Letter to the Editor
Petulance doth not a critic make. Whether he is berating American or foreign critics for pointing out faults in our country’s social or political life or belittling “the likes of Freud, Michael Moore, Gore Vidai or Noam Chomsky, Bruce Bawer must see himself as the pontificating custodian of core American values. Those writers in his omnibus review who are perceived as diverging from Bawer’s core values deserve, according to Bawer, the petulance he reserves for them.
This is apparently the new direction in neo-con ideology. The previous imperative was to define critics of Bush’s war in Iraq as traitors. Now the emphasis is to impugn any critics of anything that Bawer sees fit to defend as America-haters. (John Gibson of Fox News has a new book on the same subject with a title that is embarrassingly similar to that of Bawer’s essay.) Most of those cited in Bawer’s protracted denigrations are dismissed with the same hauteur that characterized his vilification of the late Edward Said in this publication a few issues ago. His allies at that time were the network’s in-house Arab intellectual Fuad Ajami and that magnanimous Israeli humanitarian Benjamin Netanyahu whose pacific nature prompted him once to state that West Bank Palestinians should have been forcibly removed en masse to Jordan during the Tiananmen crisis when the world’s attention was directed elsewhere. In addition, Bawer’s comments on what happened at the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin were simply incorrect. The true story was written by Alex Fishman in the March 1, 2002 edition of the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot revealing the incident for the atrocity that it was.
The only reason why this bilge should be taken seriously is that its aim (and this is true of the neo-con agenda as a whole) is intellectual conformity, If one believes, as I do, that reasonable dissent from establishment ideology is the basis of civilized discourse, then intellectual conformity is the prevailing vice of our time. Bawer, like all those who begin their conversations with conclusions, leaves no room for disquisition. You’re on his side, or you’re simply a fool, and he equates his opponents’ views with nouns like “calumny” or claims that their positions are “disgraceful,” “hallucinatory” and so forth. But, if asked, would Bawer as an American be willing to concede from his apparently voluntary residence in Norway that the anger of many (and I include myself in this number) with certain American policies is not synonymous with hating our country? If so, would he admit that those who are at times hard on our own and our nation’s excesses and failings are doing so in the hope of reform? And would he agree finally that pointing out defects is not far removed from a doctor’s focus on what is wrong with a patient rather than on what is right and in no need of corrective attention? Because a single microscopic but malignant speck can doom a body, it just could be that a critic’s role is to call attention to the very specks that a petulant ideologue like Bawer does not even see.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Samuel Hazo
Bruce Bawer replies:
Thanks to Samuel Hazo for providing me with such a fine example of how not to be petulant and pontificating. From now on I will do my best to be just like him.
Hazo dismisses me as a voice of pro-Bush “intellectual conformity”-a.k.a. right-wing “establishment ideology,” a.k.a. the “neo-con agenda” -and accuses me of equating opposition to “certain American policies” with anti-Americanism. Memo to Hazo: I didn’t vote and will never vote for George W. Bush; I despise his Faith-Based Initiatives and courting of Vatican support, among other violations of the separation of church and state; and I’m appalled by his attempt to curb civil liberties in the Patriot Act, his targeting of “offensive” speech with FCC fines, his failure to address properly the issue of weapons of mass destruction and to admit sufficiently errors in Iraq, his apparent approval of the torture of prisoners, his reckless handling of the economy, his coziness with Saudi Arabian leaders, his unforgivable attempt to write discrimination into the Constitution, his opposition to stem-cell research, and much, much else. In short, I too oppose “certain American policies.” I might add that I consider disagreement and debate on such matters to be vital elements of democracy and believe that one of America’s strengths is our unusually robust tradition of national self-examination and self-criticism.
But none of this has anything to do with the subject of my essay. The anti-Americanism examined there does not consist in “reasonable dissent from establishment ideology” or disapproval of this or that policy. Rather, it is an irrational, poisonous, and reflexive prejudice that, in much of Western Europe, is establishment ideology. Its point of departure is not a frank acknowledgment of America’s real problems, but a visceral hostility to the very idea of America. At its most extreme (an extreme that one encounters in the Western European media with dismaying frequency), it is blind to the virtues of American democracy, compulsive in its fixation on and exaggeration of America’s negative aspects, and eager to soft-pedal or overlook even the worst facets of other nations-up to and including genocide and mass murder-in order to paint them in prettier colors than America. Frequently accompanying this anti-American prejudice, moreover, is a chilling hostility to the individual rights-including the right to “dissent from establishment ideology”-that are the essence of the American democratic tradition. (In Western Europe today, fines are levied against persons who “dissent from establishment ideology.”)
At a time when solidarity among the Western democracies is crucial in the struggle against Islamism, the prevalence of reflexive, irrational anti-Americanism among the Western European elite represents nothing less than a menace to civilization. This anti-Americanism is thus also a threat to “civilized discourse”-the basis of which is not, as Hazo would have it, “dissent from establishment ideology,” but an intelligent and uninhibited critical examination of all ideology, establishment and otherwise (including, ahem, American academic orthodoxy).
Incidentally, I’m grateful to Hazo for telling me about Gibson’s book. Since we don’t get Fox News in Norway (we do get Al-Jazeera) and since American books with titles like Hating America just don’t find publishers over here (while Michael Moore tops the Western European bestseller lists), you’ll have to forgive me for not having heard of it.
Copyright Hudson Review Summer 2004
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