Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Anti-Americanism is not precisely new

One does not have to go back too far in history, just a few decades, to recall the endless anti-American demonstrations in many parts of the world and the snarling contempt directed by the Europeans at Americans, both at home and abroad. While I accept that politicians running for office in the United States feel the need to blame the Bush Administration for something that has been going on for at least since the Second World War, maybe longer, I fail to see why those who do not wish to garner political benefits should suffer from memory hole syndrome.

For reasons of other work (yes, there is a world out there) I have been reading Whittaker Chambers’s letters to Bill Buckley, published as “Odyssey of a Friend”, in 1969 and, apparently, reprinted in 1987. I may have mentioned before that I admire Chambers and consider him to be one of the truly heroic and pivotal characters of the twentieth century. Indeed, the battle-lines that he drew up with his testimony against Alger Hiss are, in many ways, still there.

He was, however, a difficult personality, given to prophet-like pronouncements of doom, never quite explaining what it is that the West needs to understand in order to fight the apocalyptic battle with the forces of evil. Quite possibly, he never really worked it out himself. Certainly his portentous analyses of political events, which, according to him, he alone understood, have a hit and miss quality.

His letters tend to be rather long and full of amusing accounts as well as interesting political and cultural comments. They are also full of self-analysis and self-laceration. It is worth sifting through all that sand in order to find the nuggets of gold, nuggets that must have been far more common in his conversation if Buckley’s account is anything to go by.

In 1959 Chambers and his wife visited Europe, meeting again many of the other ex-Communist fighters like Arthur Koestler, and travelling round the place. There is a long letter from Venice that is full of angry imprecations against just about everyone: American politicians, American tourists and Europeans who diddle the tourists while despising them for being gullible. These are all easy targets and it is understandable why Chambers became so angry.

In the midst of it all he gives an interesting account of what he thinks is happening. Fifty years on, it is still of relevance:
Europe belongs to the 20th century. In fact, it's getting there at great speed. Though I do not quite agree with Forrest Davis’ [conservative American writer and journalist] on the political or economic federative score (the certain tempor of it), that is the direction.

I disagree with him decisively about the future joy of Pan-Europe for us. Give them the means, and these dear friends, that noble Third Force, will cut our bloody throats. As people, they are stronger than we are, and they know it – I mean as individual people amounting to a mass, they are stronger. In the mass they loathe us.

At another level, their disdain for us is withering. At their most understanding or compassionate, they neither hate nor loathe; it’s just that they cannot help being conscious of a difference that superior breeds feel in the presence of others. Often they show it most by their effort not to show it. Give these superior breeds the economic power to see us "at eye level" (I think was Forrest’s phrase) and they will see right over us.

They have been seeing through us for years. Don’t imagine that this prospect pleases me. The anti-American climate here enrages me. It is immensely part of my being fed up.
I think Chambers was underestimating the growing envy of America – those “superior beings” were beginning to feel deep down that they were not really superior. But one can understand what Chambers is trying to do here. It is what many of us have been trying to do all these years: to analyze and understand the reason for the irrational anti-Americanis of Europeans (and that includes the British).

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