Copyright © Bernard Chazelle, Princeton, September 2004
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CounterPunch   September 2004

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Anti-Americanism: A Clinical Study

By Bernard Chazelle

Last summer, with France on his mind, the British historian Paul Johnson graced the pages of Forbes Magazine with this trenchant observation: "Anti-Americanism is racist envy" [1]. Lest anyone miss the point, the best-selling author quickly rephrased it in more accessible language: "France is not a democracy." His novel insight could hardly be dismissed as mere anti-Frenchism for the simple reason that the word does not exist. In fact, neither does anti-Polishism, anti-Spanishism, or even anti-Vaticanism. (Each one googles in the single digits—the modern definition of nonexistence.) With over 115,000 Google hits, anti-Americanism stands alone: a living testament to US exceptionalism.

But what is it, anyway? As so often, ingenuousness is of no help. Indeed, if the word were to connote simple, unadorned hostility toward Americans, wouldn't the enslavement of half the population of the Deep South in the mid-19th century constitute its most perfect embodiment [2]? Slavery, lynchings, miscegenation laws... Truly, can anything be more anti-American?

Apparently yes. Google the words anti-Americanism, Jim Crow and you get a paltry 390 hits. Substitute Jacques Chirac for Jim Crow and you rake in a much healthier 5,210 hits. Trade the French president for intellectuals and up you soar to 14,000. Paul Johnson understands: "Anti-Americanism is the prevailing disease of intellectuals today," avers the historian, who, leaving Osama off the hook, proceeds to aim his fire at effete gaggles of Gauloises-puffing café intellectuals. What gives?

In a mildly deranged way, Johnson has a point. Anti-Americanism barks more than it bites. September 11 is the grim exception to the rule that terrorism kills few Americans: rarely more than 20 a year, which is less than lightning [3] [4]. Israel has a rate of terrorist fatalities hundreds of times higher [5]. Sri Lanka, home of the Tamil Tigers, has suffered, on a per-capita basis, the equivalent of one 9/11 every 3 weeks. And this for 20 consecutive years [6].

Granted, numbers alone obscure the central lesson of 9/11, which is its ominous portent for the future: the mythical nuclear suitcase at Penn Station. But to instill fear is no defining feature of anti-Americanism; for, as recent events prove, the residents of Mombasa, Bali, Riyadh, Casablanca, Istanbul, and Madrid are every bit as entitled to their anxieties as New Yorkers are to theirs.

Tempting as it is to dismiss Johnson's focus on diseased intellectuals as merely proof that it takes one to spot one, the reader would be well advised to resist.

We'll always have Paris

Being ground zero for sophisticated, unifying, and reflexive anti-Americanism, France provides a glimpse of the disease at its most distinctive. In two recent books, Jean-François Revel and Philippe Roger have intelligently researched this phenomenon [7] [8]. France does not come off well. Anti-Americanism is diagnosed as a pathological condition of old lineage which feeds on a witch's brew of hypocrisy, resentment, illiberalism, and a deep-rooted aversion to change.

Trudging through its affliction, however, France has remained rather fond of America. A May 2000 SOFRES poll revealed that only 10 percent of its citizens dislike the United States [8]. French anti-Americanism is mostly an elite sport. Quite the opposite of French-bashing stateside, which is the last PC-free zone for hate speech in America and a market-tested crowd pleaser for late-night TV comedy. What the two ethnophobias have in common, however, is a refreshing lack of inhibition. Thus, one could only admire France's Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, for keeping a straight face while calling Spielberg's Jurassic Park a "threat to French identity." (OK, French politics does have its share of dinosaurs.) In perfect counterpoint, the run-up to the war saw Lang's partners-in-neurosis at Fox News vituperate obsessively, hysterically, maniacally, and deliriously about France's "pathetic irrelevance," seemingly oblivious to the contradiction.

