Anniversary and Launch: PostGlobal and How the World Sees America
Monday, May 21, 2007; 12:00 PM
David Ignatius, Washington Post columnist and co-moderator of
Bakshi is taking a laptop and video camera around the world to explore people's views of America.
A transcript follows.
Amar C. Bakshi: Hello from Lancaster, England. I'm sitting by a field populated by dozens of sheep.
I've been with PostGlobal for almost exactly a year now and just wanted to start off by thanking David Ignatius, Fareed Zakaria, Hal Straus and the panelists for an incredible experience, first editing the project, and now launching off onto How the World Sees America. David has been a great globe trotting role model, and has helped me doff some dry college writing for something hopefully a bit more lively. And many thanks to Natalie Ahn, PostGlobal's new editor, for putting in a tremendous amount of time and energy into growing the project, and making sure I don't say anything too foolish in my posts.
New York, N.Y.: Amar,
How would you say your experience in Zimbabawe affected your personal view on anti-Americanism? What is the difference, in your view, between being an American of Indian background abroad versus Anglo or European Americans?
Amar C. Bakshi: What struck me about my experience in Zimbabwe was in large measure how little the U.S. government could do to help me. As a college student doing my thesis on propaganda there, I had perhaps an over-inflated idea of what America would, or could, do for its citizens in trouble abroad. I imagined police sirens and helicopters coming to my rescue should Mugabe's secret police harass me. Instead, I was told to recognize I was under a foreign legal system now, and I was told to be patient. It was a valuable lesson about my place in the world, out there, alone.
Around 2000 Americans are currently jailed abroad, often in horrible conditions. Many of them are likely guilty of smuggling drugs or other offenses, some are only there temporarily for a minor infraction, and then there are some horror stories of unlawful imprisonment. There was recently one in the Post about a boy in Nicaragua: An American's Kafkaesque Encounter With Nicaragua's Justice System (Post, May 7)
. Also, this is a good book on Americans jailed abroad: Nightmare Abroad. An important lesson for me was that anti-Americanism affects many types of Americans abroad in very real ways: like NGO workers in Africa, journalists in the Middle East, and of course tourists everywhere. They can be targets of abuse, hate crimes, robbery, or things even more serous. That said, Americans are generally safe where they travel. Our tourism brings profits to others. But nevertheless there are real consequences to sentiments abroad.
As to your second question on race, I think my background as the child of immigrants is a very American one. That they are new immigrants, perhaps, gives me a bit of a foot in another world, another culture. I grew up with little knowledge of India. My folks wanted me to be fully 'American,' but as I aged I became more aware of that country. Now, traveling there for this project, I think being Indian American will give me a bit of an in I might not have had otherwise. As far as how I am received, I think I will be seen as American first, Indian-American, or whatever else, second. In Zimbabwe, I was always called "the white visitor" even though my skin is quite dark. But we'll see!
New York, N.Y.: Anti-Americanism has, for the most part, existed for as long as the country itself has existed. However, it seems that today's spike in anti-American sentiment stems from particular foreign policy blunders -- both the rigid adherence to a neoconservative transformation ideology and the failure to engage multilaterally. The result has been, of course, two major interventions in the Muslim world. But is it really fair to characterize today's anti-Americanism as an outgrowth of these specific blunders or is it about a more fundamental choice, namely the decision to marshal the extensive resources of the United States for war-making rather than for poverty alleviation, passive democracy promotion and expansion of human rights?
David Ignatius: Certainly today's anti-Americanism has deep roots, which begin far earlier than the current Bush administration. But if there is one theme I hear constantly in my travels, it's that America isn't living up to its ideals. I honestly do think that freedom, tolerance, human rights--the things we imagine as "American"--are universal. When America doesn't seem to be living by its own rules, (as in our treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo, say) people get angry.
Arlington, Va.: Mr. Ignatius, it is such a joy to read your latest book. Is a movie based on the book coming out, do you know when? And what the title will be?
