ho is responsible for the attack on the World Trade Center?" I was asked on Counterspin, Canada's version of Crossfire.
"The men who hijacked the planes and flew them into the buildings, and those who financed and assisted them," I replied.
It was the wrong answer.
Another guest swiftly explained that though the terrorists were indeed partly to blame, we must understand that they were themselves responding to deeper causes the general poverty and hopelessness of Afghanistan and many other Muslim countries, of course, but also America's interventions in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf. By joining Pakistan in supporting the more fundamentalist mujahedin in the 1980s and then leaving postwar Afghanistan to fend for itself, the U.S. had helped to create the Taliban. And by basing infidel American troops in Saudi Arabia near the Muslim holy places during the Gulf War, the U.S. drove Osama bin Laden to transform himself into the Ford Foundation of terrorism. Americans themselves must therefore accept some of the blame for the terrorist attacks of September 11.
Now, there are reasonable criticisms of U.S. foreign policy embedded in that argument, for my fellow guests on Counterspin were in the main reasonable. Even so, that particular mixture of arguments does not even begin to establish some remote American responsibility for the acts of terrorism. It slyly implies that the U.S. spontaneously erupted into Afghanistan and the Gulf, when in fact the U.S. involved itself in Afghanistan in response to the Soviet occupation of that country, and placed troops in the Gulf to reverse the invasion of Kuwait acting in both cases at the request of Muslim and Arab powers. It glosses over the fact that the U.S. was following Pakistan's lead in supporting Afghan fundamentalists for the practical reason that the U.S., which is not omnipotent, needed Pakistan's help in assisting the Afghan resistance. And it generally exaggerates America's capacity for either harm or good, by blaming the U.S. for the poverty and backwardness of Arab and Muslim countries, including Afghanistan, when those evils very largely stem from the failure of such societies to generate civil institutions, sensible economic policies, or free democratic governments (or, in the case of Afghanistan, any kind of stable government at all). In the light of such persistent systemic failures, it is perverse to blame America for not imposing political and economic enlightenment on these societies the more so when we all know that America would instantly be denounced for cultural imperialism if it tried to do so.
But the Canadian audience did not really want to hear such an exculpation. It did not want to place the blame for over 6,000 violent deaths on the shoulders of the terrorists alone. Nor was this because it was composed of Muslims or anti-Americans (though there were probably some of both present). You would have had a very similar reaction from almost any Ivy League audience. Or from the League of Women Voters. Or from a session of Americans for Democratic Action. Or from a town meeting in almost any college town or gentrified urban area in the U.S. For in the Western world today there is a substantial audience-well short of a majority but still large for arguments that combine two factors: a tendency to self-blame and a taste for complex causal explanations, preferably made still more complex by social-science jargon.
Examine some of the "anti-American" remarks made since September 11. Here, for instance, is a columnist in the student newspaper at the University of Michigan. Its author is a young man, of course, but his reflections mirror more senior academic opinion, as well as the opinions of Susan Sontag, Michael Moore, and the rest of the usual suspects. If it seems harsh to single him out for criticism here, remember that he will be extravagantly praised by those suspects for his idealism in penning these thoughts:
Ah yes, as the English critic John Gross has remarked: "Complexity is the first refuge of the scoundrel." If indeed the World Trade Center was attacked because the U.S. withdrew from the Kyoto treaty, then the primary suspects are presumably the German and French "Green" parties, which were the bodies most enthusiastic about it. The Muslim countries were either indifferent to it, or nervously skeptical (some oil-producing countries), or outspokenly hostile (Malaysia). But our student strategist does not wish to place even partial or subsidiary blame for the attack on anyone but America. In his formulation, no one actually does the terrorism; it merely "follows" from some prior American beastliness, such as withdrawing from an international conference booming with anti-Semitic rhetoric. The terrorists themselves were not active protagonists in this scenario; they merely went through certain motions that American diplomacy had set in train, like billiard balls clicking over the green baize. But the U.S., when it retaliates, will enjoy no such excuse: Any response to the World Trade Center attack will be seen as a free and premeditated act of "tyrannical international policing."
