Roots of Resentment: America, Great Britain and the Arab World
by American RadioWorks
On the Internet at: http://www.americanradioworks.org/features/resentment/index.html
Be careful, another man had warned me. Don't ask the old man too many questions. He's grown more and more angry. Lately he's gone into the Islamist camp, thinking dangerous things.
"We feel pain and sadness for those five or six thousand innocents killed
In the attacks. But you know, we lost many, many innocent people. Tens of
thousands, hundreds of thousands of them. And no one felt our pain.
And maybe what happened in the United States, this will teach the people of
the United States on how people feel from a long, long time ago."
Full one-hour documentary audio 1:00, Real Audio,
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Why Are They So Angry At Us?
by Sandy Tolan
Why are they so angry at us? It's a question asked with increasing intensity in the weeks since September 11.
In the Arab word, in whose ancient fertility of Mesopotamia and Jericho lies the cradle of civilization, the perceptions of the West and the United States, in particular, are layered in centuries of history. Today there are the images of ongoing Middle East conflicts on Arab satellite news, and beneath that are decades of conflict.
The recent history is complicated: looking back, before the war on Afghanistan, before the Gulf War, there was the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, and there were the Arab Israeli wars in 1973 and 1967.
In 1948, Israel was founded, and with that United Nations partition vote, 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes. It was Israel's war of independence, and what the Arabs call the Naqba or catastrophe.
And those are only the layers of the last 53 years.
We sent reporter Sandy Tolan to talk to ordinary people in two Arab countries closely allied with the United States Egypt and Jordan and investigate the sources of Arab anger toward the West an anger that has its roots in contemporary history and in centuries past.
Beneath the decades of battles on the modern Middle East lies a far bloodier past, which began more than eight centuries ago. In 1098, European armies, wearing crosses of cloth on their backs, rode down from the north. The crusaders marched for God and for territory. Crossing Syria en route to Jerusalem, they laid siege, killing thousands. The next year, they arrived in Jerusalem, with a vengeance that lives on the collective Arab memory.
"One rode in blood up to one's knees," wrote a Christian witness. "And up to the horses reins." The Muslim scribes told a similar story.
The population of the Holy City was put to the sword, and the crusaders spent a week massacring Muslims.
They killed more than seventy thousand people at al Aqsa Mosque.
Egypt, at Saladin's Citadel
The city of Cairo is built on seventy centuries of history; and the past bleeds out of stone. At the Citadel of Saladin, the beloved Muslim sultan who took back Jerusalem from the rampaging christens in 1187, raising up Islam and the Arabs. Saladin was known for his just treatment of Christians and Jews in the city of three faiths. His death left a vacuum, a centuries-long yearning for a new hero.
At the Citadel, we spoke with Youssef Chanine, one of Egypt' cultural giants. Chahine is a member of Egypt's Christian minority, and the director of dozens of films, including "Saladin."
"The legend will not go away easily. It triggers a feeling of pride, a feeling of strength," says Chahine. "When they go back and say, Saladin, they are trying to find somebody that is as honorable, who is as charitable, as tolerant, and as great as Saladin to cover the feeling that I feel measly, I feel I am nothing."
Chahine speaks of the historical weight of accumulated defeat, from the crusades forward: the occupation of the Europeans beginning two centuries ago; the creation of Israel by a UN partition vote in 1947, and the subsequent dispossession of the Palestinians; Arab Israeli wars in 1948, 1967, 1973, 1982...the Gulf War with Iraq in 1991... U.S.-led sanctions and the deaths of thousands of Iraqi children. He speaks of blood spilling endlessly in the occupied territories. In short, countless humiliations heaped upon a people proud of their history; their contributions to art, science, literature, music.
At Home in Cairo
You can feel this powerful mix of pride and defeat all over Cairo, across religion and class; outside the Hussein Mosque and down the narrow cobbled walkways of the ancient bazaar, where the shopkeepers preside over mounds of spices and rows of silver, cheap cassettes and tiny glass decanters.
You can feel it out on the boulevards, where appliance shop TVs blare tales of Aladdin, recycled via Disney; past the McDonalds, the pubs and cabarets.
Down a potholed alley in a poor section of town, we visited a family. Inside the modest home to three generations, we were warmly welcomed.
