Yearning to be Liked
[N.B. This was one of a collection of articles, all published in the November, 2002 issue of TNC, dealing with anti-Americanism. My particular topic was "Anti-Americanism in the Third World.]
Let me begin with a story, a true story — the story of my one appearance on a lecture stage with Dr. Henry Kissinger. This happened, or rather failed to happen, in the month of September, 2001.
The U.S. State Department runs a Foreign Visitors Program, under whose auspices people from various parts of the world, people distinguished in the arts or professions, are brought to the United States to meet with American counterparts from their own lines of work. I suppose the idea is that mutual understanding will be created thereby, the veil of ignorance lifted, the fetters of ancient prejudice struck off, the dogs of war silenced, and so on. Whether this result is actually attained in many cases, I cannot say. In the particular case I am going to tell you about, it never had a chance to happen.
As a journalist who has been writing about Chinese affairs for nearly twenty years, I am sometimes asked to participate in these functions. The usual course of events is that the State Department will call me to tell me that such-and-such a person is being brought over from China under the Foreign Visitors Program, and they think it would be a good idea for me to meet with him or her. They tell me who the person is. If the name is not familiar to me (which, I am sorry to say, is more often the case than not), they give me the visitor's curriculum vitae. If I then express interest, a date is set up, almost invariably a lunch date. I hasten to add that this is unpaid work. I do it for the opportunity to meet interesting people, and in the hope that I might get a column out of it.
Well, one day last summer I took a call from my contact — I had done this often enough that we were on first-name terms — at the Foreign Visitors Program. They had a major event coming up, he told me. A large group of Chinese media people, TV producers and the like, were coming over in a single batch. "The cream of 30-40-year-olds at major Chinese media outlets," he gushed. A series of discussion groups and lectures was being arranged. Would I care to address these people? I said I'd like to see names and titles. He e-mailed me a list. Scanning it, I was impressed. These were indeed heavy hitters in Chinese media circles. News Director, Shanghai Broadcasting Network … Deputy Editor-in-Chief, China Newsweek Magazine … Editor, International Affairs, Global Times … News Anchor, CCTV … I called the guy back. Yes, definitely I'd be interested.
In the fullness of time, arrangements were made, a program published. There would be an event at the State Department's New York City office on 53nd Street. I would speak for an hour, 10:30 to 11:30, on the subject: "Perceptions of China in America's Right-Wing Press." I would then be the guest of the Department for lunch. There would be an honorarium of $250! And the speaker right before me, 9:30 to 10:30, would be Dr. Henry Kissinger. The date: Tuesday, September 18th.
On the Friday following the September 11th attacks, I got a call from my man at State. The whole thing was off, he said. Why? I naturally wanted to know. "I can't tell you, really can't tell you. Anyway, it's off. We've told Kissinger." Where were the media hotshots? "Gone back, gone back to China, the whole lot. It's all off."
In the weeks that followed I was able to piece together what had happened. This, I should say, was from informal sources, whose versions of events did not always agree in precise detail. All the accounts told the same basic story, though. The Chinese media types came over on September 8th. They were in a room together with some State Department minders, receiving some kind of cultural acclimitization, when the World Trade Center was hit. There was a TV set in the room, and everyone got to see the second plane hit. When this happened, some of the Chinese party stood up and cheered. My informants differ on how many, from a lower bound of: "only three or four" up to: "at least half a dozen." (The list of participants I had been given contained 15 names.) This made the State Department minders very angry. A shouting match broke out. A report went up the chain of command. Whether it went all the way to Colin Powell I am not clear; it certainly went as far as Richard Armitage, Powell's second-in-command. The Chinese media people flew back to China shortly afterwards — whether voluntarily or not, my informants do not agree.
There, in the reactions of those successful, well-educated, middle-class Chinese people, you see instinctual Third World anti-Americanism unmasked and unashamed. Where does it come from? What is the cause of it?
It is always tempting, especially for those of us who think too much, to neglect the simplest explanations for things. A great deal of anti-Americanism is sheer ignorance. In my preparations for this talk, I came upon a survey conducted earlier this year by two scholars at Boston University, Margaret and Melvin DeFleur, called "The Next Generation's Image of Americans: Attitudes and Beliefs Held by Teenagers in Twelve Countries." They had questioned one hundred teenagers from each of twelve countries in various parts of the world, to see what kind of image of the U.S.A. these young people had. Mostly negative, was the answer; but the report also showed that less than twelve percent had actually visited the U.S. In other words, their images of the United States were secondary ones — from movies, TV programs, and popular music, and through their own countries' educational systems and news outlets.
