The Washington Post Column

America, the Gulag

“Do you see any parallels between the security state that George Bush has created in America since 9/11 and the Gulag?” For a moment, the question struck me dumb. It had been put by a BBC radio interviewer, and we were on the air. It seemed impolitic to say, “What a ridiculous question,” and I was too surprised to laugh. Finally I mumbled something about not having noticed that great a difference between daily life in George Bush’s America and daily life in Bill Clinton’s America, and left it at that. What I should have done was point out, tartly, that access to information is still far freer in America than it is in Britain, that immigrants are far better treated in America than in Britain, and that democracy remains a more open affair in America than in Britain. One always thinks of these things too late.

Yet in the days that followed, I did, rather surprisingly, have the opportunity to try out a few more answers. I was in London because a book I wrote about Soviet concentration camps had just been published there. For some, it seemed, the combination of that subject and my nationality offered the perfect opportunity to discuss the viciousness of contemporary American society. Several times I was asked if Guantanamo Bay should be considered a concentration camp. One reviewer, after saying a few neutral words about my book, complained that “the author has missed an opportunity to condemn human rights violations in her own country.” Another interviewer asked whether people in America are often arrested for insulting the president on the Internet.

Partly, I suspect that this extraordinary new perception of America as a vile source of human rights abuse and repression comes from London-based Americans, one of whom told me she had moved to Britain to escape George Bush’s abuses. Partly, and more legitimately, it comes from ill-judged decisions by the administration, such as the refusal to call the Guantanamo Bay captives “prisoners of war,” which happens to be what they are.

Partly, though, it reflects something I first noticed two years ago and am still at a loss to explain fully. This is the animus that George W. Bush personally inspires among what the British, among others, call the “chattering classes,” in Europe as elsewhere. Recently, a Pew Research Center poll gave statistical backing to a phenomenon that many have observed anecdotally. Much of the world — and Europe is no exception — has a love-hate relationship with America. They consume our mass culture but simultaneously resent the impact of that mass culture on their own. They watch our television programs but are wary of importing them. On a host of issues, ranging from beliefs about the death penalty to preferred brands of sneakers, Europeans and Americans are actually growing closer, and the much-vaunted “values gap” is growing narrower. Yet when asked about it, Europeans often focus on what drives us apart.

Somehow — and the Pew results support this too — Bush has come to stand for the hate part of the love-hate relationship, symbolizing the downside of mass culture and the pushy side of our foreign policy, rather than the economic freedom and political openness that many admire. Largely this is because Bush, as a fully paid-up conservative, is at odds with Europe’s left-leaning political elites, most of whom hate not only him but also the things with which he is associated, rightly or wrongly, such as a freer rein for the private sector. What they hate, in other words, is his domestic policy, more than his foreign policy.

Hatred of Bush has, in turn, slanted the reporting in the European press. Huge amounts of attention were given to the reports, after the fall of Baghdad, of the looting of the Iraqi state museum, which played into negative stereotypes (anti-culture Americans!). Far less attention has been paid to subsequent discoveries of the museum’s treasures, hidden in vaults, safe from looters. Much was made a year or two ago of the administration’s apparent lack of interest in Middle East peace (warmongering Americans!). By contrast, there has been relatively little interest in the president’s recent trip to the Middle East, which has been widely dismissed as a cynical maneuver.

At the moment, prospects for change are slim. The administration’s stunningly inept diplomacy in Europe isn’t doing much to improve matters, nor is the low-level arrogance that still drips out of the White House and the Pentagon. One can talk weakly of student exchanges and conferences, but those sorts of things reach limited audiences. Besides, increased communication sometimes makes for increased misunderstanding. Perhaps the best thing to do is invite your foreign friends to visit, switch on Jay Leno and reassure them, in case they don’t believe it, that it is still pretty hard to be arrested — as Stalin’s victims once were — for telling jokes about the nation’s leader.