David Ignatius: Glad you enjoyed "Body of Lies." I think that will be the final movie title (assuming that the movie will actually get made, of course.) The director, Ridley Scott, liked the first title I put on it--"Penetration"--which I hasten to remind you is an intelligence term of art.
I'm an American and spent the last four years of the 90s living in London. I have to say the most valuable two words I learned to say were "I'm Canadian." It came in so handy.
Invariably I'd be at a party and someone would hear my accent and immediately come up and say "Oy, you American?" Outside London, if anyone would ask this, they usually followed up with something complimentary. In London, they'd follow up with a laundry list of things my country has done wrong. I've always been critical of the U.S., but it gets tiresome to be blamed for everything the U.S. government has ever done. So I would learn to answer that question by saying I was Canadian. They never had anything to say to that. Ever. They'd just say "oh" and walk away.
Amar C. Bakshi: Hmmm. Interesting idea. "How the World Sees Canada" might not be quite as provocative...
Vienna, Va.: Good afternoon. How do you gauge or measure perception of the United States in other countries, given that certain countries, such as Pakistan, have governments that may openly support certain U.S. polices, yet have definite elements that are hostile to the U.S.?
Also, what about the Jekyl/Hyde attitude in other countries where there may be a positive attitude toward Americans and American culture in general, but an intense dislike of U.S. foreign policy?
David Ignatius: One of the reasons I am excited about Amar's project is that he will help us understand precisely this ambiguity--the love-hate that you would find in a Pakistan, or a Saudi Arabia, or an Iran. By talking to ordinary people and capturing what they say on video, he will create a kind of global living room, where people can express what they honestly think about their big, rich, remote American neighbor. I hope there will be a lot of push back and honest criticism from around the world--and a real conversation. That's what PostGlobal is supposed to be about.
New York, N.Y.: Amar,
I would love to hear your thoughts and those of your interviewees as you progress, on the difference our upcoming presidential election could have on perceptions of America abroad. What candidates do people like? What difference to they (and you) think it will make on how we are viewed around the world?
Amar C. Bakshi: In the UK so far, when speaking to citizens about America's '08 elections, they have focused entirely on Iraq, saying that their view on candidates depends entirely on their opposition to the war. They want to see a strong U.S.-UK alliance, but one with as little involvement in Iraq as possible. As far as specific candidates, among the theater students in Manchester, Barack Obama fills their dreams. But quite a number of others have never heard of him, including the blacksmith I interviewed this morning and some factory men in Lancaster, England where I'm staying today among sheep and cows. He says he doesn't care, as long as involvement in Iraq is scaled down.
Washington, D.C.: Is there an acknowledged separation between those who make decisions for this nation and those who simply live in it? At the end of the day, are they critical of Americans or the American government?
By the by. This project is vital to expanding the dialogue between America and the rest of the world, and I appreciate the effort being made here.
Amar C. Bakshi: Thanks for the note. This question has come up a lot. In the UK, almost everyone I've spoken to believes there is a separation between those who make decisions for this nation and those who live in it. But people are much more aware of Bushisms then they are of poll numbers in support of him or opposed. That is to say, almost everyone here I've spoken to can rattle off thirty missteps the President has made -- the media here has quite a field day with them -- but they don't necessarily follow poll data as closely as many TV news watchers in the U.S. do. So while the answer is yes, there is a differentiation, the extent of it is not clear.
washingtonpost.com: Video Blog: How the World Sees America
Princeton, N.J.: I was in Europe during the Viet Nam War. I was always able to deflect criticism by saying that the Americam people were not in agreement with their government. But now it seems there are many places that blame the American people, that the American people are no longer looked up to as fair decent and honorable. After all, they say, you elected George Bush twice. They talk about religious fundamentalists and multinational corporations. Have you seen this?
Amar C. Bakshi: Yes. I have heard this. I have also a heard people distinguish between the coasts and the center of the country, playing up the red state/blue state divide. I think there is less nuance to the discussion of a "Divided America" over here in the UK than there is (hopefully) in the U.S., where we are beginning to push through some of these labels.