A great deal of rather obvious blame can be placed there right away. Try to imagine that your own notion of life in the United States was constructed entirely from American movies and TV programs. You would perceive my country as being inhabited by a mix of gigantic, steroid-enhanced basketball stars, exquisitely beautiful young people with perfect teeth and musculature, gangsters, detectives, lawyers, and freakish pop singers. We live in palatial apartments, do very little work, sleep around a lot, and get our way mainly by murdering each other. It is not much of a secret, I think, that a large proportion of American movies are made for export. The cheapest of these — think about it, the cheapest — find their way to the Third World. The people of the Third World watch them with fascination. Unfortunately, fascination is not the same as admiration or fondness. It can coexist very happily with, for example, disgust.
The other factor is the presentation offered to Third Worlders by their own news media, and through their educational system. I can speak with some authority here, having taught English to university students in mainland China, from Chinese texbooks. As it happens, I still have some of those textbooks. Here is one titled simply English, by a person named Xu Yanmou, consisting of 18 extracts from English and American authors, with commentary. The commentary on a Tom Paine extract includes this:
Like other Enlightenment thinkers, he [i.e. Tom Paine] laboured under the illusion that bourgeois revolution would lead to the establishment of "the kingdom of reason." However, he lived long enough to see this illusion shattered by the reality of the American bourgeois state.
A very common expression in all our textbooks, one the students trotted out frequently in both conversation and examinations, was: "The darkness and oppression of bourgeois society." Now, you may say that people in that kind of country take the state propaganda with a pinch of salt. You are right, they do. On the other hand, when you are bathed in this stuff all day long, and never hear anything else, from infancy on, a great deal of it is going to stick. The end result is a topcoat of cynicism painted over a foundation of ignorance and misconception. In the spring vacation of that teaching year, I took a trip to Hong Kong for a breath of fresh air. On returning, I tried to discuss Hong Kong with my students. I asked one — a very intelligent young lady, more worldly than most — whether she wouldn't like to go to Hong Kong. "Oh, no!" she replied. "I'm afraid I would end up as the slave of some rich boss!"
It is true that these things happened nearly twenty years ago, and that Chinese people are somewhat more sophisticated now. On the other hand, it is also true that the older members of that delegation Dr. Kissinger and I never had the opportunity to address were coevals of the students I was teaching in 1983. And while the extramural life of young Chinese people is indeed a good deal freer and more colorful now than it was then, the education system is little improved. Staying with my wife's family in North-East China last summer, I had the opportunity to look at some of the school textbooks being used by her 11-year-old nephew. It did not take long for me to find the remembered phrase: "The darkness and oppression of bourgeois society."
One thing you find again and again when you look into anti-Americanism is the conviction that we are a fundamentally immoral nation. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have heard, when living in China, something along the following lines: "People in the West have no deep feelings. They marry and divorce just for fun." I used to counter this, once I got used to it, by pointing out the true fact, perfectly well-known in China, that during the Mao Tse-tung despotism, when a person was branded "counter-revolutionary" and hustled off to a camp, that person's spouse would frequently divorce him or her, sometimes from fear, sometimes on explicit orders from the local Party committee, sometimes in the well-founded conviction that the offender would never be seen again. I am not sure I could construct a logical proof that getting divorced for fun or convenience is morally superior to getting divorced because your Party Secretary tells you to; but I am pretty clear in my mind about which kind of society I would rather live in.
One hears similar things from the Muslim world. An American psychologist named Mary Pipher recently wrote a book about refugees being resettled in the United States in her book The Middle of Everywhere (Harcourt, 2002). In a conversation with three of these people, young men from southern Iraq, she learned of the horror Middle Eastern Moslems feel at the way American men treat their women.
They were outraged at the fact that, in America, young women get pregnant without husbands and that many children don't live with their fathers … Hamid talked of the men at his factory who go to the bars on Staurday night and find women to "do dirty things with." He said: "An Iraqi man would not do that. He would respect women too much. We only want to marry and have families."… Mamduh said he encouraged the American men at his job to respect women and to marry.
Human beings will not be denied their consolations; and one of the consolations of being poor has always been faith in the fact that while the rich may be more comfortable, they are morally degraded.
She was poor but she was honest,
And unsullied was 'er name,
Till the local squire came courtin' —
Now the poor girl's lost in shame.
It's the same the 'ole world over,
It's the poor what gets the blame.
It's the rich what gets the pleasure,
Ain't it all a bloomin' shame?
