Lost Love: Americophilia Fades Away

Around the world, the cocktail fizz of American promise is disappearing. And Al Qaeda isn't to blame.

By Ian Buruma
Ian Buruma's most recent book is "Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies," co-authored with Avishai Margalit. He is a professor at Bard College.

Los Angeles Times

October 25, 2004

OXFORD, England — There is such a thing as Americophilia. It does not have the rich pedigree of Anglophilia or Francophilia, or even Germanophilia. In fact, it is not always recognized as a bona fide philia at all. But it exists. It existed in Europe during the Jazz Age, and in Europe, Japan and pretty much everywhere during the 1950s. Even the Vietnam War didn't really kill it, for the center of protest was still in the United States. Americans had the best lines, and tunes, against the war. It still exists, although it is in danger of going the way of Germanophilia, into the fog of nostalgia, the land of what might have been.

I have always been an Americophile, or at least from the moment, at a very early age, when I received a postcard of the Empire State Building from my father, who was on a business trip to New York. The U.S., then, was an exotic place, where everything seemed bigger, glitzier, richer, more exciting. Americophilia, in my generation, was nurtured by the sexy allure of popular music. Even the names of the most provincial American cities — such as Memphis and Flagstaff — were turned into desirable fetishes through the lyrics of rock 'n' roll.

The sexiness of American pop culture was not such a trivial thing. It had the ring of freedom, of a country with endless possibilities, where you could do things that would make the lace curtains of old Europe twitch. Much of this was a myth, of course, as the Beatles, Americophiles themselves, found out when they outraged Middle America as soon as they landed on "The Ed Sullivan Show." American conservatism, like everything else American, runs to extremes. But it was a potent myth, with some substance. What was beautiful was the idea of America, where man was free to pursue happiness in any way he liked, as long as it was lawful (or, perhaps, even when it was not).

Anybody, in theory, and often in practice, could reinvent him- or herself as an American in a way that was impossible to imagine anywhere else. The fact that many Americans, especially if they lacked the advantage of a pale skin, came nowhere near to fulfilling the American dream did not destroy the beauty of the idea. It still held out hope to millions who were poor or persecuted, or just restless, that in America it might still be possible to find a better way of life. Europeans such as myself, born in the aftermath of World War II, also grew up with another, related myth, which had a great deal of substance: liberation from Nazi occupation to the beat of Glenn Miller, the sweet odor of Lucky Strikes and the broad smiles of guys from Memphis or Kansas City. As this summer's anniversary celebrations of the Allied landings in 1944 demonstrated, even the French never forgot that blessing.

It was with this fizzing cocktail of images, then, of swinging GIs, rock 'n' roll, constitutional liberty and the Empire State Building, that I first landed in the U.S. with a spring in my step in the summer of 1970. In time, the rosy hue of my Americophilia would fade a little. I soon noticed the bleaker sides of American life; American friends were often the first to point them out. And yet I retained something of that Kennedy Airport spring in my step, as though always in anticipation of adventures that could happen only here, in this vast land of promise.

But this too has faded. No doubt it has something to do with my getting older. You cannot spring forever. But something else has changed, especially after Sept. 11. More and more I hear the cliches of my own Americophilia being spouted in ways that sound false, as though I'm listening to a favorite tune being distorted by a faulty player. The rhetoric of freedom, fighting tyranny and liberating the enslaved peoples of the world speaks louder than ever. But too often it is laced with a fear of foreigners, with a nasty edge of chauvinism and a surly belligerence. The U.S. has always had mood swings from active intervention abroad to sour isolation. What appears to be the current mood in Washington is a peculiar mixture of both: a desire to fix the world alone, whether the world likes it or not.

Revolutionary wars are out of style in the Old World, which, after a century of mass slaughter, has retreated into its own version of isolation. So there is something bracing about the neoconservative talk of liberation and democracy, wherever and whenever. But the aggressive disdain expressed by those same armchair liberators for people who disagree with their strategy, or who take a more skeptical view of violent revolution as a national policy, suggests Napoleonic hubris. And the odd insouciance displayed by the democratic warriors toward the systematic assaults on American liberties in the name of security or patriotism suggests a less than wholehearted commitment to democracy at home.

I am often reminded, in the U.S. today, of Britain during the twilight years of Margaret Thatcher's rule. Then, too, hard-line Tories talked a great deal about battling for freedom and the like, but usually in a snarling, spitting, fearful rage against "Europe." The Battle of Britain would be invoked against trade policies hashed out in Brussels. D-day would be remembered in fishery disputes. And Winston Churchill was regularly trotted out as the spirit incarnated by the first female Tory Party leader.

Going to war against states without any evidence that they are part of the terrorist threat, while invoking Munich, Chamberlain and Churchill, does not look like a sensible strategy. Turning the U.S. into an armed fortress, making it harder and harder for foreigners to enter the country, is the opposite of defending an open society. Legal sophistry in defense of torture casts a dark stain on the White House. Harassing harmless campaigners for causes not popular with the current administration damages not only the beauty but also the substance of the American idea of freedom.

It is still possible that most Iraqis will come out of the war better off than they were before. Being ruled by Saddam Hussein was about as bad as it gets. The question is whether the U.S. will be a better place after years of fear-mongering, military abuse, erosion of civil liberties and a constant stream of political propaganda that distorts America's proudest legacies. If the United States can no longer offer the hope of freedom, refuge from persecution or a second chance in the lives of millions, the whole world will be worse off. And we cannot blame Al Qaeda for that.