After being greeted in Arabic, "ahlein, welcome!," we are treated to Arab hospitality: chocolate cake and cola for the visitors. In the tiny living room, tacked on to the peeling walls, are posters evoking Eden: an elegant fountain in front of a mansion; wild animals, tamed in play. The family's shoes are tucked neatly under a chair. The women are covered; so is the nine-year-old girl. The men speak.
"We're proud; we have dignity. But your attitude in the United States makes us look like we're third class citizens. Go back to your history books. You'll see that Islamic civilization preceded you. We helped create your Western civilization," says one of the men.
"When Osama bin Laden swore by God that there would be no peace in America until there was peace in Palestine, he brought home an issue that's part of our Muslim consciousness. And America is to be blamed for this problem. That's why there's sympathy for bin Laden. "
This working class Muslim family grew up with the knowledge that the holy city of Jerusalem lies outside of their control: it's part of the state of Israel. But Jerusalem is the home of al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam the place liberated by Saladin from the Crusaders centuries ago. Bin Laden, denounces a new wave of Crusaders, compares himself to Saladin, and taps something deep. But so do the battles from the West Bank every night on television.
"These images build up inside. Forget about Christian as a human being, seeing another suffering and oppressed in his own home and robbed of his rights...And America is silent. But if something happens in a Western country, the world is shaken upside down. So what do you expect from us? We're
definitely full of rage. "
The anger is directed at American policy, especially U.S. support for Israel. Does this mean Mohamed, and Walid, and Mohamed, and Magda, and Aya, frowning thoughtfully, sipping at their cokes, passing the baby from knee to knee does this mean they hate America itself? Not exactly.
"America is a great country. It's the land of opportunity. I wish I could go there. It's everybody's dream."
Mohamed says he loves American movies Stallone and Schwarzenegger are his favorites; though it does seem strange that one person can fight a whole army and defeat them.
The five-year-old daughter in the family says that she likes Hollywood too and thinks it's funny when the boys kiss the girls. She thinks it's a shame we have so many car crashes; and feels sad when she sees other children getting killed so many nights on the news.
One of the men of the family explains, "We still look up to America. But if the situation continues, unfortunately, I hate to say it but all Muslims could turn into Osama bin Laden."
A Cairo Literary Salon
You needn't visit the poor, the working class, or even the devout to tap a deep well of Arab anger toward the West, and the United States especially. It is everywhere you look.
We visited a literary salon and cafe, on a back alley near downtown Cairo. It was midnight and around the tables there are glass water pipes with long cloth hoses; the smoke hovers.
Here the two friends, Saed, a columnist for a Cairo daily, and Madame Hayat, a French tutor, gather, as they do every Tuesday. Tonight, the subject is U.S. intervention.
"It's the bee against the elephant," Saed says. "Again. The U.S. is flexing power against sad, miserable people."
Madame Hayat stares up with clear blue eyes, "It's like this more and more, now that there's only one superpower. Now we are really just handicapped. The U.S. treats us like bugs. Like we're insects. We've reached the point of boiling."
Hayat spent years as an actress in Cairo's lively political cabarets. They'd perform in the parks and cafes, until Egyptian intelligence under Presidents Sadat and then Mubarrak censored them or threw them in jail.
"During the 70s and early 80s there was a spirit of change in the air" Hayat says, "now, only a deepening sense of grievance."
Never did she dream that the means of change would shift to radical Islam. Never did she imagine the day she'd be told by the Americans to choose between Bush and bin Laden.
"I don't have to choose between two demons. I'm against both," Hayat explains. "Look, I really hate bin Laden, but nowadays I dream a lot of having two bombs. If I had the chance, I would use these two bombs to destroy the Pentagon and the White House. I would not think of bin Laden. Even though I'm against terrorism, they've created that feeling in me."
"There's a disappointment on behalf of America," explains Mohamed Sid-Ahmed, the respected Egyptian political analyst. "It sees itself otherwise than what it's seen by others. America sees itself as having defects, but fundamentally a successful society and enterprise. It doesn't understand why the others don't see it this way. The fact is that America is powerful, rich, can be self-satisfied in those terms. It does not understand that other societies with very serious problems don't look at America the way America looks at itself."
