Truth and Perception

Glenn Greenwald writes about the collapse of America’s standing in the world. Polling data reveal that a profound change has taken place over the past six years in how people of other nations see us. As Glenn says,

The picture that emerges here is conclusively clear. In virtually every area of the world — Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Latin America and Asia — overwhelming majorities of people viewed the U.S. favorably prior to the Bush presidency. But in virtually every single country in each of those regions, the percentage which now views the U.S. favorably has collapsed, and is now confined only to minorities, often tiny minorities.

I started to write something brief and snarky about this — along the lines of They hate us! They really hate us! — but then got caught up in a deeper argument about the nature of truth and perception.

Glenn points out that much of the Right dismisses this erosion of American stature by claiming people around the world already hated us, anyway.

… [T]his line of reasoning goes, America was disliked well prior to the advent of Bush radicalism, either because (in the view of neoconservatives as illustrated by Hugh Hewitt here), those who dislike America are intrinsically hateful of America and our values no matter what we do.

At the same time, a part — a relatively small part, I would say, but not an insignificant part — of the Left think that America has been a force for Evil in the world for a long time, and nothing the Bush Administration is doing is substantially different from what was done by past administrations. The Bushies may be more bare-assed about it, but they haven’t taken an entirely different course.

Whatever Hugh Hewitt might say, the numbers reveal the rest of the world did not hate us before 2001 as much as it hates us now. We can flush the “they hated us, anyway” theory down the crapper, I’d say. But some of Glenn’s commenters argue that the former good feeling toward us was just a matter of perception, not who we really were. Glenn paraphrases:

… simply because America was liked and respected around the world prior to the Bush administration does not negate the claim that America has been a net force for Evil, since public opinion may simply have been wrong (by having a higher opinion of America than was actually warranted).

Moon of Alabama has an explanation:

There is an even simpler answer for the crash of world public opinion about the U.S.: The revolution in information distribution through worldwide TV news and the Internet.

Before the late 1990s, access to international media and alternative views was difficult to get anywhere in the world. In my homecountry one could walk to major railway stations and buy a decent collection of international papers, or one could listen to BBC and a few other international views on the radio.

But now there are BBC, CNN, AlJazeera, Euronews, Arte and others on the regular cable TV. With a cheap satellite dish hundreds of international TV stations are available 24/7. Instead of a few expensive international papers from the international press kiosk, there now is instant access to hundreds of regular news-media on the web.

A billion people now have cheap and simple access to terrabytes of original data, making it much easier to verify the truthiness of what the news-media are disseminating. Millions of blogs add immediate commentary and analysis.

This explanation is not working for me. As Glenn says, the pre-Internet era was not the Dark Ages. Democracies around the world have enjoyed a multitude of news sources, some privately owned and some public, for a great many years. Moon of Alabama assumes that before the late 1990s the (mostly privately owned) media of many distinct nations willingly cranked out pro-American propaganda and promoted the U.S. as a great and glorious place. I am dubious. Certainly there was considerable worldwide media criticism of the U.S. during the more violent phases of the great civil rights conflicts, 1950s-1970s, and of the Vietnam War, and I don’t believe Ronald Reagan was viewed exclusively through a gauze-covered lens filter as he was here.

This is from the always clear-headed Avedon Carol, who lives in Britain:

I’ve had the kind of conversations he’s talking about with people from both sides of the spectrum who don’t get this, but we were truly loved and admired, even by people who knew we were not always flawless, and now it’s a very different story – and it’s under the Bush regime that the story had changed. And I know that some people on the left, including some of my readers, think it’s all to the good that our standing has been so reduced, but I honestly believe that we were an inspiration to other countries that really did try to follow the lead of our ideals and our attempts to live up to them. I’ve seen the way we were held up as an example – and I’ve seen the way the decline of our good example has been held up as “proof” that living up to those ideals is unnecessary. “After all, the Americans are doing it.” But it’s now gone beyond that; America has become another bad example, an object lesson on the infections of power and corruption. We no longer have standing to criticize other governments that abuse their people; they laugh at the idea that a nation led by barbarians who launch unprovoked attacks on other countries and kidnap (and torture, and kill) people has any authority to lecture others on morality. No one even knows anymore what we mean by “democracy”, or what we are criticizing when we call other governments “corrupt” or “despotic”. We once had the power to influence other governments positively to expand freedoms; those days are gone. And I don’t think that’s a particularly good thing.

