Random Thoughts on Anti-Americanism

If someone asked Karl Marx (you know, the author of the Communist Manifesto and Capital), circa 1860, what was the most advanced and progressive nation on the globe, he would have stated unhesitatingly: the United States of America. It boasted, in his view, the world’s most democratic political and social institutions. In 1864, Marx authored, on behalf of the Central Council of the International Workingmen’s Association, headquartered in London, a letter to U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. He congratulated Lincoln, whom he much admired, on his recent electoral triumph and the victory of the North over the South in the Civil War. “From the commencement of the titanic American strife,” he wrote, “the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class.” (Thus did the father of scientific socialism, the harbinger of International Communism, tout the Stars n’ Stripes.) Of course Marx had inveighed against the infamies of slavery, “Indian removal,” and the conditions of the still-incipient industrial working class in the U.S., but within his sweeping vision of world history, America’s virtues and potential outweighed its flaws and crimes.

Most Americans today would nod in agreement with the brilliant German Jew who in his day and afterwards influenced so many about so many things. That is to say, looking at nineteenth century U.S. history, they would find greater good than evil even in a society built in large part on the extermination or forced relocation of the indigenous American population, on the trafficking in human beings from Africa, and on the annexation of Mexican territory which in today’s world would be viewed as criminal (rather analogous to Iraq’s attempted annexation of Kuwait). I won’t (at least for the time being) quarrel with this positive assessment of that segment of our past. At a time when neo-Manichaean, simplistic, downright stupid views of the world are gaining prevalence, I think it’s important to look at history realistically, dispassionately (the way Marx did), and recognize that there have always been complicated interactions between good and evil in human society. (I would suggest we apply the same approach to the examination of the socialist experiments of the twentieth century. On the one hand, impressive growth statistics in the USSR and People’s Republic of China before the restoration of capitalism. Undeniable achievements in education and health care that have left their positive legacy. [Just compare statistics on literacy, infant morality and longevity in former Soviet republics Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan with those of Pakistan and Afghanistan.] Greater equality for women. Extraordinary accomplishments in science and technology. Leadership in the (provisional) global defeat of fascism in the 1940s. All of this good, for the most part, in my opinion. On the other hand, gulags and purges and policy disasters. Tragic, yes, even evil. Even people and movements attempting great good make mistakes and commit crimes. The real world is complex, and there are no utopias. Best to just get used to it, and tailor one’s expectations accordingly.)

Looking at the U.S. today, one obviously sees—alongside much evil, including an egregious income differential and poverty that helps produce the world’s highest incarceration level, mostly for victimless crimes—much to admire and appreciate. And so the world, by and large, does view this country favorably. Even in the Islamic world, according to a Zogby poll taken in June, the U.S. is the most widely admired of all nations. But from Mexico to the Philippines, the admiration is for us, the American people, and the culture that we have created (that happens to include a proud history of struggle against oppression), not the U.S. government, or its military, or the U.S. corporations that shape the fate of hundreds of millions. People around the world distinguish between the American people and the U.S. government, probably more so today than at any time in recent history. A Palestinian kid burning an American flag in rage because an F-16 attack has killed a dozen kids in Gaza may very well be wearing a Boston Celtics T-shirt and have No Doubt’s latest album in his CD player at home.

I was dining with friends some years ago in Hohhut, in Inner Mongolia, in the People’s Republic of China, when an elderly man of Mongolian ethnicity in a tattered People’s Liberation Army uniform came to our table to tell us that he liked Americans. Back when he was fighting with Mao against the Japanese, he declared, the Americans were China’s friends. But, he stated loudly and emphatically, the present U.S. government was rotten. (He added that the Chinese government, then still guided by Deng Xiaoping, was rotten too. No one in the crowded restaurant batted an eyelash. Patriotic Chinese these days denounce the government openly. They’re not intimidated, post-Tienanmen. “What’re they gonna do? Shoot me?” they laugh. The world can learn from their courage.)

