January 21, 2019

Reflections on America From Abroad

“American exceptionalism,” the notion that the United States is unique among the nations of the world, dates back to de Tocqueville, but it has become one of the besetting problems of American foreign policy.  We tell ourselves that we are uniquely good, a shining city on a hill, and we are baffled when our friends and enemies alike fail to see us as the cowboys in the white hats.

To address the disconnect between our national myth and world public opinion, publisher and editor James Atlas has assembled an impressive collection of short essays about America by 21 men and women from other countries in “How They See Us: Meditations on America” (Atlas & Co.: $18.00). It’s a fascinating, provocative and sometimes deeply troubling opportunity to look across the chasm that has opened between how we think of ourselves and how we are perceived by others.

“It’s not a book about politics or policy, through inevitably they figure in the discussion,” Atlas writes. “It’s a book about the deep bond that ‘foreign’ writers — that is to say, writers who aren’t American — form with the most powerful nation on earth.”

Inevitably, the book is concerned with the events of the very recent past, and especially the decision of President George Bush to use the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as a rationale for going to war against Iraq in 2003.  “One of the most amazing feats of the Bush administration was the sheer speed with which it transformed the United States from a victim to an aggressor,” Atlas observes. “Coursing through many of these essays is a bitterness that only the betrayed can know.”

Bush wanted the world to think of us as liberators rather than Americans, but Iraqi-Canadian writer Leilah Nadir (and millions of others) don’t see us that way: “America is a pair of heavy black boots dangling out of a low-flying army helicopter, a machine gun cocked down at me, as I huddle in my nightgown in my cot on the rooftop of my Baghdad house,” Nadir writes. “America is my crippled brother, a crutch where his left leg used to be.”

Atlas, a distinguished biographer (“Bellows”) and memoirist (“My Life in the Middle Ages”), tells us that he did not want to produce “a Bush-bashing book,” and his anthology is much more than that. Most of the writers who contributed to “How They See Us” are novelists, and they bring intimacy and passion, poignant anecdote and telling detail to their essays.  Indeed, many of the pieces are more like short memoirs than political tracts, and at least a few of the writers fully embrace the American dream.

“I came to America at the age of 23 with a bamboo flute, $30 in my pockets, and the intensity of hope,” writes Chinese-born writer Da Chen.  “The $30 did not last long but that flute is still with me, a vintage now, mellowed with my spittle.”  He recalls how his father, a playwright, warned him not to become a writer: “If you wrote from your heart, speaking the truth that couldn’t be spoken, it would be the most dangerous job you could ever have.”  Only in America, writes Da Chen, was he able to write and publish freely. “In China,” he concludes, “I would have been swept into a dark prison, known by a number and not a name.”

For Israeli journalist and historian Tom Segev, during his childhood, in the 1950s, America was symbolized by the peanut butter in the care packages sent by a relative in America, and he sees other linkages between American exceptionalism and the Zionist dream:  “The deeper they plunged into the American sphere of influence, the more Israelis began to include America as part of their collective identity,” Segev writes.  “[M]any see Israel’s success as part of America’s achievement.”  But he points out that “Israelis have also learned to marvel at America’s great failures,” including what they see as America’s inability “to defend itself against the terrorists who obliterated the World Trade Center.”

Not surprisingly, Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti offers among the hardest-edged contributions in the collection.  “Hysterical calls to condemn anything American are the product of second-rate analysis and miserable over-simplification,” he concedes. But he goes on to complain that “[t]he American elite automatically adopt the Israeli narrative and refuse to acknowledge our rights or suffering,” to characterize the peace process as not merely a failure but something downright “obscene,” and to advise our current president that “the core of the [Arab-Israeli] conflict is Occupation.”

American readers — and, especially, Jewish readers — are likely to be angered, frustrated or baffled by some of the essays in “How They See Us.”  If so, Atlas has succeeded in his self-appointed mission.  The whole point of his book is to crack our mirror of complacent self-regard and allow us to glimpse the face of America as others see it. 

Jonathan Kirsch, author of 13 books, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal.