The Other Side of America
Published on Friday, October 25, 2002 in the Guardian/UK
The Other Side of America
In the US, not everyone is an overweight gun fanatic - and not everyone wants a war with Iraq
by Duncan Campbell

In his novel, The Château, set in France in 1945, the American writer William Maxwell delicately explored the relationship between a young American couple, Harold and Barbara Rhodes, and the Europeans they encounter on a trip just after the end of the war. Why are they not welcomed as citizens of the nation that liberated Europe, they wonder?

In one episode, Maxwell describes Harold's conversation with a French woman: "She admired the British, she said, but she did not particularly like them. 'They dress so badly, in those ill-fitting suits,' she said. He waited, hoping that she would say that she liked Americans, but she didn't."

More than 40 years after Maxwell wrote that much-praised novel, there still often seems to be the same sense of puzzlement in the relationship between Americans and Europeans. Almost every week now, an article appears in the American press by a journalist recently returned from Europe about the "anti-Americanism" they have experienced. Sometimes a rebuff by a waitress is cited as an example of European hostility. Like Harold, they wait for someone to say they like Americans, but they don't. Quite often now, of course, the commentators concerned may be looking for any hint of anti-Americanism, so that they can reinforce a comforting, stereotypical view of Europe as a snooty and hostile home of appeasers.

Equally, there is often a similarly monolithic impression of the US created in the European press: of a people wedded to guns, violence, the death penalty and over-eating, and happy to swallow whatever they are told by George Bush, Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld at the cosy daily chats that pass for press conferences. No wonder some Americans throw up their hands in frustration when they see the whole of the population portrayed in this way.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about an anti-war gathering in California. A flood of emails from Americans followed. The thrust of most of them was that there were many people in the US opposed to a war in Iraq, but they felt that the rest of the world was unaware of this. One email from a black woman in Chicago complained that "it seems the rest of the world views the populace as a bland, homogenous chunk of Bush followers". Others quoted relatives in the military who had expressed opposition to the war.

The documentary, Bowling for Columbine, made by the maverick director Michael Moore, which has just opened in the US, examines the country's gun culture and tries to analyse why the murder rate is so high. It has been attacked by critics in the US for playing to a European audience and reinforcing the impression of a land populated by trigger-happy wackos. When it received a special prize at the Cannes film festival earlier this year, commentators here suggested that the French would reward anything by an American that was anti-American. But this week the parents of some of the children killed in the Columbine school massacre defended the film as one that needed to be made.

Tomorrow, there are two demonstrations against a war in Iraq: in Washington and San Francisco. Some of the organising muscle may have been supplied by groups of the far left, but most of the marchers will come from a mixture of liberal or disenchanted Democrats and registered Greens; from religious organisations and groups traditionally opposed to war; from newly rad-icalised campuses and from among those who have not taken to the streets since the 1970s; from families of those who were killed on September 11; and from unions and Vietnam vets. So far, such events have been relatively small but one of the organisers told me that she would be "embarrassed" if the turnout was less than 100,000.

Recent full-page ads in the national press condemning the idea of a war - some placed by coalitions of business entrepreneurs opposed to the war, some by academics, writers and performers - give an indication of the breadth of concern. The picture that emerges from chats with strangers in airports and bars, from petitions to Congress and internet chatter, and from op-ed pages across the country is of a nation far from monolithic and full of articulate scepticism and dismay.

There have been hundreds of anti-war student meetings and rallies over the past month. I spoke this week to Chris Pifer, a 21-year-old political science student at the University of Minnesota's Morris campus, who is organising travel for students to make the 24-hour trip to tomorrow's rally in Washington. He said he had been inundated with people wanting lifts, many from outside the state in North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. "There is a traditionally active group of people here," he told me, "but many of those who are coming are people who are not traditionally politically active."

Like Harold and Barbara in The Chteau, many Americans are anxious to connect. And for Europeans and Americans alike, there are two words always worth remembering and always easy to forget: never assume.

Duncan Campbell is the Guardian's correspondent in Los Angeles

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002