Anyway, I found the old man’s viewpoint-and the distinction between the American people and the U.S. government — commonly expressed in China. I hear, too, from American students returning from universities in Europe, China, and virtually everywhere, that while they’re personally liked, their government (I should put that “their” in quotation marks) is widely opposed. The students are challenged, and often truly taken aback, by the degree of animosity that U.S. policy produces in the world—but gratified (since nobody likes to be beaten up) that they are not personally held accountable for the U.S. withdrawal from the Kyoto Treaty, or World Court sabotage, or endorsement of Sharon’s murderous policies on the West Bank, etc. Most people on the planet seem to recognize that we humble normal U.S. citizens aren’t really calling the foreign policy shots. That’s a good thing, and perhaps explains why Sept. 11 was a horrific anomaly rather than a routine sort of incident.

This brings me, if circuitously, to the topic: the adjective “anti-American,” and its elevation into a posited system of thought: “anti-Americanism.” (The term “un-American” is encountered less frequently these days, maybe because it was so discredited by the power abuses of the House Un-American Activities Committee from 1937 to 1969. That term and concept, virtually criminalizing not only opposition to an imagined America, but mere non-participation in, or lack of support and enthusiasm for, someone’s notion of Americanness, is actually even more dangerous than “anti-American.”) What does it mean to be “anti-American,” or to adhere to the posited ideology, anti-Americanism?

I’ll draw on my own experience. Having helped organize a modestly successful teach-in on the “War on Terrorism” at my university last year, I was approached by one of my students, who also opposed the Bush administration’s course of action, and who happened to be on the campus newspaper staff. She asked if she could interview me on my political views and activities; I agreed. In that interview, I stated my opinion that the U.S. government routinely deploys military force at regular intervals, all over the world, on various pretexts, but in general to create the optimal environment for the operations of U.S. corporations and the accumulation of corporate wealth. Which is true, of course, for better or worse. But reaction from the campus’s right wing press not long in coming. Students whom I had never met reported in Tufts’ “journal of conservative thought” that “Leupp doesn’t like America,” etc. Since this is just not the case (there are lots of things about my country I like, as well as lots of things that make me sick, which is probably also the case with the student writers themselves and with most Americans), I considered responding, and gently reminding the confused young writers that slander sometimes carries legal ramifications. But I thought it better to ignore the article than to draw attention to a publication most people on my campus dismiss as of Ann Coulter quality anyway.

But it did set me to thinking. How does a college student, or anybody else, interpret a matter-of-fact acknowledgement of the imperialist character of this country, and opposition to imperialist war, as an attack on the essence of America? Just what is that essence?

Digression. On the same China trip mentioned above, I visited Datong and its magnificent Buddhist artistic sites. After arriving by train in the early evening I watched the sun set while standing across from the station, washing down boiled duck eggs with a bottle of the local beer (excellent, although warm). The duck egg vender approached me kind of shyly and asked me, an obvious foreigner, “What do you think about China?”

“Tahao,” I replied politely and diplomatically, in my conversation-manual Mandarin. “Very good!”

Contempt was written all over his face. “Buhao (not good),” he insisted. I understood his point, of course. I don’t know much spoken or written Chinese, but I have studied Japanese, and many Japanese written words are derived from Chinese. So I wrote in the air, with my finger, the Japanese word seifu, meaning “government,” and expressed my agreement that the Chinese government was buhao. The duck egg vender was delighted with this rational comment, and then set about asking my opinion about various figures in the then-current and recent Chinese governments. We thoroughly agreed in our buhao verdict on Deng Xiaoping, just months before his death, and as an interested crowd gathered (as they tend to do in China when political conversations are taking place) we found we had, in general, a common understanding of recent Chinese history.

