Tuesday 23 July 2002

An American mystery

In a Salon Premium essay titled What the world thinks of America, Executive Editor Gary Kamiya reflects on the polarization of American attitudes towards the Sept. 11 attacks and writes of his disappointment in the response of the American government:

For those Americans opposed to the administration’s arrogant unilateralism and simplistic worldview, this failure to learn from a national tragedy is immensely disappointing, and the manipulation of that tragedy feels like a cynical defilement.

Cover of Granta 77 (What we think of America)In an attempt to see America in a fresh way, Kamiya borrows 24 sets of foreign eyes, belonging to contributors to the spring issue of the quarterly literary journal Granta, titled What We Think of America.

“In this issue,” explains Ian Jack in the introduction, “twenty-four writers drawn from many countries describe the part America has played in their lives—for better or worse—and deliver their estimate of the good and the bad it has done as the world’s supreme political, military, economic and cultural power.”

Twelve of the contributions are available online, including one by British writer James Hamilton-Paterson, which Kamiya singles out for particular mention:

Again and again, the writers hammer away on the disparity between the sophistication of Americans and the crude conservatism of their leaders and their nation’s international policies. The British writer James Hamilton-Paterson, who also notes that Americans are singularly ignorant of the rest of the world (another familiar theme) writes, “Time and again I’m struck by the extraordinary disparity between the United States’ global face and the many individual Americans I know and love. Their sophistication, generosity of spirit, intellectual honesty and subversive humor seem wholly at odds with their country’s monolithic weight on the world. Why is it, I wonder, their government is never represented by people like themselves? … Are my friends in some way disenfranchised: part of a vital, intelligent, and quintessentially American constituency doomed to be forever unrepresented in their Congress and Senate? And if so, why?” For Americans who have essentially given up even dreaming that their politicians might reflect them, this question is painful.

For non-Americans, this vast discrepancy—between the individual Americans we know and love and the behavior of the American state apparatus throughout the world—is an unfathomable mystery (and a topic that arises with startling frequency in conversations about the United States). My American friends (whether it’s those I’ve met in the US and elsewhere or those I’ve come to know and value through blogging) are exactly as Hamilton-Paterson describes: sophisticated, generous of spirit, intellectually honest, and subversively humorous. How is it that in recent times, at least, such warm, intelligent, gifted people have virtually no influence on American policy and the projection of American power?

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Unfortunately, because many of the Americans that you know -- myself included -- have not been actively involved in the running of our country. We discuss the state of politics, in word and speech with great wit and eloquence, but we don't get involved. We may be urbane and sophisticated and humorous with our friends across the water and next door, but we are also lazy and complacent -- more willing to criticize after the fact, then become involved before. We assuage our guilt at our non-involvement by donating to the 9/11 survivor fund, pasting a flag to our window, and going to a neighborhood memorial to hold a candle. Give peace a chance.

If we're feeling particularly bellicose or alarmed we might, might mind you, write a note to our local congressional delegate. As long as someone else words it, and we can send it in email and it doesn't cause us too much effort such as printing out a page and finding a stamp and taking it to the mailbox and opening the lid and actually putting the letter into the box. You know.

I once asked what people would be willing to give up to take a stand in regards to the current problems with the entertainment industry and copyright laws. From the response I received -- can silence hurt the ears? -- it would seem that we're willing to give up very little in order to take a stand. We huff and we puff, in our weblogs and with each other, but we won't turn off our TVs, our radios, not buy the DVD or CD, not go to the movies.

And think about how much more we have to give up in order to start turning the government around before it's too late.

Our government is the way it is not in spite of us, but because of us.

Posted by Shelley Powers on 23 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I think that Hamilton-Patterson hits the nail on the head in the third paragraph, talking about the Phillipines: "it is impossible to accede to any worthwhile elected position without a huge 'war chest' of campaign funds"

Those Americans that you describe, with all the virtues that as an American I see around me all the time, are not the ones that make it to the top rung of the business or legal worlds. Without the connections, one cannot get the money, and without the money one won't be on the ballot on that Tuesday in November when only 50% decide to go vote.

The half that don't vote see that it doesn't really make a difference because they're not going to be represented anyway, and those who do walk away disgusted that they were forced into a situation where they had to pick the lesser of two evils, both of which we evil enough to make your toes curl.

