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Why Do People Hate America?, by Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies

High words and low deeds

One of the high (or low) points of black comedy in the liberation of Afghanistan came on 14 October, a week after the start of the American bombing campaign. The exalted CNN anchorman Wolf Blitzer cheerfully asked a correspondent in Peshawar about a poll to determine whether the locals supported the Taliban or the US. The outcome was 81 per cent to 3... in favour of the bad guys. For once, Wolf was speechless.

Three days earlier, George Bush had whimpered in a press conference: "I'm amazed that there is such misunderstanding of what our country is about that people would hate us... I just can't believe it, because I know how good we are." Both incidents point to a long-term niggle for the War on Terrorism. No matter how often the mantra of "freedom" is chanted, no matter how many security alerts are sounded, there seem to be many who retain an animosity towards the American Way.

While the US government and its supporters examine "Why do people hate America?" by characterising those people as crazed Islamic fundamentalists or naive "left" accomplices, Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies focus on "America". In this concise study, the authors make telling observations about the contradictions between values and policy: "American freedom to act on a global stage has left many trampled in [its] wake." Their conclusion challenges the rhetoric and actions of the War on Terrorism: "Pure evil has no solution. It can only be eradicated, and attempts to eradicate evil generate as many problems as they solve."

The book's best passages are on the culture that underpins American power. Its careful dissection of The West Wing should be required reading for devotees who believe the series offers a "liberal" alternative to Bush's crusades. In the end, its kinder, gentler America still has to fight wars and sanction covert action. The anti-communist liberalism of the 1950s has evolved into the anti-terrorist liberalism of the new millennium.

I fear, however, that Sardar and Davies are preaching to the converted. Precious few outside the dissenters' congregation will bother to listen. I found my own sympathy doubly limited. They portray an American cultural imperialism, equated to the Aids virus, that eradicates indigenous cultures. But the embrace of some American products – say the internet's best "newspaper", The Onion – can bolster the challenge to Americanism and its foreign policy. What's more, the global sweep of pax Americana is not omnipotent. The Yanks can't replace local beer and they can't yet take the World Cup.

More seriously, the authors' cultural critiques, and even their depiction of America's economic position, are too detached from the hyperpower of the US state. I can stand a culture where George Bush runs a bad baseball team; I get worried when he heads a state that believes it can dictate who can be elected to run a country.

Yet this remains a valuable book. At its heart is the necessary assertion that "America" is an impressive but dangerous combination of innocence and arrogance, of ideology and power, of high words and low deeds. Happy Fourth of July, everyone.

The reviewer is Professor of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Birmingham