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Vol. 2 No. 1 Oct 2002

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But Some Are More Free Than Others
Sardar and Davies put America in the dock

By Toh Hsien Min

Why Do People Hate America?
Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies
Icon Books (2002) / 231 pages / SGD 15.97

Recently I went for a reservist briefing. This is when a couple of hundred disgruntled Singaporean men are gathered together to be told what they could expect in their upcoming period of slavery – uh, ‘training’. It’s usually conducted by someone fairly senior, who’s among other things paid to command respect, but who in practice inspires something between ironic indifference and raw disdain. At the briefing I attended, I spent half the time trying to interpret what the colonel was trying to say (example: if he wanted to say “rifle”, it’d sound like “lifer”, which could be serendipitously apt under the circumstances). Not surprisingly, it was a very trying time. But when he wanted to let us know what the available avenues for feedback (i.e. complaints) were, it just took the blackforest: he not only said but also put in his powerpoint presentation “Revenues for Feedback”. I think I can be forgiven for muttering to myself, “Well, you’re probably making a lot of profit then.”

If that’s the general case, then the United States of America is making enough profit to pull themselves out of their slump and into a new long boom, and if it were a corporation, anti-trust commissions would be hovering. There is a huge threat to the peace and stability of the world, a rogue nation whose policies impinge on the security and jeopardise the survival of all other countries, and that country is not Iraq or Sudan or North Korea, but the USA itself. Such is the picture painted by Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies in their book-long examination of the question of why people hate America. Sardar and Davies are careful to frame their examination accurately, immediately claiming that it is “not a book about 9-11”, because that would tend to prompt a “resort to the very agenda that constructs the problem”, instead calling on the consequences of “interaction in a world in which gross disparities of power, wealth, freedom and opportunity must be factored into each and every situation”. In other words, the issue is fundamentally a structural problem.

This awareness of structure is sometimes to be found within the construction of Sardar’s and Davies’s argument. Fairly early on, in the process of making the obvious point that none of the civilisations under discussion is monolithic, in a preliminary sketch of “knowledgeable ignorance” or the learning of other histories through the prism of one’s own, they hint at the bringing of the edge into the momentum of the centre, not only for the object of such knowledgeable ignorance, but also in the subject through its responses. This is fleshed out much later on in a more detailed study of knowledgeable ignorance, where they demonstrate the circularity of thought and how the residues of thought and imperialism endure till today. There are elegant mappings of how America comes to delude itself about its innocence and moral standing. Yet, the book just as often struggles under its own structures. For example, the almost post-structuralist dissection of each of the terms in their question succumbs to chasing its own tail, managing to conclude – wrongly, I feel – a premise on ‘people’ as being qualified by hatred. When in the final chapter the authors summarise the reasons for hating America as existential, cosmological, ontological and definitive, the rationalisations they make to have their essential arguments fit this over-elegant structure erode the credibility of their conclusion. The frequent use of pop culture – three chapters are structured through analyses of the television series The West Wing and Alias and the movie Shane respectively, while another introduces the greasy metaphor of the hamburger – while a very clever way of ironically reinforcing the point of the cultural imperialism of America, not only gets in the way, one suspects, of their forceful points but also make for annoying reading. Beneath all that salient structuring, one often feels mired in information.

