The world still wants to love us

on 15 Comments

I was in Washington, DC in the late summer of 2006 showing a Palestinian friend around, and I remember looking down the street at the US Capitol building. The intricate white dome soared into the sky, a breathtaking beacon of possibility that left both of us, for a moment, speechless.

It was shortly after Israel’s 2006 assault on Lebanon, a chilling bout of carnage that killed 1,400 people, mostly civilians, including hundreds of children. Entire families were incinerated in their cars as they fled the heavy bombardments, all while Washington blocked any attempt at a ceasefire. The trauma was all the more unbearable because of its utter pointlessness. The stated objective was to neutralize Hezbollah. Immediately after and up until now, Hezbollah has only been gaining strength.

I turned to my Palestinian friend and said with real pain, “I was raised to respect what this building is supposed to stand for. Freedom. Democracy. Opportunity. But now… It’s all superimposed with bound men being terrorized by attack dogs. With families lying on the side of the road, charred beyond recognition.”

My Palestinian friend sighed. “I was, too. I always thought there was one place in the world where things were fair. Where everyone had a chance. A place we could aspire to be like. But now…”

A few nights ago I was in a club talking with an Albanian friend and a Turkish friend. The Albanian (who was born and raised in Germany) was talking about a recent visit to Kosovo, and how Albania and Kosovo were two of the few remaining countries in the world that steadfastly love the United States of America.

“I remember when George W. Bush visited one time after some economic conference in Europe,” he said. “The people in the European countries all hated him, they were protesting, yelling, insulting him. Then he came to Albania, and everyone was waving American flags and trying to hug him and kiss him. He looked so happy!” He laughed. “It almost made me identify with Bush. Just to see him as a human, looking so happy.”

“It wasn’t because they like him,” I said contrarily.

“Of course. It was because of Clinton [bombing Serbia in what’s widely believed to be the first war fought on humanitarian grounds]. But it doesn’t matter. People really appreciate what the US did.”

My Turkish friend said, “I know exactly when Turkish public opinion of the United States reached its highest level. It was after the earthquake in Turkey in 1999, when Clinton was visiting some of the villages that were hit hardest. Someone handed him a baby, and the baby started playing with his nose. And he just smiled and stood there while the baby played with his nose. At that moment everyone loved him, because he was just being human, and you could see that.”

The Albanian said, “People love the US, really. You guys are much more open to outsiders than Europe.”

“I’ve heard that,” I said. “But the stereotype here is that Europeans are so much more enlightened than Americans.”

He shook his head. “It’s not the case. Look, I was born in Germany, I’m more educated than most Germans and I speak exactly like a German. But as soon as someone hears my name, his expression changes and he asks, ‘Oh, where are you from?’ Because they know no ‘real’ German could have my name. And I don’t want to raise kids in a place where I know we will never be accepted. Here, it’s different. Nobody cares where you’re from. You have a great country, really. Everyone knows it’s the best place in the world for immigrants willing to work hard. It seems that even the Arab world likes America. It’s just this thing with Israel/Palestine, and Iraq and the other stuff.”

“I know. I lived there for two years, and everyone said the same thing: We love America, hate the policies. What’s funny is, the policies don’t even make sense. Think about it: What does a country need to be successful? Jobs at home, a good educational system, not spending all your money on wars…”

“And having a lot of allies who stand with you. I mean, who really stand with you. Not who just do what you say because you give them money or threaten them.”

“Yeah! China’s totally laughing at us right now. We’re destroying our own power, for no good reason.”

And who is leading the US toward weakness and irrelevance? The Obama Administration’s halting, out-of-touch response to the Egyptian uprising and its humiliating veto of a UN resolution condemning illegal Israeli settlements (which carefully and cleverly used only wording that the US itself uses in official policy statements) revealed more clearly than ever who’s in charge: corporations and special interest lobbies (many of whose ideologies are employed, wittingly or not, at the behest of corporate interests).

They have ensured that innovation in vital areas like alternative energy have practically ground to a halt and real wages in America have stagnated since the 1970s while the rich get vastly richer and the teachers and schools and public health clinics and other services for poor and ordinary people are told they must ‘cut back’—the same IMF and World Bank policies that have brought ruin to much of the so-called Third World.

