"I know all about America, I saw it on TV!"
I've lived in this country now--on and off--for twenty-seven months. I live in Germany, a wondeful country with a troubling history and a fascinating culture. Over time, I've thrown myself feet first into the society--learning the language, studying the history and politics, engaging the culture.
It was really a happy accident, I suppose. If you had told me at the age of fifteen, that I would be a German major at the age of twenty-five, I would have thought you were daft. Uncle Sam sent me here as a young soldier, and I decided that I liked it enough to take up German as my major after I left the service. Now I'm back in Deutschland.
Unfortunately, most Americans' only knowledge of this country comes from old World War II movies which aren't particularly accurate. Not surprisingly, the American image of the average German shares a heck of a lot in common with the archetypal nazi. Germans are, according to my countrymen: cold, calclutaing, meticulously organized, stern, punctual, and efficent. They have difficulty relaxing, never smile, and their langauge is harsh and ugly, usually pronounced with a barking cadence. Oh yeah, and they make great beer too.
It's easy to see how World War II might influence our views of German society. If the only time you ever heard the German language was coming from the mouth of Adolf Hitler, you might think that German is always harsh and ugly, and always barked. After all, Hitler was a harsh and ugly man, with a fondness for giving orders.
But if we learned everything we ever needed to know about Germans by watching Hogan's Heroes, the Germans aren't much better. Their view of our country is colored by the dubious sources from which they attain it--MTV, Hollywood, a shamelessly biased German media establishment, and the deity of pop anti-Americanism, Michael Moore.
The major difference between Americans and Germans, or between Americans and non-Americans, is that they think they know all about us, where as we're a lot more comfortable with our ignorance of foreign cultures. As a South African restaurant owner once remarked, non-Americans “have an advantage over [Americans], because we know everything about you and you know nothing about us.”
Plenty of Americans feed the flames of this arrogant attitude. On a tour of Europe, Michael Moore was speaking to a packed house in London, when he used a cheap parlor trick to convince the public that Americans are morons. He challenged a non-American and an American in the audience to stand up. Then he asked the non-American to name the president of the United States, and our capital. He bet that an American wouldn't be able to name the capital and head of state of the other person's country. "The dumbest Brit in this room is smarter than than the smartest American," he quipped. Did it ever occur to Michael Moore that comparing the United States to Bengladesh is like comparing apples and oranges? George W. Bush is the most famous man in the world, and our capital is well-known because we are a superpower (although, come to think of it, my Langenscheidt's German dictionary mistakenly names New York as the capital of the United States. Wonder how those smart Germans screwed that up?).
But if it will make Michael Moore happy, I will gladly name the capital and head-of-state of Great Britain without the aid any reference: London and Tony Blair. Come to think of it, I could do the same for Canada, Mexico, China, Australia, Germany, Sweden, France, Italy, Spain, North Korea, Jamaica, Liberia, Cuba, Venezuela, Libya, Russia, and Israel. But no, the head-of-state of Bangladesh isn't on the tip of my tongue. Silly me, I'm such a stupid American.
Do they really know everything about us? Well, they think they do. And that's something that I've never liked about Europe, and something I may never grow used to. Their attitude seems to be--"I know all about America, I saw it on TV!"
Of course, it isn't just Germans I'm talking about. Maybe it's Europeans as a whole, or even most people in the world outside the United States.
Like small children, foreigners says the darndest things. A Spanish friend of mine recently remarked to me, "Before the Iraq War, many of our Spanish celebreties spoke out against it. I can't even imagine that happening in America." Can't imagine that happeing?! So I named off a few "anti-war" celebreties for my poor, misinformed, Spanish friend: Sean Penn, Madonna, Janeane Garofolo, Tim Robbins, Fred Durst, Danny Glover, George Lucas, Susan Surandon, Barbara Streisand, Al Franken , Eminem, Cameron Diaz, Martin Sheen, and the list goes on.
Where the heck did he get an idea like that? Well, it's common "knowledge" among Europeans, that dissent in America is not tolerated, and that young Americans are raised to be blindly patriotic. The problem with this idea, of course, is that there is plenty of dissent on this issue of Iraq in the United States. In Europe, however, there is virtually no disagreement, and woe to he who speaks out in favor of the Iraq War. Be prepared for harsh verbal attacks, to be called a stool pigeon of Big Oil, a baby killer, a Muslim hater, and just about every other name in the book.
