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America, from the outside

The Eagle's Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World, Mark Hertsgaard, Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 192 pp., $23

November 24, 2002|Tom Engelhardt | Tom Engelhardt, author of "The End of Victory Culture," is consulting editor for Metropolitan Books and a fellow of the Nation Institute. His novel, "The Last Days of Publishing," will appear next year.

Since Sept. 11, befuddled Americans have asked a single question of the world: Why do they hate us so? However reasonable such a question might seem in the wake of the attacks, it signals something far less reasonable: We've become a thoroughly solipsistic nation. In the last year, America has refashioned itself as the world's primary victim, survivor and dominator. We've taken possession of all available roles except, of course, that of villain, and the rest of the planet has been relegated to the sidelines. It's like that old joke in which a man talks endlessly about himself and then says, "Enough about me, how about you? What do you think of me?"

For years, Mark Hertsgaard has been asking what others think of us but with a less self-centered purpose. He's had an urge to help us, even force us, to break through that self-involvement and look at ourselves as others see us. He wants us to understand that there are other lives out there in the wider world. He is among the small number of Americans who are aware that ours was not even the first Sept. 11 tragedy. As he points out, that date was the anniversary of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's coup, a "U.S.-sponsored assault on democratic government in Chile," whose long-term death toll more than equaled ours of last year. "It's no secret to Chileans," he adds, "that the United States helped bring to power the dictatorship that ruled them for seventeen years." But as with so many aspects of the world -- and our role in it -- this has not been on most American radar screens. We are, he assures us, an "oblivious empire."

"The Eagle's Shadow" is Hertsgaard's attempt to explain what might be called a global disparity in comprehension. As a young, white South African restaurant manager told him, "Any stupid thing that happens in the States is news all over the world: O.J. Simpson, the Florida election recount ....Actually, I think we have an advantage over you, because we know everything about you and you know nothing about us."

Hertsgaard, a fine reporter who produced a classic account of the subservience of the press during the Reagan era, was on the road -- and not the American road either -- when the World Trade Center towers crumbled. He was in the middle of the second of two global meanderings that, since 1991, have taken him to more than 30 countries on an American-saturated planet.

From polluted Chinese cityscapes to South African slums, he has pursued the complex ways that the rest of the world comes to grips with an ever more in-your-face American presence. In fact, nothing is more striking in his account than the fact that you can land anywhere, ask anyone what he or she thinks of us and get a generally intelligent, even nuanced response. Yes, some out there do hate us with a passion, and others are riveted to simple-minded images of American wealth and glamour from our TV shows and movies that circle the world at nearly the speed of money. But most of Hertsgaard's interviewees, to the extent that we glimpse them, seem to have come to more complex conclusions about who we are. Their views of us, he claims, are light-years more sophisticated than ours of them. Perhaps the disparity between what they know about us and what most of us don't know about them isn't that surprising. After all, they live in our growing imperial "shadow," while, until recently, most Americans haven't cared to notice the shadow we cast, nor have our media (a point Hertsgaard dwells on) made it their business to offer us much help with the task.

Unfortunately, Hertsgaard's book is something of a rant -- invigorating at moments, but more often one-dimensional and unexpectedly expectable -- and in the end it is not so much about what foreigners think of us as what Hertsgaard thinks of us.

Everyone senses that we've reached a defining moment in our history, but how to define that moment? In the best of the critical pieces now being written about America in the world -- and they're articles, not books -- you can sense writers reaching almost desperately for historical analogies that might orient us: the Roman Empire, the British Empire, prewar Hitlerian Germany, the Spanish-American War, World War I. Hertsgaard senses this too. You can feel his palpable disappointment that the terrorist attacks last year did not open his country up to the world in a new way or to a more honest assessment of our acts in it. Our assurance that we know what's best for a planet of which we're largely ignorant, and the media coverage that nurtures such ignorance, clearly drive him to distraction.

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