Information is the strong suit of the book. Sardar and Davies have pulled together some really good research. There are quotes from the so-far-as-to-be-idiotic right, such as Richard Brookhiser’s “The world’s losers hate us because we are powerful, rich and good (or at least better than they are)” and Victor Davis Hanson’s “They hate us because their culture is backward and corrupt”, and from the more left-leaning or liberal intellectuals, such as Noam Chomsky’s call to Americans to “recognise that in much of the world the US is regarded as a leading terrorist state, and with good reason” and Harold Pinter’s accusation of the US having “exercised sustained, systematic, remorseless and quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide, while masquerading as a force for universal good”. The authors have gathered a truckload of evidence to back their statement that “In its treatment of the rest of the world, the US acts like an overgrown teenage bully”. There is a list, borrowed from Zoltan Grossman, that shows how America has intervened militarily in more countries per annum since the second world war than Nazi Germany did in the years 1933-1939 or Iraq in any part of this century, to prove American military imperialism. They show how America spouts a good tale of democracy and freedom but has a track record that includes destroying the Iranian democracy and installing the Shah in 1953, dime-a-dozen invasions of central American countries such as Panama and Honduras (during their 1912 and 1919 elections, no less), the shooting of Panaman citizens in 1964 for urging the return of the Panama Canal, and a long list of non-military, often financial, exertions of influence on elections in other countries. To attack American posturing about promoting human rights, they highlight the ongoing holding of prisoners-of-war in Guantanamo Bay without access to internationally-approved due process, innumerable violations of the World Convention against Torture, and the solitary American vote amongst all the countries of the world against UN declarations in 1982 and 1983 that education, work, healthcare, proper nourishment and national development are human rights. The authors show how America systematically exploits the economies of developing countries by manipulating the IMF and WTO, by dumping American goods at prices that destroy the livelihood of domestic producers, by signing unequal treaties and by forcing commodity prices palatable only to America on developing economies. As for the declamations against terrorism, there is in the other pan the World Court condemnation of the US for “unlawful use of force” (read: international terrorism), and the US veto of a Security Council resolution to call all states (meaning America at that point) to adhere to international law. In other words, America truly champions democracy and freedom and [insert your favourite ideal here] only when it is a democracy and freedom and ideal that benefits America. Otherwise, let’s roll in there and shoot the hell out of those uncivilised bastards. Or, as Monty Python's Terry Jones says, nations rarely wage wars for ideals, nations wage wars to become richer and more powerful.

Of course this sits perfectly with the current scenario being played out, with George W. Bush’s war-mongering pushing the US on a course for a unilateral, completely self-interested and internationally illegal invasion of another sovereign nation without justifiable cause. America has shown no concrete proof of its allegations, it has responded to Iraq's concessions on readmitting arms inspectors with more aggressive postures, it has spectacularly squandered the supply of goodwill that the international community had given it over 9/11, and a huge majority of countries are now in quite the exact position of “hating America”. Even if Iraq did have some of the capabilities America accuses it of having, it’s more than a bit rich for a country with the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons and biological/chemical weapons, which systematically resists any treaties to reduce its stockpile, which tolerates the development of such weapons by sympathetic regimes such as Pakistan’s, and which has both a record of military interventions and first-strike nuclear policies against seven countries including Russia, China and Iran, to crow about making the world a safer place. Imagine if some country like Russia or China took the US line and said the US is a dangerous nation with too many weapons of mass destruction, therefore we have to act pre-emptively to destroy them before they can destroy us, or for that matter if Iraq sets off a dirty bomb in NYC for “pre-emptive self-defence”. It's almost as though America are trying to prove Sardar and Davies right.

It needs hardly be said that all these come together to form a key point for Sardar and Davies: people hate America because of its double standards and hypocrisy; “people in many parts of the world resent American abuse of power more than American freedom”. It comes together in a key statement of purpose, at the end of the fifth chapter: ”To avoid a clash of civilisations, the USA must accept that all civilisations have the same right to exist, the same freedom to express themselves, and the same liberty to order their society guided by their own moral vision. Moreover, all other people of the world have the right and the freedom to disagree with America.”

Perhaps it just comes down to that: agreement and disagreement. The book circumscribes itself. There is a strong flavour of polemic about it, and Sardar and Davies sound more like liberal political campaigners than disinterested intellectuals, which could enact the polarisations they delicately observe in their introduction. Their book will preach to the converted, and turn off the red-white-and-blue-waving crowd (it’s notably not been published in the US). My guess is that it will change nothing: people will still hate America (and that colonel), and America’s economy will recover on the back of strong revenues for feedback.

QLRS Vol. 2 No. 1 Oct 2002


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  Other Criticism in this Issue

Packing Quite A Punch
Chia Yueh Chin reviews last three women.

dowhile doodah
Koh Jee Leong reviews dowhile.

Good Intentions Point to Critical Needs
Rajeev Patke reviews Singapore Literature: A Critical Reader.

Coming to Terms with Terror
Jeremy Samuel reviews September 11 and Political Freedoms.

Art Pitted Against Travel
Barnard Turner reviews The Art of Travel.

Related Links

Why Do People Hate America?
External link to Icon Books.

Review of Why Do People Hate America?
External link to the Independent.

Zoltan Grossman's 'A Century of US Military Interventions From Wounded Knee to Afghanistan
External link.

Why the world loves to hate America
External link to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Another view on hating America
External link.

'No War On Iraq' online petition
External link to MoveOn.org.

Let Wag the Dogs of War
External link to Counterpunch.org.

Poetry as Treason
External link to Counterpunch.org.

Brainwashing in the United States
External link to Counterpunch.org.


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