Bogeyman Abroad

Foreigners — don’t you just hate ’em? Actually no, but someone always does. Recently, racial stereotypes have been making their reappearance in England thanks to the creeping return of the Far Right. It seems we English have voted the permatanned publicity-troll Robert Kilroy-Silk, an ex-daytime TV presenter and disgraced racist fired from his day job for making Anti-Arabic press comments, to be our representative in Europe. His public support stems from Little Englanders’ fear of ceding power to Brussels in the European Union. The St. George’s Cross, red on white, has been drawn out of the Union Jack and can be spotted flying across London as a symbol of this new separatism. England may not consider itself European, but clearly it no longer wants to be part of Great Britain. In such a climate, foreigner-baiting is common enough, but this time there’s a new element — anti-Americanism — and it stems not from the far right but the liberal left. This demonization can be traced to a single word: Iraq.

The Labour party recently sustained serious damage at local elections as Tony Blair desperately excused his vote-losing support for Bush, and thousands again marched in demonstrations across Europe, although I don’t suppose the footage made the evening news in many countries as it’s simply too common a sight. While the US president was photo-opping — sans turkey this time — in Italy and France, he delivered increasingly peculiar speeches laced with homilies and folksy fables to emphasise his supposed close ties with European leaders.

Having been lambasted by The Pope over Iraq (there goes the Catholic vote), Bush might have attempted to address more questions raised in the wake of Europe’s new identity. After all, the EU surpasses the US in population and GDP. Instead, Bush’s Normandy commemoration speech roped in Anne Frank for a particularly uncomfortable Hallmark moment. “In Amsterdam”, he told us, “a 14-year-old girl heard the news of D-Day over the radio in her attic hiding place. She wrote in her diary, ‘It still seems too wonderful, too much like a fairy tale…’ Anne Frank even ventured to hope, ‘I may yet be able to go back to school in September or October.’ That was not to be.’ Clearly the full speech was designed to yoke Iraq to Nazi Germany, but no-one is fooled by this style of oratory because we’ve become less ingenuous; as they say here, “when America does the cooking, Europe gets the washing up”.

These days, to be a European is to be constantly aware of US foreign policy because it affects our daily lives. The subject is impossible to avoid, and lately US foreign policy has became so volatile that discussion of the matter has joined politics and religion as something to be steered clear of in polite conversation. Before Saddam’s official exonoration over 9/11 (a story largely buried by the US press) few dared to admit publicly what they really thought, one exception being Morrissey, currently a resident of LA, who bites the hand that feeds him in the song “America Is Not The World”. Despite an aptitude for avoiding the thorny topic of America as the New Empire, Europeans are forced to examine the problem with increasing frequency. What we fail to understand is the deep-vein conservatism of policies that are so dismissive of global realities. Dreams of ethical diplomacy have been erased by scandals involving firms like Bechtel, but the gold-rush for building and infrastructure contracts that originally threatened to turn the Iraq war into another shopportunity have now been mitigated by the spectre of kidnap and random execution.

The US stereotype currently being represented in our liberal media is as demonized as any wartime poster of the Hun; it’s America as an obese, gun-crazed, religious maniac bent on world domination, a bogeyman with which to scare our children in their beds. As a European who formerly lived in the US and maintains strong ties with my trans-Atlantic alternative family, I’ve been dismayed by the transformation of the international American from cheery can-do pal to global hate target. Go to any upmarket bookstore in London such as Waterstones or Blackwells, and you’ll find a new category beside Fitness and Gardening that one could file as “Damning US foreign policy”. Each week brings new books and reprints on this inexhaustible subject: Rogue State: A Guide To The World’s Only Superpower (William Blum, Common Courage Press, May 2000); Anti-Americanism: Irrational & Rational (Paul Hollander, Transaction Publishers, February 1995); The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (Greg Palast, Plume Books, Revised April 2004); and Why Do People Hate America? (Z. Sardar & Merryl Davies, Disinformation Company, February 2003). In the political cartoons of the press, animal imagery abounds: Bush as a chimpanzee, Blair as a poodle, America as a shadowy predator.

The “American Bogeyman” persona is not some kind of Euro-intellectual conceit, but something that has filtered down through the Continental press, and we’re being given plenty of reasons to scorn its stranger exemplars. The Silver Ring Thing’s celebates are cruising for virgins in the UK this summer, unsettling liberals with their revivalist primetime singalongs; Hollywood’s worst-ever film season is choking our multiplexes; GM crops are attempting to back-door their way into our farmlands. It’s easy to feel vulnerable to attack when you’re a small island, however strong your economic position may be.

