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Mutual Incomprehension
They don't get us, we don't get them.
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Interviewing Dick Cheney on Meet the Press this Sunday, Tim Russert kept coming back to the question a lot of us, on both sides of the war issue, are asking: How on earth did the United States come to be so isolated? We have the support of a handful of governments, to be sure, but even they are acting in the teeth of strong opposition from their people. There is broad popular support for a war against Iraq in just two countries: the U.S.A. and Israel. How did things get to such a pass?

There are two popular answers: (1) America just doesn’t understand how the rest of the world feels. (2) The rest of the world just doesn’t understand how America feels. Different people tend to respond with either one or the other of these. Cheney, for example, favored (2).

I’m going to go with both. It takes two to tango, and a gulf of disagreement this wide tells us that there is profound misunderstanding in both directions. There are things about us that the rest of the world doesn’t understand, and there are things about them that we don’t understand. Please note that mutual incomprehension does not imply moral equivalence. The fact that you and I can’t see each other’s point of view does not rule out the possibility that one of us is right and the other wrong. The rightness or wrongness depends on external facts, which have been very thoroughly debated on this site and elsewhere. Here I am just going to look at the misunderstandings between America and the rest of the world.

How do we misunderstand each other? Let me number the ways.

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They don’t understand — How a-n-g-r-y we are. It was our proud buildings that were brought down on 9/11. It was our office workers, airplane passengers, firemen and cops who got killed. Those attacks were the worst foreign assaults on American soil since the founding of the Republic. We are mad as hell, and we have every right to be. It didn’t help a bit that we heard stories from all over the world of people rejoicing in our loss and grief, standing up and cheering, dancing in the streets, writing smug editorial pieces in the London Review of Books to the effect that we had it coming. Those things just spread our anger wider, from the monsters who attacked us to the fools who try to give them moral credibility.

We don’t understand — How much they resent our wealth and power. Fourteen years after the end of the Cold War, the sheer scale of our supremacy in the world has not really sunk in to our consciousness yet.

  • Our military is better funded, better equipped and more awesome by an order of magnitude than any other. Even before 9/11, we accounted for over 36 percent of the world’s militaryexpenditure. The next in rank, Russia, had less than 6 percent.
  • Our economy makes everyone else’s look puny — we currently have 43 percent of the world’s economic production. Twenty years ago we fretted about rising competitors like Japan, a united Europe, Asian tigers, China. Now Japan is a busted flush, Europe is choking on red tape, the tigers are trending Japan-wards, and China is facing a major systemic crisis. We stand supreme.
  • Our culture is omnipresent: peasant lads in Nepal wear NBA T-shirts, teenage girls in Sudan hum the Titanic theme, bankers in Buenos Aires meet at Starbucks.

To the rest of the world, we look like a 200-foot giant. Immense wealth and power may be respected, are occasionally admired, will sometimes be feared, but they are never loved.

“But don’t they remember how we saved their bacon twice in the 20th century?” Sure they remember. Gratitude, however, is an emotion with a short half-life. If you save me from drowning, I shall be intensely grateful to you for days and weeks afterwards. Months and even years later, I may still regard you with a warm appreciation. If, however, you are still reminding me of the good deed fifty years on, I shall find it irritating. That is not fair at all, but it’s human nature. “I did for you what you could not do for yourself” contains, if you look at it closely, an implied comment about my own abilities.

They don’t understand — Our deep idealism. All right, Americans say, we are a giant. Are we not a kindly giant, though? Was there ever a giant with such a will to do good? Can you imagine what a world dominated by Russia would be like? Or China? (If you can’t, ask a Hungarian, or a Tibetan.) We are proud of the great good we have done in the world — Lend-Lease, victory over fascism and communism, the Marshall Plan, and all the liberating and wealth-encouraging institutions we have helped fund and support — the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO, and, yes, in theory at least, the UN. Sure, some of those good deeds benefited us, too. That is the “self-interest” in “enlightened self-interest.” Will someone please note the other half of the phrase? Uniquely among all the Top Dog nations that the world has ever had, we do not believe that the international order is a zero-sum game, that what is good for us will be bad for you.

