George Walden: What has the USA ever done for us?

We'll blame them for the fate of the NatWest three and sneer at their failings. Secretly, though, we believe America's culture is superior

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Open any newspaper this weekend, of the right, left or centre, and you are likely to get yet another dose of anti-Americana, from attacks on her foreign policy to the fate of the NatWest Three in their Texas jail.

This is not a fleeting phenomenon. The image of America has changed drastically in recent years. Once admired for their energy, technology, enterprise and principled and stoic approach to the defence of freedom in two world wars, Americans were simultaneously suspect for the same reasons as the English Puritans in the late 16th century. Though upstanding and industrious fellows, they could also be tiresome zealots and appalling hypocrites. It was the most extreme Puritans who sailed for New England, and four centuries later the same maddeningly contradictory temperament is still there to be seen, although now the negative image has overpowered the positive.

The New World has become an alien world, so different from what was hoped and expected after the Second World War that people who once looked at it as their natural leader no longer know what to make of it. Where they once envied the land of opportunity, now they see a land of excess - of wealth, debt, corpulence, guns, arrogance and, where terrorism is concerned, fear. They see a great power muscle-flexing around the world and at the same time a country tempted by isolationism and a fortress mentality (another Puritan characteristic), and they do not know which should worry them most.

All they know is that the most thrillingly modern of nations seems intent on going backwards, with ever greater differences of income, executions, and an incomprehensible revival of dogmatic, old-time religion.

Even sympathetic foreigners (a few remain) understand less than ever what makes America tick. How can America's intellectual and technological sophistication be reconciled with primitive attitudes on gun law and capital punishment? How can its creed of self-seeking be combined with its religiosity? And how can its culture be at once infantile and highly mature? The inconsistencies are most blatant in anything touching on sex. Verbally it is possible to get away with anything, as Sex and the City shows, but the series that features four women chatting about anal sex or the taste of sperm would find itself in trouble if a female nipple were by chance to be exposed. Puritan thinking has produced a situation where uninhibited discussions of erotica are seen as normal, while the sight of a woman's breast is a carnal affront to civilised sensibilities.

Nothing coming from America seems too outlandish to believe. Extremes are unsettling, and in reaching their verdict, critics of the US are increasingly disinclined to give it the benefit of the doubt. Unable to influence America into a more moderate foreign policy stance, and afraid where it might be taking the world, some give up trying to understand altogether and lapse into the self-righteous anti-Americanism that dominates large tracts of the world. America, for a while the object of mankind's dreams, has become a summation of its discontents.

This would matter less if it were a temporary distancing, the result of a feeling that America's struggle with terrorism had become sidetracked in other adventures. But the problem goes deeper. America's propensity to alienate herself from international opinion was there well before the invasion of Iraq. The election of a born-again president hardly helped, but it did not give rise to scepticism about where America was going; it sealed it. And when Americans reinstalled him in the White House four years later the most frequent reaction was, how could they? It was not only the country's politicians who were out of sync with world opinion, it was the voters too.

After years of seeing her as a model for all our futures the British can now be almost as allergic to America as the French. Her identity problem may be less acute than that of France, but Britain is an ex-world power, whose willingness to judge the world on which the sun never sets and to have America ignore collective opinions and do things her own way is a daily affront. Though there can be compensations. The election of George Bush is the best thing that has happened to the British media apart from his re-election. Bush makes the British feel good about themselves. When his name is mentioned in public debate you can sense a kind of moral elation, as the participants mentally sharpen their swords of righteousness and prepare for the kill.

The fact that American foreign policy is criticised in allied countries is as natural as criticism in America herself. It is not evidence of anti-Americanism to say that the invasion of Iraq may prove a rash adventure, or that America has been far too tolerant of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians. What matter are the tone in which America is attacked and the nature of the arguments against her. And there the position is clear: when it comes to excoriating America and the Americans, outrage and derision are de rigueur and any weapon will do.

