Why They Hate Us
A Journalist Gives America an Uneasy Look at Itself From Abroad
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans wondered, What did we do to deserve this? They weren't getting straight answers from the mainstream media. President Bush offered a characteristically simple-minded explanation: "These evildoers hate us because of our freedom." His right-wing cronies still lob accusations of treason on those who contest this view.
Nevertheless, a careful Mark Hertsgaard offers a more comprehensive analysis in his book The Eagle's Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World. Those who have read their share of Noam Chomsky or The Nation won't find new information here. But compared with those political writings, The Eagle's Shadow is far more appealing and effective for a number reasons: First of all, the gripes about U.S. foreign policy and ignorance are balanced with passages that laud American ingenuity, spirit, and capacity for fairness. "All men are created equal" might have really meant "all white men" in this country initially, but our society and government corrected itself with women's suffrage and civil-rights movements. We have supported despots in South Africa, Chile, and many other places, but we have pulled together to fight despots in Serbia and Germany. Our people enjoy freedoms unimaginable in many corners of the world, and our prosperity and panache inspires even those who criticize our policies.
Still, Hertsgaard raises important faults in the solipsistic American worldview, which explains why other countries hate us--or are at least annoyed with us. For example, Bush, as a conservative, is understandably pro-business, but he endorses foreign-aid policies that destroy the Third World's agricultural life and support multinational corporations. Conservatives in other countries have more nuanced views of businesses' roles in supporting the poor--in France, say, where President Jacques Chirac supported boosting development aid by taxing corporations that benefit from globalization. Hertsgaard occasionally supports the arguments with anecdotes; in one, a London cabbie talks about a young Texan who insisted that everything London had, Texas had bigger and better. "It's the bragging and arrogance that put me off," the cabbie says.
Hertsgaard's strength, aside from his consistently colorful and cogent writing, lies in his ability to find blame in every sector of U.S. power and politics--and the public. It's not either liberals or conservatives, politicians or the media--it's all of these things. The political parties cook up a ridiculous scandal, and the press laps it up and runs it on the nightly news for months. Meanwhile, Americans tune out the plight of people overseas, or of people on the other side of town, and head to the mall. As he writes:
It's easy for Americans to forget: we live in a land of freedom, but many people in the world do not. That makes our nation a symbol to the world, which in turn confers certain responsibilities on us. . . . The achievements of the women's and civil rights movements illustrate a central lesson of American history: freedom is never mere words on a page, no matter how eloquently stated. Freedom must be demanded, fought for, earned. And then it must be defended.
That last bit is important, as Hertsgaard points out again and again in the book. We might fear shadowy terrorists and overseas threats, but we have plenty to fear among ourselves. Thanks to some combination of media distortion and American complacence, we are notoriously uninformed about current events, never mind our own history. (When I recently called a friend in Colorado to ask how he voted in the election, he replied: "What election?") Portions of The Eagle's Shadow discuss the disturbing growing gap between America's rich and poor, the USA PATRIOT Act and its attacks on civil liberties, the influence of money in politics, and the 2000 election debacle. It is suddenly no mystery why the United States makes other countries nervous. "You may like the United States or you may not like the United States," an environmental minister in Prague tells Hertsgaard, "but you know it's the future."