Saturday, September 04, 2004

A Brief History of anti-Americanism - Part II

This is part two of a three-part installment involving my study and reflections on the history of anti-American sentiment in the world. You can find the first part of this work in the previous entry.

As previously discussed the idea that civilization could never arise in America, the degeneracy theory, had been the first stage of anti-Americanism. The second stage was the claim that the American's efforts to create a civilization had failed. Between the creation of the U.S. system in 1783 until roughly the end of the Civil War in 1865, this was generally the dominant view. This is not to say that there were not European proponents of America's vision for something new and fresh, to which they wanted for their own countries.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe penned an ode to the United States:

America, thy happy lot
above old Europe's I exalt:
Thou hast no castle ruin hoar
No giant columns of basalt.
thy soul is not troubled
In living light of day
by useless traditions,
vain strife and array

(it should be noted that Goethe never had actually visited the United States)

For those viewing the United States as a threat to all existing Western civilization, destructive of order and an enemy of traditional values, discrediting it became a matter of life and death. Such was literally the case for Simon Linguet, a French lawyer, who warned in the 1780's that a rabble of adventurers would use the continent's rich resources to make the United States a great economic power. Eventually, he predicted, America's armies would cross the Atlantic, subjugate Europe, and destroy civilization.† Linguet did not have to wait long to see the society he revered destroyed by new ideas paralleling those in America. He was guillotined by the French revolutionaries in 1794.

Frances Trollope a British national, might have been the single most influential person shaping European perception of America in the first half of the nineteenth century. Her book Domestic Manners of the Americans, published in 1832 enjoyed a phenomenal success and was translated into several languages. The focus of her book was America's ascetic and cultural failings. Americans table manners, command of the English language, rate of speed at which they spoke all became fodder. Criticism on the propensity of American's to discuss political and religious matters, and women's "poor" taste in clothing were also talking points for her book. Ironically enough Trollope's book was a bestseller in America as well (despite it's very negative context), showing the growing tolerance and lack of vanity of the people.

A common subtext of all anti-American criticism during this period was the ruinous nature of the American belief in equality. Trollope wrote, "If refinement once creeps in among them, if they once learn to cling to the graces, the honors, the chivalry of life, then we shall say farewell to the American equality, and welcome to European fellowship one of the finest countries on earth." ≈

The elevated status of women and children in the developing America was also seen as a negative consequence of America's emphasis on freedom and equality. The general criticism at the time was that the United States had rejected the natural order of society, even at a time when women could not vote. For this reason, America was sarcastically referred to as a "paradise for women" in some writings.

The success of America and its imitation by their own countries would undermine, or at least was thought it would undermine the personal interest of the European intellectual elite and aristocracy. Given the fact that everyone in America was criticized for their spirit of equality (perceived or realized), most of the criticism offered would have an excessive emphasis on the lower common denominator. The old aristocratic disdain for the masses was often barely concealed beneath. It goes without saying that the peasants and workers who flocked from Europe to America as immigrants did not share this attitude.

The view that materialism and democracy blocked the creation of a serious culture in the United States was being disproved. Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe and many others were doing important and original work. As in politics, the viable mass-oriented alternative to Europe's official aristocratic culture was possible.

The British novelist Charles Dickens, despite some good feelings about America and Americans could not quite shake himself loose from European disdain. Traveling from Cincinnati downstream to Cairo, Illinois, he wrote of the "hateful Mississippi circling and eddying before it, and turning off upon its southern course a slimy monster hideous to behold; a hotbed of disease, an ugly sepulcher, a grave uncheered by any gleam of promise: a place without a single quality, in earth or air or water, to commend it: such is this dismal Cairo."π
This would become the very material that Mark Twain would render so unforgettably as a write exemplifying a distinctly American worldview.

The reactions to America of each country's nationals mainly reflected the priorities and problems of their native lands. The British put a little more emphasis on excessive equality, the French on intellectual and cultural poverty, and the Germans spoke of spiritual barrenness. During this period, anti-Americans concluded that the United States was to be ridiculed, not feared. The political system was viewed as a complete failure and might well collapse on its own weight.

