From the pages of

Cassius Clay Nation
by Martin Lewis
(First published February 10, 2003)

“The reason we hate you is because you have no idea why we hate you…”

This piece of probably apocryphal graffiti was cited shortly after 9/11 in L.A. Weekly as an insight into the widespread disdain held for the US by the Third World. Bill Maher subsequently transformed this elliptical aphorism into a particularly effective artwork in his recent book of faux propaganda posters. It does touch on a very sensitive nerve within the American psyche. As we digest several recent surveys that underscore how much the rest of the world appears to dislike America – it prompts an important question.

Can the detestation for this nation really be as simple as George W. Bush’s penetrating analysis? “We are good. They are evil. We have freedom. They hate freedom. So they hate us.” If you think that this sums up the entire root of Anti-Americanism – you need read no further. But if you have a lingering feeling that there might possibly be a tad more to the intense hatred of this nation - read on.

The reasons of course are deeply complex and revolve around a centuries-long battle between differing cultures – and multifarious American foreign policy initiatives over the past century – and the knee-jerk anti-Israel sentiment that is more readily available to Third World toddlers than mothers’ milk. (Indeed it is the milk of human unkindness that is drip-fed them from birth.)

But there is one particular American personality trait that I believe is a contributory factor. And it’s rarely commented upon. It’s as everyday as a Bill O’Reilly rant and therefore perhaps may not occur to the average American as particularly offensive.

It is – quite simply – America’s astonishing arrogance and air of self-congratulation about its legitimate achievements. The way in which it repeatedly tells itself (and the rest of the world) that it is – as the former Mohammed Ali used to say – “The Greatest.”

Now this hubris is primarily restricted to the collective entity. If a politician – no matter how great he is – proclaimed to the American people in a speech that “I am the greatest” – it would be an instant career-ender. Americans cannot tolerate arrogance in individuals. George Washington himself could stand up and declare “I cannot tell a lie – I’m a great president” – and that would be it. He wouldn’t have made it to the Papier-Mâché Hall Of Fame let alone Mount Rushmore.

Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, FDR – you name the candidates for the description “America’s Greatest President” and search through all of their speeches and you will find humility. They themselves must have had an inkling that they were a cut above average in the pantheon of great men. But they instinctively knew that that was for others to say.

But in contrast to this individual restraint, this country’s politicians of all stripes like nothing more than to loudly proclaim this country’s greatness and superiority over other nations. It’s an automatic crowd-pleaser. “America – the greatest nation on earth.” It’s a common reflexive thought – and it invariably draws thunderous applause. You can’t go far wrong with a crowd when you tell its constituents that they are the best. The specific category in which the speaker is proclaiming America’s greatness doesn’t really matter. After all, it’s not as though any other country could match or surpass this nation in ANY activity – so reasoned analysis is not required. For example the possibility that Bulgaria or Tunisia might actually be the greatest in some respect – and America the second greatest is not seriously entertained. Blissfully unaware of the irony, this is a nation which annually presents the WORLD Series of a game that is played in a mere handful of countries.

Does any of this matter? Not to Americans. But imagine how the REST of the world feels. Imagine reading, hearing, seeing on a daily basis – the words and the attitude that emanates from this country. “We’re the greatest.” And what does that make THEM? De facto NOT the greatest. Second greatest at a bare minimum. And – since second and third place in the category under discussion is never given – there’s no certainty about that. All other nations come under the unspoken general heading of NOT the Greatest. In other words – Chopped Liver Countries. And who wants to be in that column?

America may very well be the Greatest in every category imaginable. As a “foreigner” myself living in the USA I certainly hold America in high regard. But though I come from a country that self-proclaims itself “Great” Britain – that is a geographical description (as in Greater New York) not a stick-it-in-your-eye prefix. And the lesson that we Brits learned rather bitterly during the course of the downfall of the British Empire is that aggressive pride and braggart declarations tend to rub people the wrong way. I seem to recall that some people in our colonies in the ‘New World’ sent us a message about that in 1776. But perhaps British memories are longer…

As children we learn that as individuals we are not allowed to tell people how great we are – that that is an honor to be heaped upon us by others. So it should be with national pride. This country has much to be proud of. But let OTHER nations sing America’s praises. Let Americans exercise a degree of humility – or at least exude the disingenuous false modesty that politicians babble on being elected. “I am truly humbled by this win…” (Yeah! Name the politicians you know who are ever truly humble!)

America has so much to be proud of. But when it loudly and publicly proclaims its own accomplishments it comes across to the outside grown-up world as a blowhard teenage braggart. The “All-American bullet-headed Saxon mother’s son” that is the stereotypical fratboy face of America.

What worked for Cassius Clay - the nascent Muhammad Ali – the tongue-in-cheek boast about being “The Greatest” sounded fine from his Louisville lips. But it produces another form of ‘grate’ when uttered by Americans about their land. Let America’s true greatness be the wisdom to let people of OTHER nations praise its qualities and greatness.

(This article first published December 11, 2002 on political website

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