It's a shitty system, and a lot of people are disaffected, but change is so slow that we might not see it in our lifetime.

Posted by John on 24 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I'm sad to say I agree with Shelley.

Most of the people I know do not vote. I do. And yes, campaign financing needs to be better regulated. I'm not sure that the new regulations that have been passed (go John McCain!) are enough. But they are a start. Not only that, but there needs to be a real effort on the media's part to educate the public as to their responsibilities.

Posted by Karl on 24 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Can you think of a government whose style, policies, and structure DOES accurately reflect its people's diversity, sophistication, and intelligence?

Government is a crude instrument. American capitalist democracy is a particular kind of crude instrument. Fortunately, it's not the crudest.

Posted by Pascale Soleil on 24 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This government was made by the best intentions of the Founding Fathers, which assumed (even then) things that are too good to be true. And that is were the crudeness comes from.

Could you (Americans; I am from Iran with my own troubles to face) have stopped it? Could anyone have stopped the rise of the Military Complex? Even all the people together, did it matter if they all cared? I guess not. It is the same system maybe bent somehow to this hideous appearance, but the same system nonetheless only more powerful.

Posted by Kaveh on 24 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I had another thought this afternoon, made up of equal parts epiphany and sadness.

Can we turn the position of the US around, becoming friend and partner rather than enforcer and avenger? Possibly. Possibly not. If the changes that are necessary occur, though, they must come from without as much as from within. To say otherwise perpetuates the same arrogance that got us into this untenable position.

We in the US must stop trying to arrange the world to benefit ourselves, and this begins with the process of picking better leaders and becoming more involved in their decisions. It will also mean acting from selfless rather than selfish motives, and personal sacrifice.

However, sacrifice won't only occur on our shores and within our heartlands. For better, or for worse, the US is a part of the world, as much as the world is a part of us. This isn't arrogance; this is just acknowledgement. The same can be said for every country.

Side thought:

Respect for borders, for culture, and for religion -- has our world become too small for tolerance of differences?

Posted by Shelley Powers on 24 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Here's my uninformed opinion: Americans, as a whole, have become used to politicians being greedy, seedy, amoral, lying, backstabbing, mealy-mouthed scumbags. No "warm, intelligent, gifted people" want any part of that. Besides, politics is a game. In order to reach the top, you have to know how to play. And knowing how to play seems to involve the skills of lying, backstabbing, and other dirty tricks.

It's really a shame, too. The entire system needs to be overhauled, but how? The politicians aren't going to change it - how else will they achieve their goals but by playing the game as it's been played for decades.

Posted by Bob on 25 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Perhaps the lack of visionary, intelligent, law-abiding political leadership has something to do with the scale of politics. To assume that you are capable of administering and making decisions about a large constituency (state, city, nation, whatever) is an enormous act of ego. Is there a connection between ego and powergrabbing (and the kind of politics Bob mentions above), between humility and trying to foster change on a more localized level? I may desire change nation and globe wide, but my own sense of relative importance leads me to work in my own neighborhood or city rather than think about leadership roles. Just thinking out loud here, stop me if I start to ramble...

Posted by steve on 25 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I, for one, don't blame the politicians. Many are thoughtful, intelligent folks dealing with a difficult task. For most, to talk intelligently on an issue is dangerous - it will get clipped into a 20 second positon, and arouse more ire than support. It doesn't help that average congressman from a modest state needs to raise at least 5,000 dollars a day, everyday, to get re-elected. My representative, Peter Defazio, is a decent guy.
A democracy depends on a concerned, informed, and participating public. It is the only place one can place blame, and attacking "the system" or "the politicians" is generally an excuse for personal apathy. After all, there are a whole lot more of us(public), than of them(powermongers).

Posted by Michael Webb on 25 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

5{r grow tired of reading out-of-touch elitists condescendingly imply that their political opponents are dull, simplistic, and incapapable of sensitivity and love. Nor do I tire of the implication that America's national leaders somehow cheated for, or backed into, their posts, as if some mysterious mechanism other than public voting were responsible for their elections.

Posted by Mike Terry on 26 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Hmmm. A bug in the comments system garbled my post, which should have begun, "Ahhh. I never..."

Posted by Mike Terry on 26 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

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