As deep as this frustration at the West is, it also serves, in some ways, as a deflection from anger at events closer to home. In Egypt, criticism of the state is tightly controlled; political demonstrations are small, infrequent, and restricted to universities; the president's accomplishments are the subject of fawning news coverage, while he runs for reelection unopposed; police or soldiers seem to be on virtually every corner.
"Here are dictatorial regimes. They thwart the growth of any rational opposition." Abdel Wahab Al Misiri, the Islamic thinker and author continues, "Take the situation here. They demolished the labor party, closed down the newspaper, which was the only significant opposition. Now the rational opposition, which could interact with the government through the legitimate political channels, could not develop, mature, it was not given the chance, so that you have is the phenomena like that. Terrorists. Naive people who have visions become leaders. So it is the Arab elites, supported by the American administration that created this."
This relationship of the U.S. and the Arab elites, Misiri argues, is a legacy of European colonialism, which began when Britain and France arrived in the 19th century and begin carving up the Arab world. It's a time al Misiri knows something about. For years, before becoming disillusioned with Western values and embracing Islam, he taught 19th century poetry at Rutgers.
"The world bequeathed to us since the mid 19th century has been a Darwinian world, says Misiri. "The only constant, the only absolute value is power to resolve conflicts. This is the mechanism for survival, this is the mechanism that propels history, this is how you define morality; this is how you define meaning. You have power to do what you want, all right. And people have been learning that from the West."
And now that power, he says, is transferred in part to Arab governments, who stand in between the desires of their people and the mandates of the superpower.
"Like all Arab elites, they are frightened. The street is simmering already because of the daily humiliation. One important factor in the picture is Arab news," he says. "The new satellite networks, especially al Jazeera."
"Now we all sit in our homes and simmer. Even upper glass girls, bourgeoisie, everyone is angry. Not only the Islamists. And the elites know that they have to move to protect themselves."
And so the criticism spurts out like steam from a calibrated valve turned open for Israel; shut off for Egypt; adjusted somewhere in between for the powerful benefactor and lone superpower.
One afternoon, in the Khan al Khalili market in old Cairo, this all comes sharply into focus. We are accompanied by a "minder" from the Egyptian press center. If we want to interview regular people, the government tells us, we need an escort. He writes down what we ask, what the people on the street say in response. He takes names. It quickly becomes clear we'll need to give him the slip. But before we do, a young woman approaches us. She's very Western looking, with moussed hair and designer jeans. She's spotted the microphone, and is nearly bursting with what's inside her. Ignoring the government man, she blurts it out.
"Maybe this will wake up America. It's about time you feel our pain."
The man from the press center says to her, "No, no, we don't want to say that. That's not what we want to put out right now."
She ignores him.
"They need to hear this. We've had terrorism for years. How come the world didn't act until America was hit?"
The government man scribbles these unsanctioned words in his pad. Before he can get her name, the woman and her friends move away, swiftly, down the old stone path of the market.
Visiting the war memorial in Heliopolis, Egypt
The state prefers official truths; official history. Amidst the sense of defeat rooted in the past, there's a powerful desire to gaze back upon historical pride. Upon rare victory. Be it Saladin in 1187, or the momentary victory over Israel, 786 years later: in October, 1973.
Hundreds of Egyptian children come each school day to the October war panorama in the town of Heliopolis. Flanking the building, Egyptian tanks, missile launchers and troop carriers; inside, a diorama of model planes and encampments in the Sinai. A booming voice claims that in 1973, Egypt shattered the myth of Israeli air superiority not mentioning how Israel destroyed the entire Egyptian air force only six years earlier.
Despite official efforts in the Arab world to recall the glory of victory, in the end, this is not what stays with the people.
They remember defeats like the one experienced when the Old City of Jerusalem and the West Bank fell to Israeli hands.
"In 1967, until the 5th of June, we thought that the Arabs, especially with the leadership of Nasser, could convince, by hook or by crook, the world to let the Palestinian people determine their future."
Three old friends gather in an office in Amman, Jordan. Mu'nis Razzaz, a novelist, recalls the Arab world's most resounding defeat at the hands of Israel, and aided by American weapons and support.