So getting back to the topic of anti-[pick any country]-ism: was this young man in Datong “anti-Chinese”? I’d guess he loves the gorgeous landscape of northern Shanxi Province; loves his duck eggs and warm local beer; maybe loves the poetry of Du Fu, probably appreciates the music of Cui Jian (one of the world’s finest rock musicians, and one example of the good that U.S. culture can exert in this world). That is, he probably loves his living environment, loves his country, gets along with his neighbors. Just hates the government, which seems eminently reasonable, since it is, in fact, pretty bad and all.

Which brings this meandering rumination to the heroic Samuel Clemens. What more quintessentially American figure than the author of The Adventures of Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, etc., that towering figure of American letters who knew so intimately the heartland, its accents, its rhythms, its soul? Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain, 1835-1910) spent the last decade of his life castigating the U.S. government for its occupation of the Philippines and the other colonies it acquired following the Spanish-American War of 1898. He was one of the top leaders of the Anti-Imperialist League, an organization of Americans passionately opposed to U.S. foreign policy, from 1900. Every high school student assigned one of his works should be taught this, if just as background biographical information: Mark Twain hated imperialism, including American imperialism. And he had nothing but contempt for stupid knee-jerk forms of patriotism.

But let him speak for himself. In 1908, having been pronounced a “traitor” (if not an “anti-American”) for his outspoken opposition to the expanding U.S. empire, Clemens wrote a piece distinguishing between “republican” patriotism (as described in the Chinese examples above) and “monarchical” patriotism.

“The gospel of monarchical republicanism is ‘The King can do no wrong.’ We have adopted it with all its servility, with an important change in the wording, ‘Our country, right or wrong!’ We thrown away the most valuable asset we had—the individual’s right to oppose both flag and country when he (just he himself) believed them to be wrong. We have thrown it away; and with it all that was really respectable about that grotesque and laughable word; patriotism.”

Yep, that’s Mark Twain, a damn fine American, just telling it like it was, and is.

Getting back to Marx (also a fine person). Marx declared that the working people of the world in his day had no country (yet), but as mentioned above, he thought the star-spangled banner would carry the destiny of the global working class. (Of course the stars and stripes had a different meaning in the 1860s; watch the culminating scene in the film Glory and you’ll see what I mean.) Well, I’m a citizen of the country in which Marx found so much promise, born and raised here. I can’t be anti-it, anti-myself, anti-my culture. There’d be no point. I’m proud of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine (especially Tom Paine). And so many others. So proud to be part of the same culture as Walt Whitman, Gershwin, Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, Leonard Bernstein, Bob Dylan, etc. I’m just listing randomly. Don’t want to leave out Rage Against the Machine-fine young American men. Edison and Ford, for that matter; brilliant inventors, whatever their politics. Proud that May Day started here; proud of the American labor movement before it got coopted, the civil rights movement, the Black Liberation Movement (and yes, proud of the heroic Huey Newton and the Panthers). Proud of rock ‘n roll. Proud that the world’s gay rights movement sees Stonewall as its inception, and that the U.S. women’s movement has resonated among feminists worldwide.

So sure, I’m proud of my American roots. I’d like so badly for my American people and the American banner (whichever one we choose, the present one having acquired such associations in the world’s eyes as to perhaps be irredeemable) to carry, in a positive sense, the destiny of the world’s toiling people as Marx predicted. Imagine the worldwide joy that would explode, should the planet someday wake up to a mind-boggling change here, to a regime that renounced aggression and arrogance and sought instead to advance the evolving agenda-all about Power to the People—that began with the revolution that broke out in 1776.

“Anti-Americanism”? A vapid, tendentious, Orwellian concept. Not an “ism,” really, but an epithet and tool of demonization. We should expunge it from our vocabularies, as the civilized among us have expunged some other words.

In contrast, of course, “anti-war,” “anti-fascism” and “anti-imperialism” retain their longstanding relevance and integrity, among the planet’s good decent people, including a critical mass of Yanks who just might someday carry a banner that truly expresses the aspirations of the people of the world.

GARY LEUPP is an an associate professor, Department of History, Tufts University and coordinator, Asian Studies Program. He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu


Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu