The Fading Global Distinction Between the Good U.S. People and the Bad U.S. Government

In the sixth chapter (titled “Who Hates America?” ) of my book Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004 www.paradigm publishers.com), I suggested that the U.S. citizenry’s initial apparent willingness (as measured by leading national polls) to support the Bush administration’s bloody and criminal attack on Mesopotamia was leading to the decline of the venerable and welcome distinction between the U.S. government and the U.S. people in world opinion. The chapter was based on an essay written in April 2003.

For much of my adult life, I’ve heard non-Americans tell me that “we like Americans; it’s just your government we can’t stand.”

“Operation Iraqi Freedom” seemed to me a pretty strong nail in the coffin of that old distinction, which had been fading for some time. From this particular imperial crime (one in a long record, of course) onwards, I guessed, ordinary Americans were no longer going to get the benefit of the overseas doubt.

Well, look at the book review I’ve pasted in (below)from the nation’s newspaper of record (the New York Times) below. The reviewer is Robert Wright, who works at something called “The New America Foundation.” One of the books reviewed by Wright went through recent global opinion data and found that global “anti-Americanism” is now at a new high and “this time it’s personal. Only a few years ago, anti-Americanism focused on government policies; the world ‘held Americans in higher esteem than America,’ [authors Andrew] Kohut and [Bruce] Stokes note. But” now, Wright observes, “foreigners are ‘increasingly equating the U.S. people with the U.S. government.’” Imagine that.

Much of this book review is rather inane, typically enough for the Times. Going into all the the specifics would take this post to article length, but I do want to mention a few problems with one of Wright’s formulations.

According to Wright, one of the authors reviewed “complains that ‘Americans think of themselves as kings and queens of the world’s prom.’ But, actually,” Wright says, “we can’t escape that role, at least for now. In wealth and power we are No. 1. The question is whether we’ll be the typical prom king or queen — resented by most at the bottom of the social hierarchy and many in the middle — or instead the rare prom king or queen who manages to be really, truly, you know, popular.”

Excuse me but who exactly is Wright’s “we?” These strutting American kings and queens of the world imperial “prom” (yes, “prom”…how juvenile), exist, I suppose, but they are not composed of the majority of the harried, dazed and confused U.S. populace and certainly not of the many poor people at the wide bottom of the imperial homeland’s steep domestic socieconomic and racial pyramid. Somehow, I don’t feel compelled to go into the vast and miserable ghettoes of Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, or [...fill in the blank with your closest local hyper-segregated concentration of highly racialized urban poverty]to instruct their “American” residents to stop acting and thinking like they’re God’s gift to the planet.

Now, with the “Americans” of the country club set, it’s a different story. Many of THEM do need the instruction (though they’d never take it from the likes of me).

There’s plenty people living in sub-First-World conditions right here in the imperial “homeland”: “No. 1″ America. Those people and indeed most of the U.S. populace have very little input on the making of U.S. foreign policy.

Wright might want to reflect on the fact that the U.S. possesses its own internal “social hiearchy” — the most unequal and rigid one in the industrialized world in fact.

Another problem: neither the reviewer nor (at least by the reviewer’s account) the reviewed authors (who deserve of course to be actually read before final conclusions about their books are made) seem to have any grasp of the critical role war-state and war-media propaganda play in shaping U.S. opinion. If you read the full review (it’s short) below, you’ll see that Wright sets up a debate between (1) seeing “Americans” as a bunch of obnoxious imperialists who want to impose “their culture” and values and power on the rest of the world or (2)viewing them as obnoxiously apathetic and self-involved…narcissistically indifferent to people outside America and world events.

I’ve met a few “Americans” in category (1) and a lot more “Americans” in (2). But really most of the ordinary “Americans” I know are in neither classification. They are decent human beings who generally care about other people at home and abroad and sincerely want to see democratic and humanistic solutions to international problems, which they think should be solved through cooperative international bodies and processes.