Maybe we just got a really good run out of the Marshall Plan, but I don’t think that’s all there is to it.

The more interesting issue is, to me, the nature of absolutist, one-sided thinking. “America is always right” and “America is always wrong” are not so much opposites as two sides of the same coin. Both sides could wear themselves out cherry-picking examples from American history to prove their side is true. And, in a relative way, both sides reflect some part of the truth, but not the whole truth.

I’ve been writing about absolutist thinking in the Wisdom of Doubt series. In the last episode I used Christopher Hitchens as an example to look at fanaticism. In particular, I found examples of some blatant intellectual and personal dishonesty on Hitchens’s part in his arguments that religion is the source of all evil and that he, Hitchens, is an open minded explorer of truth for truth’s sake. A couple of readers, plus some people I’ve met offline, overlooked the dishonesty and argued that Hitchens was right. And to bolster their claims of his rightness they provided examples of religious villainy, all of which, I’m sure, are true. But that does not disprove my point about Hitchens. Nor does it disprove my argument that what Hitchens was calling the source of all evil is really fanaticism, not religion per se. Hitchens, a fanatic himself, cannot see that.

As a rule fanatics are not psychotic. They do not invent the issues they rave about out of whole cloth. Usually some, perhaps a large part, of what they say is true. It’s just that they’re looking at issues in a one-sided, self-bullshitting sort of way. They seize upon what they want to believe first and build arguments to support that belief after, and what facts don’t support their arguments they either revise (i.e., Hitchens’s notion that Martin Luther King was not actually a Christian) or ignore.

And if they get really wiggy, folk tales and legends fill in the gaps. Don’t get me started on the truthers, but here’s another example of post-9/11 wigginess. Sometime early in 2002 I actually stumbled upon a thread — I think it was on Democratic Underground — in which several people swore up and down they’d heard this story from somebody who’d escaped from the World Trade Center. The WTC escapee’s story was that he’d locked eyes with a terrorist piloting a plane as it was approaching. And the terrorist, upon realizing there were people in the building, deliberately swerved to miss him, and so he survived. Now, anyone with more than two brain cells to rub together should have been a tad skeptical of this story. Think of the speed at which the planes were moving, the nature of windows in the upper floors of the towers (they weren’t all that easy to look out of; this was to help prevent vertigo), and the fact that the collisions were very large and killed people on several floors of each tower. In other words, anyone who might have been close enough to look into the eyes of a hijacker as he approached the tower would certainly have been killed, even if the hijacker had changed course.

This story seems to have been stupid enough that it had a short shelf life, as I haven’t seen it since. The more interesting question to me was why anyone would have believed it, ever. Clearly, it was something some people wanted to believe. And why would one want to believe such a thing? The only answer I could think of was that it supported a bias they already held, and this bias made them want to think that somehow the terrorists either weren’t responsible — perhaps didn’t realize what they were doing — or weren’t really the villains of the story. This notion, of course, fits nicely into truther mythology.

But thinking this way takes us into the premise of Glenn’s new book, which is the way a binary, black-and-white, good-versus-evil mentality infects the Bush Administration. This absolutist thinking insists that everything that is not entirely good must be entirely bad. Whoever is not the hero is the villain. Whoever is not the villain is either the hero or an innocent victim. If someone is right, he must be absolutely right, and everything out of his mouth is true, and everything he does is justified and righteous by virtue of the fact that he’s the one doing it. Even if one can demonstrate empirically that some of what the Good One says is not true, or that his actions have been harmful, that doesn’t matter. He is still absolutely right, and someone else must be held accountable for the errors.