In short, writes Alfred McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “Congress and the president are now in gridlock; the American system is flooded with corporate money meant to jam up the works; and there is little suggestion that any issues of significance, including our wars, our bloated national security state, our starved education system, and our antiquated energy supplies, will be addressed with sufficient seriousness to assure the sort of soft landing that might maximize our country’s role and prosperity in a changing world.”

But there’s reason for hope, and that hope has an address: Tahrir Square. At this moment, when the Arab world is waking up and realizing things don’t have to carry on as usual, perhaps it’s time for us to do the same.

Ironically, the computerization of the world has led to a more human world. We’re still the same animals with the same brains programmed by our evolution as a species that has spent most of its history in small tribal units. And our natural human affinity for an ‘in-group’ is rapidly expanding to take in the entire world on the level playing field of independent and social media. It’s not rationally tenable to believe we’re fundamentally different or better than other people after we’ve seen enough videos of them holding up hilarious protest signs in Tahrir Square that speak to our deepest values.

With the rise of independent and social media, individual human consciences have more power than they’ve ever had in the history of humankind. Which means that power now, more than ever, comes from the most elemental source—being human, being honest, being real, and speaking to the values shared by the vast majority of human beings. People can tell, and they respond to it.

They responded to it in Barack Obama when he was campaigning for President. When he wrote his great books. When he spoke to us like adults. Which is why it came as such a disappointing shock when he took office and immediately started talking like a politician rather than a leader. It wasn’t because he failed to be a super-liberal. Anyone paying attention knew he wouldn’t govern as a lefty. It was because he stopped being human. I would almost welcome him backing a policy I opposed, if only he did it while telling us the real reasons he was doing it instead of bowing to special interests while spouting platitudes. That kind of thing turns the stomach of any thinking adult.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. My Palestinian friend in 2006, my Turkish and Albanian friends, and every Egyptian who dreams of a better world—all of these people long for the US to live up to its potential, its values, the leadership role it could have if only we would seize it, instead of being buffeted in the tides of business interests presiding over a system so broken, it’s beginning to eat itself.

Those vaunted ‘business interests’ are just systems, and those systems are composed of human beings. And the people of Egypt showed us just how illusory a seemingly unshakeable power can suddenly prove to be.

The US can continue down this road until it goes the way of Hosni Mubarak, despised and deposed in a convulsion of disgust after a long and increasingly cruel disengagement from reality. Or we can realize that we, as citizens and globally-connected human beings, have more power than we can imagine, and we don’t have to let remote and unaccountable powers decide our fate.

Our politicians can begin to fathom that, as long as everyone is afraid to raise their head for fear of being decapitated, the lobbies automatically win. But if enough of them make a decision to speak to their constituents like adults, and be genuine and honest, and get votes the old-fashioned way—by upholding the public interest—instead of through deceit and ideological distortions and cash, the lobbies will no longer enjoy an easy stranglehold.

Personally, I would like to restore enough of America’s prestige that we won’t end up unwilling subjects of whatever superpower comes along next and whatever values they happen to possess. I want our best values—liberty, democracy, justice, innovation, truth-seeking, equality, tolerance, humility, and an optimistic belief in the better angels of human nature—to be represented on the world stage, because I believe in those values. It just so happens that what we need to do in order to remain relevant is also the right thing to do, the moral thing to do.

Of course, a foreign policy based on values needs legitimacy, which means honesty and consistency. We can’t try to impose democracy on Iraq while stifling it in Egypt and undermining it in Palestine. We can’t preach clean governance and then commute Scooter Libby’s sentence. The world is not stupid. And we can’t count on them being complacent much longer.

The longer we wait, the more moral power we lose, and the harder our crash landing with reality will be—and the less we will have a say in how the world is run once the American Century is over. No one expects us to be perfect, and we never will be. But if we can begin to get out of the grip of corporations and lobbies and show leadership based on the timeless progressive values for which the world loves us despite our flaws, we can remain great on the world stage for a while yet, and be worthy of that greatness.

