There is nothing anti-American about opposing the drive to war

Mike Marqusee

Thursday October 4, 2001

“What’s at stake is democracy. Democracy wasn’t cancelled on the 11th of September, but democracy won’t survive if citizens turn into lemmings. If in the name of the war on terrorism President Bush hands the state over to the energy industry, it’s every patriot’s duty to join the loyal opposition.” –Bill Moyers.

Reading the fulminations against the alleged anti-Americanism of those opposed to the current drive to war, I feel I’ve come full circle. As an American teenager protesting against the butchery in Vietnam, I became accustomed to being attacked by some fellow citizens as anti-American. It always seemed frustratingly unfair. After all, we were Americans too, and so were the GIs we wanted to bring home, and wasn’t being American all about the right to entertain diverse views on our government’s policies?

Now, after 30 years abroad, I find myself in the dock once again for the thought-crime of “anti-Americanism”. This time, the charge is levelled not by US citizens, but by British liberals, including adoptive Americans such as Chris Hitchens and Salman Rushdie. I wonder what they would have said to Mahatma Gandhi, who told the people of the United States that their country was governed “by a few capitalist owners” whose “holdings cannot be sustained except by violence, veiled if not open” and that therefore “your wars will never ensure safety for democracy”. Or to Gandhi’s American disciple, Martin Luther King, who described the US government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”.

The logic of the anti-American accusation remains as curious as ever. There is no rational basis for equating opposition to the demonstrably murderous policies pursued across the globe by the US government with hostility to the people of the United States. In my experience, the current anti-war protesters are motivated by a deep response to the suffering in New York and Washington. Surely it’s the politicians and commercial interests exploiting that suffering to promote their own long-standing agendas whose respect for the dead ought to be questioned.

In some quarters, the purpose of the anti-American jibe is simply to cast aspersions on the motives of dissenters in order to evade their arguments. Elsewhere, the impulses are different. People from many lands have long engaged in a passionate romance with America. This society of extraordinary wealth and diversity, with its contradictions, beauties and savageries, exerts a powerful fascination. What disturbs me in recent effusions (including Tony Blair’s invocation of the Statue of Liberty) is the glorification of the US as some kind of unique and sacrosanct human achievement, whose flaws are merely incidental, and of no relevance to our collective response to the September 11 atrocities.

This is an overseas variant of the aggressive boosterism that has for so long disfigured American political discourse and disarmed the American people in their own democratic arena. Too many British commentators seem intoxicated by America’s affluence, and too few evince any real knowledge or concern about the conditions in which most Americans actually live. What Americans need now is a realistic understanding of their nation’s place in the world, not the self-serving myths peddled by a corporate-sponsored political elite.

Since September 11 I’ve been in constant communication with friends and family in New York and Washington and overwhelmingly they oppose their government’s response to the terror attacks. They may be in a minority but they are as American as anyone else. I’ve also been in contact with friends in the peace movement across several continents. What has struck me is that so many of these people have sought refreshment at the well-springs of American popular culture, from soul music to Star Trek, and found inspiration in American social movements, from civil rights to gay liberation. Like the baseball lovers in Cuba and Nicaragua, they have no trouble distinguishing between a people’s culture and its government. They share an understanding that there is no monolithic America that one can reasonably be “pro” or “anti”. They reject the dangerous assumption that there is a single essence that defines a particular society, nation or culture. That delusion is the common ground between Bush, Bin Laden and the knee-jerk commentators who have fallen back on the charge of anti-Americanism.

Recent events have sent me scuttling back to one of my boyhood heroes, the peculiarly American writer Henry David Thoreau. In 1845, in protest against the US’s war with Mexico – a war of conquest driven by greed and jingoism – Thoreau refused to pay taxes and spent a night in jail. He explained his action in an essay entitled Civil Disobedience (it influenced both Gandhi and King). Thoreau urged America to “cherish its wise minority”. And argued that when “a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionise. What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army”.

Mike Marqusee is author of Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties (Verso)

Reproduced courtesy of The Guardian.