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American images abroad

“For the European, even today, America represents something akin to exile, a phantasy of emigration, and therefore a form of interiorization of his or her own culture,” wrote Jean Baudrillard in America (1988:78). Americans abroad in the early twenty-first century face profoundly dichotomized, contradictory images in which they participate and through which they are interpreted as myths, nation and individual actors. One image is the Ugly American (from Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s influential 1958 novel), aggressive and destructive, whether through ignorance, malevolence, intervention or neglect. A second image is that of America and Americans as bearers of liberty, technology, progress and prosperity as broadcast over international airwaves by Voice of America. Most Americans prefer the latter, which underpins the rhetoric of business, missionaries, development aid, mass media and even tourism. While propagandistic, this ideology often imbues individual actors, including expatriate rebels, and ironically reaffirms an image of close-mindedness abroad. The first image is also polemic—thrown against the US by enemies, allies/ competitors and leftist critics at home. While both images are transmitted through multiple media—Hollywood, news, music videos, world fairs—at home and abroad, both are also grounded in actions, policies and events intensified by American economic, political and military expansion in the early twentyfirst century.

These images, of course, take shape in concrete local contexts. Arkush and Lee’s Land of Ghosts splendidly analyzes and anthologizes changing Chinese readings of America since the nineteenth century. Unlike many of the European elite, for example, who characterized America as young and uncouth (albeit energetic and rich), Chinese leaders saw America as an example of modernity and its discontents. Chinese immigrants—like generations from every country on earth—dealt with the promise and disillusion of an American dream rent by class and racial discrimination. America has been read as a friend to democratic reformers and the nationalist regime it propped up after 1949, and bitter enemy to the communist regime it sought to isolate on the mainland. Renewed ties of trade and immigration with this mainland have produced deeply ambivalent relations in the 1980s and 1990s, including the polemic attacks of the China that Can Say No, as well as the Goddess of Liberty in Tienanmen Square. Moreover, friends and enemies have expressed perplexity at differences in family, gender, absence of hierarchy and food.

The postwar French, by contrast, soon found that liberating allies could be overbearing friends. The success of American mass culture (abetted by the Marshall plan) has pitted those who protect the purity of French language, culture, markets and difference against those who adopt rock, Coca-Cola, film noir, blue jeans and Brando. Meanwhile, in third-world nations, the image of a rich nation as a goal for emigration or emulation continually crashes against military intervention or exploitation in which American business and policy participate.

Commentators worldwide have underscored the contradictions between American public ideals and the realities of racism, poverty, crime, guns, social breakdown and unbalanced consumption that accompany world power. As racial tensions have boiled over in Europe since the 1980s, for example, more than one national analyst has exclaimed “This is not America!” In these complex realms of imagery, one may try to distinguish the United States as a myth and a political and cultural agent from its citizens. The wealth and mass consumption of international travel and the globalization of business has opened an American presence beyond the wealthy expatriate, dedicated missionary and eccentric exile. Scholars, students, the military tourists, artists, minorities, revolutionaries, Peace Corps workers, medical workers and evangelists can provide more varied experiences and attitudes to nuance stereotypes. Moreover, immigration reforms since the 1960s have created increasing transnational families and citizens who balance American and other identities. Nevertheless, many people know America through media before they meet a living American.

Yet, public discourses of individual freedom, democracy, hegemonic Western values and independence, coupled with economic and political power, have become global policies. Part of the tragedies of Hungary, Vietnam, Cuba, Somalia, Iran and Rwanda is not only American action (or inaction), but American justification in the name of “freedom,” “democracy” and American interests. American mass media may explore this painful paradox, especially with regard to Vietnam, but it should be balanced with the recurrent scenario of Star Trek, in which “galactic” rules of non-intervention invariably are broken to end racism, promote democracy impose peace or facilitate trade.

While a student, tourist or diplomat abroad may insist America “is not like that,” actions and interpretations underscore the contradictions at the center of the nation’s dilemmas in the twenty-first century.

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