The U.S. and world hatred: obliviousness is the enemy

The Argument

Cutting through ideology and jingoism, humility and common sense can combat terrorism


February 09, 2003|By Scott Shane | By Scott Shane,Sun Staff

Why do they hate us? If "they" means the rest of the world, the short answer is: They don't. Not all of them. Not even most of them.

Not yet, anyway.

The bewildered, hurt-feelings question that became a cliche after the shock of Sept. 11, 2001, was as misleading as any sweeping generalization. In fact, the United States remains remarkably popular in most of the world -- though the Bush administration, with its go-it-alone approach to world problems, seems to be undermining that popularity.

In December, when the Pew Research Center published an extensive survey of world opinion, its interpreters focused on the slippage in U.S. popularity over the last two years. The poll of 38,000 people in 44 countries found growing resentment for this nation's unilateral pursuit of its goals, from junking treaties to marching toward war in Iraq.

But the emphasis on declining ratings obscured the durability of U.S. popularity. Favorable views of the United States remained remarkably high in Western Europe (from 61 percent of those polled in Germany to 75 percent in Great Britain, despite the bitter anti-American commentary of many intellectuals after Sept. 11); Eastern Europe (61 percent in Russia to 80 percent in Ukraine); and nearly all of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, where only Muslim Bangladesh, at 45 percent favorable, dipped below a majority.

At the moment, American unpopularity remains largely focused in the Muslim world: Only 6 percent of Egyptians, whose government receives more U.S. aid than any in the world except Israel, had a favorable view of the United States; 10 percent of Pakistanis; 25 percent of Jordanians; 30 percent of Turks.

Such data are crucial background for anyone approaching the shelf-full of new books that examine America's place in the world.

Both Why Do People Hate America?, by two British writers, Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies (The Disinformation Company, 240 pages, $12.95), and especially The Eagle's Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World, by the San Francisco journalist Mark Hertsgaard (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 256 pages, $23), make some nods to the virtues of the United States. But they spend far more words illuminating the reasons so many foreign observers are contemptuous of us as a power and as a people.

The books will be bitter medicine for most Americans; we prefer to hear how grand and good we and our country are, and our presidents routinely accommodate us. Both books, moreover, are seriously flawed. Hertsgaard extrapolates from brief encounters with cab drivers and waiters and often lapses into platitudes. Sardar and Davies spend too much space analyzing American TV shows and make some silly errors. (Thomas Friedman does not write for the Chicago Tribune; the United States does not maintain a stockpile of biological weapons, etc.)

Nonetheless, both books are useful challenges to the common American assumption that foreigners who dislike us are ill-informed, envious or "evil." They show how the United States, in a word that has caught on in Europe, is now not just a superpower but a hyperpower -- a nation whose military, economic and cultural dominance is unprecedented in human history. And none of the runners-up -- imperial Rome or Britain, for instance -- were thrust daily in the faces of the rest of the world by television, movies and music.

Americans, roughly 4 percent of the world's people, consume over half of all its goods and services. The $10 billion we spend annually on pet food is $2 billion more than what the United Nations estimates is required to give everyone in the world an adequate diet. The three richest Americans have assets exceeding the combined gross domestic product of the 48 poorest countries.

We see ourselves as generous to a fault. But that is only one symptom of what Hertsgaard rightly calls American "obliviousness." In fact, we rank dead last among the 22 most-developed countries in the percent of GDP we spend on foreign aid: just one-tenth of 1 percent -- with well-off Israel our single largest beneficiary. In order to sell even this meager philanthropy to Congress and American taxpayers, the U.S. Agency for International Development requires that most aid purchases be made from U.S. suppliers.

Both books decry the parochialism and trivialization of the U.S. media. Controlled by fewer and fewer corporations, the media do a poor job of reporting on other countries, they assert, cutting expensive foreign correspondents and going for the easy profits of sleazy "reality" shows.

The orthodox leftist analysis of Hertsgaard and Sardar and Davies will close the minds of many conservative readers. But two other books offer a less doctrinaire analysis that even fervent devotees of George W. Bush may find persuasive.

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