Even when we have blundered, it has been with good intentions. France fought in Vietnam to preserve her imperial standing and keep her planters in business; we fought in Vietnam to hold the free world’s line against communist dictatorship. Every pronouncement from our leaders about possible war with Iraq comes with a rider that we shall do our utmost to avoid harming civilians. When did any other nation prepare for a military expedition with such oft-repeated declarations? When? The Chinese going into Vietnam in 1979? The Russians going into Chechnya in 1994? The French in Algeria? Iraq attacking Iran? The Libyans in Chad? When? When?

We don’t understand — Their cynicism. Two stories.

  • Around 1991 I was in a movie theater in London’s Leicester Square (which is to say, a tony movie theater in the heart of London) watching Tom Selleck in Three Men and a Little Lady. Near the end of the movie, Tom looks into the eyes of his leading lady and says the words she’s been longing to hear: “I love you.” The London audience erupted in hoots of laughter. Can you believe it? Americans really go for that sappy stuff! What rubes they are!
  • In China a year and a half ago, I was talking to one of my Chinese relatives about the United States Constitution. He waved away the Constitution with a laugh. “Oh, that’s all nonsense. it’s just a piece of paper. Doesn’t mean anything.”

There is an innocence, an earnestness about Americans that, all too often, foreigners just don’t get. If we love someone, we look into her eyes and say so. We take our Constitution seriously. One way and another, we passed through most of the great disillusioning experiences of the 20th century, from the Great War to the sexual revolution, with our illusions pretty much intact. Outside the intellectual classes, irony doesn’t come easily to Americans. Europeans who come to live in the U.S. find that they have to perform major adjustments to their sense of humor to avoid giving offense to the literal-minded inhabitants of this country.

ORDER IT NOW

Americans have had no prolonged education in cynicism. We have never been expected to look up to rulers who claim to be appointed “by the grace of God,” yet whose failings are all too obviously human. We have never had to endure the indignity of living in a “people’s republic” in which the actual people count for nothing, under a “constitution” whose sole purpose is to provide a fig-leaf of legitimacy to naked, brutish power.

They don’t understand — Our patriotism. There are styles of patriotism. Old ethno-nations like France, Poland or China tend to assume that patriotism is bred in the bone, and does not need to be shown or expressed except at times of dire national emergency. The flamboyant, everyday patriotism of Americans is unsettling to them, and looks like bumptiousness covering insecurity. There is perhaps no other country in the world in which, on a day that is not a national holiday, you can walk down a residential street and see flags flying from the doorposts. I have been hunting around on the web for statistics on flag ownership — how many citizens, country by country, actually own a copy of their country’s flag. Couldn’t find those statistics, but I feel sure the U.S.A. easily ranks number one in this table, too; and I bet that was true even before 9/11. I lived more than twenty years in Britain, and I can’t recall a single instance of any British person I knew owning a British flag.

We don’t understandTheir patriotism. French people, Germans, Russians, even Mexicans, nurse deep attachments to their history, their customs, their language and cuisine, their traditions, the great deeds of their ancestors. We may look down at these people’s political incompetence: at France, which has been through five republics, two empires and two kingdoms in the lifetime of our own single Constitution, at the Russians, who submitted to be the slaves of amoral despots for 70 years, at the Germans, who surrendered their liberties to a psychopath with a comic-opera mustache and stood by obediently while he massacred millions of their unarmed fellow-citizens.

Still we should not forget that when you and your ancestors have lived in the same place for a thousand years, speaking the same language and eating the same food, practicing the same religious observances and quoting the same poets, gazing out over the same rivers and hills, you do not take kindly to the intrusions of a 200-year-old upstart nation, half of whose people do not seem even to be able to describe themselves as “American” without sticking something hyphenated in front of the word.

They don’t understand — The reverence in which we hold our institutions. We scoff at our politicians, like everyone else in the world, but the institutions they represent are taken very seriously indeed. Shortly after 9/11, on this site, I offered a rude speculation about how Bill Clinton might have reacted to the crisis. I was flooded with indignant e-mail from NRO readers — Clinton-haters all, probably — asking me who the hell I thought I was, insulting the Presidency at such a time. Not Clinton — they couldn’t have cared less about him — but the Presidency. The idea that the institutions of national governance are merely a racket, a cover for the machinations of a ruling class, is very widespread around the world. It occurs to every Chinese person, every Saudi, every Nigerian, every Russian, at least once a day. Even Frenchmen and Italians find themselves thinking it once a week or so. To Americans — except for some small cliques of race agitators and Europeanized intellectuals — it is utterly alien.