But the idea of an overly-religious America is one that comes up often here as well. When I say "God Bless America" is standard for people to say in America, many here snicker, and suggest that American religiosity is part of the problem, specifically in how the leadership of our country engages the Muslim world rhetorically.
David Ignatius: I have to be honest: I have heard this phrase "I like America, it's your policies I don't like" so many times that I have become almost numbed by it. When I was in Tehran last year, I went to Friday prayers at Tehran University, where thousands of people were chanting "Death to America." Leaving the service, I stopped one of the worshippers, identified myself as an American journalist, and asked what I should think about this "death to America" stuff. "We don't want to kill Americans," this person said, "We just don't like your policies." Why did I not find this reassuring?
Okeechobee, Fla.: Why is Bush protecting Musharraf who is protecting bin Laden and the Taliban when there are two former prime ministers ready to offer a civilian government in Pakistan? This is directly opposite to Bush's policy of supporting democracies in the Middle East.
Amar C. Bakshi: The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is a fascinating one, and one I intend to explore from Pakistan next month through interviews with a number of young cadets, among others. I'd like to know what they think. Please stick around for that. As for thoughts on Bush and Musharraf, I'll leave that to David's expertise.
David Ignatius: Musharraf has been Bush's most important ally since 9/11 (even more than Tony Blair) so Bush presumably feels he owes him one. The question for me is less the stability of the Musharraf government (though that's important) than the stability of Pakistan. Reading recent headlines, an American observer would have to question whether Musharraf's authoritarian policies are in fact creating stability, or the opposite. One observation: For all Musharraf's problems, I have never heard him described (a la Tony Blair) as George Bush's poodle.
Lawrence, Kan.: As an American currently living in Spain, I am constantly faced with people wanting me to explain to them why there is so much violence, and handgun deaths specifically, in the United States. I always have to tell them that I honestly have no idea how to explain the discrepancy in number of deaths from handguns in America versus everywhere else in the world. The only thing that occurs to me is the difference in our gun laws. Could there be any other reason? People here seem to think that we are simply an incredibly violent society. Could that be true? And if so, how did we get to be that way, and how do we solve that problem?
David Ignatius: You raise an issue that every American who travels widely has had to struggle with: Why are we such a violent society, compared to other advanced democracies? The world imagines that we are still a frontier nation--that the cowboy soul continues, even if the cowboy reality is gone. Certainly, there is something raw and defiant in the American spirit--in many ways it's one of our most attractive qualities--but there is a violent underside, as well. I am not a hunter, not an NRA member--so I don't have any trouble telling foreign friends that one reason for violence in America is that we lack sensible gun laws that could keep deadly firearms out of the hands of people who could misuse them. Such laws strike me as a requisite for a civilized society. I don't get much disagreement when I say that to people abroad.
Amar C. Bakshi: Just briefly, there has been a lot of discussion about the Virginia Tech shooting here in the U.K. recently. A group of kids at William Hulme Grammar School in Manchester spoke with me for half an hour on the topic, and said that a different form of violence ravaged parts of the U.K. Manchester, for example, is ridden with gangs. Knifings are common. But gun deaths are less-so. Gun laws, these eighteen year olds students said, were to blame. As an aside, they thought the media was made too easy a scapegoat in all of this (these students happen to be film buffs and I'm posting on them later today on the site.)
Washington, D.C.: I don't think the American attitude is that different from citizens of other countries. I've noticed non-American tourists to be just as obnoxious as American ones. And I've never met anyone, no matter where from, who didn't think they're country was the greatest on Earth. I think the only difference is America is so powerful and influential, it just sounds more obnoxious coming from us.
David Ignatius: Yes, I think we can agree that tourists can be a pain, wherever they are from. But with the cheap dollar, get used to it, folks.
Baltimore, Md.: How do those in other countries see our attitudes toward religion and the role of religion in public life? Some conservatives here, for example, complain about radical secularism (Newt Gingirch¿s phrase the other day), but I wonder if they also look at the rationale for secularism in, say, Turkey.