“Patriotism is not enough”, said Dame Edith Cavell, the English nurse who was executed by Germans after helping Allied prisoners to escape during the Great War, “I must have no hatred for anyone”. But as American companies such as Gap, Subway, Pizza Hut and KFC infest every European capital while world environment treaties lie torn up in the gutter, we wonder how long her patience would have lasted in modern times. Despite the adverse publicity attached to McDonalds throughout France, the company will tell you it’s one of their most lucrative European territories, but few American companies have ever canvassed so aggressively in Europe as McDonald’s. The pop-cultural annexation of Europe appears to be scaling new heights at a time when a little understanding would be appreciated.

At a direct-contact level things are not so bitter, although for most Europeans the only cultural exchange really going on with their US counterparts occurs when Americans take vacations abroad, and package tourists from any country never make good ambassadors. The latest cash-rich tourists arriving on Europe’s coastlines are Chinese, and they are being welcomed with open arms and hiked prices as they make camera-runs from cruise ships, buying into the global capitalist dream at an unimaginable rate.

At the heart of the US-EU gulf lie a set of paradoxes; Europe objects to the hard-sell of US ideals abroad but eventually adopts the selfsame domestic lifestyles, perhaps because many elements of those habits are appealling to the young. There’s hardly a street in Paris, Amsterdam or Madrid that hasn’t been smothered with imitative urban grafitti, guns are now being found in school playgrounds, and the accusing finger sweeps from hip-hop to Hollywood as the European left accuses the US right, in a reverse of the usual position. Meanwhile, US movies have picked up the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival two years running, but both films, Elephant (2003) and Fahrenheit 911 (2004), offer homeland critiques.

Unfortunately, the American dream of unimpeded pursuit of happiness is fast becoming the European idea of a nightmare, because fueling the dream is predicated not on ideals but upon resource-exploiting trade. When Bush announced his domestic tree-felling scheme to prevent forest fires, the overseas press quickly picked up on its benefits to the real estate and logging industries. The cash-up-front mindset extends to trivial levels; when D-list actors arrive in Europe from LA armed with parochial demands because the value of international box-office exceeds domestic revenue, the tabloids reach for their guns. British journalists report daily on excessive Hollywood lifestyles, lazily equating California with the rest of the nation. Most people I talk to would rather hear about the lives of real Americans; instead we’re told that Michael Eisner is building a 19-car garage.

Just how many of Europe’s anti-social problems are actually due to American influence overseas is highly questionable, but blaming America is becoming a knee-jerk response. It’s a strange reaction toward a country that suffered such a horrifying terrorist attack. The US’ fundamental desire to do good abroad has been considered a dangerous innocence for half a century, and the unfortunate by-product is the creation of more international enmity than ever before. Unquestionably, the demonising of America presents a disturbing escalation of the continental divide, and a misjudged deflection from the real need for us to communicate without fear or prejudice. This is where the internet could prove an essential tool in encouraging honest cultural exchange.

There will always be bogeymen abroad; to people outside of England, the image of the tattooed, beerswilling British football thug is regularly revived whenever European matches are played — sometimes with good reason. The creation of hate-figures is the flipside of celebrity culture; does anyone now remember the frenzy of odium that led to images of the Ayatollah Kohmeni being branded onto toilet paper, and will anyone recall the roulette choice of Saddam as his successor? Today’s foreign devils are Bush and his Administration, but in the slow-motion car crash of this presidency, everyone is getting trapped in the wreckage.

The problem is — and I’m prepared to speak for all of Europe here, even the parts Bush can’t point to on a map, like Estonia and Latvia and France — we liked Clinton’s cheesy charisma, because we never felt he was actually dangerous. The sex thing? That was nothing; we’re Europeans, we have sex in the afternoons. We liked Clinton for concentrating on domestic policies, for attempting welfare and education reforms and just for trying, against all the odds, to overcome the ingrained collusions of a Republican Senate.

Reversing Dorothy Parker’s edict, when it comes to US Presidents we Europeans want to scratch a foe and find a friend once more. The US should be led by someone who makes us all feel good about America. We’d like to see the nation elect a leader who cares what Europe thinks, because that will mean he cares about America even more.

Come October 26th, a new wedge will be driven between us. From that date, we’ll require a machine-readable passport, registration of biometric details, a digital shot and electronic fingerprinting in order to visit the country that Time Out London is calling the “United States Of Alcatraz”. Perhaps America doesn’t need Europe, but for the first time, Europe doesn’t want America quite so badly, either. Glancing at my TV over the last few days, I watched images of the stars and stripes burning in Rome, Paris and Madrid, and the firebrands are ordinary people, not religious fanatics. We now have a united Europe, but our childhood dreams are for a united world. In three short but traumatic years, that dream seems to have slipped ever further away . . .