And in fact the poor have a point. Traditionally — I mean, before the invention of the welfare state — the rich did misbehave more than the poor, because the cost to them of doing so was much less. There is a touching episode in My Secret Life, the classic Victorian porno-autobiography (I mention this for the benefit of those who have not read the book, or whose memory of it has been dimmed by time) in which Walter, the pseudonymous first-person narrator, attempts to seduce a young working-class girl by offering her ever-larger sums of money. The girl steadfastly refuses: "It wouldn't be right, Sir," — at any rate up to the point where the sum offered is so tempting, she concedes him one of the minor kinds of relief. Taking his leave, Walter himself marvels at the power of instilled morality over mere avarice.
Large parts of the world, of course, have no welfare state, and poorer inhabitants of those regions have an attitude to moral laxity, most especially in the sexual sphere, that we would call Victorian. In their minds, the United States is, not to put too fine a point on it, Walter. The wretched of the earth know that they are wretched, while we are not. This is a painful thing for them to know. Their consolation is, that they are morally superior to us.
If these beliefs are scarcest in the very poorest countries, that is probably because those places have the least exposure to America's own media products. An apparent paradox here is, that it is not the most wretched who hate us the most. The poorest countries in the world, by GDP per head, are places like Ethiopia, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, and Cambodia: not the first names that come to mind when one thinks of anti-Americanism. The threat of Madagascan terrorism is not something that keeps Americans awake at night. I am only pointing out, though, that the sense of moral superiority with which the poor console themselves when contemplating the rich, is a necessary component of anti-Americanism, though plainly not a sufficient one. Show me a Third World anti-American and I will show you a person who believes that our businessmen are flint-faced exploiters, our cities bedlams of vice and crime, and our women sluts.
Is sheer envy of American success a factor? I think it is a very important factor; but "envy" is not quite the right word for what Third World anti-Americans feel.
The processes by which a country becomes successful — economically successful, culturally successful, militarily, intellectually, or politically successful — are very mysterious. Human knowledge does not at present extend very far into these matters. We know a few broad, general things. We know, for example, that it is possible to attain success in one of these dimensions while failing in others. Sparta was militarily successful in the 5th century B.C., but culturally a flop by comparison with Athens. Modern Taiwan is a tremendous economic success; but her culture seems to have little appeal beyond her own shores … And so on. We know that the command economy does not work in an industrial society. We know that sheer size has little to do with success: Switzerland, a small country, is — I think most people would agree — more successful than Brazil, a very large one. Beyond these broad, and mostly negative, generalizations, our knowledge quickly peters out.
Indeed, the very definition of "success" in this context is controversial. The American political scientist Robert Wesson wrote a very good survey of the old pre-industrial despotic empires, titled The Imperial Order. It covered the Ottomans, the Egyptians, Imperial China, Persia, the Incas, the later Romans, and so on. Wesson's sixth, seventh and eighth chapter headings are as follows: "Intellectual Failure," "Impoverishment," "Political Failure." Under those headings, Wesson describes how all these old centralized empires quickly succumbed to cultural stagnation, peasant destitution via over-taxation, and the politics of palace intrigue. And yet they all considered themselves very successful; and, indeed, some of their descendants today persist in seeing them as such. Ask a Chinese person which was more successful: his own country during the Ming Dynasty, or Tudor England. Then ask me the same question. Success, so far as nations are concerned, is to some degree in the eye of the beholder.
Its causes are at any rate beyond the reach of our present understanding. Now, the human mind abhors a vacuum. We must have explanations; and when methodical, scientific inquiry fails to explain, or is not yet part of our intellectual repertoire, we fill the gap with conjecture. The sky is a crystal sphere; earthquakes are the wrath of Poseidon; disease is caused by an imbalance of "humors." So it is with the success of nations. My country is rich and strong while yours is not? Why, my people must be genetically superior to your people! Your country is rich and strong while mine is not? That is because your ancestors colonized us and stole our natural resources! We are all familiar with these, and many other, vulgar theories attempting to account for the rise and fall of nations. Most of them give off a distinct whiff of pseudoscience.
Pseudoscience, of course, overlaps with religion. Probably the most popular explanation for the success of nations — reflected in the patriotic songs of the United States herself — is divine favor. This ought to mean that a nation that is very obviously top dog, as the U.S. currently is, will be held in respectful awe, as being especially favored by Heaven. Unfortunately, human nature does not operate so straightforwardly.
To see how it does operate, consider the cargo cults that came up in Melanesia during the middle decades of the twentieth century. The native peoples of Papua New Guinea, the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), and some other places in the South-West Pacific, observed airstrips being built on their islands by white men. Then they saw planes flying in and discharging cargo. Succumbing to the logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc, they assumed that the building of airstrips, control towers, and the like, was a thing the gods regarded with approval, and rewarded by sending planes full of cargo. These native peoples thereupon hacked rough airstrips out of the bush, and built flimsy structures of bamboo and thatch in the shape of control towers. Then they waited for the cargo to arrive.
