In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Americans began questioning their place in the world and the effects that their nation’s policies have on others. Although zealous patriots have decried that sort of thing as weak-minded navel gazing, questioning widely held assumptions can be a useful exercise. It gave Americans a chance to consider what it means to be an American, a question that many people gave little time to ruminate on.
Mark Hertsgaard’s The Eagle’s Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 246 pages, $23) purports to investigate what others think of America and Americans, insights that relatively few Americans possess. Traveling to countries that included South Africa, Egypt and China in the months before and after September 11, Hertsgaard asked people a simple question: What do they think of when they hear the word “America”?
As Hertsgaard relates, most people — even those who live in the most brutally war-torn and poverty stricken countries — actually like America. In the United States they see a better life filled with material prosperity, peace and freedom. Even while they hate America’s government for a foreign policy they see as heavy-handed and often only designed to further empower the United States, Americans themselves they have a generally high regard for. They don’t want to kill Americans — at least for the most part — they want to be like Americans.
That presents a problem for Hertsgaard, whose book is less an exercise in investigation than it is for proselytizing his own beliefs. The Eagle’s Shadow, it turns out, is an excuse for Hertsgaard to tell Americans how awful they are for being prosperous, and worse, for daring to be proud of it. Little about America, it seems, doesn’t earn his ire. Although most Americans would consider their nation to be a positive example to the rest of the world, Hertsgaard believes America to be a small-minded, provincial, greedy and overly self-satisfied nation of compulsive shoppers who don’t watch enough publicly funded television.
Each chapter of The Eagle’s Shadow, whether covering culture, politics or foreign policy, simply serves as pretense for Hertsgaard’s own agenda. Is America the land of plenty? Hertsgaard is bothered by the fact that you can order many different types of coffee in your local Starbucks. The land of the free? Only if you ignore the fact that George W. Bush and the Republicans, in Hertsgaard’s own words, “hijacked the White House” in Election 2000. A positive example to the world? Not if you believe America callously exploits the rest of the world to feed its hunger for the latest and best while crushing local cultures under the weight of low-grade cultural exports. Even-handed in its foreign policy? America’s support of Israel proves otherwise.
Although he believes that his book will be difficult reading for Americans, presumably for the uncomfortable truths it contains, it’s not for the reasons he thinks. Most readers won’t agree with his implication that the bombing of Baghdad during the 1991 Gulf War was an act of terrorism by the United States; nor will many appreciate his subtle disappointment that Americans have rallied behind the flag after September 11. Unlike Hertsgaard, Americans will probably figure out that the reason why much of the world hasn’t been able to replicate their success is a lack of American-style liberty, the very force Hertsgaard excoriates repeatedly.
The Eagle’s Shadow represents the basest form of intellectual flimflammery. While it purports to investigate the world’s attitudes toward America, the book actually exists to advertise those things — which seem run the gamut — that Hertsgaard despises about his own nation, influenced by his political prejudices. Hertsgaard is right in that there are plenty of people who intensely dislike the United States. Unfortunately, many of them would appear to be like Hertsgaard himself. They are Americans.
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