The Eagle's Shadow
Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World
By Mark Hertsgaard
Picador Copyright © 2003 Mark Hertsgaard
All rights reserved.
THE PAROCHIAL SUPERPOWER
For Malcolm Adams, as for most people around the world, America is more a mental image than a real place. He will almost certainly never see the United States with his own eyes—he'll never have enough money to afford the trip—but that diminishes his interest in the place not one bit.
I met Malcolm on a bus ride in South Africa in June of 2001. He was a driver for the Baz Bus, a shuttle service known to the backpacker crowd in South Africa as a cheap if not always reliable way to get between major cities and rural tourist areas. The day he picked me up, he was heading east along the coast toward Durban. It was late afternoon, a low winter sun. Along the roadside hundreds of people, bunched in groups of five or six, were walking home. Off to our right, the Indian Ocean frothed and sparkled, crashing against the southern edge of the African landmass.
Malcolm was thirty-two, but his smooth-skinned face and ebullient demeanor made him look younger. Like his father, he had worked as a driver all his adult life, though as a teenager he dreamed of becoming a naval officer. "I had the ability," he explained wistfully, "but under the old system your skin color could keep you out of those things." Now he worked fourteen-hour days driving from one end of South Africa to the other. The scenery was glorious, but he missed his wife and two children, whom he saw only on weekends.
Still, he said, this was an improvement over his last job, driving public buses for the city of Cape Town. He quit that job after five fellow drivers were murdered gangland- style while driving their routes. The killer later testified in court that for each murder he was paid 350 rand, about U.S. $50, by bosses of the taxi drivers union, who apparently hoped to frighten passengers into taxis.
"Yeah, I heard about those shootings," I said. "The newspapers back home wrote about them."
"And where is back home?" Malcolm asked.
I told him, and his eyes lit up with glee as he gushed, "Oh, you are from America! Your country has a very great influence on South Africa."
"Really?" I said. "Good or bad?"
"Good, good! America is what everyone here wants to be like—American music, American clothes, American lifestyle: nice house, big car, lots of cash. America is the idol for many people in South Africa."
His own clothes made the point: a Jack Daniel's baseball cap, black jeans, and a royal blue ski jacket with puffy sleeves. He would have fit right in on the streets of Brooklyn or St. Louis. Malcolm said he and his friends knew about America from songs they heard on the radio, movies they rented at the video shop, TV shows carried on South African channels; The Bold and the Beautiful was a particular favorite. I asked whether older people shared his view—did his mother and father idolize the United States? "No, they are more Christian," he replied without irony. "They want to live a South African life."
By now, darkness had fallen. Malcolm's face glowed in the reflection of the dashboard lights as he spoke of the Cape Town township where he and his family lived. They had running water, electric light, and paved streets, but many neighbors lacked real jobs and crime was a constant worry: "Gangsters are shooting and robbing people and the police do nothing." We were silent a moment. Then, with the same enthusiasm he showed for anything American, he added, "Did you know that every township in South Africa has two street gangs named for your country?"
"Yes! One is called the Young Americans, the other is called the Ugly Americans."
"What's the difference?"
A wide smile. "The Young Americans dress like Americans. The Ugly Americans shoot like Americans."
GOOD, BAD, BUT NEVER INDIFFERENT
America: a place that is very rich and shoots lots of guns. It's not the most sophisticated analysis, but it's a fair shorthand for how the United States is seen by many people around the world. Friend or foe, rich or poor, foreigners tend to fear America for its awesome military power even as they are dazzled by its shimmering wealth.
That perspective may sound jarring to some Americans. We see ourselves as decent, hardworking people who wish the rest of the world well and do more than our share to help it. We are proud of our freedom and prosperous way of life, and we understand why others want the same. We would rather not "entangle our peace and prosperity" in foreign toils, as the father of our country, George Washington, advised long ago, but we will use force if necessary to oppose injustice and protect freedom around the world for ourselves and others. We have our shortcomings like anyone else, but we believe we live in the greatest country in the world.
Malcolm Adams would, I imagine, agree with that assessment, and he's not alone. In twenty years of living and traveling overseas through thirty countries, I have spoken with many people who think very highly of America and Americans. I have also, of course, met many who find fault with the United States. In fact, the same individual often fits in both categories; some of the most penetrating criticisms of America I've heard came from people who, by and large, admire the place.