The French may be fond of Americans, but over 80 percent of them viscerally reject US lifestyle and customs [9]. Little "racist envy" there. Ominously, signs of a post-Cold War continental drift abound. While a 1988 survey rated power, dynamism, wealth, and liberty as the words most frequently associated with American society, by 1996 the top choices had become violence, power, inequalities, and racism [9]. Granted, the French are not the type to let ignorance of a subject get in the way of an opinion. But French obduracy is not the point. A striking dichotomy between liking Americans and spurning their values is now deeply entrenched in much of Western Europe. Large majorities of Germans, Italians, and British characterize America as domineering, racist, and violent [10]. In March 2003, the percentage of people holding a favorable view of the US was only 48% in Britain, 31% in France, and 14% in Spain [11]. On societal issues such as poverty, gun control, and the death penalty, the continental divide appears beyond bridging. The phenomenon is worldwide. In 34 of 43 countries polled in 2002, a majority of people said they disliked America's influence in their country [12]. In that quarter of humanity called the Muslim world, anti-US hostility is at a fever pitch.

Neocon scholar Robert Kagan's catchy aphorism [13], "Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus," strikes a chord with Europeans, who remember their own Martian phase only too well and feel so relieved to have outgrown it. The poetry of Rumsfeldian power lust tends to get lost in translation. To war-weary Europeans, who've been there and done the imperial power thing before, Kagan's martial fantasies sound perilously premodern, boyishly immature, brazenly anti-feminist, and—as my teenage daughter would say—so last millenium.

Ah, the great cleansing, avenging power of war! Its seductive lure was irresistible in the summer of 1914. On the eve of the war to end all wars, Thomas Mann called the imminent slaughter a moral necessity... "both a purging and a liberation" [14]. A mere three weeks into the war, a quarter-million French soldiers had died. Some purging, indeed. In the spring of 2003, Bush's America, too, felt the cleansing urge and heeded the avenging call. Echoing Mann while kindly sparing us the intestinal metaphor, Andrew Sullivan called the Iraq war "a moral necessity" [15]: 13,000 civilians killed, a Saddam-lite puppet regime, and a fresh resupply of hatred against the United States. Isn't moral clarity beautiful when actions are divorced from their consequences?

Manifest destiny gone global

When President Bush is not busy hailing freedom, he is usually occupied extolling liberty. On the lofty matters of democracy, freedom, and human rights, his administration proudly talks the talk. The walking—as ever the weak link—has gotten alarmingly wobbly. It was once proud and steady: In the wake of World War II, the United States bestrode the globe like a colossus with twice the relative economic clout it enjoys today. Fresh from liberating the world from tyranny, America was universally revered. Where Europe stood for ruin, fascism, and colonization, the US spelled wealth, freedom, and self-determination.

Then came Korea, a nervous draw, followed by Vietnam, a bitter defeat. TIME Magazine captured the navel-gazing torpor with its characterization of the My Lai massacre as an "American" tragedy [16]. (Does that make the Holocaust a "German" tragedy?) America had invaded Vietnam, killed well over two million of its citizens, and then fled. While staring into an abyss of disillusion, many in the Third World began to wonder: Was the colossus the new apostle of freedom or merely the heir to the throne of Western imperialism? That it could be a bit of both was a subtlety lost on the many to whom the sight of white men killing the natives never had more than one meaning. Fighting the scourge of communism was a worthy cause. But at what price? To make up for all of its dictator-propping interventions in Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Greece, Chile, etc, how many democracies did the US help spawn during the Cold War? Sadly, not a single one. Today, for all his talk of freedom, Bush is busy emulating Saddam by filling graves with dead Shiites. Meanwhile, with 725 bases overseas and troops in 70 percent of the world's countries [17], the US military footprint is large enough to ensure that, for millions around the world, Americans are people in uniform. Rambo's paternity rights are hardly Hollywood's alone.

Which is rather unfortunate, for if there is one nation on earth that has always represented (if not always delivered) liberty and hope for the oppressed of the world, it is America. Brilliance rarely is the first attribute one associates with George W. Bush, but even his detractors must concede that his contribution to the cause of anti-Americanism is a feat of staggering genius [18]. Never has the United States been so alienated from the rest of the world. Why? It's the policy, stupid! Pro-war columnists are wont to attribute the hostility to dark, evil, irrational forces, thus bringing to their diagnosis the full power and sophistication of voodoo medicine. More level-headed observers see the hand of a US leadership trapped in its own delusions, and marrying, against all odds, equal measures of cynicism and naiveté.

