Excelentes comentarios despierta How They see Us, antología de James Atlas
Los comentarios de los lectores en EEUU siguen destacando la importancia
de este volumen del biógrafo y novelista James Atlas y hace poco leí una hermosa nota donde se refieren al ensayo de Fernando Báez que fue incluído en
How They See Us by Aaron Morell
February 12, 2010
How does the world see us? Not long ago, in a panicked moment of self-awareness and insecurity, this question was gravely important. Perhaps we are not who we thought we were as a nation or as a people. One thing is for sure: they do see us. America spread its fingers around the globe long ago. American enterprise, iconography, and military value is indelible and unavoidable. We may be despised and we may be envied, but it is hard to imagine us venerated for ideals and morals that once defined our aspirations. For much of the past decade an outspoken American contingent has complained about the world-at-large with indignation and distrust, as if we had done nothing to deserve anything but perfect compliance with our requests and desires.
Shortly before the new year, Atlas & Co published a collection of essays written by twenty-one writers from twenty-one countries called How They See Us: Meditations on America. The book is not necessarily a veritable sample or reflection of how the world sees us since over half of the authors lived, taught, or spent substantial time in the U.S. But this lends a more balanced perspective, perhaps, and a duality manifests itself without being conflicted psychologically. Nearly all of the writers are novelists or directly involved with creative literature, so rather than being didactic or accusatory or attempting to persuade their readers by argument, their personal narratives relate experiences, and Meditations becomes a fitting description.
So, how does the world see us? The very existence of this question today lies in the first line of James Atlas’s introduction: “On the night of September 11, 2001….” It exists because of a confounding moment, a multifaceted crisis. That night, and for the following days and weeks, people across the globe opened up their hearts to America, to New York, to us. The outpouring of sympathy and sorrow was effectual far beyond sentimental reflexes. Werner Sonne (Germany) writes that soon after 9-11, “a quarter-million people congregated in front of the Brandenburg gate to show their support for America. Nobody asked them to come.” In response, we tucked our tail, bared our teeth, and closed our hearts to the world. The world stage was reset and the image of America was reset.
Since World War II, America has been a beacon of hope for much of the world. It may seem somewhat cliché’d now, particularly for those of us who did not experience the deepest moments of the Cold War, but the America of opportunity and freedom is a reality – or was a reality. Andreï Makine (Russia/France) and György Dragomán (Romania/Hungary) reflect on life behind the Iron Curtain where America was painted in wide propagandist strokes. The fat tuxedo-wearing Yankee with a vulgar cigar and bags of gold and the lanky Uncle Sam armed with the atomic bomb were part of a simplistic portrayal that generally included America’s racism, poverty, unemployment, slavery, extermination of the American Indians, Hiroshima, Vietnam, and economic dictatorship. Makine acknowledges Stalin’s totalitarianism and gulags, but he also recognizes the truth in much of the old Soviet propaganda. Yet, America remained alive and human to many behind the Soviet lines. During the German assault when millions of Russians were cut off from food supplies, the United States sent tin cans of meat to areas often in desperate need (e.g. Stalingrad). Those tin cans, which can still be found in Russia as flowerpots and such. Those tin cans “revealed a truth to us that resisted the brainwashing: America, the Evil Empire crammed with bombs could also be our friend!”
When Dragomán was a Hungarian child confined to Romania with his family, America existed as the Wild West, land of the free, with buffalo roaming the plains. But his grandfather, and so many others in Hungary, had waited for the Americans to come since the second world war. They waited in ’45, but the Americans never came. 600,000 intellectuals and officials were purged by the Soviets. During the revolution of ’56 they listened to the radio as the Americans promised assistance and protection. On November 4, Russian tanks rolled into Budapest. The Americans never came. After the Prague Spring of ’68, when the Sovets quelled a Czech uprising, his grandfather wept. When György’s father asked him why he was crying, he handed him a copy of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and said that he now realized that the book was only a fairy tale.
