The American Dream and varieties of national self-esteem

Replant the American Dream
When I lived abroad, Thanksgiving was always my favorite holiday. It was a chance to scrounge up a turkey, gather foreign and American friends, and celebrate what America represented to the world. I liked to give a sentimental toast when the turkey arrived at the table, and more than once I had my foreign guests in tears. They loved the American dream as much as I did.

I don't think Americans realize how much we have tarnished those ideals in the eyes of the rest of the world these past few years. The public opinion polls tell us that America isn't just disliked or feared overseas -- it is reviled. We are seen as hypocrites who boast of our democratic values but who behave lawlessly and with contempt for others. I hate this America-bashing, but when I try to defend the United States and its values in my travels abroad, I find foreigners increasingly are dismissive. How do you deny the reality of Abu Ghraib, they ask, when the vice president of the United States is actively lobbying against rules that would ban torture?

David Ignatius is probably wrong on both counts. The perception of America around the world is much more complicated than oppinion polls show. I think it was Thomas Friedman who suggested that if Al Quaeda opened a recruiting office in Baghdad next to a place giving free visas to the US, their offices would be emptily staring at the long snaking lines of visa applicants.

Their American dream, of course, is very different from that of Ignatius. It is one of functioning infrastructure but also of association with prestige. All countries in the world are in a certain symbolic (and some practical) senses vassals of the USA. They watch American narratives on film, assert their allegiance to the American ideal through their clothes and the study of English. America defines not only what is in or out in fashion but also in humanity. In 'Short Circuit 5' the little robot who thought, felt and loved only declared his humanity upon obtaining a US passport. The American way of life is the ultimate in human life. (Of course, the actual ideal derrives from some more broadly Western enlightment idea and quite a bit of intellectual infrastructure but most of that is presented to the world through the filter of American narratives.)

This of course dehumanizes entire populations (sometimes even explicitly). When a particular way of life is seen less valid than another people engaged in it have limited options. They can define themselves as striving for the officially valid life or they can reject that life. Of course, the real situation is never as sharply defined due to the complex nature of personal and group identity but from a certain level of magnification, it is not an unuseful (it's my blog I can waffle) way of looking at things.

British (and generally European) attitudes to Americans are particularly telling in their ambivalance. On the one hand, America is seen as an example of a power that keeps the world order but individual Americans are viewed with derision (a recent visit to Pizza Express uncovered a menu item called 'American pizza' described as strong and simple - surely a code for 'fat and stupid' but the 30-years-old Dr Strangelove might be even a better example). Now this attitude is more reminiscent of Asterix than anything else and it wouldn't surprise me if there was plentiful evidence of similar attitudes in the real historical record of the vassals of the Roman Empire.

In short, the former admiration and subsequent fall from grace of the American dream might actually both be an illusion. Both were always present in the collective psyche of the non-US world and the only change that is happening is that in the prevailing discourse.