Notch this one up in the cynical column. The US has made two new friends: Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov, whose pastime is to boil his opponents to death [19], and Turkmenistan's Saparmurat Niyazov, whose proudest accomplishment is to have renamed the months of the year after himself [20]. Both of these unsavory crackpots are now the beneficiaries of US largesse: the Saddams of tomorrow. Meanwhile, in line with the White House's dismissal of the Geneva Conventions as "quaint," the task of spreading American values in the Arab world landed in the lap of Abu Ghraib Porn & Snuff Film Studios: a temporary commission of lasting consequence. America used to be both hated and feared in the Muslim world. With its aura of invincibility shattered in the plains of Mesopotamia, now it is only hated. Let no one ever say that Bush did not bring a smile to an Arab's face: Osama, today, is crying with joy.

Culture soup for sale

Beethoven and good plumbing are both German, but few have trouble distinguishing between the two. Germany floods the planet with finely engineered machine tools; yet it is the rare auto worker in Detroit who switches on his Siemens auto-feed drilling machine and exclaims: "My, what a fine culture those Germans have!" The world buys German engineering because it's good, not because it's German. Not so with Air Jordans. Watch Nike and Coca-Cola go around the world peddling footwear and sugary water with bubbles as proud emblems of American culture. This conflation of culture, lifestyle, and branding gives Americanization its distinctive flavor. The word could just as well refer to the vibrant hip-hop scene in France, the film-making influence of Martin Scorsese, the architectural impact of Frank Gehry, or the proliferation of MBA programs. But it does not. Not in the popular imagination, anyway.

Thomas L. Friedman explains: "Globalization is so much Americanization. It wears Mickey Mouse ears, and it drinks Coke, and it eats Big Macs..." [21]. Somewhat lost in the stirring eloquence and exalted imagery is a sobering truth: Americanization is not about the Bill of Rights or the influence of bebop. According to Friedman, it's about how to get fat and look silly. It presents the world with a narrative in which the US is seen to efface its opulent cultural complexity in order to hawk infantile, reassuring sameness. The downside is that few have the skill required to wake up to Kenny G in the morning, down a bowl of Cocoa Puffs over breakfast, lunch on a Whopper over Jerry Springer, read up on Atkins in the afternoon, watch Rambo III in the evening, and then go to bed with full confidence that American civilization is the answer to Ancient Greece.

But wait! Isn't America home to much of the world's finest music, film, fiction, science, and medicine? Aren't the vitality of its civic institutions and the strength of its local democracy unparalleled? Isn't US culture a treasure trove of magnificent riches? Yes, yes, and yes; but Americanization pitches a different set of superlatives, ie, the world's finest crappy food, funnest crash-and-burn blockbusters, and shrillest consumerism. Paul Hollander's recent claim [22] that "Americanization is the major, perhaps the only, widespread form of modernization" suggests someone who's never used a cell phone in Europe, ridden the subway in Hong Kong, watched TV in Japan, or come to grips with the fact that for every Intel, Boeing, Lucent, and GM, there is a Samsung, Airbus, Alcatel, and Toyota.

Many fret about the dangers of crass, US-style materialism But the evil of Americanization is greatly overblown: The planet will not only survive it; it will likely enjoy it. What it will do to America's image, however, is an entirely different matter. If Americanization means typecasting the US as the land of Coke, Big Macs, and Britney Spears rather than the land of Martin Luther King Jr., Thelonious Monk, and Philip Roth, the biggest loser will be America. Does anyone care? Judging from the pitiful state of American public diplomacy—budgeted at one quarter of 1 percent of defense spending [23]—the answer seems to be no.

Just as English is the world's most slaughtered language, American culture is the most trivialized. To compound the sin, it is also often used as a Rorschach test in support of one's prejudices. Some will point out that the US is the world's oldest democracy. Others will retort that it was an apartheid society for 80 percent of its history. Both true. Some will call jazz America's greatest artistic gift to the world. Others will read in it a tragic tale of racism. For them, not even a triumphant Ella Fitzgerald dazzling the crowds at a White House gala could ever silence the haunting, anguished voice of Billie Holiday singing: "Southern trees bear strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root."

