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Brian Tiemann
Silicon Valley-based purveyor of a confusing mixture of Apple punditry and political bile.

btman at grotto11 dot com

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Wednesday, May 19, 2004
11:29 - Be right, or be popular?

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It is (or ought to be) the practice of every blogger to spend a good deal of time in someone else's brain, trying to figure out how the world looks from behind their eyes. It can ease the eventual solution to an argument and bring it about quicker, by showing both sides exactly what their opponent's sticking points are, even if the opponent may be unwilling or unable to articulate it himself.

It's hard, though, to figure out anti-Americanism from within the confines of America. Unless you're a college student who has developed a mental model of America so hideous that the news out of Abu Ghraib excites you rather than horrifies you (because it means you get to tell all your European friends that you knew it, you were right all along, most Americans are evil, but you're one of the good JewsAmericans, which ought to make you good and popular), it's not that easy to see where this resentment of America—which existed prior to the Iraq war, but was given a convenient subtext for release when the war began—comes from.

I think I might have figured out a perspective shift that helps explain it, though, or at least to me.

I've had European friends sniffily tell me, and I quote, that "Patriotism is the feeling that your country is superior simply because you were born there." (Steven Den Beste had someone send him a slightly more, er, diplomatic version of the same sentiment recently.) My first reaction to such a statement is, Well, yeah—but it is! I mean, I'm quite convinced that the American system of government and society is the best yet developed by mankind, and I don't think that my being born here has much to do with that; I like to think that if I were born elsewhere, I'd come to the same conclusion, if I started from the same premise of "freedom is good" and "man has basic human rights". But would I? On sober reflection, the answer isn't so clear.

America is fairly unique in the world in that it's a country founded not on accidents of ethnicity, language, culture, and incidental boundary lines, but on an ideology. You're an "American" in name if you're born here, but philosophically being "American" has only superficially to do with your citizenship in the United States, as Den Beste observed a while ago. You can be "American" even if you live in Spain or Russia or Iraq, and you can be "un-American" even if you live inside the United States, in a way that it doesn't make much sense to call an analogous person in France "un-French". European countries mostly have socialist semi-democratic governments run by members of a ruling elite, from whom the voters pick the aristocrat they like best, rather than dreaming of growing up to be President themselves. These countries are defined along cultural/linguistic/ethnic lines, and ideology plays only a small role in how the citizens think their government should work. It's the way it is largely through accident and default.

It wasn't always that way, though. The USSR, too, was a country founded on an ideology. Like America, the Soviet Union thought it had "the right idea"; it thought it had the solution to all the world's problems, and it thought everyone would eventually come to be just like it. If other countries didn't come around to its way of thinking, their citizens would flock to the Worker's Paradise once they saw how great it could be. Never mind that the country people still flocked to throughout the 20th century, just as throughout the 19th, was America; the Soviets still believed in their ideology just as strongly as the Americans did in theirs. And the rest of the world, in their non-ideologically-defined countries, looked on with more than passing interest, to see which one of these artificial, experimental national constructs would turn out to be right.

Well, now that the Cold War is over, we know the answer to that. We're right. We don't apologize for it, either. We think we've figured it out: a way of being a country and a society that defers more to a piece of 230-year-old parchment than to any common bonds of birth or language or skin color, and that elevates the idea that the individual person is the most powerful and most honorable force within that country, rather than a ruling government. We've stuck to this ideology for over two centuries, and it's remarkably similar today to when it was first written down; it still speaks just as strongly both to us native-born Americans, and to those Americans in spirit who live abroad, as it did when it was drafted. And at the same time, we've managed to become so powerful, so rich, so happy, that we've inherited the global-policeman role that Rome once had—nature's way of identifying the winner in a survival-of-the-fittest-country contest if there ever was one. We never even had to exterminate our "undesirables", or send any "political prisoners" or "dissidents" to the gulags. So we have a hard time taking seriously claims from outside that we're doing things the wrong way.

