I moved from the U.S. to Europe in 1998, and I’ve been drawing comparisons ever since. Living in turn in the Netherlands, where kids come out of high school able to speak four languages, where gay marriage is a non-issue, and where book-buying levels are the world’s highest, and in Norway, where a staggering percentage of people read three newspapers a day and where respect for learning is reflected even in Oslo place names (“Professor Aschehoug Square”; “Professor Birkeland Road”), I was tempted at one point to write a book lamenting Americans’ anti-intellectualism—their indifference to foreign languages, ignorance of history, indifference to academic achievement, susceptibility to vulgar religion and trash TV, and so forth. On point after point, I would argue, Europe had us beat.
Yet as my weeks in the Old World stretched into months and then years, my perceptions shifted. Yes, many Europeans were book lovers—but which country’s literature most engaged them? Many of them revered education—but to which country’s universities did they most wish to send their children? (Answer: the same country that performs the majority of the world’s scientific research and wins most of the Nobel Prizes.) Yes, American television was responsible for drivel like “The Ricki Lake Show”—but Europeans, I learned, watched this stuff just as eagerly as Americans did (only to turn around, of course, and mock it as a reflection of American boorishness). No, Europeans weren’t Bible-thumpers—but the Continent’s ever-growing Muslim population, I had come to realize, represented even more of a threat to pluralist democracy than fundamentalist Christians did in the U.S. And yes, more Europeans were multilingual—but then, if each of the fifty states had its own language, Americans would be multilingual, too.1 I’d marveled at Norwegians’ newspaper consumption; but what did they actually read in those newspapers?
That this was, in fact, a crucial question was brought home to me when a travel piece I wrote for the New York Times about a weekend in rural Telemark received front-page coverage in Aftenposten, Norway’s newspaper of record. Not that my article’s contents were remotely newsworthy; its sole news value lay in the fact that Norway had been mentioned in the New York Times. It was astonishing. And even more astonishing was what happened next: the owner of the farm hotel at which I’d stayed, irked that I’d made a point of his want of hospitality, got his revenge by telling reporters that I’d demanded McDonald’s hamburgers for dinner instead of that most Norwegian of delicacies, reindeer steak. Though this was a transparent fabrication (his establishment was located atop a remote mountain, far from the nearest golden arches), the press lapped it up. The story received prominent coverage all over Norway and dragged on for days. My inhospitable host became a folk hero; my irksome weekend trip was transformed into a morality play about the threat posed by vulgar, fast-food-eating American urbanites to cherished native folk traditions. I was flabbergasted. But my erstwhile host obviously wasn’t: he knew his country; he knew its media; and he’d known, accordingly, that all he needed to do to spin events to his advantage was to breathe that talismanic word, McDonald’s.
For me, this startling episode raised a few questions. Why had the Norwegian press given such prominent attention in the first place to a mere travel article? Why had it then been so eager to repeat a cartoonish lie? Were these actions reflective of a society more serious, more thoughtful, than the one I’d left? Or did they reveal a culture, or at least a media class, that was so awed by America as to be flattered by even its slightest attentions but that was also reflexively, irrationally belligerent toward it?
This experience was only part of a larger process of edification. Living in Europe, I gradually came to appreciate American virtues I’d always taken for granted, or even disdained—among them a lack of self-seriousness, a grasp of irony and self-deprecating humor, a friendly informality with strangers, an unashamed curiosity, an openness to new experience, an innate optimism, a willingness to think for oneself and speak one’s mind and question the accepted way of doing things. (One reason why Euro- peans view Americans as ignorant is that when we don’t know something, we’re more likely to admit it freely and ask questions.) While Americans, I saw, cherished liberty, Europeans tended to take it for granted or dismiss it as a naïve or cynical, and somehow vaguely embarrassing, American fiction. I found myself toting up words that begin with i: individuality, imagination, initiative, inventiveness, independence of mind. Americans, it seemed to me, were more likely to think for themselves and trust their own judgments, and less easily cowed by authorities or bossed around by “experts”; they believed in their own ability to make things better. No wonder so many smart, ambitious young Europeans look for inspiration to the United States, which has a dynamism their own countries lack, and which communicates the idea that life can be an adventure and that there’s important, exciting work to be done. Reagan-style “morning in America” clichés may make some of us wince, but they reflect something genuine and valuable in the American air. Europeans may or may not have more of a “sense of history” than Americans do (in fact, in a recent study comparing students’ historical knowledge, the results were pretty much a draw), but America has something else that matters—a belief in the future.