Or consider the international craving for the music of Jay-Z, Nas, and Outkast. Hip-hop is a cauldron of creative literary experimentation unmatched anywhere in the English-speaking world. Censorious, two-bit pulp hack Lynne Cheney might not get it, but Seamus Heaney does. (As obviously would anyone who writes of Lil' Kim with such grace: "Like a calf freshly born on the pale fields of Mossbawn, she shimmers with the newness of life, staggers wetly, and speaks to the sky.") The rap-loving Nobelist is not alone. Hip-hop has caught the ears of millions of youths worldwide and taught them that America produces powerful art that speaks to them. The rub is that hip-hop, the idiom of the ghetto, can—and will—be invoked with equal ease as an ode to America or as Exhibit A for all that's wrong with it.

Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Limbaugh

The Brits lap up foreign barbs, the Germans practice contrition, and the Russians make a fine art of self-deprecation. Meanwhile, to the keen eye trained in the art of national stereotyping, Americans can appear unjustifiably thin-skinned and allergic to self-criticism.

First, the allergy. This country's moral certainty and unflappable optimism are part of its extraordinary charm. But moral certainty is one short step away from moral blindness. The civil rights movement, for example, highlighted America's admirable capacity to right its wrongs. It is cause for celebration in history textbooks. But absent a collective reflection on the moral failure that necessitated such righting in the first place (and which, judging from the portrayal of Arabs in the media, is still alive and kicking), one ends up with the weird spectacle of jubilant self-congratulation drowning out humility and atonement—as though our moral failings were just God's way of giving us opportunities to demonstrate our moral superiority. The lesson from Abu Ghraib? Rumsfeld put it best: "The system worked!" [24]

With Walter Lippmann's "manufacture of consent" hard at work in the mainstream media, criticism of the consensual—say, foreign policy—is routinely dismissed by the right and a segment of the liberal spectrum as hostile (rather than wrong) and unpatriotic (rather than misguided): reactions more conducive to paranoia than self-inquiry. Last year's fury at France for daring to get in the way of Bush's perfect little war engendered reactions ranging from the goofy (freedom fries), to the self-flagellating (spilling French wine in the street), to the unhinged (congressional bill for repatriating dead GIs buried in France): all in all, more Prozac Nation than Home of the Brave.

To blame the hypersensitivity on 9/11 alone would be missing the forest for the trees. Anti-Americanism has long had on these shores a self-referential quality of the sort it enjoys in Europe—though for entirely different reasons. Anti-Americanism blends the conceit of an ism with the paranoid style dear to Hofstadter. In particular, it reminds one of an Abbie Hoffman quip turned on its head: "Just because they're out to get you does not mean you're not paranoid." Anti-Masonry, anti-Catholicism, and anti-Communism have a shared history of sky-high readings on the Richter scale of American paranoia.

For a glimpse of the paranoid style in full regalia, welcome to the loopy world of right-wing talk radio. Brimming with "talent on loan from God," the shows are spoken blogs without the links—sonorous tableaux of undiluted narcissism. The mechanics are well oiled: A cult leader, known in the trade as the host, blabbers on endlessly about the ghastly horrors that liberals and foreigners have in store for true-blue, patriotic, God-fearing Americans. The host usually speaks from a position of moral strength, being himself a recovering alcoholic (Glenn Beck), a drug addict (Rush Limbaugh), or a convicted felon (Gordon Liddy, Oliver North). But, hey, what would repentance be without sin?

First in the firing line of the master blabberer are the Blame-America-Firsters, those vile, guilt-ridden fifth-columnists who reflexively see in their own breed the root of all evil. Their tormenting is not done Grand Inquisition style. Far from it. The genius of the genre is to serve a vulnerable audience (mostly, insecure white males stuck in traffic) a perfect cocktail of humor, common sense, and paranoia. That such an unlikely mélange actually works is a thing of beauty: The paranoia, predictably, feeds on a vision of lazy, amoral purveyors of negativity who, having abdicated all sense of personal responsibility, maunder on with stultifying seriousness about the joy of the entitlement society. As the cult leader sees it, theirs is a Bizarro world where a cup of hot coffee at McDonald's is worth 50 cents if spilled into your throat and 3 million dollars if spilled into your lap. Infusing the blather with humor is a clever ploy meant both to entertain and to draw a contrast with the dreary world inhabited by the Political Correctness brigades: those insufferable bores who, in their relentless pursuit of sainthood, long ago discarded like so much excess baggage old-time frivolities such as smiling, laughing, and calling a spade a spade.

