Why do you British think that Bush is as bad as Stalin?

‘Do you see any parallels between the security state that George Bush has created in America since September 11 and the Soviet 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 a great 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 to point out, tartly, that access to information is still much freer in the US than it is in Britain, that immigrants and asylum-seekers are much better treated here than in Britain, and that democracy remains a more open affair in the US 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 has just been published in Britain. For some, it seemed, the combination of that subject and my background – having lived in Britain for more than a decade, I recently moved back home to the United States – 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”.
True – but I also missed an opportunity to denounce the (equally irrelevant) high price of prescription drugs in America and the dearth of childcare. Another interviewer asked whether people in America are often arrested for insulting the President on the internet. Alas, this is not the case: quite frankly, if only they’d arrest more people for sending insulting spam on the internet, we would all be better off.
In part, 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. Solemnly, another interviewer quoted to me from a speech given in London by one Sara Paretsky, an American thriller writer, denouncing George Bush’s restrictions on freedom, as if she were some kind of authority. Partly, and more legitimately, it comes from ill-judged decisions by the Administration, such as the refusal to classify the Guantanamo Bay captives, according to the Geneva Convention, as illegal combatants in an illegal war – which happens to be what they are.
Partly, though, this rather surreal perception reflects something that I first noticed two years ago and am still at a loss to explain fully. This is the growing, almost hysterical animus that George W Bush personally inspires among the British chattering classes. The British, like everyone else in Europe, have always had a love-hate relationship with America. You consume our mass culture but resent its impact on your own. You revile our politics, but often wind up imitating them. Somehow, Bush has come to stand for the hate part of the love-hate relationship, symbolising the downside of mass culture and the pushy side of American foreign policy, rather than the economic freedom and political openness that many admire.
Largely I suspect that this is because Bush, as a fully paid-up conservative, is at odds with all of 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 is his domestic policy more than his foreign policy.
Hatred of Bush has, in turn, slanted the reporting in the British 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 a reassuring stereotype (anti-culture Americans). Far less attention has been paid to subsequent discoveries of all but 33 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, when I was in Britain last week, there appeared to be no interest whatsoever in the President’s recent trip to the Middle East, which was widely dismissed as a cynical manoeuvre.
Whatever the explanation, the perception of Bush as the latter-day Stalin seems to be so firmly lodged in some part of the British consciousness that I despair of removing it. Perhaps British journalists and BBC interviewers could be sent on fact-finding missions to New York and Washington, with stops at Manhattan comedy clubs (where making fun of presidents is a full-time occupation) and Capitol Hill restaurants (where members of the political opposition are still allowed to meet, and even conspire against the Administration). And if they won’t go voluntarily – then mandatory one-way tickets to Pyongyang are the only solution.