This vaguely optimistic observation of mine is backed up in some of the public opinion data I mentioned in my last blog post. The main problem with these decent and democratic human beings is that they are so often badly overworked, bewildered, and horribly misinformed and confused by Orwellian war media and state propagandists, who work to keep the masses confused and afraid even as the more (Aldous) Huxlean lords of the corporate crafted, so-called popular culture do everything they can to make “the rabble” infantilized, petty, and stupid.

Under the twin and interrelated imperatives of Empire and Inequality, some “Americans” have a lot more power —- over foreign policy, over wealth, and over mass domesttic opinion — than other “Americans.”

Now that the majority of the U.S. populace is on the record (for what it’s worth) against the war on Iraq (good for us) — a majority now even says the war is not morally justified — will overseas opinion (assuming it knows about this shift) turn back a little to its old distinction between the (bad) U.S. government and the (good) U.S. people?

I suspect not. “If your government’s policies don’t reflect your beliefs,” I imagine most of the world’s people would say now, “then its time to change your government and its policies. Until you do so, your esteem will continue to plummet in our eyes. We’ve cut you a lot of slack for a very long time, American people, but really enough is enough. The hour is getting late. No more excuses. Do we need to read your government’s founding revolutionary document back to you?”

A little harsh perhaps, but it would be difficult to blame the “foreigners” for coming to such a conclusion. They’re on the other end of Uncle Sam’s guns and not exactly in the mood for accommodating our failure to make a long overdue revolution here in the U.S.

Here’s the review:

May 14, 2006
New York Times Book Review
Books on Anti-Americanism
They Hate Us, They Really Hate Us

You wouldn’t expect to find good news for President Bush in a book by Andrew Kohut, a pollster and commentator who seems to divide his time between quantifying America’s Bush-era plunge in the world’s esteem and quantifying Bush’s plunge in America’s esteem. Then again, you also wouldn’t expect to find good news for President Bush in a book by Julia E. Sweig, a liberal senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. But Sweig’s “Friendly Fire” joins Kohut’s “America Against the World” (written with the columnist Bruce Stokes) in showing that Bush isn’t the only one to blame for the world’s dim view of the United States. And these days that counts as good news for Bush.

Whether it’s good news for the United States is another question. Once you see the deep and diffuse roots of current anti-Americanism, you realize there won’t be an easy fix. Still, these two books — especially “Friendly Fire,” the more prescriptive of the two — offer insight into how we might avoid what Sweig calls “the Anti-American Century.”
The strain of “American exceptionalism” that President Bush has made internationally infamous is hardly new, Sweig notes. A Latin America specialist, she can list a century’s worth of examples of the dubious idea that “America could throw its weight around — willy-nilly of international law or the sovereignty of other states — because its goals were noble, its values universal in their appeal.”

And she doesn’t stop with Latin America. More obviously germane to current headlines than the 1954 coup America sponsored in Guatemala is the one it sponsored in Iran in 1953, ushering in the secular authoritarianism that would in turn usher in the fundamentalist revolution of 1979. This, like so much American support for oppression during the cold war, made less of an impact on Americans than on the oppressed. “The dramas that contained the seeds of today’s rebellion played out in obscurity, as yet imperceptible to the naked American eye,” Sweig writes in the course of her sweeping and pungent review of abrasive American foreign policies.

Anti-Americanism emanating from globalization also long predates the Bush presidency. As Kohut and Stokes point out in their data-rich book, international resentment of American culture (movies, McDonald’s) and business practices (long work hours) was appearing in Gallup polls by the early 1980′s.

If America has been alienating people for decades, why has anti-Americanism so rarely gotten the attention it’s getting now? For one thing, several forces have converged to create a new truth: national security depends crucially on foreign feelings toward America.

