas challenged economical theories that American economic success was linked to Latin America's economic failure and the declining status for intellectuals and panaceas of the left, the main purveyors of anti-Americanism, undercut that argument's popularity and three, the enormous Latin American immigrant population in America ensures that it is easier to get firsthand, more accurate information about the country.

FP: What similarities and differences are there between the anti-Americanism of the Arab world and that of Europe?

Barry Rubin: When you get past some of the localized rhetoric and priorities there is an amazing similarity. This is in part because there are many in European left and intellectual circles (and sometimes on the right as well) who implicitly or explicitly endorse the idea of a Euro-Muslim alliance against the American threat. This sometimes becomes amusing as in an article by a Guardian editor who denounced the anti-Syrian demonstrations in Lebanon as being part of an American plot and praised Hizballah for supporting a continued Syrian occupation.

As noted above, many of the statements on U.S. policy are based on distortions. For example, one would often hear in both places that a prime complaint about U.S. policy is its stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict, neglecting to notice that the United States has promoted a peaceful resolution for thirty years and that President Clinton made the issue the main priority of his administration. If he had his way, there would have been an independent Palestinian state for several years now.

Underlying and alongside the talk about American policies or values is the bedrock theme that the United States is seeking world conquest, a very large or global empire, and that this is a threat to all the world’s peoples. Obviously, there are people who emphasize many specific points, whether it be the war in Iraq, the infiltration of fast food, or any number of specific points. But the phenomenon of anti-Americanism as such is based on this broader fear.

FP: What is the future of anti-Americanism? Is there anything that can be done to diminish it or is it inevitable?

Judith Colp Rubin: A year after President Nixon's disastrous trip to Venezuela in 1958 where he was spat on by angry crowds, the U.S. Information Agency studied anti-Americanism and come up with solutions to prevent it. One suggestion was that if American tourists have to chew gum, they should do it as inconspicuously as possible! In the countries where anti-Americanism existed and declined, the decline was due more to political, cultural and economic upheavals in these countries than any dramatic changes in American policies. So a great extent, anti-Americanism is inevitable, something we will just have to accept even while agreeing that it may not be a good idea for American tourists to pop bubbles in the Louvre.

Barry Rubin: Obviously the precise level of anti-Americanism will go up or down depending on the specific issues of the day. The war in Iraq was very controversial and George W. Bush is particularly hated. The key point we want to make on the issue is that we are in an era in which anti-Americanism is going to remain an extremely important phenomenon because it suits the interests of different groups and of the time.

For 200 years, anti-Americans have been warning that the United States will either become the world’s model or master. Now, for the first time in history, the situation makes this a credible claim. Political extremist groups of many types have seized on this as a way to promote national unity around their struggle at a time when class and other such appeals have fallen by the wayside. Governments manipulate the issue for their own interests, as a scapegoat and distraction from their own shortcomings or divisive policies. Having said this, though, the location and priority of anti-Americanism will rise and fall depending on short-term developments as well.

FP: Rubins, it was a pleasure to speak with you today. Thank you for joining us.

Judith Colp Rubin: Thanks for letting us discuss this very important topic.