LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
What is wrong with the U.S.?
By Mike Marqusee
While the world has good reason to fear U.S. global ambitions, the former also needs to remember that some of the most crucial agents in thwarting those ambitions are to be found within America itself ... . Beginning a new column.
ANGER: An anti-American protest in Jakarta. PHOTO: REUTERS
IT's been an interesting experience, being an American abroad, especially since 9/11. Whether in Europe or south Asia, people gape with disbelief at what appears to be an unchained American empire, contemptuous of the rules that apply to others, murderously indifferent to the value of non-American life. And they ask ex-pats like me, "What's wrong with the USA?"
Sentiments like these are routinely dubbed "anti-American" in the U.S. media, which likes to portray the rest of the world as writhing in the grip of an irrational knee-jerk hatred, an "anti-Americanism" rooted in envy or backwardness. I've been lucky. In my 34 years living outside the USA, I've had the chance to learn something from those at the wrong end of U.S. policies.
`My heart sank'
In 1974, in a crowded railway compartment whistling through northern Italy, I found myself squeezed next to a Cypriot student. Upon learning that I carried a U.S. passport, he launched into a bitter account of Washington's complicity in the recent Turkish invasion of his island, which was accompanied by ethnic cleansing and resulted in partition.
Twenty-five years later, driving through Quetta, my hosts pointed out the gleaming marble facade of a madrassa which had provided foot-soldiers for the Taliban movement. "Your government paid for this," they reminded me with rueful smiles. They knew that I was aware of what U.S. sponsorship of the Afghan war had meant for Pakistani society fundamentalism, sectarian violence, gun culture, heroin addiction but they also knew that very few other Americans had a clue.
On the evening of 9/11, I watched a hollow-eyed, grief-stricken New Yorker speak pleadingly to a TV camera: "What kind of people would do this? America wouldn't do this. America doesn't kill innocent women and children."
My heart sank.
In an article I wrote a few weeks later, I argued that there was nothing anti-American about opposing Bush's drive to war. I pointed out that large numbers of Americans were themselves opposed to war, and that the darkness in which the U.S. media keeps U.S. citizens in regards to their country's foreign policy was a tragedy for Americans as well as others.
A childhood friend from the USA replied angrily. She wanted her president to do whatever was necessary to make sure her kids were safe on their own streets (and she was a proud liberal, firmly on the left of the U.S. political spectrum). From occupied Palestine I received two e-mails. The author of one thanked me for reminding him that not all Americans were their enemies. The other pronounced himself fed up with people like me making excuses for Americans. If there were so many decent ones, why didn't they put a stop to their government's policies?
Is there reason for this?
After the invasion of Iraq, the collective punishment of Fallujah, the abuses of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Bagram, the reckless insistence on the right to pollute the planet and the systematic asset-stripping of the developing world, people in other countries have every reason to look at the USA with fear and anger. Add on to that the current pre-eminence in Washington of right-wing Christian fundamentalists in cahoots with the oil and armaments industries, and no wonder the world is worried.
But while the world has good reason to fear U.S. global ambitions, the world also needs to remember that some of the most crucial agents in thwarting those ambitions are to be found within the USA itself.
Let me give an example. In the spring of 2003, a 22-year-old U.S. marine from Pennsylvania named Michael Hoffman found himself in Baghdad, firing shells into Iraqi homes. On his return to the States, he helped found an organisation called Iraq Veterans Against the War. He visited us in London last autumn and spoke movingly of his experiences in Iraq and of the injustices of the occupation. He also met with a group of Iraqis, many of whom had friends or relatives killed or abused by U.S. troops and several of them vented their anger at Michael. He listened, quietly, and accepted their anguish. He explained how and why he had found himself in Iraq, and what his group in the USA were trying to do now to put an end to the policies that had led to this nightmare. In short, he was a model ambassador for the people of the USA, though many of them will denounce him as a traitor or "self-hating American". So what's wrong with the USA? It's been suggested to me that the problem with Americans is that they don't play cricket. The argument echoed historian G.M. Trevelyan's quip about the French Revolution: "if the French noblesse had been capable of playing cricket with their peasants, their chateaux would never have been burnt." As a cricket-lover, I'd almost like to believe it, except that I do live in Britain, where Tony Blair's enthusiastic participation in the U.S. assault on Iraq precludes such a comforting illusion.
London-based author Mike Marqusee has written numerous books exploring the crossroads of culture, sport and politics.
Send this article to Friends by