During the Cultural Revolution, Da Chen’s family (China) was defamed as dirty landowners. Their land was seized by the government and his grandfather imprisoned. Chen’s childhood was strained with humiliation. He witnessed his grandfather being beaten, his father hung by his thumbs, and his mother slapped across her face. For months they ate nothing but rice porridge. His sisters started working the rice fields before they were thirteen. It is not surprising that Chen has little to say about the two-sided nature of America’s political affairs. He came to America at the age of twenty-three with only a bamboo flute and thirty dollars. His childhood in China was defined by what he could not do and should not do. In the U.S. he worked his way through college and law school and into a high paying law career. His income was probably more than his entire village and those nearby. In China, he was warned by his father of the dangers of being a writer. Now Chen is a well-published author. He cherished the flute he brought from China. Now his children study ballet and listen to hip-hop and jazz on their iPods. And no more rice porridge.
The allure and attraction of America is recognized throughout How They See Us. For Chris Abani (Nigeria) the appeal is undeniable: “Choice, leisure, affluence, and freedom…couched within an attractive informality.” But at the core of the collection, consistent with nearly every author, is the feeling that America has not only failed to live up to its principles, but we have starkly contradicted our tenets. “Americans speak of freedom, but squander it each day…[choosing] to cash it in for easy consumerism.” America occupies countries where it does not allow the same freedoms of democracy to be practiced. Our moral righteousness easily slips to absurdity. Abani and so many Nigerians are acutely aware of the extermination of American Indians, African slavery, and the CIA’s involvement in possibly every coup in their country since 1960. American use of power is strikingly more apparent to the rest of the world than us, and it is resented. Abani, like so many others, finds America as necessary to the balance of power, but the problem is the U.S. has aggressively tilted the scale and created the need for counter-balance.
They do see America’s diversity, achievements, movies and novels, according to Mourid Barghouti (Palestine), but they also see Abu Ghraib, Fox News, and “Shock and Awe.” Growing up in South America, Fernando Baez (Venezuela) remembers his family vision anchored in the Kennedy Era – “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed,” and “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” But America’s overthrow of Chilean president Allende and Kissinger’s association with South America coups, genocide, torture, and militarism smeared his family’s optimism. For decades the U.S. seemed convinced that “all evil was preferable to the expansion of the left.” U.S. intervened 150 times in Latin America. The arming of Sandinistas fomented a civil war that left 38,000 dead in Nicaragua, and then repeated the process in El Salvador and Guatemala (200,000 dead).
This American contradiction is extraordinary. It is not only Truth and Justice For All held against U.S. military and Pentagon intrusion. Our Hyperbole and morality exists in the public spectrum at such a highly dramatic plane that we parody ourselves. Proselytizing of democracy takes on fervent evangelical tones. “Americans seem to us either racily idiomatic or ponderously rhetorical,” writes Terry Eagleton (U.K.). He adds that it is our crazed idealism that may lead to the annihilation of the planet, rather than crude materialism.
Luis Fernando Verissimo (Brazil) sees American pretention in the way we think of ourselves as the product of European enlightenment, having broken free from oppression, and then rose above the old world and old model of government (a large portion of our population believes that we are so far in front of the evolutionary curve that we need no government at all, or only the bare minimum). After two hundred years of equality, liberty, and freedom as the reigning principles, Verissimo writes, “the U.S. arrived at an extreme version of the system that symbolized the worst in European class division.” He recalls a trip to the U.S. in 1994 to cover the World Cup in California. The entire country was transfisxed on O.J. Simpson riding in his white Bronco – “A black man making the white man’s police run after him.” There was a lot of resentment when the issue of race was brought into the O.J. debacle (until Mark Fuhrman took the stand), and for good reason, but given our poor racial record it is what one should expect.
