Jejudo, South Korea
The following is, of course, only opinion.
Trying to put the Obama victory in perspective, I was smoking a cigarette at work yesterday and kept seeing a picture of Obama waking up in the middle of the night thinking, “I won, I won!” I have no idea if he ever gets that giddy, but a lot of other people seem to feel that way. Why is this election important and why is this election important to the rest of the world, not from a realist or realpolitik perspective, but from a symbolic one?
First, the most important thing to keep in mind is that the majority of non-Americans, living in their own countries, having their own lives, spend about as much time thinking about America as Americans spend thinking about the rest of the world. That still means they probably spend more time thinking about America than Americans do thinking about any other individual country, but it doesn’t amount to a whole lot of time.
They also separate America, the country, with America, the people. I can remember an article somewhere discussing an American living in Iran. The woman witnessed what I suppose was a fairly typical anti-American rally where people chant and raise their fists into the camera (the camera is always there, remember that) and a few of these protesters glanced over and saw her watching. They immediately walked over, slightly ashamed, and explained that they weren’t talking about her.
This, at least from my experience, is fairly common. Complaints, insults, and accusations of unfairness are common as well. And sometimes the very silence, the staring at the floor, or the little mumble are polite disguises for the same thing. I know this is the case because often enough, the actors in these cases tell me later what they were thinking--albeit when they react that way to another American. At first, I thought I was special, the exceptional from the exceptionalist country. In reality, I was needed to vindicate those feelings. By confessing to an American about muttering, “Go home!” the players in this game were simultaneously making those feelings real, certifying them as genuine (even another American agrees), and showing that they shouldn’t be the object of derision. It was that American, it was that man or woman, not me. I’m not anti-American, I like Americans. See, I’m talking to you, aren’t I?
It’s a wonderful little game if you think about it. I feel special because they confide in me, and they feel special because they confide in me.
But what does this have to do with Obama’s victory?
Well, the problem is that there is still an added layer to all of this. The above, I think, is fairly typical of most people. We react in a Pavlovian way and then justify it in some other--we don’t want to be seen as a dog after all. But the added layer is that America, with all of its faults, is still seen as the Land of Opportunity.
Yeah, Dan Quayle was right.
Now, part of me wants to go into theory at this point and explain how all this fits into a more literary perspective but I’m trying to resist that for the moment. Suffice to say that Americans and America are portrayed in Korean and Japanese literature and television in a very specific way. That way, amazingly enough, is pretty much the same as America and Americans want to be portrayed: the Land of Freedom, the Land of Opportunity.
Foreigners believe our propaganda.
How this translates, not always positively, in literature and television is interesting in its own right, but I don’t want to talk about that here.
This image, symbol, idea, I want to argue, creates an escape valve for Korea and Japan and I think many other countries (this is Said in reverse). By escape valve I mean that America can always be pointed to as a way out of cultural pressures (families, school records, business prospects). You shouldn’t fight the culture (monolithic and ambiguous) but you can run away from it. Running away will create its own problems but the possibility is always there--even if you end up in Canada or Australia instead.
It is also, I think, one of the reasons that the Bush administration has failed so miserably with respect to its PR campaign (And to be fair, Clinton wasn’t always good at this game either). If I’m right, the idea of bringing freedom to other countries misses the whole point of America as Land of Opportunity. You lose the escape valve trick and you get the big boys, not your big boys--the ones you’re used to--but the other big boys, telling you what to do. You combine this attitude with a view, not only that Americans are morally superior (How could anybody honestly believe such a view?), but that your opinion is irrelevant unless you are a lackey of the United States.
Where did the Land of Freedom go?
Now, if we go back to my friend the confessor, you can see how it gets harder and harder to justify, not just the actions of Americans, but her own view of herself by her own lights.
And then Obama walks onto the stage.
Suddenly, we have a new equilibrium. With his victory, the image of America returns to its normal place in the minds of non-Americans. It is again the Land of Opportunity, the Land of Freedom. It is again an escape valve. It is again a force that the powers (the leaders, the wealthy, the military) of other countries must contend with.
America bashing won’t stop. Part of the appeal is precisely that you can bash and get away with it. Reality, of course, will still intrude rudely into the world that non-Americans have made for themselves, but at least for now, there’s a different feeling in the air.
Hope is a dangerous thing, but it is also invigorating.
[This message has been edited by Brad (11-24-2008 08:39 PM).]