David Ignatius: Well, one little noticed aspect of the religiously inclined Bush administration is that it is comfortable with other leaders who profess their political faith, including Muslims. I am told, for example, that when George Bush first met Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, he said: "We are both men who believe in God," or words to that effect. More secular leaders in Europe would find that encouragement of a religious party quite worrying, I suspect.
Amar C. Bakshi: Mentioned this a bit earlier, and though it is only a small anecdote, many U.K. citizens I've met so far have found humorous our constant use of the words "God Bless America," and still reference the "crusade" mis-speak Bush made years ago as at least peculiar if not more.
Guayaquil, Ecuador: While Europe is bonding, the U.S. keeps estranging itself from the rest of the American continent in spite of a weakening U.S. hegemony. How do you envision the position of the Americas vis-a-vis the rest of the world within 50 years?
David Ignatius: This is the BIG question: Is America a nation in decline? Or are our current troubles just a blip? We have been exploring this issue with our PostGlobal panelists from around the world and, frankly, their answers are more interesting than mine. But here's my short version: America's ability to recover from its current difficulties will depend in large part on whether it can frame sensible, bipartisan foreign policy. Without a truce in our partisan "flame wars," we are sunk.
Los Angeles: Love your entries Amar! They're fun and insightful. What do you think about Hollywood's role in the world. You've posted on that a bit. What do you expect to find? And in terms of fashion?
washingtonpost.com: How the World Sees America: WWII Sailor Nostalgic, Disenchanted
Amar C. Bakshi: Thanks for reading! I expect views on U.S. fashion will differ widely, and often what appears is probably some medley of U.S.-inspired fare and local styles. We'll see. I'd love to do a fashion post soon, but all the rage here is about Kate Moss' Top Shop.
As for Hollywood, got a post coming up tomorrow on re-makes.
Arlington, Va.: Which continent's perceptions have changed the most? Do people differentiate President Bush's policy with the American people?
Amar C. Bakshi: That's a question I hope to explore. A lot of whether international citizens differentiate between citizens and government has to do with the stereotypes of Americans propagated in international media, and the amount of direct contact a nation has with U.S. citizens (either through Diaspora connections, business, or travel).
So far in the U.K., for example, I hear many people expressing a great dislike for Bush, but most people I've spoken to believe there is a deep divide between his policies and the wishes of most Americans. That's how the people I've spoken to see it.
Daoud Kuttab from Jordan wrote an excellent piece for PostGlobal on this called But How Could They Reelect Bush? (PostGlobal, May 18)
He says, in Jordan, basically until 2004 when Bush was reelected, the public where he lived clearly differentiated between political leader and citizen. This was in large part because citizens see with their own leaders how unrepresentative their actions can be. But upon reelection, many took a second look, to see how in line Bush's global actions were with the will of the American people.
New York, N.Y.: I think one of the main causes of the attitude toward Americans is the fact that Americans have far less vacation time than those in other countries. In Europe, it's pretty standard to have about four weeks of paid vacation each year. Often people have more. Because of this, they approach their vacations differently.
An English couple might decide to vacation in Tuscany, and rent a flat in Florence for a week or two. Americans, because they have so little time and most travel so far often have whirlwind tours, visiting 7 countries in 7 days. Then Europe becomes Epcot. They breeze through the major tourist spots of all the countries in rapid fire succession. Instead of getting to know a place, they only stop by to see the cliches and will say condescending things like calling someone's house "quaint."
If Americans want to change our perception abroad, a good start would be to have more vacation time.
Amar C. Bakshi: One thing I'd love to do is meet Americans vacationing or living abroad every once in a while to post their experiences on How the World Sees America.
From the U.K., one thing that's been interesting to see is the number of citizens who vacation in Florida, for example. Panelist David Goodhart, in an earlier post, talks about the number of wealthier UK citizens vacationing around Europe, and a large number of middle-class UK citizens spending their holidays in America.
washingtonpost.com: How the World Sees America: Goodhart: Britain Inches Left, Away from U.S.