Don't be fooled by the laughs. For all their fixation on freedom, right-wing talk shows are microcosms of totalitarian life. Limbaugh's rule is sunny fascism: the triumph of jovial either/or thinking (if thinking is the word). All truths are deemed self-evident; therefore, dissenting views are not errors of judgment but of character. Reality is screened and twisted to fit the dogma, and assertions are validated by mere force of repetition. Add on top of that generous servings of hate, paranoia, scapegoating, and buffoonery, and you get a winning combo close to Mussolini's heart.

Fair enough. But the right-wing paranoia, the existential fears? What's that about? Why the obsessive talk about freedom in a land that has never known tyranny? Why the insatiable appetite for defense spending when the enemy rides donkeys and sleeps in caves? Could it be the collective memory of immigrants fleeing persecution? Or the propensity of a God-fearing frontier people to live in, well, fear?

Multicultural insularity

First, the facts. America lives in a friendly neighborhood. No invasions by hordes of barbarians (besides the Mexican fruit fly). The nation most successful at killing Americans on the battlefield has been, by far, the United States. All of its foreign wars combined have yet to match the number of military deaths in the Civil War alone [25].

Which is not for lack of trying. Between 1945 and 2001, the US initiated nearly 200 aggressive military incursions, none of them having anything to do with defense [26]. (In a nice Orwellian twist, the Department of War renamed itself the Department of Defense in 1949 [27].) The low casualty count on the American side speaks of technological superiority and geographical good fortune. Not all have been so lucky: 60 percent of all French males between the ages of 18 and 28 were killed or maimed in the First World War [28]. (Presumably, the moniker "cheese-eating surrender monkey" refers to the other 40 percent.) In no foreign war has the equivalent American statistic ever exceeded 5 percent.

Notwithstanding 9/11, the US gets little of the world's wrath. It does not get much of its culture either. At least not in native form: Foreign movies generate a negligible box office take; fewer than 3 percent of books published in the US are translations (no better than in the Arab world); and the music market is, after Pakistan, the world's most insular [29]. America can be maddeningly provincial. And yet, buffeted by cross-cultural winds, it is more cosmopolitan than any nation on earth. Not much of a paradox actually. Americans welcome foreign cultures, so long as they are local: Gloria Estefan rather than Los Van Van; The Joy Luck Club rather than Raise the Red Lantern; Hollywood remakes of foreign box office hits rather than the real thing.

America doesn't go to foreign cultures. Foreign cultures come to America, uprooted, transplanted, and denativized. Just as keeping a lion as a house pet will spice up your life without teaching you much about the jungle, immigrants have enriched this nation without improving its capacity to look outward. In Governor Ma Ferguson's eternal words, "If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas [30]." Ma's insular legacy lives on: Only 5 Americans in the entire State Department are fluent enough in Arabic to be interviewed on TV [31]. The provincialism of a superpower is not without consequences: America's quagmire in Iraq has provincial cockiness written all over it.

Final stop, America

In popular US anthropology, humans come in two varieties: the lucky folks who are American and the unfortunate ones who wish they were. Sticklers for logic will point to a third category: foreigners with no aspiration to join in the American dream. These wretched souls bear the cardinal sin of anti-Americanism, which is to deny the Homo Americanus his self-perception as the unique final destination of human civilization. (Francophobia is the opprobrium leveled at the chief sinner.) This nation's tortuous relationship with the Other (ie, the 6 billion people trapped in foreign lands) goes back to the roots of the American experience. To the immigrant newly arrived on Ellis Island, who, looking back upon the ocean, thought of the ones left behind, the Isle of Hope was just as often the Isle of Tears. Touched by residual survivor's guilt, Americans easily see in the Other reminders of their own good luck—that most fragile of blessings. The same fragility is evident in the phrase American dream. For, from a dream, must one not eventually awake?