But if he is wrong, he is absolutely wrong, and everything he says is a lie, and everything he does is evil, and if you can demonstrate empirically that some of what he says is true you must be a dupe and a sympathizer.

This sort of mentality infests the Right, and we can see that easily, but sometimes we don’t see it in ourselves.

The United States is a big, powerful nation, and over the years it has done a lot of harmful things. But any nation, any government, that has lasted more than six months has stains on its record. If you think the United States is more evil than other nations, I suggest you don’t know much about world history. We’ve done shit to be ashamed of, and we’ve done shit to be proud of. This is the nature of human institutions. And if we’d all stop bullshitting ourselves, the world would be a better place.

12 thoughts on “Truth and Perception

  1. People don’t like bullies, hypocrites, liars or sanctimonious prima donnas. When we as a nation take on those human characteristics we aren’t liked. The fact that a country is not a person is beside the point. Reason is never part of the result.

    What is particularly galling about Mr. Bush – and he afterall is Mr. America – to much of the world is his attitude of being so superior to others that he does not have to abide by the mundane, plebian standards of good behavior that the rest of mankind at least pays lip service to.

    And then I’m reminded of the comment made by man-on-the-street Brits following our ’04 election – something like how could so many millions of people be so stupid. Stupidity evokes fear if nothing else – and we are a very powerful nation.

  2. I think it matters not only who we are, but who we aspire to be. Often ‘America’ has represented as aspiration of individual freedom and the betterment of mankind, even if in practice America the nation fell short or wandered.

    The tragic heart-rending part of the Bush years has been a palpable rejection of such aspirations, with the casual violations of centuries-old norms of individual freedom, and crass devotion to the betterment of the few. We attacked a nation halfway round the world, for no good reason, not even national interest, and brought ruination to its already long-suffering people, for goodness sake.

    America used to be a country where there were still leaders who were serious about precious ideas like freedom, democracy, and hope for a better future, unlike other places like the Soviet Union, which crassly used the words as window dressing. In the last six years we’ve given power over to men who spit on those ideas, thought they enjoy using the words to dress up their heinous crimes. It’s as if America has turned its back on reaching toward the stars, and decided instead to just be the biggest, nastiest dog in the gutter.

  3. Absolutist thinkers, or dogmatists, begin with the conclusion, and then try to fit the data, or distort it or deny it, to support their conclusion. By contrast, people who are non-absolutist or open-minded, do the reverse: they study the data first, and then form a hypothesis or a conclusion, after this study.

    What impresses me about absolutists is their NEED to be right, their NEED to have their worldview rule, unassailed, absolutely, regardless of any conflicting data. They therefore NEED to make reality, which is more often gray and not black and white, fit their conclusions.

    There is some sort of payoff either physically or emotionally or both, that absolutists don’t want to give up under any circumstance, which causes them to cling to the belief in question. The safety of belonging to a tribe, be it a powerful nation-state or your local revolutionary cell are examples of a payoff. This payoff can take on a cosmological dimension when the absolutist’s beliefs are coupled with a religious system. Those young guys who crashed jetliners into our buildings were expeciting a payoff of a heaven with lots of young virgins.

    The more absolutist a person is, the more the world appears to them as threatening, clearly divided into we vs them. When God is introduced into the picture, the contrast escalates beyond we vs them, to Good vs Evil. As a consequence, absolutists are perpetually on guard against threats to their worldview, and they come up with various ways to deal with them.

    Seeing the world as threatening is why absolutists can justify a amoral, militant actions against those who hold an opposite view. Destroying an opponent, by whatever means necessary is not only OK but is necessary in order to protect the absolutist’s payoff.

    I don’t know enough about child psychology to know how people usually evolve in their thinking. I do know that children think in simple black and white, absolutist terms.