My Spanish friend continued, saying "And your universities are very conservative as well." Yes, when I think of bastions of conservatism, Amherst, Berkley, and Boulder all leap to mind. No, my friend, most American college towns are stocked with fruits and nuts from across the left side of the spectrum.
Another friend of mine, a Turk, has told me on numerous occasions, that I'm not very American. I've never known whether to take that as an insult or a compliment. I know that his image of Americans is not positive. So should I be flattered that I don't fit that image, or insulted that he thinks so poorly of my country? I asked him what it was about me, that he found to be atypical of Americans.
"Oh, you know, I never see you eating hamburgers and drinking Coca-Cola," he said. Then he broke into his American impression--leaning way back as he walked, swinging his arms, and shouting out his favorite Americanism--"Hey, what's up motherfuckers?"
What he leaves unsaid, but I suspect that he believes, is that I'm not as dumb as he origanally expected me to be. I speak German fairly well (better than he does), have a handle on French, and could probably get by in a Spanish-speaking country if I had to. I read ravinously, and I enjoy history and politics. In his mind, these are not American traits. We're just dumb.
Wherever you go in Europe, there seems to be a concensus that American stupidity and distasteful national attitudes can be traced back to "the corporate media", i.e., "the right-wing" media.
What they don't know, is that our "right-wing" media is anything but. Some polls show as many as 90% of American reporters voting for the Democrats. American media kingpins--with the possible exception of Rupert Murdoch--are invaribaly liberal.
Pinch Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times and chairman of the the New York Times Company (which owns twenty-five American newspapers including The Boston Globe, eight local television stations, and two New York radio stations) was a 1960's radical.
After a young Pinch was arrested (twice) protesting the Vietnam War, his father asked him an honest question. If an American soldier and a Vietnamese soldier come across each other in the jungle, who would you like to be shot?
"I would want to see the American get shot," said the young man who today controls The New York Times
. "It's the other guy's country." I guess it didn't occur to him that the Vietnamese soldier would likely be an invader from neighboring North Vietnam, not a native of South Vietnam. And I'm sure that his attitudes in no way effect the reporting his twetny-five newspapers do about the Iraq War. Well, in any case, this guy is apparently part of the vast right-wing conspiracy that is brainwashing us all because it really loves war, oil, and George W. Bush.
In my entire life, I haven't seen a media assualt quite like the one I've seen since George W. Bush took office. And it doesn't matter what it's about either, it always comes back to Bush. Frequently, the accusations are unfounded, usually distorted, and always repeated like a bad Britney Spears song on the local top 40 radio station. Whether it's missing weapons caches in Iraq (2004's October Surprise), Abu Ghraib, "torture" in Guantanamo, the Downing Street Memo, body armor, humvee armor, or "secret spying", they never fail to portray the man as the worst president ever. They aren't even above using obviously forged documents (Bush National Guard memos) or causing riots half a world away with phony stories of Koran abuse (thank you, Michael Isikoff).
So if Bush really is their golden boy, they have a strange way of showing it.
Not to sound like a broken record, but the United States is the nation where disagreement is fierce. In Europe, it is non-existent, or at least when it comes to the Bush foreign policy. Who's brainwashed here--them or us? If our media is secretly trying to make us all fall in line behind President Bush's foreign policy, they aren't doing a very good job of it. Half the country hates the man.
An interesting comment on European media came from my sister, who recently studied in Ireland. "They think that we're all controlled by our media," she said. "But the reason they know this, is because their media tells them so." Truer words have never been said.
I like this country, and I like this continent. But nothing makes me angrier than a European who thinks he knows who I am, and where I come from without first getting to know me. A few have a clue, but most have never even set foot in the United States. Others think that they've experienced America because they visited popular tourist destinations like Manhattan, Las Vegas, and Disney World. And most of them never spend a second of their busy lives trying to find out what people think on the other side of the water. We're just inbred, brainwashed, Bible-thumping, gun-owning hicks, and that's all they care to know.