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As others see us

It may make our blood boil, but we should try asking foreigners why so many of them hate America

Issue: "Considering the heavens," Jan. 24, 2004

A FRIEND POINTED OUT THE IRONY TO ME AGAIN this past week: Just at a time when the United States is again and again portrayed internationally as a repugnant and self-centered force in world events, one of our nation's main problems is that so many non-Americans want to come and live here.

The Bush administration's new initiatives on immigration policy will be debated on a hundred fronts. But on one issue, nobody disagrees: Folks from all over the world want to come and live in America.

So why is it that the refrain also goes on and on about what a terribly wicked place this nation is?

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All of which prompted me to dig out a book I started to read a year ago, but never finished. Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies's little paperback Why Do People Hate America? is calculated, if your blood is red, white, and blue, to make that blood boil by the time you finish the first 30 pages. "Not so!" you'll holler and scream, as I did. "What country are you possibly talking about?"

So may I suggest that the more loyal you consider yourself to be as an American, the more patriotic you think you are, the more you might benefit from girding up your loins, gritting your teeth, and reading the Sardar-Davies book? It was a Scottish foreigner, after all, who wrote those insightful words:

Oh wad some power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as othrs see us!

It wad frae monie a blunder free us,

An' foolish notion.

Decide in advance that you might discard 90 percent, or 95 percent, or even 99 percent of Sardar, Davies, and their unbalanced screed-but that the other 10, 5, or 1 percent might possibly prove profitable.

All this, mind you, won't tell you much about whether other people see you accurately, or if they don't, if they have any good excuses for their misperceptions. All you're doing at this point is discovering and cataloging the variety of negative notions commonly held about Americans.

Those notions include the assumption that we are arrogant because we are economically rich and militarily powerful-on both counts, more so than any nation in history. The negative notions include the assumption that we have become rich and powerful by exploitation-by making other nations poor and weak. The negative notions include the assumption that we are eager to impose our culture, in all its diversity, on other cultures around the world.

Whether we fill Japanese movie theaters with Hollywood films, Hong Kong restaurants with McDonald's hamburgers, Johannesburg offices with Microsoft software, Havana with U.S. dollars, or Kuwait City with Christian religious concepts, we are resented for doing so. And the more the common folk in those countries clamor for American items, the more we are resented. We're even resented by our friends; thousands of Israelis protested in Jerusalem last week, angered in part by U.S. pressure on Israel to be a bit more accommodating toward the Palestinians.

We are stupid if we deny all this. I don't mean that we need to admit some sinister plot to try to take over the world by economic and military force. I don't believe that for a minute. But we do need to admit that huge numbers of people have been misled into thinking that such plots exist and that we are carrying out such an agenda. And the mere fact that several hundred thousand immigrants have a high enough opinion of the United States to give everything they have to get here-well, that still shouldn't blind us to the fact that many more foreigners than that really do hate our guts.

I'm no expert in foreign relations. But having traveled over the last 30 years in some 45 different countries, I have found one approach to be universally acceptable. And it goes, incidentally, right to the core of Robert Burns's little poem. The approach, very simply, is to ask people how they see us-and preferably to ask the question about some specific issue. Then I sit back and listen. Typically, I hear something that upsets me. But I also hear some things that enlighten me. Often, I know enough to be quite sure what I'm hearing is wrong. Just as often, I learn that something I was convinced of is also off base.

Even on a global scale, it's a whole lot like a simple conversation anywhere. It's not really a question of who's right and who's wrong. The best conversationalist is almost always someone who's good at asking questions. The biggest bore is the one who never stops telling you everything he knows.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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