15 Responses

  1. Citizen
    February 22, 2011, 11:15 am

    Thank you Pam. These days its hard to believe the best American values still exist, especially when so many basically good Americans remain so ignorant of the results of our horrible foreign policy, or see that policy vaguely as shaky but intact, needing much more grease to contain Muslim “terrorists” and an impending Caliphate, Sharia law for the women and the conversion of baby Jesus at swordpoint. I’m completely surrounded by ordinary Americans and that’s their chief concern when they take time out from worrying about stability of their jobs and how on earth they will ever be able to retire. They rarely otherwise connect domestic concerns and foreign policy–pretty amazing considering how involved the US is in the rest of the world’s business. They’d never question why Clinton intervened militarily
    in the Balkans for humanitarian reasons but Obama stood up against the whole world to declare the US wouldn’t intervene at all as between the parties to the “peace process” regarding the I-P conflict, although there’s no bigger humanitarian cause lasting so long on earth AND its the sure
    area that would trigger any future world war.

    • Pamela Olson
      February 22, 2011, 11:48 am

      You know what gives me more faith in Americans than anything else? Reading the reader comments on New York Times articles — the reader-recommended ones. They are almost always spot-on. Very heartening. There’s an undercurrent of people knowing what’s going on, it just gets drowned out by the ripples of nonsense on the surface. But it’s there.

      • Citizen
        February 23, 2011, 5:19 am

        I don’t disagree, Pam–the Americans I’m talking about don’t read the NY Times in print or online. They glance through the local rag at most and don’t dwell long on “international news” or anything about American foreign policy that manages to get reprinted there. But the men often eat up the Sports section, and the women often love the Entertainment section. These people are good neighbors, love their dogs and cats, etc.

  2. Potsherd2
    February 22, 2011, 11:44 am

    I’m an American and I don’t love this place a whole lot anymore. I don’t see why anyone else should.

    The US is determined to exercise “permenent total hegemony” over the rest of the world, enforced by a military strength greater than all the rest of the world put together. This is not a nation to love.

  3. pabelmont
    February 22, 2011, 11:51 am

    The love, but the gridlock. I also love the USA and cannot figure out why, being confused between the dreams, the people, and the government and its awful policies, the oligarchic control by multi-millionaires without a CLUE about the future (global warming, wars):

    parenthesis: it wouldn’t be so bad to be ruled by a king, or dukes and barons, if only they had the brains of a toad; but these bozos (and I don’t only mean the Israel Lobby, but the OIL and GAS and COAL lobbies, the PHARMA, the BANKS, the MILITARY, the MERCENARIES, the PRIVATIZED PRISONS, on and on and on) have no knowledge outside their own specialty, and tunnel vision even there, and the typical short 1-year or 1-quarter time-line for measuring benefit, and, of course a MY-INDUSTRY-ALONE valuation system for measuring the desirable. WHO IS THERE to fight for limiting world population and doing the necessary to avoid (a bit of) the horrors of global warming?

    Sorry — the parenthesis swallowed the message. Maybe that IS the message.

  4. MHughes976
    February 22, 2011, 12:02 pm

    To me the architecture of Washington says insistently, stone by stone, ‘This is the New Rome’, both a Republic and an Empire. ‘Never forget that it is your task to rule the nations’.

    • Antidote
      February 22, 2011, 2:04 pm

      ‘Never forget that it is your task to rule the nations’.

      Was that not also the conviction of the British Empire?

      • Citizen
        February 23, 2011, 5:46 am

        Yes, Antidote, when the sun never set on the British Empire, it was also called “The White Man’s Burden.” Today, it’s the proposition nation’s burden. The “colored folk” have joined the bandwagon. Witness the two Rice women in our successive administrations, and the Black Caucas, and the influx of Hispanics like the one Florida just sent to Congress, not to mention the Latina woman in the Supreme Court. God praise equal opportunity. Too, the USA does not use citizen settlers to further its economic exploitation of the world it can control. That sort of colonialism is passe (except for our Pal, Israel). The “search for markets” is endless, and whomever gets in the way of this “progress” is expendable, either at home or abroad.

  5. yourstruly
    February 22, 2011, 2:40 pm

    not what america is

    what it could be

    would be

    will be

    just we retake the dawn

  6. Keith
    February 22, 2011, 7:17 pm

    I am reminded of a quote by Manuel Garcia, Jr., which I deeply regret that I did not copy and cannot relocate. He said words to the effect that when he first started writing concerning the physics of 911, etc., that he assumed that when people had accurate information they would render rational judgments. What he found was that people tended to staunchly defend group myths and biases. With the possible exception of Israel, the US is the most heavily propagandized nation on earth, with American mythology warping the judgment of much of the citizenry. Mythology, I might add, that has a global impact. Food for thought.