Of course, it was always important that some people — notably political leaders in nations deemed allies — like us. (Alienating freshly installed dictators has long been considered poor strategy.) But popular sentiment mattered less in the years before democratization made leaders beholden to the masses in so many countries, and before microelectronic information technology made the masses in even authoritarian nations more unruly.

And, of course, terrorism wasn’t the threat it is now. The Venezuelans who stoned Vice President Richard Nixon’s car in 1958 might have made their grievances felt more powerfully and farther to the north if they’d had modern munitions, transportation and information technology. Neither book much emphasizes this peril of anti-Americanism — the growing lethality of grass-roots hatred. But the war on terror is the backdrop for their illumination of how anti-Americanism impedes effective alliances.
America’s post-cold-war pre-eminence — and the sudden visibility of that pre-eminence — complicates our attempts to win friends. People already ambivalent about encroaching American culture and commerce can increasingly see affluent America itself via video. Masses that have long felt bitterly toward the rich in their own nations can transfer some antipathy to their new next-door neighbors, us: the globalization of resentment.

In sum, by the late 90′s America was becoming a more natural target for ill will, even as its national security rested increasingly on good will. More than ever, we needed a leader of diplomatic sensibility, keenly attuned to the hopes and fears of diverse peoples, willing to help other nations address their priorities.

And in walked . . . George W. Bush. His alleged failures in this regard have been so thoroughly discussed that we can save time by evoking them with keywords: “crusade,” “evil,” Kyoto, Iraq, Bolton, Geneva Convention and so on. There’s no proving Sweig’s contention that Bush’s “policies and nonpolicies . . . stripped bare the latent structural anti-American animus that had accumulated over time,” but Kohut’s Pew Research Center polls show that global opinion of the United States has plummeted under Bush — not just since its unnatural post-9/11 high, but since he took office.
And this time it’s personal. Only a few years ago, anti-Americanism focused on government policies; the world “held Americans in higher esteem than America,” Kohut and Stokes note. But foreigners are “increasingly equating the U.S. people with the U.S. government.”

Kohut and Stokes argue, in effect, that these foreigners are confused, that Americans aren’t in the grips of the offensive exceptionalism lately exhibited by their government. According to the polls, “the American people, as opposed to some of their leaders, seek no converts to their ideology.” And they are not “cultural imperialists.” Maybe not. But this reserve seems grounded less in humility (60 percent of Americans consider their culture “superior to others”) than in apathy. Americans, Kohut and Stokes write, tend “to downplay the importance of America’s relationship to other nations . . . to be indifferent to global issues . . . to lack enthusiasm for multinational efforts and institutions” and in general to have “an inattentive self-centeredness unmindful of their country’s deepening linkages with other countries.”
In other words: We’re not obnoxiously evangelistic, just obnoxiously self-involved. So even if Bush doesn’t reflect the real America, and is replaced by someone who does, we’ll still be in trouble. At least, we’ll be in trouble if much of the problem is indeed, as Sweig argues, the longstanding “near inability of the United States to see its power from the perspective of the powerless.” Changing that will require not a leader worthy of the people, but a leader willing to lead the people.

Sweig complains that “Americans think of themselves as kings and queens of the world’s prom.” But, actually, we can’t escape that role, at least for now. In wealth and power we are No. 1. The question is whether we’ll be the typical prom king or queen — resented by most at the bottom of the social hierarchy and many in the middle — or instead the rare prom king or queen who manages to be really, truly, you know, popular.
Americans may be bad at doing what Sweig recommends — “seeing ourselves as others see us” — but we’re not alone in this. People in general have trouble putting themselves in the shoes of people whose circumstances differ from theirs. That’s why the world is such a mess — and why succeeding at this task would qualify as real moral progress.
So history has put America in a position where its national security depends on its further moral growth. This is scary but also kind of inspiring. Maybe the term “American greatness” needn’t have the militaristic connotations lately attached to it. Here, perhaps, is an exceptionalism worth aspiring to. But if we succeed, let’s try not to brag about it.

Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author, most recently, of “Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny

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