ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — There is such a thing as Americophilia. It doesn't have the rich pedigree of Anglophilia or Francophilia, or even Germanophilia. In fact, it's not always recognized as a bona fide "philia" at all. But it exists. It existed in Europe during the Jazz Age, and in Europe, Japan, and pretty much everywhere during the 1950s. Even the Vietnam War didn't really kill it, for the center of protest was still in the US. Americans had the best lines, and tunes, against the war. It still exists, although it's in danger of going the way of Germanophilia, into the fog of nostalgia, the land of what might have been.
I have always been an Americophile, or at least from the moment, at a very early age, when I received a postcard of the Empire State Building from my father, who was on a business trip to New York. The US, then, was an exotic place, where everything seemed bigger, glitzier, richer, more exciting. Americophilia, in my generation, was nurtured by the sexy allure of popular music.
The sexiness of American pop culture wasn't such a trivial thing. It had the ring of freedom, of a country with endless possibilities, where you could do things that would make the lace curtains of old Europe twitch. Much of this was a myth, of course, as the Beatles, Americophiles themselves, found out when they outraged Middle America as soon as they landed on "The Ed Sullivan Show." American conservatism, like everything else American, runs to extremes. But it was a potent myth, with some substance. What was beautiful was the idea of America, where people were free to pursue happiness in any way they liked, as long as it was lawful (or, perhaps, even when it was not).
Anybody, in theory, and often in practice, could reinvent him- or herself as an American in a way that was impossible to imagine anywhere else. The fact that many Americans, especially if they lacked the advantage of a pale skin, came nowhere near to fulfilling the American dream did not destroy the beauty of the idea. It still held out hope to millions who were poor or persecuted, or just restless, that in America it might still be possible to find a better way of life. Europeans such as myself, born in the aftermath of World War II, also grew up with another, related myth, that had a great deal of substance: liberation from Nazi occupation to the beat of Glenn Miller and the broad smiles of guys from Memphis or Kansas City. As this summer's anniversary celebrations of the Allied landings in 1944 demonstrated, even the French never forgot that blessing.
It was with this fizzing cocktail of images, then, of swinging soldiers, rock 'n' roll, constitutional liberty, and the Empire State Building, that I first landed in the US with a spring in my step in the summer of 1970. In time, I noticed the bleaker sides of American life; American friends were often the first to point them out. And yet I retained something of that Kennedy Airport spring in my step, as though always in anticipation of adventures that could happen only here, in this vast land of promise.
But this too has faded. No doubt it has something to do with getting older. But something else has changed, especially after Sept. 11, 2001. More and more I hear the clichés of my own Americophilia being spouted in ways that sound false, as though I'm listening to a favorite tune being distorted by a faulty player. The rhetoric of freedom, fighting tyranny, and liberating the enslaved speaks louder than ever. But too often it's laced with fear of foreigners, a nasty edge of chauvinism, and surly belligerence. The US has always had mood swings from active intervention abroad to sour isolation. What appears to be the current mood in Washington is a peculiar mixture of both: a desire to fix the world alone, whether the world likes it or not.
Revolutionary wars are out of style in the Old World, which, after a century of mass slaughter, has retreated into its own version of isolation. So there's something bracing about the neoconservative talk of liberation and democracy, wherever and whenever. But the aggressive disdain expressed by those same armchair liberators for people who disagree with their strategy, or who take a more skeptical view of violent revolution as a national policy, suggests Napoleonic hubris. And the insouciance displayed by the democratic warriors toward the systematic assaults on US liberties in the name of security or patriotism suggests a less than wholehearted commitment to democracy at home.
Going to war against states without any evidence that they are part of the terrorist threat, while invoking Munich, Neville Chamberlain, and Winston Churchill, doesn't look like a sensible strategy. Turning the US into an armed fortress, making it harder and harder for foreigners to enter the country, is the opposite of defending an open society. Legal sophistry in defense of torture casts a dark stain on the White House.
It's possible that most Iraqis will come out of the war better off than they were before. Being ruled by Saddam Hussein was about as bad as it gets. The question is whether the US will be a better place after years of fearmongering, military abuse, erosion of civil liberties, and a stream of political propaganda that distorts America's proudest legacies. If the US can no longer offer the hope of freedom, refuge from persecution, or a second chance in the lives of millions, the whole world will be worse off. And we can't blame Al Qaeda for that.
• Ian Buruma is a professor at Bard College. He is co-author of 'Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies.' © Los Angeles Times.