Not long after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I attended a panel titled "Why Do They Hate Us?" The panelists--academics, policymakers, and business leaders--concluded that there was little reason for anyone to question US foreign policy--a sentiment shared by much of the US public, notwithstanding the televised footage immediately following the tragedy of Muslims from Ramallah to Kuala Lumpur cheering the death and destruction visited upon the United States. But after the initial shock began to wear off and international expressions of sympathy gave way to barbed criticism of the US war on terror, support for Israel, environmental policies, and a host of other issues, many US citizens were surprised to discover just how much of the world is enraged at what former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once called "the indispensable nation." The Granta book What We Think of America explains some of the reasons why people in the rest of the world have mixed feel ings toward the United States, its policies, and its people.
This book presents 24 brief essays addressing how the United States, in the words of Granta editor Ian Jack, "has entered non-American lives, and to what effect, for good and bad and both." For this symposium Jack assembled a range of writers notable, in almost every instance, for the nuanced visions they present of the world's sole superpower. A number of these episodes and opinions, as Jack describes them, are rooted in childhood memories of US culture--hence the wistful tone that pervades the volume. For if there is a common theme in these writings from Calcutta and Sydney, Belgrade and Istanbul, and several points in between, it is the difficulty of reconciling romantic ideas of the United States--its literature, jazz, and movies; its openness and warmth; its commitment to freedom and equality--with the reality within its borders and in its foreign policies, especially those regarding the countries of the Middle East.
A novelist from Beirut, Hanan al-Shaykh, describes the negative aspects of being an immigrant to the United States; Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh laments that US largesse still fuels the creation of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, displacing his countrymen; and Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif believes that a "world dominated by America looks like a pretty nasty place." The unspoken assumption of several essays is that the United States deserved the tragedy that occurred on September 11. Doris Lessing, noting that the people of the United States imagine themselves to have been expelled from Eden, wonders why they "ever thought they had a right to one." US exceptionalism does not sit well with these writers, who question several assumptions of the US citizen mindset.
More interesting are the contributors who work against national stereotypes: French novelist Benoit Duteurtre, for example, dismisses Parisian notions of US evil, recognizing that "Europe and America are intimately linked by history, by way of life and thought." He believes that both Europe and the United States belong to the same society, which they must transform together--an idea flatly rejected by British playwright Harold Pinter in a screed against NATO's "humanitarian intervention" in Serbia. He reprints an address he delivered on September 10, 2001, in which he argued that the United States is the greatest rogue power in the history of the world. His evidence is the errant bomb in the NATO air campaign against Serbia that killed 33 civilians. Pinter glosses over the fact that at the time of the bombing Serbian forces were carrying out Slobodan Milosevic's orders to ethnically cleanse Kosovo of its Albanian population. …