Monday, December 7, 2009
In James Atlas's anthology How They See Us: Meditations on America, foreign observers register their charm, alarm, and disappointment with the United States
As more than one writer in this anthology of essays notes, there's something ethnocentric, if not clinically narcissistic, about asking a group of distinguished writers to be a "they" with their gaze on "America," itself an egocentric term when applied solely to the United States. James Atlas, the distinguished writer who both edited this volume and published it for his imprint Atlas & Co., acknowledges as much in his introduction to the collection. What he doesn't say, but surely believes, is that while such a title might be geopolitically incorrect, it's surely a good marketing strategy for domestic consumption. A little hucksterism is nothing if not the -- no, make that an -- American Way.
Not surprisingly, the twenty-one pieces that comprise this compact book defy generalization. Written in what is now the decade-long shadow of 9/11, they express admiration, affection, bemusement, disappointment, exasperation, and fury at the United States, sometimes within the same essay. At one end of the spectrum, Chinese immigrant Da Chen conveys the considered gratitude of the immigrant that one rarely hears anymore; at the other, Canadian Leila Nadir, whose family emigrated from Iraq, excoriates the United States for wreaking far more havoc on the world than Saddam Hussein ever did (or could). Many of the pieces express sorrow for the tragic loss of American life in the terror attacks of September 11. But those that do also lament what they consider the misguided U.S. response to those attacks, and incredulity, if not contempt, for an unstated, but nevertheless unmistakable, assumption on the part of a great many Americans that the approximately 3,000 lives lost justify the killings of some huge multiple of that number of Iraqis, Afghans, or anyone else who gets in the way. In the crude calculus of the Yanqui, American lives are evidently worth more than others.
Others voices project in more unexpected directions. Pakistani writer Uzma Aslam Khan complains that Americans are so quick in their multiculturalism to identify themselves as victims that they crudely conflate their own historical experience with those they oppress. Nigerian writer Chris Abani makes an Tocquevillian observation that while Nigerians and Americans share a heritage as British colonial subjects, the former tend to reject their Western heritage while Americans pine for Oedipal approval from a European parent who withholds approval from the self-indulgent child (in no small measure because it is comprised of heirs who left an old world for a new one). British writer Terry Eagleton illustrates the difference between Irish and American mythology with a hilarious anecdote about a fiddling contest. Most of the writers in the book have studied or worked in the United States, and are able to comment on it with a sense of intimacy and authority.
To some degree, it's what isn't in the book that's as revealing as what is. Relatively few of these writers have much to say about U.S. politics and governance -- there are no paeans here to the Declaration of Independence, no analyses of the Constitution, no assessments of the strengths, weaknesses, or differences (or lack thereof) between the major political parties. Nor is much said about the American economy. That its productive prowess is no longer a subject of awe is perhaps to be expected, but its voracious appetite for credit elicits little expression of alarm or distaste, either. To a great extent, this is surely because the contributors to the book are mostly writers, many of them creative writers, and their primary interest in the United States is cultural. But even this obvious intellectual orientation has a surprising dimension in that the conversation is typically more about pop culture than literary or other artistic currents. (Though when Russian writer Victor Erofeyev is asked what he likes most about America, his answer, grounded in the nation's vast resources, is "Vermeer.") Moreover, while one might expect that figures like Marilyn Monroe would loom large as emblems of the American Century at its zenith, as she does for Mexican poet and novelist Carmen Boullosa, names like Michael Jordan or Bruce Springsteen -- who are more "Edwardian" symbols than the "Victorian" Monroe -- pop up frequently.
This, in an important sense, is the message of the book: Empires come, and empires go, but culture is forever. The American Dream is not a home in suburbs that will vanish no less surely than an Algonquin longhouse in the Eastern woodlands. It's Rock & Roll that's here to stay. It will be in a foreign museum someday.
A museum of what is the question. In the end -- an end that may come sooner rather than later -- is not one that "we" in the United States who will say."They," or their heirs, anyway, will decide. Given the ill will that the United States has engendered for some time now, combined with the reality that no human beings anywhere are angels, we can only hope that God will have have mercy on us. We can't really expect it from anyone else.
On a related note: Following my recent essay on "The Cosmpolitan Dilemma" for the History News Network, I received a copy of the Fall, 2009 issue of The Hedgehog Review, published by the Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, on "The Cosmpolitan Predicament." There are fine essays in the journal by figures ranging from Seyla Benhabib to William McNeill, as well as a revealing interview with Kwame Anthony Appiah and a very useful omnibus review of recent books in the field by Johann Neem. Definitely worth a look.