"They defeated the Arab world in a humiliating way," says Mu'nis. "Nasser was defeated, Jordan lost half its kingdom, Syria was defeated, all the Arabs were defeated."
This marked the unofficial end of pan-Arabism, the quest for one Arab nation championed by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser a man many considered a latter-day Saladin.
Thirty-four years later and Mu'nis and these two friends, Hani Hourani and Mazan Saqqat, kept working toward it aligning themselves out of convenience with the socialist bloc, because they supported the Arabs. Jailed and exiled, the men, over time, were worn down, while they watched Nasser's authoritarian model of Arab unity, independent of the West, be replaced by dictatorships aligned with the United States.
"They built up a huge bureaucracy and became more and more totalitarian. And now this is the situation we are in. We have Abdel Nasser model without Nasserism," explains Hani. "Without the progressive face of that. We have the model of Sadat or Mubarrak only they are taking the power or we have Saddam Hussein or Hfaz al Assad or Khadafi, these people who are raising big slogans and achieving few things and ignoring the people. This is the problem in the Arab world."
Mu'nis continues, "Secularism and pan-Arabism were assassinated by the United States and the West in general by the war of '67, then the war of '73, and the war of 1991 against Iraq. Because of these wars the result of these was the end of secularism in the area and the support of Muslim movements."
"In this analysis, political Islam including extremists like bin Laden emerged from a suppression of secular opposition movements. A suppression by Arab governments, supported by the United States. Unable to express themselves openly, many flowed to the mosque, making it venue of opposition politics.
Wanting Neither the West Nor the Extremists
Others, wanting neither choice provided by the West or the extremists, feel lost.
The playwright Sawsan Darwaza looks up from her swivel chair. She's agreed to meet in the late evening. Tomorrow she leaves for Carthage to put on another production, though lately she's not sure why she bothers.
Darwaza is a Jordanian playwright and producer who writes about Arab identity.
"It has to be an accumulation of wars, misunderstandings, instability. It's from a long time ago and of course it affects the heart and mind," says Darwaza. "It's another ghetto. It's a huge prejudice, always on the defensive, can't create freely."
"And for myself I feel this is a waste," she continues, "all this struggle, all this effort, all these books, translations, plays, songs, all that we have done has come to a frozen picture."
But for some, the blame for broken dreams is not so singular.
First Names Only
"We're all angry. I can't help thinking, though, that we have much to blame ourselves for. "
At another interview, around a table in Amman, we used first names only Hania, Mohamed, Hala, Looma, Walid.
Since September 11 there's a new penal code: it's now a crime to print anything in the newspapers that could be judged to damage the government's reputation.
"We're all angry. I can't help thinking, though, that we have much to blame ourselves for, " said Walid. "Funny, but many people who are persecuted here wind up going to the West for protection, or to live a decent life. So we do have to look at ourselves, too. Does this anger get us anywhere? No. In the end, there must be a balance between the oriental culture and the efficiency of the West."
"We have to respect each other," Walid says. "We, the West, the West, us."
But for the group gathered here, these are words from a faraway world; the reality in Jordan is that tourism is dead, unemployment is high; the economic benefits of peace with Israel are virtually non-existent. So, just like in Egypt, the anger in Jordan builds. And the target is Israel and the U.S.
"I've heard over the last month, oh, why do they hate us?" says one of the men. "Oh, because they're envious of our way of life. They're envious of our freedom. They're threatened by our democracy. How can anybody believe this rubbish? People don't like the U.S. because of what the U.S. is doing in the rest of the world. American F-15s, American Apaches, American cluster bombs, and American bullets that are killing children all over."
"A very short time ago, people in the Middle East were willing to give it a shot, to put some effort to try to get the West to understand them," explains one of the women. "Simply no one cares anymore about what the West thinks or that it's important to understand our point of view. The attitude is becoming more and more to hell with the West, we don't care what they think anymore."
"We start feeling the cycle of hatred. We managed for a while to get out of it, not all Israelis or Westerners are bad. But then you see this what did we get for our good will, trying to give peace a chance? It's like they'll always hate us, they don't even think of us as human beings. So, screw them. And we're gonna we're gonna hate them. "
Traveling in the Arab world, you encounter this deepening sense of pessimism among Muslims and Christians, rich and poor. The deaths in Palestine and Iraq pile up on television. National economies lie in the dumps. The suppression of speech and political opposition stifles hopes for democratic participation. The emotions of the street are rage and despair.