In the immediate aftermath of the murder of more than 6,000 Americans, such comments have been relatively rare and muted in the U.S. They have been more common abroad: Fintan O'Toole in the Irish Times describing the U.S. as "merciless and arrogant"; the British New Statesman explaining that the Americans deserved to be bombed because they had voted for Bush, and even Gore, rather than for Ralph Nader; Edward Said in the London Observer unmasking the naïve American concepts of "freedom and terrorism" as "large abstractions [that] have mostly hidden sordid material interests, the influence of the oil, defense and Zionist lobbies now consolidating their hold on the entire Middle East, and an age-old religious hostility to (and ignorance of) 'Islam' that takes new forms every day"; an entire stable of Guardian writers all piously hoping that Americans will now take the trouble to learn from this painful episode why they are "hated"; and almost all of this vile nonsense written in falsely neutral or sympathetic tones behind which a passionate hostility is barely held in check, like a Freudian psychoanalyst explaining to a patient of whom he is secretly and viciously jealous the valid reasons why no one likes him.
When such comments appear, we are reasonably inclined to describe them as uncomplicatedly "anti-American." But it would be mistaken to see them as exhibiting a foreign nationalist rejection of American influence. Such feelings do exist, of course: sometimes in diplomatic or European bureaucracies, sometimes in intellectual coteries like the High Tory historians who blame the U.S. for the decline of the British Empire. But these are minority reactions. Most anti-American diatribes of the kind quoted above come from people who dislike their own country almost as much as they dislike America. Indeed, their dislike of the U.S. is partly rooted in their perception that America is an obstacle to their hopes of transforming their own societies in a statist, regulated, and bureaucratic direction. By its example, America gives hope to both the organic traditionalist and the spontaneous modernizing elements in their own societies. And, of course, many Americans share the sentiments of those who would reject these American influences which is why anti-Americanism has been a popular import in certain parts of the U.S. in recent years.
Self-blame and a taste for complexity go very comfortably together to form something I call "counter-tribalism." This is a form of intellectual snobbery. A person in its grip has imbibed the notion that the patriotism of ordinary people is something simplistic, vulgar, and shameful, and thus to be avoided. He has been told that a genuinely sophisticated person a university professor, say has thrown off patriotic prejudice to become a citizen of the world. Now, of course, genuine cosmopolitanism is an admirable thing, drawing upon wide cultural sympathies but perfectly compatible with a simple love of country, as the work of any number of poets demonstrates. It is accordingly very rare. So what the counter-tribalist mistakes for cosmopolitanism is an inverted jingoism an instinctive preference for other nations and a marked prejudice that in any conflict the enemy of America is in the right.
Hence the extraordinary convolutions whereby feminists and multiculturalists find themselves taking the side of medieval Islamists against the common American enemy. They feel more comfortable in such superior company than alongside a hard-hat construction worker or a suburban golfer in plaid pants. But such preferences take some explaining. Hence not merely the taste for but the absolute necessity of complex explanations.
And all of this is in service of the notion of separating oneself from one's fellow citizens who are not sophisticated enough to rise above simple loyalties. A wonderful example of such self-infatuation comes from Barbara Kingsolver, commenting on patriotism:
Despite its obvious intellectual deficiencies, counter-tribalism has advanced considerably in recent years. Many of America's troubles stem in part from the fact that it is the first nation with a dissident ruling class. Our elites in government, cultural institutions, the courts, the media, and even business have increasingly adopted the view that the American people are racist, sexist, and homophobic, and that it is therefore a prime duty of government to protect other people from them. In the current crisis, commentators have been predicting a vast national pogrom against American Muslims and have had desperately to exaggerate the relatively few (if shameful) incidents that have occurred to avoid disappointing their readers. In foreign policy, the first instinct of diplomatic elites when faced with a hostile attack is not to "overreact." What makes the situation worse is that the elites have had some success in inculcating counter-tribalism into a large lumpenintelligentsia of teachers, librarians, researchers, small-town-newspaper "liberals," clergymen, and assorted ancillary brainworkers. As journalist Mark Steyn has pointed out, in his own district the local teachers and clergymen were primarily concerned not to allow the reactions of the local people to degenerate into patriotic national sentiment. Twenty years of inculcating multiculturalist clichés into people has made the old expressions of patriotic sentiment seem taboo and even racist to some ears.
Will the terrorist attack change all this? Will it provoke a cultural change in America that will make patriotism seem more natural to the elites? Will it, indeed, mean that a different America will develop a wider and more inclusive patriotism, one more likely to defeat the multicultural platitudes in vogue until recently? All these things are possible. But they will not happen by themselves. In particular, they will not happen without intellectual and moral effort on the part of people who know that patriotism is a virtue perfectly compatible with other virtues such as a genuine easygoing tolerance. Indeed, an American patriotism (and, I would add, a British one) would be among other things a celebration of tolerance. A first step in present circumstances, however, is to reveal the arguments of the counter-tribalists for the shallow, silly, self-regarding snobbery they undoubtedly are.