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Americans are people too

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Friday, 9 September 2011

On my virgin visit to America in the mid-1990s my first stop was Time Square. I had a strong sensation – like many tourists before me – that I had already been to New York City. In a certain sense I had, courtesy of the films of Woody Allen and numerous other directors. I came to know New York better a few years later when I worked briefly in the World Trade Center for an organisation that researched drug abuse and HIV/AIDS. This gave me a particular familiarity with the Twin Towers, a familiarity I would soon share with millions of television viewers around the world as we all watched, over and over again, the towers being hit and then collapsing. Even today watching on YouTube, footage of the planes smashing into the towers is both spectacular and appalling. The attacks grabbed global attention in a manner unrivalled by any other event this century and, along with the assassination of JFK and the landing of the first man on the moon, have become one of the most dramatic televised moments in human history. These iconic events demanded attention because of their uniqueness, significance and possible consequences. Undoubtedly these events also received so much attention because they either occurred in America or, in the case of the moon landing, were carried out by Americans.

The familiarity of outsiders with the US can lead to both insightful criticism and contempt. However, it is frequently a false familiarity as the America we see most regularly in the media is sensationalised whereas the ordinary, or even a representative picture, is not that well portrayed.

The Twin Towers were one of the most recognisable monuments to American wealth and power. In the days following their destruction, much was written about the symbolism of targeting these particular buildings. French provocateur Jean Baudrillard wrote that the attacks on the Twin Towers joined "the white magic of movies and the black magic of terrorism." Although Baudrillard was criticised for trivialising the attacks and there is more than a hint of racism in his statement, his words very effectively hit on how both Americans and non-Americans have fantasised about the destruction of America's might. In countless dramas millions have rooted for Americans to triumph against adversity, and, more than occasionally, get their comeuppance. Sensational attacks on the World Trade Center existed in the celluloid world long before 2001: the Twin Towers were the target of Islamic terrorist attacks in the 1982 film Right is Wrong, they were partly destroyed by aliens in the 1996 movie Independence Day, and damaged by meteor hits in the 1998 film Armageddon (footage that was removed when the movie appeared on American network television in 2002).


While not literally the centre of world trade, the Twin Towers were important sites for the exchange of global finances and ideas. They were largely targeted for their metaphorical symbolism in America's most famous city. The reality was that, along with symbolising the power of American capitalism, they were a tourist attraction and a shopping mall. The sheer variety of the workers and visitors in these buildings reminds us of just how indiscriminate both the 9/11 terrorist attacks and some people's reactions to them were. Many will remember the Le Monde editorial "We are all Americans now", but I also recall the Guardian headline that bespoke an entirely different reaction: "A bully with a bloody nose is still a bully." What disturbed me about this second response is that the strikes on the Pentagon and Twin Towers largely killed airline passengers and office workers, not the military or business leaders of the US. Individuals were killed; the US government was certainly not cut down by these attacks. If anything it was emboldened.

This duality of admiration and antagonism has been a long held aspect of the world's fascination and familiarity with the US. Thomas Jefferson wrote in the 18th century that "every man has two countries, his own and France." His words were written at a time when France was at the forefront of struggles for human rights and the quest for greater knowledge. By the mid-20th century it was America, not France, that was likely to be people's second country. A fascination with America existed well before it became a great power, a fascination that was often tinged with hope or fear. America has long been seen as humanity's "last best, hope" and, conversely, as a nation whose garrulous and uncouth culture was assiduously inserting itself across the world. Thus America is perceived as the land of inspiring politicians and innovators like Washington, Franklin, Gates and Obama but also as the home of dumb and her cousin dumber (cue: Reagan, Bush Jr, Sarah Palin and Miss Teen South Carolina). Of course we should not forget the supply side of this equation. America receives a disproportionate level of attention because of the reach and muscle of American media and American corporations, and because of the power and influence of its government.

Given the ubiquity, power, and influence of the US it is hardly surprising that it is the subject of significant hatred and even the target of violence. What was surprising was the reaction of many Americans. From the president down, they seemed unaware of just how much anger and resentment their country inspired around the world. No better example of the level of American insularity and naivety exists than President Bush's statement soon after the attacks, "Why do they hate us when we're so good?"