"We must deal with the world society that breeds terrorism and terrorists," says Mohamed Sid Ahmed, the Arab political analyst. "Extreme conflict against the system is terrorism. It's people who are so desperate that they believe they are dead anyhow. Hitting at the others alive is a way to protest against the fact that they are dead. This is a very dangerous equation. When despair reaches this point, it's a world destroying itself."
A scattering of European tourists, at the stone tunnel of the crusader castle in southern Jordan. Here in Karak, there's a statue of Saladin in the center of town. The castle was captured by Saladin, just before his reconquest of Jerusalem.
An old man in robe and keffiya stands near the edge of the castle. From here you can look out to Palestine and toward the Mediterranean beyond. "If only," he says. "If only we could have another Saladin a man of mercy and humanity."
The old man continues, "He was not a terrorist. He did not want bloodshed. The war the Saladin launched was a just war. It was a war against those who occupied the land."
Love & HateWhere Britain Meets America
by Stephen Smith
A co-production of American RadioWorks and BBC Radio World Current Affairs
Following the terrorism of September 11, Americans became aware of the deep hatred for the U.S. that could be found in Afghanistan, and in some of the neighboring countries like Pakistan, which has backed the United States in the war even though huge crowds of Pakistanis regularly turn out in the streets to denounce the U.S. Among the more than 50 countries that have vowed their support for the fight against terrorism, Great Britain has been the America's closest ally. Within days of the terrorist attacks, British prime minister Tony Blair pledged that the United Kingdom would stand "shoulder to shoulder" with the U.S. But despite allied military success in Afghanistan, British opponents to the war have been increasingly outspoken against the alliance with the United States, and against the U.S. itself. In a project with BBC World Current Affairs, American RadioWorks correspondent Stephen Smith set out with microphone in hand to see if people in Great Britain are as unfailingly warm and supportive of Americans as their leader Tony Blair. Then he came back to the U.S. to share what he found with some Americans.
Talking with Members of Parliament
Outside the Houses of Parliament in London, peace protesters keeping vigil with their banners and placards are far outnumbered by the tourists queuing up at the visitor's entrance. Inside the noble gothic building, Members of Parliament who oppose the way the allies are waging war on terror are also in the minority. Still, they take to the floor of Parliament and to media microphones to make themselves heard.
One of those speaking out against the war is George Galloway, a Labor Party MP from Glasgow, Scotland. "It's no act of friendship to follow a friend down a descending staircase to hell. The act of friendship is to try and stop the friend from descending the staircase, " he says.
Galloway is a genial, quotable politician, who holds the un-lit stump of a Cuban cigar as we talk. The hell he envisions is an endless campaign against Middle East terrorism, which he predicts would mean an endless war against Islamic nations. Washington is far too eager to solve problems with bombs, Galloway says.
"America is a giant, " says Galloway. "But its political class often seems to have the mind of a child. And a giant with the mind of a child is very dangerous not only to those amongst whom he roams but to himself."
Harsh, but not unexpected, as George Galloway's been pounding on U.S. foreign policy for years. He's especially critical of U.S. support for Israel, and for sanctions on Iraq. Galloway belongs to a small, but growing cadre of Britons speaking out against what they see as American arrogance and narcissism.
Later, I sat on a park bench next to Westminster with Meghnad Desai, a Labor Party Member of the House of Lords and a professor at the London School of Economics. Desai is of east-Indian descent, and he scolds the U.S. for routinely ignoring the needs and lives of the developing world.
"Americans should stop thinking they're the perpetual good guys. There are no good guys; there are no bad guys," says Desai.
He continues, "When Americans die, or people in America die, we all have to stand up and take terrorism very seriously, when lots of other people have died, in terrorism or by wars against terrorism, and it's all right."
Below us on the River Thames, a police boat churns back and forth, guarding against a terrorist strike on Parliament. This was not the first time, Desai said, that London stood on high security alert because of the United States.
