Thursday, December 04, 2003

America: The global view

Perhaps the most thought-provoking letter I've received since opening the blog came today from Pedro, a Brazilian who posts regularly at Billmon:
Although The Yorkshire Lad may have overstated the case against the United States, I would like to say that, from a foreigner’s point of view, much of what he says rings true. We are presently -- even in my country, Brazil, which is fairly pro-American -- simultaneously appalled and scared. The main source of amazement, however, is not Mr Bush himself but the fact that a good part of the American people still stand behind him. Bad presidents can be replaced. But what can you do when a whole country seems to have lost its bearings?

I also agree with The Yorkshire Lad that Mr Bush stands a good chance of being reelected next year. All it takes is one or two more photo-ops like the recent one in Thanksgiving, plus a pullout from Iraq in the near future or, failing that, a reduction in American deaths. It can be done. The media will forget Iraq as it has forgotten Afghanistan. A few thousand more un-Americans will have been killed in the process, but that doesn’t seem to count. Forgive me if I am being cynical here, but that’s the way things appear to work in your country.

As to the whole matter of liberals vs. conservatives, or whatever you may call it, I would like to point out that this whole discussion is just one more endogenous American game which makes no sense whatsoever to the rest of the world. No matter who wins next year or which trend prevails in the long run, Americans will continue to be Americans -- a race of mostly benign aliens who conquered the Earth with their superior technology but are still unable to understand what makes the rest of us tick. It is precisely this American alienness, previously a source of discreet and slightly envious amusement, which has become scary in recent times.

To us un-Americans, an American conservative is a guy who doesn’t give a damn about you because you are a foreigner, whereas a liberal is a guy who makes an earnest effort to give a damn about you even though you are inferior. The first are offensive, the second are offensively condescending. Of course, it is very difficult to notice this when you are immersed in the culture, but it does happen all the time. Take, for instance, Mr Bush’s visit to Iraq -– an apparently harmless stunt -- and try to look at it from the other side of the fence: this guy secretly flies into my country to celebrate an American national holiday at the time of the Eid, a very important Muslim date; he speaks of Thanksgiving as if we knew what it is about; he makes no mention whatsoever to Ramadan, which obviously means nothing to him; he issues advice and stern warnings to Iraqis; and he has the gall to call the Iraqis present at the dinner "our guests" in their own country.

What I am trying to drive at here is that underneath all this American meddling with world affairs there is never a premise of equality. The whole American debate, even at its most liberal -- just read the blogs -- is totally self-referential and usually takes for granted that everybody else ultimately just wants to become American (or else destroy "our freedoms" out of spite). In their innocence and single-mindedness, Americans are either blind to diversity or view it as threatening. I, a Brazilian, could walk on the streets of Baghdad and have a cup of coffee with an Iraqi; we could, in spite of our profound differences, exchange views and share our experiences. The average American can't, because for an American the ultimate experience is being American; all the rest is irrelevant. It is very hard to breach this wall. This would be inconsequential if we were able to just ignore the Americans and leave them to themselves, but can become quite worrisome when they aggressively try to shape the world to their own image.

Unfortunately, this is not a political issue that can be solved replacing Republicans with Democrats; it is rather a cultural matter which requires a great shift of perception. Americans have become dangerous to the world lately not because they are evil, but because they don't understand others and, therefore, fail to understand themselves or the way they are seen by others. It is my impression that what was particularly shocking for Americans on 9/11 was not the attack itself, but the realization that people could harbor such a murderous hatred of the United States. (Unfortunately, instead of increasing awareness, this led to greater denial, which is why the same mistakes are being repeated in Iraq.) There is a great book by Graham Greene, "The Quiet American," in which an American consul in Saigon (pre-Vietnam war), full of noble intentions, makes a great deal of damage without ever realizing it. That's precisely what is happening today.

Please forgive me for such a long rant. I am writing to you because I have been feeling quite worried lately with the way things are going. I have a young daughter and I want her to live a long and peaceful life. I do believe the United States run the risk of becoming a "soft" media-controlled totalitarian state or worse. On the other hand, I feel -- for the first time -- that there is a great deal of perplexity around, which is a positive sign. In my opinion, the only way to effect a lasting change is to take a step back from the self-centered inter-American debate and accept the fact that we’re all in this together. Power feels good, but happiness is better.

Thanks, Pedro. (Some of Pedro's Billmon posts, which are similarly excellent, can be found here andhere.)

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