We don’t understand — How badly George W. Bush travels. Never having been schooled in the fast repartee of a parliamentary debating chamber, Bush seems slow and inarticulate in response. Coming from the openly-confessional tradition of Southern Christianity, he seems to foreigners to be religiose rather than religious. Having spent most of his life in a region with a strong sense of identity, he speaks his local dialect unselfconsciously, which makes him sound like a bumpkin to other English-speakers (and even to some Americans). Pronouncing “nuclear” as “noo-koo-luh” tells you nothing more about the man than that he comes from Texas and doesn’t care who knows it. It is no more reprehensible than my pronouncing “schedule” with a “sh” instead of a “sk,” and it is very unfair of non-Texans to snigger at it. They do, though, and I am not sure they are wrong to do so, bearing in mind what terrible responsibilities lie behind that word “nuclear.”

They don’t understand — The vitality of our political life. The tremendous events of 1775-1787 fired off a national conversation that is still in full flood today. Does the Second Amendment imply an individual right to own firearms? What exactly does “subject to the jurisdiction of” mean, in Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment? How can we square one state’s approval of homosexual marriage with the “full faith and credit” of the Constitution’s Article IV, Section 1? These things are the stuff of everyday conversation and endless public debate. American political culture has a vigor and breadth unknown elsewhere. The political life of other countries, when you go to them, seems dull and tame.

We don’t understand — The narrowness of viewpoint expressed in their media. Centuries of state-sanctioned priesthoods and despotic bureaucracy have left other nations with a deferential attitude to bookish pontificators that America just does not know. As much as we complain of the leftist bias in our media, we can hardly imagine the situation in Britain, where the BBC — far the most important source of news and comment for most people — is staffed entirely by members of the hard-Left lumpen-intelligentsia, people who, to my certain knowledge (I am friends with some of them) were admirers of the Soviet Union down to the hour of its collapse. In France and Germany things are even worse. There is essentially no conservative movement in these countries, nor in any country but the U.S. There are no Second Amendment lobbies, no Club for Growth, no anti-abortion crusaders, no Christian Coalition, no Rush Limbaugh, no Sean Hannity. (I do not say these things don’t exist in Britain, France or Germany. I do say that they have no political influence whatsoever.)

ORDER IT NOW

Because of the lack of alternative voices, the effect of Political Correctness on these countries has been far more dire than in the U.S. In England last November, a journalist was locked up in jail for telling a pro-fox-hunting rally that country people should have the same rights as black people, Muslims and homosexuals.

Unrestrained by any constitutional protection for free speech, the ruling elites in these countries are wielding P.C. as a club to smash all dissent from approved state doctrines, all resistance to state schemes of social engineering. No voices are heard in Europe now but the voices of the Leftist clerisy who control all the media outlets. These people are all anti-American. (In France and Italy, they are not infrequently actual Communists Party members — yes, communism is alive and well in Europe.) It is not surprising that the ordinary people of these countries, bathed as they are in this flood of lies from morning till night, are suspicious of us. And this is only to speak of nations that have some decently long tradition of consensual democracy. Russia? China? Turkey? Fugeddaboutit.

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I don’t know what can be done to bridge this gulf of mutual incomprehension, not at this late stage of the Iraq game. If, as now seems likely (and in brazen defiance of my predictions), the Administration is really going to take us to war, our conduct of that war may do something to correct misunderstandings about our goals and motives.

I wouldn’t be too optimistic, though. If the war goes well, we shall be more of a giant than ever; if badly, we shall be that most contemptible of creatures, a giant brought low by hubris. And the ideology-addled elites who run the media in Europe, and the state functionaries who run them most everywhere else, will, in either case, know what to say to keep the pot of anti-Americanism on the boil.

(Republished from National Review by permission of author or representative)
 
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