June 12, 2008

Myth America

From Thomas Friedman's latest column:

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Democrats’ nomination of Obama as their candidate for president has done more to improve America’s image abroad than the entire Bush public diplomacy effort for seven years.

...Every once in a while, America does something so radical, so out of the ordinary — something that old, encrusted, traditional societies like those in the Middle East could simply never imagine — that it revives America’s revolutionary “brand” overseas in a way that no diplomat could have designed or planned...

For now, though, what it reveals is how much many foreigners, after all the acrimony of the Bush years, still hunger for the “idea of America” — this open, optimistic, and, indeed, revolutionary, place so radically different from their own societies.


What he's talking about is the myth of America.

That myth used to be incredibly powerful, especially in poor countries where people lived in a kind of oppressive stasis, of which Egypt is an excellent example. The myth was that somewhere across the Atlantic there was a better place, a land of hope and opportunity, a meritocracy that accepted people of every race and creed and nation, where if they worked hard they could not just succeed but transcend their otherness and become an integral part of this magical place; and you too could go there - heck, you already know people who know people who already have, maybe you never will but you could, and if you did, hell, your children could grow up to become President!

And every Hollywood movie and Michael Jordan T-shirt helped reinforce this myth. Not everyone bought into it, certainly, maybe not even a majority, but those who did held on to it tight. (And in my experience, gentle suggestions to such people that what they were describing actually sounded a whole lot more like Canada got dismissed out of hand.)

We're not just talking Nigeria and Egypt and India here; a similar attitude, a view of America as a place where you don't just whine about problems but you solve them, America where the government gets out of your way and lets you build your empire, and/or America where the future is forged, was pretty common across the developed world, too. Most Brits would admit a sneaking sympathy to that view, and I think it's part of where Le Monde's famous Nous sommes tous Américains headline on 13 Sep 01 came from.

And then, over the last seven years, as all of that goodwill aimed towards America disintegrated, the myth of America died with it. Its believers discovered that the land of hope and opportunity was actually the land of Dick Cheney and Abu Ghraib, and they felt bitter and angry and cheated.

But then: Obama. The son of an African, with dark skin and a Muslim name, runs for the presidency. The Party Establishment has anointed another candidate (uh, at best a gross oversimplification, but we're talking story not reality) - but this is not a prime ministership; it's the people who vote, not the party. And the American People sweep this son of a Kenyan Muslim to the threshold of the presidency!

If you squint at him from far away, Barack Obama is practically King Arthur back from Avalon to save the day: he is the myth of America incarnate, just when that myth was believed dead.

(For the record, he would have been my third choice, after Richardson and Edwards.)

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