"You gave money to the IRA, in Boston, in New York. And they came and bombed on British mainland and in Northern Ireland. How can the Americans say they're against terrorism? Why was Irish terrorism loved by Boston and Muslim terrorism hated?" asked Desai. "Now come on, give us a break. The world is a very nasty place."
Well, there's no doubt that Irish-Americans have sent a lot of money to the IRA, but some Muslim-Americans sent money to al Qaeda. That doesn't mean America supports Osama bin Laden, no more than it does the IRA.
I talked to a lot of people around London. And several reassured me that Americans sometimes can be the good guys. But there was this general sense that beginning with George W. Bush, Americans are almost comically naive about how the world sees us.
For example, in one of his speeches, President Bush said, "I'm amazed that there is such misunderstanding of what our country is about that people would hate us. I am, I am, I am, like most Americans, I just can't believe it. Because I know how good we are. And we've got to do a better job of making our case."
On the set of Dead Ringers
Actor's Voice: "Mr. President I thought you'd want to know that in the British election, Tony Blair is way ahead in the polls."
Actor playing President George W. Bush: "That's a terrible shame, I'll make sure to send him my commiseratitudes."
First actor: "No, no, Mr. President. That's good news. You see in the British electoral system, the person that gets the most votes is declared the winner."
I dropped by the offices of this hugely popular BBC radio satire program, which specializes in sending up public figures. The Brits call this "taking the mickey" out of someone. It's hard to imagine many mainstream American comedians doing a parody send-up of Tony Blair; much of their audience wouldn't get the joke. But BBC writer Nev Fountain found that taking the mickey out of George W. Bush delighted their listeners. The president is an easy target.
"Well I suppose it is like beating up a kid," says Fountain, "but he is the most important man in the world. And a legitimate point has to be made when a man who has to be leader of this new world order should know something about the world he's leading."
But, in the new season of Dead Ringers impersonator Jon Culshaw says he'll probably steer clear of George W. Bush.
"Certainly at the moment, in the light of events after September 11, I think America has to be supported, it feels kind of strange doing impersonations of President Bush at the moment," explains Culshaw. "Before September 11, you could make him that [impersonating Bush's voice] 'Great big fan of Sesame Street and that whole thing, and inebramatoximicated and whatever' and at the moment I don't feel you can do that at all. You just have to be supportive and let him get his grip."
Talking with Writer Harold Pinter
If Bush is less amusing at the moment, he's no less worrisome for those in the U.K. who dread the expansion of American influence. The notion that Great Britain will become a replica of the U.S. came up repeatedly in my interviews, as if U.S. culture were creeping across the globe like a noxious weed. One of the most angry and eloquent critics of the United States is the actor and playwright Harold Pinter.
"I think there's an tremendous amount of anxiety in the country about our posture of standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States," says Pinter. "Whatever the United States chooses to do, for us to do that every time the U.S. takes action is humiliating for what's supposed to be an independent country."
At 71, Pinter is a voluble left-wing political activist. His internationally renowned plays often deal with alienated characters and menacing forces. Pinter says that given what he calls the U.S. record of exploiting other countries, a backlash such as the September 11 attacks was historically inevitable.
"I'm not happy to say it," says Pinter, "and I certainly don't approve it, I'm not attempting to excuse it. I'm just saying it is explicable if you look back at the domination of the world by the United States. Far and away the most powerful country in the world and proud of being so and not ashamed of being so. And finally saying, 'Listen, we're the boss and that's that.'"
Somewhere in our chat, Pinter put down his glass of white wine and rummaged in a file drawer to find a speech he gave in Italy on September 10, 2001. He had declared the U.S., as "the most dangerous power the world has ever known, the authentic rogue state." Pinter also described a profound revulsion and disgust towards American power he saw growing throughout the world. Less than 24 hours later, the first jet smashed into the World Trade Center.
At the Yale Club
In the weeks following the terrorist attacks, Americans seemed genuinely surprised at the level of anger towards the U.S. in some parts of the world. I wondered how Americans would react to such animosity from our closest allies, so I took the excerpts from the London interviews to the heart of September 11 New York City.
At the Yale Club in midtown Manhattan, I met with three businesswomen, all what you might call hyphenated Americans. Linda Dunbar and Hope Stevens are African-American; Maria Reveley is second generation Italian-American. They all work in the New York corporate world, with the recent exception of Hope Stevens.