These perspectives on America may seem to tilt negatively, but Abani states and others illustrate that the world view of America is complex. At the same time, this is how much of the world views us. Despite our transgressions in Latin America, Africa, southeast Asia, and the Middle East, residual Cold War propaganda, modern propaganda, our deep poverty and disparity, and racial narrowness, much of the world still believed in the idea of America, still believed in us. Our reputation was gradually eroding, disillusionment growing, but the idea was still alive. Then, within several years of 9-11, the dream was practically killed off. Leilah Nadir (Iraq/Canada):
America is a pair of heavy boots dangling out of a low-flying army helicopter, a machine gun cocked at me….America is three thousand cruise missiles landing on my city. America is a tank tread on the fragile remains of the ancient city of Babylon. America is my front door kicked in. America is the curfew that makes it impossible for my great-uncle to get to a hospital at night; he dies of a heart attack at home….America is my crippled brother, a crutch where his left leg used to be. America is white phosphorus….America is a note threatening to kidnap my children. America is my widowed sister and her fatherless children. America is a hospital without medicine, a house without running water, the deep dark of a power failure….America is adolescent soldiers bristling with weapons yelling at me at a checkpoint….America is an overflowing morgue, a cemetery with no room to bury by great-uncle. America is a soldier killing Iraqi demonstrators who are protesting because the army has turned their elementary school into an army base….America has made me Iraqi. I see America through Iraqi eyes. But it wasn’t always so.
For several years after the portentous September day, the question in the air was where did this hatred come from. Andreï Makine, in a section titled “An Outcast Messiah,” considers the bafflement of the pundits and thinkers who turned this question inside out. You have a nation who lays claim to the “noblest of humanistic values”: open to immigrants, a defender of democratic ideals, politically tolerant, prosperous, technologically advanced: a model democratic country. To Makine, it is not so baffling. The agents who executed the 9-11 attacks were Americanized enough to not draw attention and suspicion. America was not just an abstract notion. They rejected it because they knew it well, “and the intensity of their hatred can be gauged by the resolution with which these terrorists went to their deaths…what they were seeking to destroy was this American essence in themselves.”
That is a compelling psychological angle, especially when you consider the divide within our country. We were just coming off the Bush/Gore 2000 election which not only spotlighted our conflicted ideology, it deepened the inner conflict. With the high-pitched anger and controversy radiating from that election, the amount of civility during and after is quiet amazing. So much was made the following year of United We Stand, but divided we remain. Partisanship and resentment is and was rife in our politics and discourse (but as vibrant as ever, on the positive side). There is significant disdain for America within America coming from all sides. Self-hatred. To fight is to fight against yourself. Flight? Leaving is simply not easy on any level, and for one side of the divide, there are few places in the world where they will find sympathetic or like-minded hosts. Maybe if Texas secedes.
We are a little messed up, but hopefully, people around the world can see that although there is plenty of old world, old brain thinking rooted in fear and domination, there is a lot more forward thinking in America that is rooted in compassion and equality. Mourid Barghouti writes that the common nightmare in which you are silenced, unable to speak or scream, reflects a collective dream of entire groups of people around the world. But we know the nightmare as well.
Maybe the convoluted way in which our good intentions are fused with our missteps and belligerence, then transmitted around the world, is aptly captured by Sunny Singh (India) who writes that it is one of America’s most visible exports that delivers our ideological goods: Hollywood. It is the American action hero who taught the world that the right to freedom and liberty belongs to everyone. When the evil empire subdues the innocent populations, overwhelms them with powerful armies and technology, runs dingy prisons in far-away places, and tortures and kills, then it is the duty of the people to take up arms, even when the odds are impossible. A hero will rise from the fringes of society, and by individual effort, violence if necessary, and the sacrifice of his own life, the innocent and righteous will prevail by his efforts. Rambo III, the 1990 Guinness World Records’ most violent film ever made, is dedicated to “the gallant people of Afghanistan.”