This second period of anti-Americanism then was to insist that the United States WAS a failure. Contrary to the predictions of these anti-Americans who would see the Civil War as the doom they had been expecting, the United States did not collapse. Rather, the United States grew steadily stronger and more visibly successful. Only when American industrialization began to lead the world in the 1880's was it no longer possible to insist that it had failed. But anti-Americans would find the threat of American success to be an even more serious matter.

In Part III I will chronicle how the viability of America as a political, social and economic influence gave rise to a new anti-Americanism, in short, the fear of America's future and its impact on the global sphere.

End Part II



† Barry Rubin/Judith Colp Rubin, Hating America - A History
≈ Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans
π Dickens, American Notes
Posted by mightymerk, 5:54 AM

4 Comments:

By Anonymous Anonymous

“As previously discussed the idea that civilization could never arise in America, the degeneracy theory, had been the first stage of anti-Americanism. The second stage was the claim that the American's efforts to create a civilization had failed.”

There were indigenous civilizations in the Americas predating colonization.

But more to the current point, a belief that a racist notion of “civilization” could not arise or that efforts to create a civilization (in the USA, as opposed to the Americas, I presume) are not inherently (although, I suppose, they can be) anti-American. Sure, the specific people you quote may express anti-American views (and are probably ‘anti’ a lot of other countries/peoples/cultures) but what is the context of what you describe? Are you suggesting that Europe in its totality was/is anti-American? Are these people you’ve quoted illustrative of the majority of writings on the subject? One can dig up supporting quotes easily enough – but what is the overall context?

“A common subtext of all anti-American criticism during this period was the ruinous nature of the American belief in equality.”

This is rather ironic given slavery, that most states (there were, of course, exceptions) only allowed propertied white males to vote (until 1820, when non-propertied white males could vote) and injustices such as the Indian Removal Act (1830) aka ethnic cleansing. What I am suggesting is that a romanticized notion of history is detrimental to its understanding. It seems to me that what you are suggesting anti-Americanism is, is European conservative intellectuals’ prejudicial writings of white America and ‘equality’ within a white, male American context.

It seems to me that what you describe is resistance to American liberalism by European elitism and conservatism. I wonder, what is the context of such resistance, say, concerning the French revolution? Were these ‘anti-Americans’ specifically against broader notions of equality within a strictly American context or a French one, or a communist one for that matter?

Again, indicate how the various people you quote are specially opposing America or Americanism through their criticisms, non-flattering descriptions and resistance to liberal conceptions of equality, democracy and so forth. Critique is not synonymous with opposition.

-- The Grand Shizzler

@ 7:07 AM  

By Blogger mightymerk

Hi Shizzler,

Let me address this point by point...

"There were indigenous civilizations in the Americas predating colonization. "

As wrong as both the Colonials and Europeans were, the indigenous population was not thought to be 'civilized'. They were considered (quite incorrectly) wild animals, just a 1/2 step above beast. The degeneracy theory claimed that this was because the environment (land, water, air, animals etc.) was inherently inferior to that of Europe. Europe considered itself the "elite" civilization.

"Are you suggesting that Europe in its totality was/is anti-American?"

Of course not, I provided quote and examples of both opponents and proponents of America. I even indicated that sometimes both the good and the bad came from people who never set foot on American soil. What I am saying is that criticism came hard, steady and irrationally (at times) from parts of the European intellectual elite.

"
This is rather ironic given slavery... that most states It seems to me that what you are suggesting anti-Americanism is, is European conservative intellectuals’ prejudicial writings of white America and ‘equality’ within a white, male American context."

This is not at all what I am suggesting. How could you even draw this conclusion from what I wrote? Please explain this accusation?
But on the topic of slavery... Despite the fact that almost 400,000 foreign soldiers (most completely against the idea of slavery) fought on the side of the Union †,
Did you know that there was widespread sympathy for the Confederacy in England and France, rested on the fact that a Southern victory would restart the flow of cotton to their textile mills?¥ Many Europeans, both conservatives and romantics, thus defended the Southerners as victims of Yankee imperialists who wanted to seize their wealth. The European claim was that the drive to eradicate slavery was just a smokescreen for imperialism, just as a century later their spiritual descendants portrayed the U.S. role in promoting freedom and democracy in the world as an excuse to conquer the globe. In essence the Europeans were opposed to the Union as a competing industrial power while, on the other hand, in what can only be in anti-American terms, they condemned it as inferior to themselves because it was an industrial society (as opposed to a cultural one).