"By profession I'm a manager of corporate training and development, says Stevens, "but, I recently lost my job in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The firm I was working for, most of our clients were located in the World Trade Center, and like many small businesses in Manhattan, we had to close our doors."
I play a CD of some comments from a group of educated, middle-class women from London made after September 11.
"They probably think within their continent the world is contained. That as far as I'm aware, their newspapers' foreign coverage is minimal. If you watch what passes as news on American television, there isn't any international news. They're clueless. The world is run for America, by America. They're just a clueless bunch of tossers."
Judy, Civil Servants Equestrian Club, London
"I think there's also insularity within the insularity of the U.S. because there's New York City, and we know there's no one more provincial than a New Yorker," responds Stevens.
Dunbar agrees, "It's like ten blocks is a whole different neighborhood. You don't go ten blocks away."
"So what she's saying about 'never travel, don't have a passport, don't read,' that's how we feel about the rest of the U.S.," she laughs, "Brooklyn! New Jersey!"
"To be fair though, if you live in Europe and travel for five hours, you're in a different country. If you live in America and travel for five hours, you may have left your state or not," notes Dunbar.
"You might be in Jersey," says Reveley.
"Yes, you might be in New Jersey," laughs Dunbar. "So I think that is something that does make a difference. You drive five hours and you're not out of New York State. It's a huge country."
"I don't think we aspire to be like America. Despite the proliferation of McDonalds and Starbucks, one hopes Britain doesn't end up to be more like America. We can see Tony Blair is doing his best, bless his cotton socks. He thinks he's President Blair already."
Frankie, Civil Servants Equestrian Club, London
"It's no secret that over the past decade there's been a lot of American cultural imperialism, if you will," agrees Stevens. "There is a certain percentage out there who love us and a lot who really resent us, who hate our way of life. I think that this is the first time that many Americans have come to grips with the fact that not everyone loves us."
"The U.S. has been blamed for U.S. foreign policy," says Dunbar, "and I think that it is probably time that foreign policy is looked at. And it probably should have been looked at ages ago. But it's interesting to me that the U.K., having created the British Empire, having gone out and divided people and lands down the middle of villages on the basis of Christianity and commerce. Having done all that, we're left to pick up the pieces and all of a sudden it's our fault and nobody is taking the whole colonial episode with Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, Holland, and Germany into consideration."
Responses in St Paul, Minnesota
I traveled from New York City to St Paul, MN, where I set up the CD player for a group of county government employees. All of them are white, middle-class Americans: Tom Burk, business agent with public-sector labor unions, Cliff Olela, Intake Social Worker for Ramsey County at Adult Protection Intake, and Mark Galloway, Billing Superintendent for City of St. Paul, City Hall Annex.
"They're arrogant, insular and ignorant."
Another UK woman, "Very good I like that."
I ask, "But what's the bad part?"
"Ignorant because, well, we get stories over here saying things like, many Americans don't have passports. Many of them do not leave their own state, let alone their own country. They've got no conception of the world outside America. This is their insularity, which leads to them to being ignorant of the world outside and also incredibly arrogant, (they) think everything American is great. Mind you, we're the same, we think everything British is great, no, we're more self-deprecating than that." Judy, Civil Servants Equestrian Club, London
"I think it's absolutely true," laughs Burk. "I think that particularly the notion that Americans are very centered on what goes on in United States. Up until September 11, all the news bureaus had basically abandoned all of their international reporting. I think that the British, because of the nature of the Empire, in a lot of ways there's still that mentality, are very internationalist, much more so than other countries. Quite honestly, the French are pretty insular too."
"If you noticed here in the paper recently," notes Mark Galloway, "nobody here knew where Afghanistan was. In the United States. If you go on the street and ask where Afghanistan was, they couldn't tell you. Or what language do they speak."
"I think it really varies from family to family, says Burk. "There are people who really don't care what happens outside their block, there are other families that emphasize the richness of the world and all the various cultures."
"The comment that we're pompous, I believe also that people of England are also very arrogant and pompous. And a lot of them don't even know where things are. They know where all the provinces of Canada are, but you ask them: Where's Mongolia? Where's Guam? They can't tell you," says Mark Galloway.