There is any number of answers to this much asked question of why people hate America. American meddling in the foreign affairs of other nations has caused many unfortunate outcomes. Fault can easily be found with US government policy since WWII in East Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. The tragedy in Afghanistan today is partly the result of America's support and then neglect of the destructive forces that it helped unleash, as vividly outlined by Steve Coll in his excellent book on Afghanistan Ghost Wars. Many experts argue that America's great enemy since 2001 – al Qaeda – was assisted by the US in the 1980s in the struggle against their mutual enemy of "godless communism". Those looking to fault the American government can also find much to dislike about American domestic politics from the behaviour of the Tea-Party inspired Republicans who argued the US should not raise its debt ceiling (and thus dangerously politicised the payment of the government's foreign debts) to lax environmental policies at the federal, state and local level.

Given such behaviour, when four planes were hijacked and thousands of people, largely Americans, were killed, many people's feelings of sympathy were mixed with thoughts that America was getting what it deserved, that Goliath had finally been paid back by David. The word "blowback" quickly entered the popular media, a term first used by the CIA to describe the unintended negative consequences of covert actions, in a report on the agency's involvement in the overthrow of the Mosaddegh government in Iran in 1953. These mixed emotions about 9/11 were at times crassly expressed as people began to tire of the American media's coverage of the tragedy. At other times they were laid out in more complex terms as the details of America's relationship with bin Laden was probed. The editor of Le Monde summarized his view of the world's reaction: "'What's happening to [Americans] is too bad, but they had it coming.'" I remember finding such sentiments objectionable at the time as they conflated people with governments.

The Bush administration's ill-conceived decision to invade Iraq undoubtedly boosted latent antipathy towards America. This action also poisoned much of the good will that existed towards America after 9/11. Global opinion surveys clearly show this rising negativity: in 2003 99% of Jordanians surveyed by Pew had an "unfavourable" attitude to the US, as did 71% of Germans. One of the tragedies of the Bush era was how the administration managed to turn legitimate concerns into mockery so soon after the events of September 11. Bill Leak's clever cartoon satirising the "Axis of Naughtiness" is one of many reminders of how badly the Bush administration botched the arguments against bin Laden, terrorism and nuclear proliferation. Instead of maintaining a broad opposition to these threats, Bush's cowboy talk and exaggerated claims about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein deflated public support for the fight against terrorism.


Much of the negative opinion was not only directed at George W. Bush and his administration's policies but also towards the American people themselves. Responding to various waves of criticism, the Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson penned a piece which opened with the line "We Americans are people too." The article adopted a rather lecturing tone about the need for Europeans to be more thankful for America's global leadership. Nonetheless Samuelson does make the very valid point that you can criticise the policies of a foreign government without hating its people.

The inability to separate the American government from its people seems one of the more obvious flaws in much commentary about the US in the Bush era. In conflating the American people with their politicians, and likewise with their government's actions abroad, ironically foreigners are taking American exceptionalist thinking on board. In other words, many non-Americans buy into the mythology that the American government is, more so than other democracies, a "government of the people, by the people, for the people". It is common for peoples around the world to see their own leaders as unrepresentative chameleons while being drawn to talk about American presidents as symbolising their people. A president Bush apparently symbolises an ignorant nation; a president Obama means Americans now care about the world's opinion. The situation can be partly explained by the heavy emphasis on personal biography in American politics and the tendency of presidential candidates to link their personal narrative with national mythology. It is also perpetuated by an electoral system that offers a direct vote for the political leader as opposed to the Westminster system where members of parliament, not voters, choose the leader.

The questionable idea that the American political elite exemplify their entire country extends to the realm of foreign affairs. In most countries, foreign policy making is considered an elite pursuit executed by highly educated experts. In the case of America, foreign policy is often criticised for being too reflective of the ignorance of the people while at the same time being hatched and directed by a cabal of elites. This seemingly contradictory critique sees America as having an approach to foreign policy that might be dubbed "populist imperialism". Not surprisingly, the presidencies of George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan have done much to fuel such opinions. My point here is not to defend the foreign policies of such presidents, far from it, but to point out that for criticism of politicians like Reagan or the policies of the recent Bush administration to be effective, it must move beyond caricature. It must be able to provide strong evidence either revealing the special influence the American people have on their politicians or the same peoples' unique ignorance. Such evidence may exist, but little effort is made to find it. Instead such debates proceed on the basis of assertion and stereotyping.

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This article was first published in The Australian on September 7, 2011.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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