I began working on this book long before the 2001 terror attacks against America, and I pursued my travels and interviews both before and after September 11. From the start, the book was intended for two separate but related audiences. I hoped to provide my fellow Americans with a sort of traveler's report: "This is how we look to the rest of the world." For non-American readers, I hoped to explain why America and Americans are the way we are. The September 11 attacks gave these goals greater urgency and focus by suddenly illuminating how people everywhere felt about the United States. But the attacks also complicated the project by leaving Americans understandably sensitive to anything approaching candid criticism of their country.
A year has now passed since the terrible explosions and fires that killed more than three thousand people in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania—a year of healing, of taking stock, of fighting back. Are Americans at last ready to hear what people overseas think about us? The message is a lot more complex than the "Why They Hate Us" war cry our media have supplied. And a lot more interesting. Foreigners aren't always right about America, far from it. But neither are they merely embittered fanatics, or jealous of our money, or resentful of our power, or animated by any of the other stock explanations mainstream American pundits and politicians have advanced as substitutes for honest self-examination. Most foreigners are sophisticated enough to see both the good and the bad about the United States, the pluses and the minuses. Which is why Americans can learn from their perceptions, if we choose to.
Foreigners can see things about America that natives cannot, and if ever there was a time when Americans needed such perspective, it's now. The horror of what happened on September 11 commands us to look at our homeland with new eyes—in particular, with the eyes of the rest of the world. Osama bin Laden and the Taliban are not representative of international opinion; hatred of America, though intense where it exists, is relatively rare. But Americans should not take false comfort from that, or let the sense of victimhood tragically earned on September 11 blind us to the fact that on September 10 the rest of the world harbored plenty of complaints against us, often with good reason. Indeed, some of the tartest criticisms—of the Bush administration's withdrawal from both the Kyoto protocol on global warming and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and of the refusal of the United States to join the international criminal court—were coming from the very leaders who soon stood shoulder to shoulder with America against terrorism, notably British prime minister Tony Blair, German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and French president Jacques Chirac.
To foreigners, there is no contradiction between criticizing the United States one minute and praising it the next. In fact, America's dialectical qualities are part of what makes it so fascinating. The journey around the world I made for this book began in May 2001, ended in November, and included stops in fifteen countries in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. During these and previous travels, I've been fortunate to gather opinions about the United States from a wide range of sources: sophisticated business and political leaders, starry-eyed teenagers, multilingual intellectuals, illiterate peasants, workers, housewives, journalists, and more than a few would-be immigrants. Time after time I've been struck by how elites and ordinary folk alike feel both admiring and uneasy about America, envious and appalled, enchanted but dismissive. It is this complex catalogue of impressions—good, bad, but never indifferent—that Americans must confront if we are to transcend the tragedy of September 11 and understand our place in the twenty-first-century world.
"YOU KNOW NOTHING ABOUT US"
The first time I traveled around the world, starting in 1991, I was investigating the environmental future for my book Earth Odyssey. Most people in the nineteen countries I visited were happy enough to answer my ecological questions, but often their comments were more dutiful than animated. America, by contrast, is a subject that never fails to get people talking. Everyone has an opinion about it, and they aren't shy about expressing it. Compare, for example, the wide-eyed admiration of Malcolm Adams with the views of three retired terrorists I interviewed a few weeks earlier in a dusty tea shop in Cairo's Islamic Quarter (even terrorists, it seems, eventually retire). For these graybeards with ankle-length gowns and bubbling water pipes, America was a contemptible bully—a protector of Israel and corrupter of Egypt's Arabic soul. Yet even they had fond memories of Hollywood movies starring Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn.
One way or another, foreigners can hardly avoid forming opinions about the United States. Wherever they look, America is in their face. American movies, television, music, fashion, and food have especially captivated young people throughout the world even as they spread America's most important export: its consumer lifestyle and the individualism it promotes. The Internet, computers, and high-tech gadgets revolutionizing daily life all over the planet either originated in the United States or find their fullest development there. America's nuclear arsenal has held life-and-death power over humanity since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. For even longer, the United States economy has been the world's main engine of growth and innovation, and it remains today the "buyer of last resort" whose imports spell the difference between recession and prosperity for rich and poor nations alike.
To top it all off, America receives a disproportionate amount of coverage from news media around the world, reinforcing foreigners' sense of living always in the Eagle's shadow. "I'm glad I live in South Africa and not in the United States," a young white restaurant manager in Stellenbosch, the wine-growing region east of Cape Town, told me. "Any stupid thing that happens in the States is news all over the world: O. J. Simpson, the Florida election recount." Did he resent America's ubiquity? "It's not a matter of resentment," he replied. "It's just fact. I have to listen to what [U.S. Federal Reserve chairman] Alan Greenspan says. It can affect my inventory. Actually, I think we have an advantage over you, because we know everything about you and you know nothing about us."