"were these ‘anti-Americans’ specifically against broader notions of equality within a strictly American context or a French one, or a communist one for that matter?"

Listen man, were humans. We all have the same feeling and general insecurities. The European Elite was seeing the future. The future in which everyone could get an education, own land, and produce a product. With that said, yes I am saying that the elitist of European society were completely against the idea of rule by mass, or in other words, democracy itself. This "feeling" goes back to ancient Greece. It was either Plato or Aristotle (I forget at this exact moment) that said people need to be ruled by the elite because most people were stupid.

A fair criticism is one based on overall facts and not just the lowest common denominator. The very fact that, in your words, they used "non-flattering descriptions" denotes that they were not offering simple/complex criticism, but rather, irrational arguments with falsely drawn conclusions.

I am the son of an immigrant. When I hear people speak about the very real immigration problem I am much more open to legit arguments regarding the necessary legal status, and documentation of immigrants, versus the slanderous blabber about immigrants being "uneducated" and having "dual loyalties to America etc.

† Kaufmann, The Germans in the American Civil War, p.71.

¥ Nordholt, Anti-Americanism in European Culture, p.13.

@ 12:38 PM  

By Anonymous Anonymous

1. Right. What I am asking you is if you're suggesting that this racism is in fact anti-Americanism?


2. Apologies. Upon re-reading, that statement is harsh.


3. This is not an accusation.

[quotes]
A common subtext of all anti-American criticism during this period was the ruinous nature of the American belief in equality.

The elevated status of women and children in the developing America was also seen as a negative consequence of America's emphasis on freedom and equality.

Given the fact that everyone in America was criticized for their spirit of equality...

The British put a little more emphasis on excessive equality, the French on intellectual and cultural poverty, and the Germans spoke of spiritual barrenness.
[/quotes]

The common theme seems to be European disdain for / citicism of notions of equality in America, an equality that I contend primarily applies in the context of white males, usually with property. The point being that "freedom" and "equality" generally did not include African Americans,indigenous people and women. That the upper class in Europe opposed a more liberal notions of freedom and equality -- even if only with a white male context -- is not evidence of anti-Americanism. What I am asking is if the opposition/disdain/criticism/non-flattering terms is unique to America? For example, if a upper class European intellectual engaged in such discourse regarding "the colonies" equally lavishing insults upon India, the US, Haiti wherever it's not a specifically anti-American charge, in my view, it could be prejudice against former colonies, currect one etc...


I just want to know what you mean by "anti-Americanism".

- shizz "taco" ler

@ 2:28 PM  

By Blogger mightymerk

Shizz,

Actually there was not a common theme...even your quote of my statement indicates that. The British put extra emphasis on the excessive 'equality' that America had to offer. In general this was in the context of the 'everyday' white male, and not just the landowner. It also included the elevated status that women held in America (despite not even being able to vote for a majority of this period). Clearly America's shortcoming at the time was that this equality was limited in many ways with regards to white women, and not at all inclusive to the Native Americans and African slaves/African Americans.

Further, German immigrants as a majority were some of the most proponents of abolishing slavery, a practice they completely despised. In fact the first formal protest of slavery took place in Germantown Pa, in 1688†. It was a very eloquent document labeled "Am I not a Man and a Brother".

The German disdain came in the form that we were spiritually barren due to our capitalist economic system and lack of discipline in faith.

The French argument was almost purely based on the premise that Americans were intellectually inferior and were crude cultureless creatures.

"What I am asking is if the opposition/disdain/criticism/non-flattering terms is unique to America? "

But it was unique. For the periods of history I covered (up to 1945) neither India, Haiti or any of Britain’s other colonies had any cultural, economic or political influence. So the "criticism" offered was directed at America's application of democracy, capitalism etc. The intellectual elite of Europe directed their criticism at America...America was very unique at the time.

My best and personal definition would be that, Anti-Americanism is the irrational contempt and criticism one has towards America because it is perceived to undermine the central tenets of their social/cultural/political construction.



† http://quakerinfo.org/Qs&Slavery.html#1688%20Protest%20Against%20Slavery%22

@ 5:16 PM  

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