Mark adds that he's an Irishman, fourth generation. So he's not too keen on the English, as he calls them. Even so, he says he does not contribute to the IRA.
American Writer Ian Frazier
The British often belittle Americans for lacking irony, so to make sure this story had some, I called up Ian Frazer, a writer who publishes in serious-minded magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic. As far as I can tell he's no expert on any of the issues at hand, but that never stopped an American from having an opinion.
I asked him if he would call himself an anglophile.
"I deeply disliked English people," responded Frazier, "and it was even a policy of mine that I disliked English people. And after September 11, there are many things that I use to dislike that I now like. I now like English people."
What did you dislike about them?
"Well they have conceited accents, and, I don't know. I hated the phrase 'chattering classes,'" says Frazier.
Have you been to the United Kingdom?
"I've been over it in a plane, I've looked down. It looked like the worlds oldest suitcase."
I have absolutely no idea what he meant by that. But I like it. In any case, I played some of the London interviews for Ian Frazier on the telephone. First, the recording of MP George Galloway:
"America is a giant. But its political class often seems to have the mind of a child. And a giant with the mind of a child is very dangerous not only to those amongst whom he roams but to himself."
So are we dangerous to ourselves and to the world?
"Certainly in parts of the world we're a great danger," says Frazier. "I wouldn't go so far as to say we're dangerous to ourselves in the world. I would say that we don't participate in the world enough and when we do we are inexperienced and we make mistakes. But I also think America is a very hopeful country, it has a kind of naiveté based on a belief that things can be better. And when you believe that, you're going to look silly in a wised-up world, in a world where street smarts is the prevailing kind of smarts."
Are you pro-American?
"Yes, absolutely, I think it's the best country in the world. But I also know it is a completely foolish, ridiculous country, partly because democracy is a silly looking system. It doesn't have the sleek streamlining of certain functioning dictatorships."
One thing that struck me about the interviews: people in London seemed not just ready to catalog American faults, they felt entitled to. But the Americans were generally much less prepared to pass judgment on the British. Except for Ian Frazier.
I played for him some commentary from ladies at the civil servant's equestrian club.
"They're arrogant, insular, and ignorant. Many Americans don't have passports, don't leave their own state."
"I think it's absolutely a blessing that English people do know what's going on in foreign countries because they speak our language and they can tell us what's going on in Afghanistan," responded Frazier. "I've noticed when I've traveled that there will be English people that know what's going on."
So we can rely on them?
"Yes, they speak English, it is an important thing, it doesn't sound like it but if you listen carefully you can figure out what they're saying. They write the best guidebooks to foreign countries. We're going to be a part of the world stage from now on and we can't continue to retreat as we have done, and maybe England can tell us what to do. Because they know more."
"It's also handy to go to a country they used to occupy as an imperial power because people tend to speak English."
Conclusion, with Harold Pinter
In all seriousness, this issue of world awareness came up time and again talking to Americans. Before September 11, many Americans really did not know how despised we are in some corners of the world. In London, I asked playwright Harold Pinter if he thinks Americans possess any special gift for being illiterate in world affairs.
"Well, I think we're pretty American, sorry, didn't mean to say American," he laughs. "I think we're pretty ignorant over here too."
Lots of people use those terms interchangeably after all.
"I can see that immediately, yes. I didn't quite intend that. I don't think the European continent is anywhere near as ignorant about facts of the world as your country and my country. When you say in the United States, the people I mean, that you're living in the greatest country in the world, those terms are meaningless. And if they mean anything, they're highly dangerous. Because they only lead to arrogance. And arrogance is always supported by ignorance. If you want to be really arrogant, make sure you're really ignorant."
So, the question remains, after September 11, after going to war in Afghanistan, and with the threat of more terrorist attacks always in the air, are average Americans now less ignorant about the world? Recent public opinion polls seem to say "yes." Many Americans say we have to pay more attention to international relations, and take the needs of other countries more into account. That's probably true, for now. But I'm skeptical when I'm told some big event, even a military strike on American soil, even anthrax in every letterbox; that some big event will change our society forever. After all, we sent millions of Americans overseas during World War Two, and eventually we settled back into cozy self-absorption.