Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Anti-American Issue: Or "Let the Flaming begin"

I think it's time to discuss the hardest question in American-French relations (aside from the famous "body odor question", which I promise to address soon), which is the question of French "anti-Americanism". Of course, the term "anti-Americanism" has been warped beyond all recognition, to the point that disagreeing with the US position on the Coke or Pepsi question gets you tarred with the anti-American brush. It's certainly not a sign of confidence.

And yet, there are indeed some French people for whom my nationality is clearly a negative; I start speaking French with my accent and a chill descends. They're not rude, but it's clear that they're not happy. Or, maybe, that they're wary. Again, it's a negative with, maybe ten percent of them.

Even more troubling is that it's a positive with none of them. I'm sort of used to that. Canadians are almost supernaturally polite, and when they learn that you're from the states they will automatically tell you about their American cousin. But, I can "pass" for Canadian, and when there are supposedly no Americans around, well, let's just say that being American is not a positive with them either.

I know that Americans hate hearing the lecture about "our image in the eyes of the world". It sounds like you're telling them that they can't just live their own lives without worrying about Germany finding out they have spinach in their teeth. And yet, I am a history geek, and I think I can say with some assurance that something has happened. America is one of the great nations in world history, along with say France in the 1700s, Germany or Great Britain in the 1800s, classical Greece, Rome, etc. And now, I think it has lost its status, I'd say completely. Of course, it still has the strongest economy in the world, in spite of the current recession. And it has the strongest military in the world, in spite of the problems in Iraq. And yet, I meet no one from any other country that wishes their country was more like the US, and I know people from everywhere. Thy name is mud.

It's a historic shift and I'm wondering if it's total. Of course, if you live in the states and never go elsewhere, it's probably no big deal. But, it is for me. And if the rest of the world decides to stop bitching about the US and start competing seriously with the US, it will become an issue for others in America.

I think that this is what's so gut-wrenching for me about this Obama campaign. (Okay, hear me out here!) We haven't heard anything over here about this "issue" with his preacher, which is, in my opinion, stupid manufactured shit. The French press has a strict rule: they will only cover stupid shit if it has to do with Carla Bruni. So, it hasn't even been mentioned. I only know that there even was a controversy through the Internet, where stupid shit is King.

For me, his speech was particularly gut-wrenching. Strong, moving, and extremely intelligent, yes. But also gut-wrenching because Obama confronted the biggest taboo about Americans for me. And I don't mean race. In the speech, he refused to pander or talk down to Americans. He talked to them as if they are adults who can think seriously about race. And that's terrifying to watch. It's a gamble. Because (and this is seriously the hardest sentence I've ever written here), Americans often seem to be unwilling or unable to think seriously at an adult level about anything.

I know that's harsh, but I fear that the fustercluck in Iraq can be explained as "they never thought seriously about it". And the literacy issue, and the massive debt issue, and the environmental issue, etc. etc. etc. Over and over, there's an unwillingness to behave as if these things matter. Someone else can deal with them. Maybe Daddy.

Obama's speeches are terrifying because he's betting that Americans can think at an adult level even though they haven't been asked to in decades. And it's gut-wrenching for me because I hope that he's right, but I fear that he's wrong.

(Okay, let the flaming begin)


Holly said...

I always feel a little wave of relief when someone guesses my country of origin incorrectly. It's depressing, to feel embarrassed for a whole country. *My* country. As hard as that is to admit.

Definitely, the era of "anything American is good" is over. There is some serious cherry picking now, although it's a mystery that much of it seems to revolve around TV shows. Shows like Stargate. Jeans are still good. Much of the popular stuff seems to be consumer in nature, now that I think about it. And yet, American values are apparently dubious. I'll be interested to see how that little bit of cognitive dissonance gets ironed out over time.

It's interesting to me that you think this is inflammatory commentary. Although maybe I'm 90° off in my views on all of it. I guess we'll see what other people have to say.

clairev said...

Well i have to say I felt a little gushy after reading this. Rufus, you said something really profound, but really difficult (not that I'm surprised, but I'm also proud cause you're my hubby--I'm Basking in Reflected Glory [BIRGING})

I was telling Rufus the other day that the thought of moving to the States terrifies me. Pit of my stomach, can feel the depression creeping in, wanting to die sort of feeling. And then I felt guilty cause of all he's done to fit in up here. I'd make the best of it, but I think I'd probably get my passport plastered to my chest.

