TCS Daily

Anti-American Graffiti

By Mary Grabar - May 8, 2006 12:00 AM

In the summer of 1969, two years after the "Summer of Love" and one year after the massive student protests, particularly in France, I was a 12-year-old with my parents visiting Slovenia for the first time since we had emigrated, via Austria, ten years earlier. I gathered with half the village in the living room of a house that contained the only television set in the village. The houses were close together, but we had all either walked or ridden a bicycle over, for there were only as many cars in each village as television sets.

Everyone watched the images on this luxury item, a television set, intently, including myself someplace in the crowd. I remember someone saying in Slovenian, "Look! Those are Americans landing on the moon!"

I remember feeling pride as the looks came to our direction.

My parents denied their own children what other American children took for granted (matinees, Girl Scout dues, dance lessons) in part so they could send money and packages filled with clothes, mostly from thrift stores, to my widowed aunt and her three children, and to other relatives. We were seen as benefactors, and America was viewed as a place of opportunity, where some from the villages could go and make good.

Flash forward to the summer of 2005. On a Sunday morning, I arrive in my hometown of Murska Sobota, Slovenia, from Prague after an 18-hour-train journey. The graffiti, "Bush=Nazi," is sprayed on buildings. I have seen it in Prague, too.

My cousins come to pick me up in their Acura. Their hospitality continues in the noted Slovenian tradition.

In the summer of 2005 my cousins own their own cars and some have bought cars for their young adult children. My family would not own a car until that fall after we returned from Slovenia in 1969.

As is customary in Slovenia, most young adults live with their parents until they marry. But there is grumbling about the lack of opportunity. My now middle-aged cousins who have had only eighth grade educations and remember hoeing in the fields all day and living without indoor plumbing have worked themselves into bad health at factories to provide their children with cars, fashionable clothes, and spending money for food, liquor, and cigarettes.

In my mother's village, at the outdoor mass for the feast day of St. Ana, attendance by young people is sparse. The few young women there are mostly dressed in the low-riding, body revealing couture, that is the uniform of those under 30. The priest's homily is about the low birth rate that is due to a new ethic that has invaded Europe. More money and attention is spent on pets than on children, he says with bitterness.

As happened in 1969, in 2005, I am asked by relatives and friends what it is "like" in America. The belief that all is glittery here remains. They want to know what my house looks like. I tell them it is a three-bedroom brick ranch built in the 1960s. My cousin's girlfriend asks me how many movie stars I have run into, expecting that I maybe bumped into Tom Cruise in the check-out line at the grocery store.

Another thing these young adults express is their contempt for the Bush administration. CNN is the station they watch for news. The other American programs are for entertainment.

They do not get Fox News. They expect me to second their anti-Bush sentiments.

But I had experienced something similar in Prague, where I went to participate in a public university-sponsored fiction-writing workshop. There the beautiful buildings are nearly all defaced with graffiti, much of it anti-American. I felt like crying. I had not seen anything approaching the beauty of Prague's old architecture.

I paid good money to study fiction writing under a program with the theme of "faith." But I was treated to the vitriol of the program director, slightly older than I, who carried on the tradition of using his place in the academy to present his anti-establishment sentiments. His anti-Bush diatribes echoed the sentiments of the worst adolescent profanity-studded "poetry" that was read there.

In 1969, Jana Palacha had immolated himself to protest the Communist takeover. The memorial to him, the site where he had set himself on fire, was a stop on one of our tours. It is now in the middle of a high-fashion shopping district. (How do those Czech women maneuver those cobblestones in stilettos?) David Cerny, one of the most celebrated contemporary Czech "artists", has a "sculpture" of Saint Wenceslas straddling an upside down horse with tongue hanging out. The other "sculptures" in the middle of Wenceslas Square were ugly testaments to anti-West ideology: one was made of old shoes. Another, "Iron Men," by Zbigniew Franczkiewicz, had these words by the artist to explain its meaning: "Iron men are products of industrial civilization, where a person and its parts represent an element of multiplication and discretion and manipulation in space, including the political..."

It seemed I could not get away from the hostilities of leftist academic politics even as I attempted to study fiction writing in the venerable and historic halls of Charles University, for posters advertising conferences on postmodernism, imperialism, and multiculturalism adorned classrooms and faculty offices.



Prague, or academics?
I spent a few days in Prague in October without seeing a single anti-Bush or anti-US sign or bit of grafitti, nor did I experience the least hostility as an American. But I wasn't hanging around a university, either.

I think those Anti- attitudes may be primarily characteristic of academics settings, especially in the more literary/culural disciplines. I suspect you can go anywhere in the world and find the same attitudes in those circles. The cosmopolitan international academic/intellecual elite is the same everywhere and, as in the US, those views are not very widely shared in the general population.

No Subject
I would say that the real influence of the USA, at least in Europe, has usually been in an inverse relationship with her military power.

That pre-WW1 America was seen as the land whose streets were paved with gold at a time when her military was larger only than Spain's. That at the end of that war Wilson's 14 points were accepted as relatively just more because of perceived US moral strength than her actual military contribution to that war.

The US contribution to WW2 was far greater & she ended even stronger but not as respected.

Of all the communist countries it is the ones the US actually fought, Korea, Vietnam & Cuba where socialism remains linked to patriotism & thus popular.

Odds on Iraq will end up as the middle eastern country where Americans are least popular.

By comparison it is US economic success, Moon landings & Hollywood (see not all Europeans have taste) which produces admiration.

point of order
Your article was very good but as a matter of record, the Czech's name was Jan Palach.

Todot Zhivkov
That's been my experience too. Things may have changed now, but I was in Bulgaria several years after independence, and no one had anything but good words to say about America. They were all studying English, and you couldn't find a person admitting to any knowledge of Russian.

The whole country was also neat as a pin, with no graffiti-- with one glaring exception. As you walked around downtown Sofia you began to smell something rancid, like old urine mixed with smoke. Then you saw it: the Todor Zhivkov mausoleum.

It was the finest monument to Communism you ever saw. Vulgar graffiti in a dozen languages had been sprayed over this huge, windowless block of a building. Garbage can fires had smudged it with streaks of smoke. And apparently every citizen had peed upon it at least once.

It really stood out, in a city where you can't find a cigaret butt in the street. It was obviously being kept that way-- as a remembrance.

What's best about us is that we're not like them
Europeans (and some Americans) tend to believe that what's best about Europe are the bits that don't resemble America. Consequently, there are two parts to a national identity: What it is, and what it isn't. Since American culture dominates our world, it is a necessary anti-component to all other cultures with TVs.

The universe is an odd place, isn't it?

We're not fighting
The problem is that societies such as this are getting their info exclusively from the left. Those of you who have not seen CNN Europe have no idea how anti-American it is. Pravda gave us a better shake during the cold war, and I am not joking at all.

We have spent millions to improve our image abroad. Instead of hitting issues head on, and getting down and dirty in debate, our efforts focus on what a nice group of Brady Bunch people Americans are. The target audience age group of these commercials seem to be about minus 7 years old.

It should be unacceptable for anyone to trash the US without having responses that hit their lies and demogueary HARD. Factual, honest debate would turn this situation around almost over night. It isn't just a matter of security, but National Honer and the defense or our Republic that demand this.

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