When the cargo did not arrive, the cargo cultists were obliged to come up with some explanation for the failure of their system. No problem! Explaining the failure of philosophical systems is a thing that human beings, at every cultural level, are quite extraordinarily good at. The Melanesians came to the conclusion that it was all the fault of the white men, who, in their malice, and by dint of superior magic, had diverted cargo meant for the natives to their own airstrips.
I frequently detect an element of cargo-cultism when traveling in the Third World. The Americans have skyscrapers! America is rich and strong! If we build skyscrapers, soon we shall be rich and strong! Hence, the cities of the Third World are thick with skyscrapers. Little noticed, and even less understood, is the fact that America's wealth and strength pre-dated America's skyscrapers, and in fact had its origins in political and cultural characteristics, of which skyscrapers are merely an occasional and adventitious expression.
Some of those Third World skyscrapers, to be sure, are very busy, and their nations are improving. I have been inside some others, though, where the under-employed workers drowse at their desks, my footsteps sound loud in the empty corridors, and long-exposed duct-work or wiring, thick with dust, shows where the state funding ran out. In these places, the cargo does not come, and the natives turn their gaze toward America, cargo capital of the world, in anger and resentment.
There are, finally, some particular, local reasons why people hate America — some specific grievances. The most famous of these is that we support Israel, a nation which all Arabs, and a large proportion of non-Arab Muslims, consider to be illegitimate. I have no time here to enlarge on the pros and cons of the Arab-Israel dispute. I do note, however, a point made rather strongly in that Boston University study I mentioned earlier:
The collective condemnation expressed by a people when a negative incident occurs do not come out of nowhere. As a general principle, a negative incident can become a cause célèbre, rallying widespread anger, only if a necessary condition is met. That condition is this: There must already be in place a foundation of shared negative beliefs and attitudes toward the United States upon which the feelings generated by the specific incident can be based.
(Italics in original.)
By way of illustration, the researchers note that the only one of the countries surveyed to show generally positive attitudes toward the U.S. was Argentina. This was in spite of the help we gave to Britain in the Falklands War of 1982. Contrariwise, some of the strongest anti-American attitudes were found in South Korea, a nation that, but for the sacrifice of 27 thousand American lives, would now be enduring despotism, famine, and extreme poverty. In this area, apparently, not only does no good deed go unpunished, but no hostile deed goes unrewarded. Similarly, and even more curiously, the study notes stronger anti-American attitudes in Taiwan, a nation that owes its continued existence to American power, than in mainland China, whose state media have been putting out a steady diet of anti-American propaganda for fifty years.
I am afraid I have not drawn a very hopeful picture of Third World anti-Americanism. Supposing that I am right, the phenomenon is rooted in the little-understood processes by which some nations succeed while others fail, and in the invariants of human nature. We should of course — and I think we do — try to help other nations to succeed, by encouraging them to adopt rational economic and political systems. That, however, is a slow and uncertain process. Meanwhile, human nature remains as Kant found it: crooked timber, out of which nothing straight can be made. Probably anti-Americanism will be with us for a long time yet.
This is a shame, because the one thing everyone notices about us Americans is how much we want to be liked. That, at any rate, used to be the thing everyone noticed. I believe that following the events of last September, a widespread adjustment of attitudes has begun in the U.S.; an adjustment that proceeds a little further every time there is a news story about a German justice minister comparing the U.S. President to Hitler, every time a Saudi cleric denounces the Great Satan, every time a report like the one I have cited from Boston University appears. (That report, by the way, was featured on The O'Reilly Report, a popular TV news and comment program with a regular audience in the tens of millions.)
I do not think the yearning to be liked has departed from the American psyche yet, but it now finds itself sharing that psyche with some other wishes: principally, the desire that if we cannot be liked, we shall at least be respected. If it should become clear that Americans are to be denied even respect, I think quite a lot of us will settle for being feared. We are not much given to Latin tags nowadays, but there is one that keeps popping up in American newspapers and web sites, and which just this last week I actually saw printed on a T-shirt. The tag is the one Seneca denounced as a "vile, detestable and deadly sentiment," but which had a steady currency throughout the late-Republican, early-Imperial period of Roman rule: Oderint dum metuant — "Let them hate us, so long as they fear us." I am with Seneca on this one; I hope things never come to that; but I am bound to say, from talking with and listening to my fellow Americans, that is the direction in which they are trending.