Antediluvian Anti-Americanism

Habitués of the European media are aware of the anti-American slant commonly found in “news” stories about the US, unless, of course, they happen to belong to that rather common species, the anti-American Americans. In fact, there was recently something of an “algal bloom” of anti-Americanism there, lasting more or less from the last years of the Clinton into the first years of the Bush Administration before it finally choked on its own excess. The tone is rather more subdued today, although one still sees the occasional piece of red meat thrown out to the proles. It’s good for the bottom line.

The phenomenon is hardly a novelty. As I noted in a recent post about George Orwell, he often referred to instances of it in his essays, stretching over a period from the early 20’s to the late 40’s, and unabated even during some of the darkest days of World War II when, by all accounts, we were supposedly allies. It actually goes back much further than that. In fact, I recently found some amusing examples in a copy of the British Quarterly Review, the great organ of the Tories in the first half of the nineteenth century, dating back to April, 1822. There, in a review of several books about our country that had recently made their appearance entitled, “Views, Visits, and Tours in North America,” we find ourselves described as a vulgar and inconsiderable tribe engaged mainly in the mutual gouging out of eyes and taking of potshots at each other. For example, one of the authors recounts several anecdotes about the “rough tumblers” he ran into in Pennsylvania:

…he was told of another who had been so milled in a rough and tumble, that a compassionate bystander said to him, ‘you have come badly off this time, I guess.’ ‘Have I,” replied the fellow with a triumphant grin, ‘what do you think of this?’ holding up an eye which he had just taken out of his pocket.’

Potential emigrants are advised to avoid the “pestilential vapors that hover over the thick savannas of the American wilds.” By way of example, one of the books describes a party of disappointed pilgrims, on their way back from the new state of Illinois:

These poor people informed him that they had purchased a large tract of land in the state of Illinois, and settled upon it the preceding summer, since which period they had lost eight of their number by dysentery, fever and ague; and the remainder had determined to quite the pruchase, and return with the loss of all their time and nearly all their money.

I trust that at least a few of the brave souls who risked their fortunes in Illinois had better luck. The author of another of the books recounts a similar tale of woe:

In addition to the misery of travelling in an old carriage, ‘with springs of hickory-wood, and horses fitter for the currier than for harness,’ he meets with rattle-snakes, and alligators, and dead carcasses, and putrid smells; butcher’s meat not fit for any creature but a dog; cows that give only a quart of milk a day, and, worst of all, with dreadful agues and fevers which carry off a great part of the population.

In summing up the tale of all these torments and miseries, the reviewer reflects sadly on the folly of those who would leave their happy home,

…to replunge into that state of savage life from which we happily escaped so many centuries ago; – to forego all the comforts and all the blessings of civilization; to be set down for life in the midst of a lonely and pestilential wilderness, surrounded with disease and death; – to be devoured by fleas and bugs, and mosquitoes within doors, and to live in the constant dread of snakes, scorpions, and scolopendras without…

etc., etc. I rather suspect that some of the British coal miners in the Manchester of that day had a rather less charitable view of “all the comforts and all the blessings of civilization” to be found in the England of the time. But as for us poor Americans, alas, we had not even the solace of a respectable religion in these miserable surroundings. One of the authors describes a “representative congregation” of our countrymen as,

…an ignorant, vulgar and fanatical horde, who, under the name of Shakers, have established themselves at a town named Union, not far from Cincinnati. This sect originated with a woman of the name of Ann Lee, of Manchester, who having, with her associates, committed various offences against public decorum, was glad to take refuge in America. The essentials of the creed are nearly allied to blasphemy; and the admission to the holy state of matrimony is so opposite to any thing like decency, that none but the filthiest pen could prostitute itself in detailing it.

In fine, then, the reviewer can foretell no great future for our country;

…in vain should we look for the arts, the elegances, the refinements, and general intelligence of this country (England) among so heterogeneous a population as that of the United States, where, with the exception of a few cities and towns on the shores of the Atlantic, the inhabitants of which are mostly engaged in trade, a great part of the population is perpetually on the wing, confined to no fixed home, and changing their occupations with their places of abode. Among a people thus circumstanced, the refinements of intellectual and polished society are not to be found or expected; and whether they ever will exist under the present form of government is a point on which our opinion is not called for; …but we have very little hesitation in repeating a conviction we have long felt, that as population becomes more dense in the Western States the present republican form of government will be found inadequate, and that Old and New America will necessarily become at least two, if not more, distinct and rival nations; the result of which would, in all probablility, be advantageous to both or all of them.

Thus the wishful thinking of an old English Tory. I should say we did rather better than he expected. Readers of this blog will recognize European anti-Americanism, both antediluvian and modern, as a sadly predictable manifestation of what Robert Ardrey referred to as the Amity/Enmity Complex, that aspect of human nature that we so love to ignore in spite of the mayhem, slaughter and warfare that have played such a constant and pervasive role in human history and of which it has been the prime mover. One can but speculate on why we Americans have never been so quick to identify the Europeans as an outgroup and return all this spite and hatred in kind. We certainly have had no lack of hatreds and animosities of our own in the meantime. Perhaps we can just be more easily imagined as a single, distinct entity upon which to foist all the stigmata of evil.

Whatever the target, though, it is in our nature to perceive an outgroup for every ingroup, and an evil for every good. As the horrific events of the twentieth century amply demonstrated, that tendency of ours is becoming a greater existential threat to our species with every advance in the technology of destruction. We would do well to stop ignoring it and at least try to find ways to minimize its destructiveness. Our survival may depend on it.

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