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).
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.