I can remember when going to visit the states was kind of cool, showed some sort of status e.g.:

"Vermont for March break! Wow!"

But now it would be something along the lines of:

"...Vermont? Why not stay in Canada?"

See what I'm saying? Holly's right when she says your TV and celebs are a great export, but we outsiders don't just get a bad taste in our mouths at your politicians, it's now the people, the central culture. What's worse is that it's only a percentage of people that represent that, and I know more people like Rufus and Holly than I do, say, some evangelical right-winger. I can't imagine what it's like, it must suck to an unbelievable degree. Canada may not ever have been a golden child country, but people generally don't make a face when they hear where we're from. At worst, we have to prove our country of origin with documentation before getting acceptance (to prove we aren't american...)

good post honey. wrestling with this must be hard. and i think you're dead on with obama, terrifying is absolutely the word. i wonder though, if he were a politician up here, would that cease to be a concern? really, would it?


gregvw said...

I think I have already said everything I can on this subject via the act of expatriation. My relationship with America is that, as Bill Hicks said, "my parents fucked there."

Rufus said...

Holly: an interesting note- I've seen the French version of American Idol, which is actually the American version of a British show, and nearly all of the French contestants come on and sing American pop songs in English!

Rufus said...

Claire/Darling: I was reading about Obama's speech on the Globe and Mail's site, and all of the Canadians who had all read the speech were saying that they wished they had someone like that to vote for in Canada, and that they hope Americans aren't too racist to realize what a good candidate he is. There were two great responses that you would have loved:
1. Someone said that they should ask the native population about racism,
2. Another person said, basically, "Stop with the Canadian inferiority complex already! We have plenty of great politicians here now."

Anyway, I thought you would appreciate that.

Rufus said...

Greg: You'd be surprised how many people I know who have expatriated in the last decade. Well, maybe you wouldn't.

Rufus said...

Holly: I guess I should say that the French opinion of America is remarkably complex. They really do keep up with the news, so I'll have French people complain about Karl Rove or Fox News to me, or bemoan the state of American education! They definitely love the music and a few of the movies, but I suppose I love Chinese painters although I'd never want to live there.

I think what really provoked this post was watching an American politician telling his audience that the "world follows the lead of America", which is just such complete bullshit right now. Again, I'd say that people still like some things, but none of them tell me they'd rather their country was more like America. Very much the opposite.

As for my nervousness about discussing this... well, I guess it's sort of the "dirty laundry" issue. I actually tend to defend the US to French people I meet because it seems wrong to bitch about "family problems" with outsiders. Alas, the Internet is worldwide, so I'm a bit timid about discussing these issues here.

But, alas, I also increasingly feel like the US is someone else's country. (I'm a Canadian after all!)

Hiromi said...

Re: Anti-Americanism -- When I was in Japan, whenever I ran into bigotry, it was based on a more general xenophobia. But even given that, as an Asian-American I was ranked above immigrant Asians from Asia, since I came from a wealthy country.

I actually tend to defend the US to French people I meet because it seems wrong to bitch about "family problems" with outsiders.

This happened to me in Japan, too. I'd bitch about the U.S. at home, and then defend the place when I was abroad.

Finally, I have similar fears with you re: Obama's speech. You have to listen to the entire thing to grasp all its subtleties, and I'm not certain everyone has the patience for that.

Holly said...

Hiromi - do you know if Japanese/Americans rank above Japanese/Brazilians? I saw a thing about how there's an influx to Japane of working-class young folks of Japanese descent who were born & raised in Brazil, and having a hell of a time fitting in... and I wondered how the social hierarchy goes on that. But, it was reported by the BBC, which makes it all the more confusing.

Rufus - Embrace your Canadianness. Hell, go all the way, and become French Canadian.

Hiromi said...

Holly -- Absolutely. Japanese-Brazilians carry the stigma of coming from a "Third World" country. People think "Brazil" and think "poverty, drugs, samba, Carnival." It doesn't help that out-migration from Japan is frequently considered a failure; i.e., they couldn't make it in Japan and therefore had to leave, and even worse, couldn't make it in their own country and had to come back! Also, most of the Jpn-Brazilians work in unskilled jobs in factories despite their middle class status in Brazil, which also creates some class prejudice. But the Jpn-Brazilians tend to rank above Asians from Asia given the notion of shared blood.

Rufus said...

I've actually told Claire that I'm going to be a gung-ho, flag-waving Canadian and embarrass her.