Lost innocence abroad

The world's love-hate relationship with America

Yank is a four-letter word. Since the collapse of communism and the accession of the United States to the status of singular superpower, resentment and grudging admiration for all things American have grown simultaneously stronger.

Because of extraordinary successes at home and abroad - militarily, economically, and in MacDonaldizing the world - it is not surprising that, more than any other people, Americans have become the folks others love to hate. And yet they are also the people others hate to love.

There is ample evidence that, despite the cries of "cultural imperialism!" and diatribes against pervasive globalization (read: American hegemony), many government leaders and industrial moguls, members of the bourgeoisie, mechanics and middlemen, workers and peasants in even the remotest parts of the globe are taken with all manifestations of American spirit and enterprise, popular culture, and techno-wizardry. They may decry the aggressive openness and rough-rider manners of the "Yanks," but they are intrigued by them. They may denounce Americans' loose morality but are titillated by it. This love-hate relationship, call it "genus envy," is the subject of journalist Mark Hertsgaard's engaging and informative disquisition on America's image abroad.

A writer of books on the men and money behind nuclear energy, the press and the Reagan administration, the music and artistry of the Beatles, and America's environmental future, Hertsgaard grounds his new book, "The Eagle's Shadow," in two decades of encounters and reflections while living overseas, and a recent six-month excursion that straddled Sept. 11, 2001.

While en route, the author spoke to poobahs and ordinary people in every part of the globe. His book is a revealing report on others' current views of the "Parochial Superpower" and everything associated with it. It is also something more.

The critique of American society by those outside it is complemented by Hertsgaard's running commentary on how he sees the US. Using the advantage of having been away for so many years, he scrutinizes the scene with the eyes of an outsider as well as that of an insider. And he is often displeased by what he observes: an America whose Weltanschauung is smug and insular. People "not only don't know about the rest of the world," he says, "[they] don't care." While most of his book is about others' beliefs, Hertsgaard's observations underscore the veracity of the expression, "In every stereotype there is a kernel of truth."

In a series of commentaries sometimes presented as small vignettes, Hertsgaard captures the mixed and often confusing presumptions of those who see America from afar and often through Hollywood-tinted glasses, and he offers a variety of explanations why, as his subtitle states, America fascinates and infuriates the world. Early in his assessment, Hertsgaard reminds his readers that Thomas Jefferson once said that "every man has two nations, his own and France." The US is today's France; for good or bad reasons it is everybody's primary reference group.

His book is organized around 10 dialogues relating to sets of generalized images, all starting with the words "America is....": "America is parochial and self-centered," "rich and exciting," "the land of freedom," "an empire, hypocritical and domineering," "[a land of] philistines," "the land of opportunity," "self-righteous about its democracy," "the future," "out for itself." While emphasized in separate chapters, these assumptions and beliefs are interwoven throughout the text.

On his most recent trip, Hertsgaard visited many places on both sides of what he calls the "rich/poor divide." It started in South Africa, where his 32-year-old driver, Malcolm, told him that every black township in South Africa has "two street gangs named for your country: the Young Americans and the Ugly Americans." The former "dress like Americans"; the latter "shoot like Americans."

Wealthy and dangerous, stylish bullies: that is how many there see Americans. Others describe how ignorant Americans are, how wasteful, how corrupt and corrupting. And yet even they tend to echo the words of the former environmental minister of the Czech Republic, Beldrich Moldan, whom Hertsgaard quotes: "You may like the United States or dislike the United States but you know it is the future."

Peter I. Rose, editor of 'Views from Abroad,' is author of the forthcoming book, 'Guest Appearances and Other Travels in Time and Space.'

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.