Over time, then, these things came into focus for me. Then came September 11. Briefly, Western European hostility toward the U.S. yielded to sincere, if shallow, solidarity (“We are all Americans”). But the enmity soon re-established itself (a fact confirmed for me daily on the websites of the many Western European newspapers I had begun reading online). With the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, it intensified. Yet the endlessly reiterated claim that George W. Bush “squandered” Western Europe’s post-9/11 sympathy is nonsense. The sympathy was a blip; the anti-Americanism is chronic. Why? In The Eagle’s Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World, American journalist and NPR commentator Mark Hertsgaard purports to seek an answer.2 His assumption throughout is that anti-Americanism is amply justified, for these reasons, among others:
Our foreign policy is often arrogant and cruel and threatens to “blow back” against us in terrible ways. Our consumerist definition of prosperity is killing us, and perhaps the planet. Our democracy is an embarrassment to the word, a den of entrenched bureaucrats and legal bribery. Our media are a disgrace to the hallowed concept of freedom of the press. Our precious civil liberties are under siege, our economy is dividing us into rich and poor, our signature cultural activities are shopping and watching television. To top it off, our business and political elites are insisting that our model should also be the world’s model, through the glories of corporate-led globalization.
America, in short, is a mess—a cultural wasteland, an economic nightmare, a political abomination, an international misfit, outlaw, parasite, and pariah. If Americans don’t know this already, it is, in Hertsgaard’s view, precisely because they are Americans: “Foreigners,” he proposes, “can see things about America that natives cannot. . . . Americans can learn from their perceptions, if we choose to.” What he fails to acknowledge, however, is that most foreigners never set foot in the United States, and that the things they think they know about it are consequently based not on first-hand experience but on school textbooks, books by people like Michael Moore, movies about spies and gangsters, “Ricki Lake,” “C.S.I.,” and, above all, the daily news reports in their own national media. What, one must therefore ask, are their media telling them? What aren’t they telling them? And what are the agendas of those doing the telling? Such questions, crucial to a study of the kind Hertsgaard pretends to be making, are never asked here. Citing a South African restaurateur’s assertion that non-Americans “have an advantage over [Americans], because we know everything about you and you know nothing about us,” Hertsgaard tells us that this is a good point, but it’s not: non-Americans are always saying this to Americans, but when you poke around a bit, you almost invariably discover that what they “know” about America is very wide of the mark.
In any event, The Eagle’s Shadow proves to be something of a gyp: for though it’s packaged as a work of reportage about foreigners’ views of America, it’s really a jeremiad by Hertsgaard himself, punctuated occasionally, to be sure, by relevant quotations from cabbies, busdrivers, and, yes, a restaurateur whom he’s run across in his travels. His running theme is Americans’ parochialism: we “not only don’t know much about the rest of the world, we don’t care.” I used to buy this line, too; then I moved to Europe and found that—surprise!—people everywhere are parochial. Norwegians are no less fixated on Norway (pop. 4.5 million) than Americans are on America (pop. 280 million). And while Americans’ relative indifference to foreign news is certainly nothing to crow about, the provincial focus of Norwegian news reporting and public-affairs programming can feel downright claustrophobic. Hertsgaard illustrates Americans’ ignorance of world geography by telling us about a Spaniard who was asked at a wedding in Tennessee if Spain was in Mexico. I once told such stories as well (in fact, I began my professional writing career with a fretful op-ed about the lack of general knowledge that I, then a doctoral candidate in English, found among my undergraduate students); then I moved to Europe and met people like the sixtyish Norwegian author and psychologist who, at the annual dinner of a Norwegian authors’ society, told me she’d been to San Francisco but never to California.