Hawk-eyed right-wingers who see anti-Americanism everywhere trumpet their patriotism with the insecure zeal of the convert. Why? Perhaps because immigrants, like converts, bear an original sin of disloyalty. Being original, of course, the sin is purely imaginary and therefore cannot be expiated. This is why American-ness, like manhood, must be proven—again and again. To be American is not an attribute but a commitment and a badge of honor. As such it is under the constant threat of loyalty-laden modifiers: -un, -non, -anti. Taking Kagan's logic to a place we probably don't want to go, Venus knows she'll never lose her womanhood in battle. Mars, on the other hand... The pledge of allegiance, the flying of the flag, the cult of the 2nd Amendment: These are the American worry beads that Mars needs to finger daily.

So what?

Paul Johnson got it partly right; a quarter right to be precise. Anti-Americanism is, indeed, a disease that targets neurotic intellectuals and Europeans wary of US lifestyle. But it is also an immune reaction—if sometimes overblown—to a US foreign policy that too often confuses self-interest with benevolence; subservience with democracy; meaning well with doing good. It is, too, a growing skepticism toward the image—burnished in the Bush years—of a shallow, violent society projecting its insecurities onto the world. The fourth part of the anti-American edifice is its imaginary wing. Henry James once observed that Americans are "the most addicted to the belief that the other nations of the earth are in a conspiracy to under-value them." Once the last anti-American has departed this earth (don't hold your breath), rest assured that anti-Americanism of the imaginary sort will still thrive; for it is, courtesy of the paranoid style, a self-sustaining life form.

The life form acts as a multiplier: paranoia that influences policy that fuels anti-Americanism. It has been rumored that Evangelical Christians—many of them devout followers of the commandment Thou shalt be paranoid with Jesus —have guided President Bush in our hour of darkness. On the face of it, a flashlight might have worked better. The insufferable self-righteousness oozing out of every pore of the Bush White House has had a way of translating into disastrous policy. It will be the main challenge for future presidents to reverse this course. As Raymond Aron once remarked to a German friend, "The 20th century could have been your century." Collective paranoia helping, it was not to be. A hundred years from now, will we Americans hear from our friends, "This could have been your century"? If we do, at least we'll know why.


[1] Anti-Americanism Is Racist Envy, by Paul Johnson,, July 21, 2003.



[4] Key to Lightning Deaths: Location, Location, Location, by John Roach, National Geographic News, May 22, 2003.



[7] L'Ennemi Américain: Généalogie de l'antiaméricanisme français, Philippe Roger, Paris, Seuil, 2002.

[8] Anti-Americanism, by Jean-François Revel, Encounter Books, 2003.

[9] French Opinion and the Deteriorating Image of the United States, by Richard Kuisel, Georgetown University, Manuscript, 2003.

[10] US Department of State, Europeans and Anti-Americanism, September 2002.

[11] Views of a Changing World 2003, The Pew Global Attitudes Project, June 2003.

[12] Soft Power, by Joseph S. Nye, Jr., PublicAffairs, 2004, page 35.

[13] Power and Weakness, by Robert Kagan, Policy Review, June 2002.

[14] The Big One, by Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, August 23, 2004.

[15] The Daily Dish , by Andrew Sullivan, May 5, 2004.


[17] The Sorrows of Empire, by Chalmers Johnson, Henry Holt and Co., page 4, 2004, and The U.S. Global Empire, by Laurence M. Vance,, March 2004.

[18] A Year After Iraq War, The Pew Research Center, March 2004.

[19] US Looks Away as New Ally Tortures Islamists, by Nick Paton Walsh, The Guardian, May 26, 2003.

[20] Turkmen Leader Redefines Ages of Man, CNN, August 17, 2002.

[21] The Life and Times of Thomas L. Friedman, by Noah Stoffman, Varsity Publications, Inc., December 9, 1997.

[22] The Politics of Envy, by Paul Hollander, The New Criterion, Nov. 2002.

[23] Soft Power, by Joseph S. Nye, Jr., PublicAffairs, 2004, page 124.

[24] McNamara Moment, by David S. Broder, The Washington Post, May 9, 2004.




[28] The Collapse of the Third Republic, by William L. Shirer, Simon and Schuster, 1969, page 142.

[29] America is a Cultural Fortress, by Scott Timberg, Deccan Herald, March 14, 2004.


[31] U.S. Image Abroad Will Take Years to Repair, Official Testifies, by Christopher Marquis, The New York Times, February 5, 2004.