Although I have visited England dozens of times, I have never spent more than one or two weeks at a single stretch. This year, for the first time, I am in residence for almost two months at Cambridge University, where I am the guest of a college and giving a series of lectures on humanism at the university.
The first thing to be said is that life here is far less stressed and hectic than it is in New York, at my university, Columbia. Perhaps this slightly relaxed pace is due in part to the fact that Great Britain is no longer a world power, but also to the salutary idea that the ancient universities here are places of reflection and study rather than economic centres for producing experts and technocrats who will serve the corporations and the state. So the post-imperial setting is a welcome environment for me, especially since the US is now in the middle of a war fever that is absolutely repellent as well as overwhelming. If you sit in Washington and have some connection to the country’s power elites, the rest of the world is spread out before you like a map, inviting intervention anywhere and at any time. The tone in Europe is not only more moderate and thoughtful: it is also less abstract, more human, more complex and subtle.
Certainly Europe generally and Britain in particular have a much larger and more demographically significant Muslim population, whose views are part of the debate about war in the Middle East and against terrorism. So discussion of the upcoming war against Iraq tends to reflect their opinions and their reservations a great deal more than in America, where Muslims and Arabs are already considered to be on the “other side”, whatever that may mean. And being on the other side means no less than supporting Saddam Hussein and being “un-American”. Both of these ideas are abhorrent to Arab and Muslim-Americans, but the idea that to be an Arab or Muslim means blind support of Saddam and Al-Qa’eda persists nonetheless. (Incidentally, I know no other country where the adjective “un” is used with the nationality as a way of designating the common enemy. No one says unSpanish or unChinese: these are uniquely American confections that claim to prove that we all “love” our country. How can one actually “love” something so abstract and imponderable as a country anyway?).
The second major difference I have noticed between America and Europe is that religion and ideology play a far greater role in the former than in the latter. A recent poll taken in the United States reveals that 86 per cent of the American population believes that God loves them. There’s been a lot of ranting and complaining about fanatical Islam and violent jihadists, who are thought to be a universal scourge. Of course they are, as are any fanatics who claim to do God’s will and to fight his battles in his name. But what is most odd is the vast number of Christian fanatics in the US, who form the core of George Bush’s support and at 60 million strong represent the single most powerful voting block in US history. Whereas church attendance is down dramatically in England it has never been higher in the United States whose strange fundamentalist Christian sects are, in my opinion, a menace to the world and furnish Bush’s government with its rationale for punishing evil while righteously condemning whole populations to submission and poverty.
It is the coincidence between the Christian Right and the so-called neo-conservatives in America that fuel the drive towards unilateralism, bullying, and a sense of divine mission. The neo-conservative movement began in the 70s as an anti-communist formation whose ideology was undying enmity to communism and American supremacy. “American values”, now so casually trotted out as a phrase to hector the world, was invented then by people like Irving Kristoll, Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, and others who had once been Marxists and had converted completely (and religiously) to the other side. For all of them the unquestioning defense of Israel as a bulwark of Western democracy and civilisation against Islam and communism was a central article of faith. Many though not all the major neo-cons (as they are called) are Jewish, but under the Bush presidency they have welcomed the extra support of the Christian Right which, while it is rabidly pro-Israel, is also deeply anti-Semitic (ie these Christians — many of them Southern Baptists — believe that all the Jews of the world must gather in Israel so that the Messiah can come again; those Jews who convert to Christianity will be saved, the rest will be doomed to eternal perdition).
It is the next generation of neo-conservatives such as Richard Perle, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleeza Rice, and Donald Rumsfeld who are behind the push to war against Iraq, a cause from which I very much doubt that Bush can ever be deterred. Colin Powell is too cautious a figure, too interested in saving his career, too little a man of principle to represent much of a threat to this group which is supported by the editorial pages of The Washington Post and dozens of columnists, media pundits on CNN, CBS, and NBC, as well as the national weeklies that repeat the same clichs about the need to spread American democracy and fight the good fight, no matter how many wars have to be fought all over the world.
There is no trace of this sort of thing in Europe that I can detect. Nor is there that lethal combination of money and power on a vast scale that can control elections and national policy at will. Remember that George Bush spent over $200 million to get himself elected two years ago, and even Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York spent 60 million dollars for his election: this scarcely seems like the democracy to which other nations might aspire, much less emulate. But this is accepted uncritically by what seems to be an enormous majority of Americans who equate all this with freedom and democracy, despite its obvious drawbacks. More than any other country today, the United States is controlled at a distance from most citizens; the great corporations and lobbying groups do their will with “the people’s” sovereignty leaving little opportunity for real dissent or political change. Democrats and Republicans, for example, voted to give Bush a blank check for war with such enthusiasm and unquestioning loyalty as to make one doubt that there was any thought in the decision. The ideological position common to nearly everyone in the system is that America is best, its ideals perfect, its history spotless, its actions and society at the highest levels of human achievement and greatness. To argue with that — if that is at all possible — is to be “un-American” and guilty of the cardinal sin of anti- Americanism, which derives not from honest criticism but for hatred of the good and the pure.
No wonder then that America has never had an organised Left or real opposition party as has been the case in every European country. The substance of American discourse is that it is divided into black and white, evil and good, ours and theirs. It is the task of a lifetime to make a change in that Manichean duality that seems to be set forever in an unchanging ideological dimension. And so it is for most Europeans who see America as having been their saviour and is now their protector, yet whose embrace is both encumbering and annoying at the same time.
Tony Blair’s wholeheartedly pro-American position therefore seems even more puzzling to an outsider like myself. I am comforted that even to his own people he seems like a humourless aberration, a European who has decided in effect to obliterate his own identity in favour of this other one, represented by the lamentable Mr Bush. I still have time to learn when it will be that Europe will come to its senses and assume the countervailing role to America that its size and history entitle it to play. Until then, the war approaches inexorably.