Friday, March 13, 2015

The Image America Creates

I frequently check the news on the Francinfo website, partly to practice French, but partly to hear about European and world news that frequently gets overlooked by American news outlets, even by NPR. Recently, I have begun to realize that it is a good place to discover what Europeans think about America.

And the French news about America is nearly all bad. One day recently, the top headline was about the racist videoposted by frat boys at the University of Oklahoma. American news outlets that I saw did not indicate what the offensive lyrics of the chant were; the French news did. This event was so spectacularly offensive that the response that the University of Oklahoma made to the problem—essentially terminating the fraternity—kind of got lost. The image that is left is of a stupidly racist Oklahoma. (I say stupidly because the offensive lyrics were not exactly Shakespearean in their quality.)

And then there is Missouri. The French news has carried numerous items about Ferguson, and how the American federal government has identified pervasive elements of racism in the operation of that municipality. Here is one example.

All of this came within a few days of the historic commemoration of the Selma March. Franceinfo ran an article in their Expliquez-nous (explain to us) series about these historic events. Anyone reading the French news, and seeing these items in close proximity, can be excused for thinking that America was and remains a hotbed of racism.

Even if it is not true. In my experience, the vast majority of Americans are not racist. The college students I see every day—in rural Oklahoma—have interracial friendships, and it comes naturally: they are not making a point by it. But the slow work of building up goodwill is easily overpowered by the highly visible evil of a few people. In my own field—teaching biology, especially ecology and evolution—I find that the vast majority of students either accept some form of evolution and global warming, or else do not get vocal in their opposition. But a few vocal evolution and climate denialists create the impression that the whole country has of Oklahoma and the whole world has of the USA. You can say all you want to that this image is unfair, but there it is. I almost feel that I have to apologize to the people of the world for things that I do not do and which, in some cases, are done to me (e.g. the occasional creationist attacks). A Facebook friend posted that a friend of his who frequently visits Europe has repeatedly encountered the European view that Americans “are a bunch of gun toting, ultra-conservative, and self-centered bigots. Not to mention just plain nasty people.” This image, too, is created by a relatively small number of loud tourists who think that everybody should accommodate their every whim and for God’s sake speak English. I fear that the French visitors I have met may think that I and my family are among the relatively rare Americans who are nice.

This is a big problem. Terrorists recruit a lot of people who are convinced that most Americans are evil people who are perfectly happy to kill a hundred civilians to get one militant and who are perfectly happy to keep the vast majority of people in the world poor so that we can have cheap materials to import. They think that we think that we can create goodwill in the world by bombs and drones. No amount of military power—and we already have more military expenditure than all other major countries combined—can keep us safe if the world hates us. I think that Barack Obama has created a lot of goodwill (despite Congress telling the world that they are unwilling to support any of that goodwill, and asking the world to disregard anything Obama may say that is not militaristic), though even his overseas friends sort of look uneasily over his shoulder to see if there is a drone hovering there.

If only, if only the voices of good Americans had an equal impact to those of the evil ones. But this is not the case. Humans have the capacity to create reciprocal altruism on an individual level, but we have seldom been successful on a societal level, and the voices of selfishness seem to be making sure that any chance of goodwill solving any world problems will fail.

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