But how does this look from the outside? Sure, most people in Europe or Asia or Africa might, on sober reflection, believe that America is on balance a force for good in the world. But there's still the glaring fact that it's not their countries that have won; it's some other country, way off across the ocean. It's some young upstart nation without any ethnic/cultural/linguistic heritage that it considers to be crucial to its identity—no "team colors", as it were. It would be one thing if, say, the country that "won" were the British Empire, or the Chinese; at least then there would be a traditional nation on top of the heap, citing its cultural—or tribal—identity as the reason why it's won; and at least that people could deal with (because, like it or not, tribalism is still the kind of side-taking that people have more of a reptile-brain affinity for; it's the kind of thing we feel we understand implicitly). But that's not how it's worked out. What's won isn't a natural "tribal" construct (which would have been easy to hate), but a modern, human-made construct: the worship of a piece of paper. And not just any worship of a piece of paper: the wrong one, in many people's estimation. Not the one that guarantees equality of wealth and equality of success, but the proposition that all men are created equal. And because it's a human construct, other "tribal" countries don't know how to relate to it: hate it? Admire it? Envy it? Reject it? It's like seeing a robot win the chess championship: Okay, so you're smarter than us mere humans. But can you dance? But regardless, the Americans have won, and they know they've won; just try to tell 'em different.

So: on to the inevitable metaphor. America, then, is the national equivalent of a born-again Christian, walking smugly down the sidewalk. (I'm being stereotypical here; bear with me.) He meets various people in his travels; they tell him, "Well, um, I'm Jewish," or "I'm Muslim," or "I'm Buddhist." And the Christian looks at them, smiles sadly, and says, "Well, I'm sure you're a nice person and all... but I'm afraid you're going to Hell."

And nobody likes to hear that.

The world at large might look at us and see someone who's got it made: rich, powerful, self-possessed, insanely happy. But it's not them. They'd love to be in that position too; but that would mean giving up their own identity, renouncing all they hold dear. In other words, converting.

Even if someone can convince himself that converting is the only way to achieve that kind of power and confidence and happiness, he still isn't going to want to do it. He'd much rather his own position come naturally to that same level.

And if it doesn't, well, he can always scowl darkly at the Christian in his suit and tie and draw up reasons why his adopted persona is immoral, selfish, overbearing, shallow, obnoxious, insensitive to others, and stupid.

It's a form of "sour grapes", yes; but it's also a perfectly understandable defense mechanism. If I lived in Canada or Brazil or Greece, and I didn't particularly want to move to America to get a better life for myself and my family, certainly I wouldn't spend all my time convincing myself why I should move. I'd more likely concentrate on finding reasons to justify staying put, and beyond that, not sucking up to the Great Deceiver. "It's not so great," I'd tell myself. "Just look at how they act. Is that what you want for yourself?" The shortcomings of my own country would cease to be relevant, because they're a given; what's important is finding reasons not to be so attracted to America.

But as an American, what am I supposed to do? If I were interested in winning the approval of the people in other countries who despise me because of my country's success (and success in spite of a lack of cultural depth, the way they see it—McDonald's and Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola are of a piece with America being an artificial construct of the modern human mind right from the get-go), I'd have to renounce what I believe are the reasons why America has won. That means standing up and telling the world that I think all the things we believe in, the things that have been integral to our society's growth, are shams. Individual liberty. Capitalism. Manifest Destiny. Rugged Individualism. Westerns. Big Macs. Guns.

I can't do that, though. I'm quite convinced that these things are our culture; the fact that they sprang from whole cloth in the latter 18th century doesn't make them any less valid than the Code of Hammurabi or the Magna Carta. These things are our culture, and we are a real country. The only difference between us and the rest of the world is that we believe more strongly in the piece of paper that describes our government than in our government itself; anybody else who feels the same way, we welcome here with open arms. You can be an American no matter where you live, as long as you believe what we do.

And just like the born-again Christian with the benevolent smile and the dark suit and the big hair and the pocket full of cash, we know we're right. We know we've got something special, something worth promulgating and defending. But are we willing to throw all that away just so people won't resent us so much?

We don't believe in punishing success by taking away the winner's winnings and giving it to the losers; that's part of our ideology right there. So it stands to reason that we're not about to back down from what we think is right because we feel sorry for the rest of the world and want to level the playing field. That's not in us. If it were, we wouldn't have won.

It's our curse, then, to remain self-righteous, as well as our blessing. As long as we hold to this same attitude as a country, we'll stay on top—and the rest of the world will resent us. Anyone who resents self-righteousness will resent us. But it's unavoidable. It's just the nature of the beast.

The rest of the world, though, is welcome to join us at any time.

UPDATE: Paul Denton appears willing. Deserves a blogroll link, too.

UPDATE: A response from Alisa in Wonderland.

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© Brian Tiemann