Today the America symbolised by George Bush has revived the lost pleasure of looking down on the USA from a patrician height. In the past, anti-Americanism was mostly on the left, occasionally on the right. Now it has become a rallying point for everyone from unreconstructed Communists through Greens and pacifists to right-wing nationalists, whether Gaullists or Little Englanders. Anti-Americanism has always had a modish edge, but now fashion is turning into settled opinion, in which fear, mockery, envy and resentment are directed in equal measure at the American way of life.

The ambiguities of American culture make the task of the Americanophobe easy. There are not many countries of which you can say one thing, or its opposite, and still prompt vigorous agreement. Whether the proposition is that Americans are terrible prudes or that they have reached the depths of sexual depravity, heads will nod. Excoriated for her religiosity, America is also denounced as the epitome of pagan hedonism. She is the citadel of social selfishness and a country where philanthropists make colossal donations to international aid, charities, museums, the arts and medical research. American popular culture is seen as crass and degenerate, except when it is black or radical. And if there is one thing more risible than a corpulent American it is an American gym fanatic. Finally, as everyone knows, the trouble with Americans is that they are both an undifferentiated mass and a nation of isolated individuals in suffocating suburban communities.

In the cultural critique of America, the British emerge as the most two-faced. After a long day's anti-American indulgence, many a commentator might relax before The Simpsons or The Sopranos or a Hollywood film, or with a book on science by E O Wilson or a novel by John Updike, Philip Roth or Don DeLillo. They see no incongruity between their daily denunciations of America and their attraction to American culture. Works of this brio are somehow dissociated from the United States, as if they were products of some other, un-American civilisation, by authors and artists whose intelligence and creative capacities entitled them to be treated as honorary Europeans. The unspoken pretence is that all this excellence has nothing in common with the other America, the one they have spent much of their day deriding as conservative, populist, vulgar and politically primitive. British commentators frequently lament the American tendency towards a Manichean simplicity in their international attitudes, yet for them America is composed of two culturally distinct tribes. They know which one they like, and draw the line between them with the same unhesitating assurance their forefathers did on colonial maps. The fact that Saul Bellow was a conservative and Updike is an unashamed patriot and practising Christian is not allowed to get in the way.

The downgrading of America is no longer something that needs to be discussed. Who would suspect that this is the country with far and away the most distinguished science, literature, orchestras, universities and (at its best) popular culture in the world? If the British and Europeans were genuinely convinced of their superiority there would be no problem. The trouble is they are not. Their reaction to America is said to be one of attraction mixed with repulsion, but things are not so simple. The attraction is real because there is plenty to attract, but the revulsion is of two kinds: the first is a genuine horror of America's crass materialism, the second revulsion at our own sneaking attraction to it. Europeans despise and envy America and their contempt is heightened by their envy. Which leaves them, psychologically, in a tormented state. For them Bush is the ideal president, because finally they can breathe freely and dislike America heartily. Under him all ambiguities vanish, as America acquires a two-dimensional image: of a country of imperialistic wars, electric chairs, corporate crooks and religious maniacs. The pleasure of despising the stupidity of Bush is equalled only by our distrust of the brainy neo-conservatives who surround him. That Bush is accused of being a semi-crazed Christian evangelist, and the neo-cons of forming a Jewish cabal, troubles America's critics not a bit. His foreign policy allows Europeans to wallow in nostalgia for a time when Europe decided the fate of nations and more sensible arrangements prevailed. True, it brought upon itself two world wars, and had it not been for America it would have been submerged by soviet Russia. But all that seems a long time ago.

What critics of America appear to want is an impossible thing: a nerveless, neutralised, pacific, moderate-minded, high-taxing, welfarised, sedate, immobile, genteel America. Given her religious and cultural traditions it seems unlikely that we shall live to witness such a transformation. Or that, in its heart of hearts, Europe would wish to see it. For if such a debilitated America were miraculously to materialise, who would have the means and the resolution to lead the Western world?

George Walden's 'God Won't Save America: Psychosis of a Nation' is published by Gibson Square in August

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