    “We live entangled in webs of endless deceit, often self-deceit, but with a little honest effort, it is possible to extricate ourselves from them. If we do, we will see a world that is rather different from the one presented to us by a remarkably effective ideological system, a world that is much uglier, often horrifying.” (Noam Chomsky)

    • Citizen
      February 23, 2011, 6:23 am

      Garcia feels that blowback from the exploited and oppressed overseas brown natives motivated the 9/11 attack, as the captured culprits said themselves, which confession was echoed by lead terrorists overseas. At last the American oliarchy’s imperium birds had come home to roost. The US work in the Middle East, specifying particularly the I-P conflict, was the motive for the attack on 9/11 determined by the 9/11 Commission, as rendered inside the report and generalized in the concluding lines of that report in an oh-hum manner, that is, a statement to the effect all US policy results in blowback. I agree with that specific finding of motive. What it does not address is how aware of such an impending danger our government was in its highest back rooms. Did our top guys simply feel that the subhumans just didn’t have the smarts or power to send us such a stark message? Or did they nurse in their hearts the hope a “new Pearl Harbor” would allow them to implement their agenda more fully? Surely Roosevelt knew cutting of Imperial Japan’s oil would eventually bring an attack by Zeros, and he knew too that Hitler had signed a defense pact with Japan–what better way to get the isolationist American people behind an attack on Hitler then Hitler bound to declare war on the US? What better way to ride the tide of fear against Arab terrorists towards a new Crusade that just happens to benefit Israel and our war & security industries than a handful of brown hirsute Arabs sending so many everyday Americans to the burning ledge to drop like doomed gnats for the whole world to see?

      The U.S. has a long history of government conspiracy, much of it long ago forgotten. But recent history includes the reality that Roosevelt knew the Japanese were going to attack at Pearl Harbor, the overthrow of Iran’s Mohammed Mossadeq by another Roosevelt (Kermit), LyndonJohnson’s Gulf of Tonkin lie, the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up, Iran-contra, the 2000 election, the 2004 election and most recently, the weapons of mass destruction lie that thrust our military into Iraq.

  7. DICKERSON3870
    February 22, 2011, 7:37 pm

    RE: “It’s just this thing with Israel/Palestine, and Iraq and the other stuff.” ~ Pamela Olson’s Albanian friend
    FROM IRA CHERNUS, 01/20/11:

    White Americans, going back to early colonial times, generally assigned the role of “bad guys” to “savages” lurking in the wilderness beyond the borders of our civilized land. Whether they were redskins, commies, terrorists, or the Taliban, the plot has always remained the same.
    Call it the myth of national security — or, more accurately, national insecurity, since it always tells us who and what to fear. It’s been a mighty (and mighty effective) myth…


  8. DICKERSON3870
    February 22, 2011, 7:57 pm

    RE: “…if enough of them [politicians] make a decision to speak to their constituents like adults, and be genuine and honest, and get votes the old-fashioned way—by upholding the public interest—instead of through deceit and ideological distortions and cash, the lobbies will no longer enjoy an easy stranglehold.” – Pamela Olson

    ‘OLD SNARKY’ SEZ: Good luck with that!
    “You can’t use tact with a Congressman! A Congressman is a hog! You must take a stick and hit him on the snout!” – Henry Brooks Adams (American journalist, historian, academic and novelist, 1838-1918)

    P.S. I set up a monthly contribution to Russ Feingold’s PAC, Progressives United, Working for Campaign Reform – link to

    • Citizen
      February 23, 2011, 6:33 am

      Campaign finance reform is the key way to restructure the system so that it actually works to represent “We, the people,” instead of a hodgepodge of special interest groups, most notably, The Lobby (because, unlike the Gun Lobby, or AAARP, for example, The Lobby is solely concerned with furthering the interests of a foreign state, and one to boot that does not value equal universal human rights).

      • Citizen
        February 23, 2011, 6:39 am

        You can join Feingold’s new group at the url Dickerson gave us. I did. Who needs 5 SCOTUS members to tell us big corporations that never die have the same free speech rights as actual human citizens?

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