One of Hertsgaard’s main interests—which he shares with several other writers who have recently published books about America and the world—is the state of American journalism. His argument, in a nutshell, is that “few foreigners appreciate how poorly served Americans are by our media and educational systems—how narrow the range of information and debate is in the land of the free.” To support this claim, he offers up the fact that “internationally renowned intellectuals such as Edward W. Said and Frances Moore Lappé” signed a statement against the invasion of Afghanistan, but were forced to run it as an ad because newspapers wouldn’t print it for free. Hertsgaard’s acid comment: “In the United States, it seems, there are some things you have to buy the freedom to say.” Now, I didn’t know who Lappé was when I read this (it turns out she wrote a book called Diet for a Small Planet), but as for the late Professor Said, no writer on earth was given more opportunities by prominent newspapers and journals to air his views on the war against terror. In the two years between 9/11 and his death in 2003, his byline seemed ubiquitous.
Yes, there’s much about the American news media that deserves criticism, from the vulgar personality journalism of Larry King and Diane Sawyer to the cultural polarization nourished by the many publishers and TV news producers who prefer sensation to substance. But to suggest that American journalism, taken as a whole, offers a narrower range of information and debate than its foreign counterparts is absurd. America’s major political magazines range from National Review and The Weekly Standard on the right to The Nation and Mother Jones on the left; its all-news networks, from conservative Fox to liberal CNN; its leading newspapers, from the New York Post and Washington Times to the New York Times and Washington Post. Scores of TV programs and radio call-in shows are devoted to fiery polemic by, or vigorous exchanges between, true believers at both ends of the political spectrum. Nothing remotely approaching this breadth of news and opinion is available in a country like Norway. Purportedly to strengthen journalistic diversity (which, in the ludicrous words of a recent prime minister, “is too important to be left up to the marketplace”), Norway’s social-democratic government actually subsidizes several of the country’s major newspapers (in addition to running two of its three broadcast channels and most of its radio); yet the Norwegian media are (guess what?) almost uniformly social-democratic—a fact reflected not only in their explicit editorial positions but also in the slant and selectivity of their international coverage.3 Reading the opinion pieces in Norwegian newspapers, one has the distinct impression that the professors and bureaucrats who write most of them view it as their paramount function not to introduce or debate fresh ideas but to remind the masses what they’re supposed to think. The same is true of most of the journalists, who routinely spin the news from the perspective of social-democratic orthodoxy, systematically omitting or misrepresenting any challenge to that orthodoxy—and almost invariably presenting the U.S. in a negative light. Most Norwegians are so accustomed to being presented with only one position on certain events and issues (such as the Iraq War) that they don’t even realize that there exists an intelligent alternative position.
Things are scarcely better in neighboring Sweden. During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the only time I saw pro-war arguments fairly represented in the Scandinavian media was on an episode of “Oprah” that aired on Sweden’s TV4. Not surprisingly, a Swedish government agency later censured TV4 on the grounds that the program had violated media-balance guidelines. In reality, the show, which had featured participants from both sides of the issue, had plainly offended authorities by exposing Swedish viewers to something their nation’s media had otherwise shielded them from—a forceful articulation of the case for going into Iraq.4 In other European countries, to be sure, the media spectrum is broader than this; yet with the exception of Britain, no Western European nation even approaches America’s journalistic diversity. (The British courts’ recent silencing of royal rumors, moreover, reminded us that press freedom is distinctly more circumscribed in the U.K. than in the U.S.) And yet Western Europeans are regularly told by their media that it’s Americans who are fed slanted, selective news—a falsehood also given currency by Americans like Hertsgaard.
No less regrettable than Hertsgaard’s misinformation about the American media are his comments on American affluence, which he regards as an international embarrassment and a sign of moral deficiency. He waxes sarcastic about malls, about the range of products available to American consumers (whom he describes as “dining on steak and ice cream twice a day”), and about the fact that Americans “spent $535 billion on entertainment in 1999, more than the combined GNPs of the world’s forty-five poorest nations.” He appears not to have solicited the opinions of Eastern Europeans, a great many of whom, having been deprived under Communism of both civil rights and a decent standard of living, have a deep appreciation for both American liberty and American prosperity. But then Hertsgaard, predictably, touches on Communism only in the course of making anti-American points. For example, he recalls a man in Havana who, during the dispute over Florida’s electoral votes in the 2000 presidential contest, whimsically suggested that Cuba send over election observers. (Well, that would’ve been one way to escape Cuba without being gunned down.) Hertsgaard further sneers that for many Americans, the fall of the Berlin Wall proved that they lived in “the chosen nation of God.” Now, for my part, I never heard anyone suggest such a connection. What I do remember about the Wall coming down is the lack of shame or contrition on the part of Western leftists who had spent decades appeasing and apologizing for Soviet Communism. In any event, does Hertsgaard really think that in a work purporting to evaluate America in an international context, this smirking comment about the Berlin Wall is all that need be said about the expiration of an empire that murdered tens of millions and from which the U.S., at extraordinary risk and expense, protected its allies for nearly half a century?