Good point. But I would go further: Americans not only don't know much about the rest of the world, we don't care. Or at least we didn't before the terrible events of September 11, 2001. Until then, many Americans were barely aware the outside world existed, a fact that both exasperates and amuses foreigners.
"I went to Tennessee a few years ago to attend my sister's wedding to an American guy," Luis, a musician in Seville, Spain, told me. "When people heard my accent, they asked where I was from. I said Spain. They smiled, Americans are friendly people, and they asked, 'Is that in Mexico?' They were not joking." Even high-powered Americans sometimes know little about the world beyond. Who can forget former president Ronald Reagan's imperishable comment after his first visit to South America? "You'd be surprised," he told reporters, "they're all individual countries down there." True, Reagan's two immediate successors, George Bush and Bill Clinton, were worldly men, but George W. Bush had traveled abroad only three times before he became president. Whatever his other qualities as a leader, in this respect the younger Bush was perfectly representative of his fellow citizens, only 14 percent of whom have passports.
This is the first of many inequalities that distort America's relationship with the rest of the world: foreigners have to care about America, while Americans have traditionally cared little if at all about them. A corollary is that Americans have no idea how they appear to others; the privileged rarely do. After the September 11 attacks, 52 percent of American opinion leaders surveyed by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press modestly agreed that "America does a lot of good in the world." Only 21 percent of their overseas counterparts shared that sunny assessment of the United States.
There are understandable reasons for Americans' lack of interest in the outside world, starting with geography. Because the United States is so immense and protected on two sides by oceans, the rest of the world seems very far away. Americans lack the sense, so common on other continents, that foreign peoples with different languages, cultures, and beliefs live just over the next ridge or river. (Yes, the United States shares borders with Mexico and Canada, but many U.S. citizens regard their neighbors as honorary junior Americans, welcome as long as they stay in their place.) America's mind-boggling abundance also helps encourage a complacent isolationism. Why bother with the rest of the world when, as a Linda Ronstadt song declares, "everything you want, we got it right here in the U.S.A."?
Nevertheless, I have long felt baffled and disappointed by my countrymen and countrywomen's lack of curiosity about the world. Baffled because I myself find the rest of the world so fascinating, disappointed because I think ignorance of our neighbors reflects badly on Americans. Traveling twice around the world has taught me that Americans have no monopoly on parochialism and self-centeredness; the difference is, Americans are parochial and self-centered at the same time that we are the mightiest power in history. What our political, military, economic, cultural, and scientific institutions do has a decisive influence on the lives of people everywhere on earth, shaping the answers to such questions as "Will I have a job next month?" and "Will there be war?" right down to "What's on television tonight?" But with power comes responsibility. Americans' indifference to the world bothers me, I guess, because it seems wrong to have so much power over others and not care more about how it gets exercised.
Wrong and, after September 11, also foolish. If Americans rarely paid much attention to the outside world in the past, it's because we thought we didn't have to. As the richest, most powerful nation in history, the United States could do what it wanted, when it wanted. If foreigners didn't like it, so what?
That invincible image never matched reality, of course. Remember Vietnam? And the gasoline lines after the OPEC oil embargo in the 1970s? And the Iranian hostage crisis? But alas, many Americans don't remember. As a people forever fixated on the promise of a better tomorrow, Americans are barely familiar with our history, much less anyone else's. Besides, any unhappy memories were erased by the reassertion of American power directed during the 1980s by Ronald Reagan, a man who, despite his Alzheimer's disease, remains to this day America's most powerful politician (a theme elaborated later in this book). In the eyes of many Americans, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was proof that the United States was the chosen nation of God, as Reagan and other Cold Warriors had long proclaimed. And then came the roaring 1990s, when the United States experienced an explosion of economic growth that rewarded the wealthy out of all proportion while—brilliant touch—appearing accessible to anyone with the wit to trade stocks over the Internet. As the Dow and Nasdaq exchanges soared ever higher, creating countless new millionaires every day, who cared what was going on in the rest of the world? Clearly, America was where the action was. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Eagle's Shadow by Mark Hertsgaard. Copyright © 2003 Mark Hertsgaard. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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