    I can still remember the day in my youth when I was confronted with the shocking realization that the other kids in my circle were not impressed with my statements that “My Father says such and such”. It was a shock and the beginning of my awareness that there are other viewpoints in the world, on the same level as my own, like it or not. Having absolute faith in my father was comforting (the payoff), but there was nothing I could say to the other kids who challenged it. Whether I wanted it or not, this event began changing the way I looked at my father, bringing him down off the pedestal on which most children place their parents initially.

    It just seems that absolutist thinking is a childish stage of thinking that most people grow out of, to varying degrees, depending on the subject. Most of us still cling to an absolutist belief in the law of gravity, or that day will follow night, for example. Growing out of this stage of thinking requires a confrontation with an opposing point of view, in such a way that the other viewpoint cannot be dismissed or explained away. Fear (of losing the payoff) or lack of curiosity can keep a person away from this confrontation, and I suspect this is how conservatives are created. I’m sure there are other mechanisms at work which create absolutist left-wingers as well, but this comment is already long enough 🙂

  4. There is no single reason for our fall in global public opinion. But when I hear and read about the contempt we are held in, I am reminded of the contempt we have for evangelists who are shown to be hypocrites. If someone is gay, he is generally not roasted for it, but if an evangelist preaaches the evil of homosexuality, and then is discovered, we publicly roast him. Evangilists can be rich or poor, but if theycry about ow they ned money to do Gods work and put the arm to the followers, and then are discovered to be living like kings, they get roasted for it. And should. My point – yes I have one, if you set a standard – or claim you have the authority to set a standard, and lecture the world how THEY should livewhether it is the practice of religion, or the practice of government, you better at least TRY live up to the standards you preach.

    We have failed, with warrentless wiretaps, arrests without habeus corpus, the use and defense of torture, secret gulags in Europe.. the list goes on. And the world sees how easily and quickly we threw away basic standards of human rights, and they heap scorn on us for our failure.. not just because of what we did, but because everyone knows – WE KNEW BETTER!

    Kudos to Barb for a nice post, and moonbat – I liked your comment, except the last comment should cricize ‘mechanisms at work which create absolutist left-wingers or absolutist right-wingers’. With that exception, I wish I had said it.

  5. ” We don’t do body counts”. Ha,ha,ha. God bless America!

    I am an American, but what Bush has done in America’s name over the past 6 six years has no part in me,and all I can do is speak out against it. Right now I’m a little bitter, which is understandable when you see something you value— like America’s ideals, integity and honor —get debased by the lowest caliber of morons.
    I can’t convey with words the emotional pain I’ve grappled with in trying to comprehend the assualt on America perpetrated by Bush and his minions, but to illustrate in truth..Over 30 plus years I have displayed the American flag religiously and without fail on the Fourth of July, Flag Day, Veterans Day, Memorial Day. In the past 4 years it’s only been unfurled twice, and that was because of my wife’s insistence. Emotionally, I think my love has grown cold.

    How many of you are proud that America has endorsed and legalized torture?..Just step up… and proclaim your pride!

  6. What I think about the decline of good world opinion of America is this: This means the decline of Christianity in the world, too. Imagine if Jesus himself had handled ‘enemies’ by adopting the methods which George W. Bush has used in America’s name. Any ensuing ‘Christian’ faith would have then believed in the power of worldly might and the devilish reliance on ‘whatever works’ rather than in the principles of Jesus’s parables. Oh, wait a minute…….maybe George W. Bush and Karl Rove and Dick Cheney have indeed redefined, thereby desecrated the Gospels along with desecrating the ideals of freedom and democracy.