The victory over Soviet Communism is not the only honorable chapter of American history that Hertsgaard trashes. World War II? Though he grants that the U.S. saved Western Europe, he puts the word “saving” in scare quotes and maintains that “America had its own reasons” (economic, naturally) for performing this service. September 11? Here, in its entirety, is what he has to say about that cataclysmic day: “Suddenly Americans had learned the hard way: what foreigners think does matter.” The Iraq War? An atrocity against innocent civilians—nothing more. There’s no reference here to Saddam’s torture cells, imprisoned children, or mass graves, no mention of the fact that millions of Iraqis who lived in terror are now free. Instead, Hertsgaard cites with approval a U.N. official’s smug comment that Americans, who never understand anything anyway, have failed to grasp “that Iraq is not made up of twenty-two million Saddam Husseins” but of families and children. For a proper response to this remark, I need only quote from an address made to the Security Council by Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari on December 16, 2003. Accusing the U.N. of failing to save Iraq from “a murderous tyranny,” Zebari said: “Today we are unearthing thousands of victims in horrifying testament to that failure. The United Nations must not fail the Iraqi people again.”5
Hertsgaard compares America unfavorably not only with Europe but—incredibly—with Africa. If “many Europeans speak two if not three languages,” he rhapsodizes, “in Africa, multilingualism is even more common.” So, one might add, are poverty, starvation, rape, AIDS infection, state tyranny and corruption, and such human-rights abominations as slavery, female genital mutilation, and the use of children as soldiers and prostitutes.
Hertsgaard contrasts America’s “frenzied pace” with the “African rhythms” that he finds more congenial and notes with admiration that “Africans live in social conditions that encourage inter- change, discourage hurry, and elevate the common good over that of the individual.” In response to which it might be pointed out (a) that those “social conditions” generally go by the name of abject poverty and (b) that Hertsgaard fails to cite such recent examples of benign African “social . . . interchange” and expressions of concern for the “common good” as Mugabe’s terror regime in Zimbabwe, ethnic clashes in the Central African Republic, Somali anarchy, Rwandan genocide (800,000 dead), prolonged civil wars in Sudan (two million dead), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1.7 million dead), Liberia (200,000 dead), the Ivory Coast, and elsewhere, not to mention massacres of Christians by Muslims in Sudan and Nigeria. To recommend Africa to Americans as a model of social harmony without a hint of qualification is not just unserious, it’s hallucinatory.6
Every nation requires serious, responsible criticism, particularly if it’s the planet’s leading economic power, the arsenal of democracy, and the center of humanity’s common culture. But Hertsgaard’s criticism of America is neither serious nor responsible. Though at one point (apropos of American medicine and science) he concedes, with breathtaking dismissiveness, that “We Americans are a clever bunch,” he usually talks about his fellow countrymen as if they’re buffoons who have mysteriously and unjustly lucked into living in the world’s richest country, while most of the rest of the species, though far brighter and more deserving, somehow ended up in grinding poverty. For him, Americans’ intellectual mediocrity would seem to be a self-evident truth, but his own observations hardly exemplify the kind of reflectiveness a reader of such a book has a right to expect. For example, when he notes with satisfaction that the young Sigmund Freud “complained . . . incessantly about [America’s] lack of taste and culture,” Hertsgaard seems not to have realized that Freud was, of course, comparing the U.S. to his native Austria, which would later demonstrate its “taste and culture” by welcoming the Nazi Anschluss. One ventures to suggest that had Freud—who escaped the Gestapo thanks to intervention by Franklin D. Roosevelt—survived to see the liberated death camps in which his four sisters perished, he might well have revised his views about the relative virtues of American and Austrian culture.
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