Anti-Americanism As an Anti-Concept

Just as some questions (e.g., “Have you stopped bleating at your wife?”) carry false presuppositions and so can’t rationally be answered either yes or no, so some terms build false presuppositions into their meanings, making it impossible to use the term (at least in its ordinary sense) without signing on to the presupposition. (Racial and otherwise bigoted epithets are an obvious case.)


Rand used the term “anti-concept” to denote “an unnecessary and rationally unusable term designed to replace and obliterate some legitimate concept”; her favourite examples fall into the category of “a ‘package-deal’ of two meanings, with the proper meaning serving to cover and to smuggle the improper one into people’s minds.”

I think I use the term slightly differently from the way Rand did; for one thing, I don’t necessarily assume that such terms are always part of a purposeful “design” to corrupt thought and language. (I don’t deny that they sometimes are; but I don’t think Rand fully appreciated the power of spontaneous order, including malign spontaneous order – on which see Charles’ “Women and the Invisible Fist” and my “Invisible Hands and Incantations.”)

Rand identified “isolationism” and “extremism” (inter alia) as examples of anti-concepts; I’ve argued elsewhere that two of Rand’s own favourite virtue-terms – “selfishness” and “capitalism” – should likewise be treated, by her own standards, as anti-concepts.

Here’s another I’d like to add to the list: “anti-Americanism.” What is it to be an anti-American? It might mean any of at least four things: a) hostility to the American people and their interests, or b) hostility to the American government and its policies, especially its foreign policy and world role, or c) hostility to the founding principles of the u.s., most notably those embodied in the Declaration; or d) hostility to American culture and values.

Atlas Peacenik

Obviously there’s no necessity for these four types of anti-Americanism to go together; on the contrary, they pull in different directions. I’m pro-American in senses (a) and (c); and for precisely that reason I’m anti-American in sense (b). As for sense (d), I’m pro-American in some respects and anti-American in others, just as I would favour some aspects and oppose other aspects of just about any culture.

So what’s the false presupposition, the package deal, in “anti-Americanism”? It’s the tacit – and illicit – assumption that any person or position that is anti-American in sense (b) must also be anti-American in senses (a), (c), and (d). That’s how the term works; it builds into its very meaning a smear against critics of u.s. foreign policy. When people use it, call them on it!

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4 Responses to Anti-Americanism As an Anti-Concept

  1. Brandon May 13, 2011 at 10:24 pm #

    There’s also the alternate version, “so-and-so hates America”, which I think is deliberately designed to end debate on a specific issue, and be irrefutable, because “America” is an abstraction of so many different things.

    • Roderick May 13, 2011 at 11:06 pm #

      There’s also “Blame America first,” the position conservatives ascribe to critics of u.s. foreign policy — though the position would be more fairly described as “blame the American government first,” a position that conservatives at least pay lip service to in some areas other than foreign policy.

  2. Danny S May 23, 2011 at 2:26 pm #

    I dunno about this one… Group identity management has played a major role in human psychology since…well…I guess since the point where there were humans. It’s obviously true that there’s no logical connection between the types of views between which you are distinguishing, but it seems just as obviously true that human psychology operates in such a way that they will often come together (consider, for example, the Halo Effect), and that humans are built to take small pieces of information about others’ attitudes and generalize to form beliefs about their overall ‘attitude types.’ Once we have these things, it’s not a big jump to concepts like “anti-American.”

    When I hear that someone is repulsed by meat, I can reasonably assume that if I investigated the matter, I would discover that she will have certain attitudes about the relative moral standing of non-human animals. That’s because non-meat-eaters tend to have certain sets of attitudes which allows us to stereotype them in a way that’s at least somewhat effective. Of course our stereotypes will not capture the full detail of everyone’s attitudes, and of course there would be nothing inconsistent about someone being repulsed by meat without believing anything in particular about animals’ moral standing. But that doesn’t make those stereotypes “anti-concepts.” It just means that they’re part of an admittedly error-prone practice by which we navigate our social environment.

    Now, I’m guessing that you’re trying to take a stand against the sort of identity management that we’re seeing here: you presumably don’t like that embracing one’s national identity — being “pro-American” — has been interpreted in such a way as to require things like blanket support for America’s “leaders” and blanket endorsement of America’s “culture.” But that’s not directly an objection to the concept of being pro-American; it’s an objection to the conception of being pro-American. You may favor a conception of pro-Americanism which allows for diversity of opinions about American politics and culture: you may want the group identity of Americanism to be consistent with toleration of diverse views and critical appraisal of one’s group’s practices. And that’s fine, but of course the people whom you’re arguing against don’t see it that way: their conception of the group identity does not include this sort of toleration and self-reflection.

    You might object, though, along the lines that “I don’t favor a different conception of pro-Americanism like the one you attribute to me; instead, I favor the rejection of the entire concept of being pro-American: there simply is no such thing.” But consider the similar concepts “environmentalist,” “Yankees fan,” and even “libertarian.” None of these groups are characterized by the sort of uniformity or internal cohesion between ideas which you seem to be demanding of the concept “pro-American.” And all of them are built on stereotypes that won’t fit many cases. But it would seem odd to call these “anti-concepts.” We can object to the way that they’re being cashed out, or to the way they’re being used, but that shouldn’t lead us to throw them out as being “unnecessary and rationally unusable.” We just need to acknowledge that they’re the sorts of concepts which can often be misleading and even dangerous — concepts of a sort that humans have nevertheless been using throughout their entire existence.

    • Roderick May 23, 2011 at 3:33 pm #

      Maybe. But in those other cases it seems (to me) a lot clearer what the core meaning is, while in the case of “pro-American” and “anti-American” (because in the case of “American”) it just seems like a list.

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