  7. Maha,

    I’m sure our declining standing in the world is due to many factors: unfair trade, getting poor nations in dept and then leveraging their natural resources, ignoring genocide (where no oil exists), our unwavering support for Israel, Military spending out-pacing the rest of the world combined, etc. All these things existed before bu$hco. But since 9-11 our government has played the victim/bully card, you know “they hate us for our freedom”, then “fight them over there so we don’t fight then here” and such nonsense. We (through our corporate media) act as if we are the only nation who understands what freedom means. Here’s a good example: Just yesterday I must have felt my blood pressure was too low so I turned on Faux News. Neil Cavuto (god I despise him) was blathering on about the recent “terror” plot in the UK, he made the unbelievable leap that since some of the “suspects” are doctors, and since the UK has socialized medicine, that of course socialized medicine will cause terrorism if we adopt it here? His theory being that Britain is hiring cheap foreign doctors to fill the needs of such a stingy health care system. I was completely outraged by such a theory; I could only imagine what Canadian’s, Brit’s, or German’s would feel. I seem to remember when we had a press that questioned the actions of our government, now we have a press that only makes excuses. Perhaps if you could gauge world opinion 10 or 15 years ago, they may have been not so happy with the actions of our government, but they at least saw a free and vibrant media questioning and investigating official bad behavior. I don’t think they (the rest of the world) see that today.

  8. My take on our history is that around the 1890s it occurred (to Republicans) that we could kick smaller nations around for our own economic benefit. After WWII (probably through the very dark influence of the Dulles brothers), that notion became endemic in our defense and foreign policy circles, affecting even Democrats (particularly if you could call someone Communist).

    A lot of the “America is Evil” crowd were taught about how wonderful and altruistic we were, while we were doing some horrid things for (in the end) less than trivial reasons. Whatever their psychology, feeling betrayed (legitimately) has something to do with it.

    I certainly don’t buy the “better informed” line – people everywhere are both more intelligent and more perceptive about the forces that are shaping their lives than we give them credit for. There may be plenty of things they don’t know, but they usually know far more than we’d like to believe.

    The Vietnamese have been perfectly to forgive us for our leader’s blunders. I suspect most of the world will do the same, as long as they feel sure that there are no further Bushs in our future. It will take longer in the Middle East, because Bush is just the worst in a long series of American and European leaders to eff them over.

  9. Hear! Hear!

    I’ve been annoyed, for quite some time, with those who respond to appeals to what we aspire to be, with; “You’re deluded, you’ve ignored all of the shit we did.”

    I don’t ignore it. I try to prevent its recurrence, but if I cast aside the dream, why bother trying to fix things?

  10. I traveled S. America in 79-80, with occasional visits since then.

    Certainly, the US was roundly criticized, but it was an informed criticism that always made the point “we dislike your government, not your people”. And, in fact, the dislike of the US was conflated with admiration for our ideals…. not to mention for our wealth and opportunities. So, Glenn’s first point is certainly true: Even before the internet, people around the world were well-informed. Frankly, they were much better informed than the average N. American because they actually read newspapers and discussed politics.

    However, despite the frequency that I encountered this “informed” analysis, I have to say that the general impression of Latin American leftists and populists (perhaps 80% of educated young people I met) was that the US (government) was a force for evil, not good.

    In other words, while the analysis hopefully waited for the American people to throw the bums out, it went without question that our elites were bums through and through, and they were actually the ones running the show.

    In that sense, I disagree with Glenn Greenwald’s points that the US was not IN FACT a net force for evil, nor was it not PERCEIVED TO BE a net force for evil.

  11. In that sense, I disagree with Glenn Greenwald’s points that the US was not IN FACT a net force for evil, nor was it not PERCEIVED TO BE a net force for evil.

    It’s all relative, and I’m sure Glenn knows that. Glenn was pointing to data that reveal a huge collapse in the world’s opinion of the U.S.during the past six years. He postulates that this collapse is closely related to the fact that George W. Bush has been president during that time.

    Readers argued that the U.S. has always been a force for evil, Bush is no worse than past presidents, and that the collapse in world opinion was caused by better information technology. Before, people didn’t really know that much about the U.S., and now they do.

    Your comment actually bolsters Glenn’s argument. People in other nations were not wallowing in abject ignorance about U.S. policies toward their countries all these years. Yet public opinion about us has dropped like a rock during the Bush Administration.

    So it’s relative. Although Latinos were not inclined to think well of us, they think even less well of us now than they did before Bush became President.

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