On Anti-American Sentiment

I would gamble that most of us have heard the phrase “anti-American sentiment” at some point in our news-consuming lives. I know I have, and on more than one occasion. I’ve heard it on highbrow NPR and on subterranean FOX News alike. The phrase has so much play these days that it has achieved its own Wikipedia entry complete with an etymological breakdown and regional descriptions of anti-Americanism. The widespread use of this phrase is, to me, an interesting discursive fact. It’s interesting because it seems to operate with the air of an established meaning when its meaning is anything but established.

From my cursory study of the phrase, I can identify two basic points about its meaning. First, the phrase is almost always used to describe a sentiment shared by many. Thus when the New York Times suggested in 2006 that anti-American sentiment was spreading throughout Africa and the Middle East, they were telling us that a great many people held this feeling. This fact of the phrase is basically benign and worth no further mention.

The second point, however, is a bit more interesting. Here the question concerns the kind of sentiment a group has to have for it to count as anti-Americanism. Is it, for example, a sentiment of resistance toward a particular U.S. foreign policy? In this case, one can imagine a Chilean opposed to U.S. support for the military coup in 1973 that brought Pinochet into power. Here the feeling has nothing to do with any idea of America per se and everything to do with the U.S. government’s choice to side with a right-wing dictatorship. Or is it a sentiment of rejection stemming from an ideological position? In this case, we can imagine a communist standing firmly against the expansion of U.S. capitalism and the McDonaldization of much of the world. As a third possibility, perhaps anti-American sentiment is captured by a religious group that believes America is a Godless country and thus deserves some kind of righteous scorn. For this group, anti-Americanism is driven by a particular perception of Americans, namely our Godlessness.

In all three cases, the meaning of anti-American sentiment is different: one the rejection of a government policy, another the reflection of an ideological position, and a third an attitude grounded in religious belief. Given such differences, one has to ask what we gain by trying to force them all into one simple phrase. What does our hypothetical Chilean have in common with our hypothetical theist? It seems to me that joining the former with the latter via “anti-Americanism” does us the great injustice of misrecognition. Surely opposing U.S. support for a murderous dictator is different from a sentiment of religious chauvinism. But if one reads the news today, the elasticity of the phrase “anti-American sentiment” functions in precisely the way I’ve described. It serves the clear purpose of confusing the public into thinking in ways that links the opposition of policies with the opposition of America as if the two were inextricably bound.

Consider, for example, the following caption found in a photo posted in the Los Angeles Times.

Anti-American sentiments have soared apace with the surge in drone strikes in Pakistan, which have killed civilians and locally supported figures as well as identified militants. Legal and security experts warn that the U.S. claim to a right to strike against terrorist suspects risks undermining U.S. security and standing.”

This is an important example that gets at the heart of the problem of misrecognition. In the caption, anti-Americanism is linked with drone strikes. On the surface this may seem like a straightforward observation: U.S. drone strikes lead people in Pakistan to hate America. And why not? Surely some people in Pakistan whose suffering under drone attacks has led them to dislike the United States as a whole. Americans and U.S. policy, in this case, are perceived as one and the same.

But moving beyond the surface, there is a deeper problem with such simple characterizations. Consider again the idea that anti-Americanism is spreading in Pakistan as a result of U.S. drone attacks. We can start by asking what kind of anti-American sentiment is at work. Is it the kind a Pakistani mother might feel when she learned that her child was “collateral damage” in a local strike? Or is it the kind a Taliban fighter might hold while waging his war against U.S. forces in Afghanistan? The two sentiments here are quite distinct: the former linked to individual grief and the latter an expression of a soldier at war. Without clarifying the differences we run the risk of misrecognizing what’s taking place on the ground. We may thus conclude that the realities of war for the individuals who live its terror matter only insofar as they lead to some kind of sentiment that the media can describe as a single thing: anti-Americanism.

Digging a bit deeper, we might want to know what that sentiment toward America really means. Does our Pakistani mother hate drone strikes, the U.S. military, U.S. politicians, and/or all U.S. citizens? Is that hatred a sentiment better described by personal loss or political positioning? In the Taliban’s case, we might assume the fighter’s anti-Americanism is directed at all of the aforementioned parties (military, government, and people). Nonetheless, we have to ask what that hatred stems from: is it ideological, political, religious, or personal? Might he too have lost relatives during the U.S. invasion after 9/11? If so, is his ideology ideologically or personally driven?

A similar problem with the phrase concerns the suggestion that certain policies can be deemed American. If drone strikes lead to anti-Americanism, doesn’t it imply that drone strikes are American? Technically speaking, they certainly are. But upon closer inspection, drones may be anything but American. Currently, it’s clear that both at the government level and within the public arena, drone attacks remain a hotly contested issue. Indeed, quite a few Americans feel these attacks are themselves anti-American. Thus suggesting that drone strikes lead to anti-Americanism falsely assumes that the attacks represent something American.

While it may be true that some people see anything the U.S. government does as American, it’s certainly not true for others. There are plenty of folks in the Middle East and South Asia, two regions where our government has been prosecuting its so-called war on terror for years, who are able to distinguish between what the U.S. government does and what the American people support. They know, for example, that the war in Afghanistan is a divisive issue among Americans, that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a controversial and unpopular war, and that drone strikes are the government’s policy. But by linking drone strikes with anti-Americanism, the media implies a connection that many people either don’t make or, worse still, implies that the government’s policies are truly American; that is, that they represent what Americans want their government to do. This, as should be clear, is hardly true.

Given our government’s ever-expanding involvement in the Muslim world, we should reconsider our media discourse. Phrases like anti-Americanism, when ill-defined, are dangerous. They not only lead to the misrecognition of the realities of what people feel about the U.S. government, its policies, and American citizens, but also constructs an of those people as enemies of America. This is a serious problem considering that such constructions can easily produce consent for policies we would otherwise never support. Isn’t it easier to support drone strikes, or at least “accept” their lethal costs on civilian populations, when its targets come from regions identified as “anti-American?” Don’t we want our government to wage wars in places where the people hold sentiments of hatred for America? The media ought be more responsible with its choice of words. If there are anti-American sentiments out there, then we should take the time to understand what those sentiments are and, more importantly, what we can do to change them. And it just may be that changing the way people feel about America requires that we change the way we feel about America.

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    Michael Vicente Perez

    Michael Perez is a Senior Editor at The Islamic Monthly and a regular columnist.

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