America’s identity crisis

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

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Many fans and critics of President George W. Bush’s foreign policy seem to agree that America, in the words of one leading pundit, ‘now aims to remake the world in its own image’. But events suggest that America is no longer even sure of what its own image should be.

The organisers of tonight’s Oscars ceremony said that it was important for the scaled-down ceremony to go ahead, at a time ‘when American values are under attack’. Hollywood has, indeed, always been an important showcase for American values. Yet when the Oscars have to be held behind a line of National Guardsmen, and everybody is worrying about anti-war protests on the podium, it suggests growing doubts as to what exactly those values might consist of today.

The American mood of self-doubt is not confined to the luvvie camp. When US Marines replaced the Iraqi flag with the Stars and Stripes over the port of Umm Qasr last week, the top brass quickly ordered them to take it down again. Flags have also been yanked from tanks. Apparently, flying the American flag is now deemed unacceptably ‘provocative’ – a very far cry from the iconic image of US Marines hoisting the Stars and Stripes on the captured Japanese island of Iwo Jima in 1945.

Things that were once considered objects of national pride can now be treated more like America’s guilty secrets. To listen to top-level critics of the Bush doctrine, for instance, one might imagine he was the first US President ever to propose an interventionist foreign policy. Yet in reality, ever since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, the White House has repeatedly declared its right and readiness to intervene abroad to protect American interests. Meanwhile, at the less elevated end of the doctrine market, the US Navy has banned sailors from wearing their traditional tattoos into battle, if they are deemed to be ‘sexually explicit or advocate or symbolise sex, gender, racial, religious, ethnic or national origin discrimination’.

With or without tattoos, the US authorities can win a war against Iraq. Their problem is that they have long since lost the Culture Wars at home. Since the defeat in Vietnam 30 years ago, all the traditional notions about the innate superiority of the American way of life, and the country’s sense of its own ‘Manifest Destiny’, have been undermined. America has been left uncertain of what it stands for, without a clear compass to navigate the world. The terrorist attacks of September 11 brought these underlying anxieties to the surface.

Whatever the hawks’ hopes might be, rolling over Saddam’s ruined state seems unlikely to galvanise the global superpower with a new sense of mission. Everybody already knows that America has military might on its side; they are less convinced that it still has moral right.

With the international divisions over Iraq there is talk that, if the last one was the American century, this will be the anti-American century. Yet what is often missed is that much of the criticism of America goes far beyond Washington’s foreign policy. It is underpinned by a broader hostility to modernity, to the 20th-century achievements of humanity that America symbolised. And that dangerously self-loathing brand of ‘anti-Americanism’ can be just as strong within the US itself.

One bewildered US Congressman asks: ‘How is it that a country that invented Hollywood and Madison Avenue has allowed such a destructive and parodied image of itself to become the intellectual coin of the realm?’ America’s cultural industries certainly dwarf their competitors as impressively as its military. Yet the image they reflect and project is not the self-confident US of old.

In the current series of the world’s greatest television show, The Sopranos, an episode about Columbus Day touches upon America’s identity crisis. The Soprano crew of mobsters, for whom Christopher Columbus is an Italian-American hero (even if he did sail for Spain), clashes with Native Americans protesting that Columbus was really a racist mass murderer. Mafioso Tony Soprano rages about this at home, only to discover that his own son’s high school textbook teaches that Columbus was, indeed, a genocidal colonialist. Hell, the guy probably even flew a flag on his ship.

This article is republished from The Times (London)

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Topics Politics


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