Monday, January 31, 2005

(What's so funny 'bout) peace, love and understanding?

Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies's book 'Why Do People Hate America?' takes as its starting point September 11th, proposing that in the wake of the terrorist attacks the question of the title was one with which Americans were obsessed and preoccupied without being able to formulate or comprehend an answer.

The authors then set out to explore some of the reasons why the US incites such fierce opposition and hatred around the globe, touching on a number of important points and supporting their arguments with statistics and evidence at nearly every turn.

They point to, amongst other things: the flagrant disregard America has shown for the UN; the way 'trade liberalisation' is interpreted "to mean one-way, open access for American multinationals and businesses"; the number of international initiatives which the US has refused to sign up to; the way "the American media functions primarily to keep its American audience ignorant of the rest of the world", creating "a closed circle"; the linguistic and cultural imperialism which causes irreparable damage to indigenous peoples; the uncritical and unquestioned employment of certain black-and-white terms and perspectives on the world...

One of the most intriguing chapters is that entitled "The burden of the American hero", in which Sardar and Davies argue that the American world-view is essentially the ideology contained within and endorsed through the traditional Western, where violence is seen as a legitimate way - if not the only way - to bring wrongdoers to justice, right wrongs and make the world a safer and more secure place. "American myths, the ethos of the Western, provide US foreign policy with a broad licence for extraordinary violence". The fundamental problem is that these myths do not necessarily correspond to those of the world as a whole: "It may well be the hardest thing of all for Americans to appreciate how their most triumphalist national myths inspire doubt and fear in people the world over, how their most characteristic tales fuel concern and provide a rationale for why people distrust America". Though this downplays the fact that this distrust is itself often manifested in acts of "extraordinary violence", the overall argument nevertheless seems cogent.

Perhaps most importantly in the context of the recent invasion of Iraq, which took place after the book's publication, is the point that ostensibly the US's numerous interventions into Latin American states "have been in defence of 'democracy', 'human rights' and 'freedom', but somehow they always end up securing markets for America". The Iraq offensive, far from being an unprecedented development, is thus set squarely into context.

Naturally enough, it's Noam Chomsky's favourable comments that occupy prime position on the back cover: "Contains valuable information and insights that we should know, over here, for our own good, and the world's." This essentially echoes the argument of the book that it's in the interest of Americans themselves to accept and understand that the hatred directed towards them is not groundless. The problem, as I see it, is that this book is unlikely to make any converts because, though broadly grounded in detailed political analysis and stuffed with factual information, there are passages in which a more naked polemic can be glimpsed. Rhetoric and invective is easy - that's the hating part - but what is more difficult is to examine things in a cooler and more objective way, something which Sardar and Davies don't always manage. As such, it's likely to be preaching to the converted and infuriating the heathens to the point of them throwing it down in disgust.

The other major difficulty I have with the book is that it is only at the end that the authors genuinely acknowledge that all Americans do not necessarily think alike. Though Sardar and Davies retrospectively point out that many of the extended quotations which have featured in the book have come from American academics and writers, they themselves are guilty, I think, of losing sight of the complexities and treating America as a monolithic entity. It only takes a quick read of a selection of blogs to realise that isn't the case. There IS dissent within America as well as without - after all, there must be to explain Michael Moore's rise to prominence. Sardar and Davies do acknowledge this, but too late.

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