Freising, Germany: Here in Germany, Bush's rejection of Global Warming and the Kyoto Agreement rubbed people the wrong way. The Iraq invasion was obviously also a major sore spot.
I think that sentiments in Germany will change quickly if the U.S. takes a leadership role in combating Global Warming.
Amar C. Bakshi: This is certainly a very big topic where I am now, in scenic Lancaster. The UK has done a good deal to protect the environment, and an avid bird watcher spent the morning telling me about how he owns an allotment -- a small plot of land given to him by the state to tend to. He takes three hours a week on it growing vegetables. And it nurtures in him, in a very personal way, a love of nature. I thought it was a terrific policy idea for the U.S. too. Genuine leadership on global warming would be immensely valuable in improving UK perceptions of the U.S. it seems to me. This is likely true in other places I'll visit later.
Washington, D.C.: No, American tourists are more prone than most others to expect things to be like home when they are overseas. Someone from, say, a European country has more contact with other languages and cultures, if only due to geography. If have seldom heard people from small countries tell others that they felt theirs was the best country on earth. Americans honestly feel this more than most others. There is a good side to such pride, as well as some bad, but it is reality.
Amar C. Bakshi: The sense of American exceptionalism both impresses and irks people, it seems to me. The "American Dream" has been quoted a lot over here in my interviews so far. People have said that they have nurtured their "American Dream" in meritocracy for years now, and that they don't have a similar sense of shared vision in Britain. That, to me, was a powerful statement coming from many of the students I've met. Like the show of patriotism with the flag, in an earlier post, this sense of exceptionalism cuts both ways.
Bridgewater, Mass.: I recently returned from three years in Prague, which I hadn't seen since the early years of "Normalization" (after the Soviets put an end to the Prague Spring).
In the 1970s Americans were an exotic species, and people would surreptitiously display a Kennedy dollar, for example, as a mark of their admiration for the country (despite Vietnam).
By now they're getting a bit tired of us -- Americans are always telling other people how to do things, from running their country to washing dishes. It seems to be almost physically impossible for Americans -- not to mention their government -- to avoid instructing the rest of the world, and it's seen as a combination of over-confidence based on our own limited experience and lack of interest in anyone else's.
Amar C. Bakshi: The way America represented hope and freedom is inspiring, palpable in the stories one hears. How that admiration is changing is definitely worth noting. In some places, American gear is seen as subversive, or of progress; in others, as a sign of selling out or a provocation. Changes across time, in countries, are exactly what this project hopes to explore through personal anecdotes. Thanks for sharing yours.
Reston, Va.: I used to live in England and there were three main differences between the U.S. and them they'd always bring up: religion, violence and sex. Religiously, they found America to be more on par with Islamic Middle East countries than with European ones. They couldn't understand America's love of guns, which I could only explain as the ingrained American belief that it is our God-given right to own guns just as it is our right to breathe air. They also couldn't understand our preference for violence over sex. You can see people getting shot on TV any time of day. But you can never see anyone's breasts (unless maybe you're watching the Super Bowl).
I have to say, I couldn't agree more with them.
Amar C. Bakshi: I'll look into these three. Violence before sex in the media is something I've heard mentioned in passing, but would be interesting to explore.
Amar C. Bakshi: Thank you David for joining me and making this all possible, from PostGlobal to How the World Sees America. Thanks Natalie and Rocci for putting this live discussion on. And thank you readers for providing support in the first week of this project and creating such lively discussions. I hope you stay tuned at the site as I move through rural Lancaster, to Oxford, London and then South Asia. The next live discussion will be in about a month. I'll be writing in from Pakistan with Ahmed Rashid. Stay tuned the discussion schedule or my site for more. In the meanwhile you can interact with me any day on my site. I'm eager to have your suggestions for interview topics, themes, and locales. Thanks!
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