Thursday, November 20, 2008 • 12:00 AM Post a Comment

Seeing the US from REALLY afar: it's not always easy, but it's certainly interesting

posted by David Mednicoff

A few years ago, I was on a lecture tour in several Persian Gulf countries sponsored by the US Department of State, part of my gig as a Fulbright Scholar in Qatar. My US Embassy hosts in one country, honoring a request of mine, set up a meeting with some local teachers of Islamic Studies. One of the senior diplomats in the Embassy chose to accompany me to this meeting. Several local men welcomed us, and we shared tea and stories about Islam. One soft-spoken young man in the group was silent, and responded evasively to the US official’s well-meaning queries about whether he had been in the US and, if so, hoped to return again. This man didn’t seem to have a vocational connection to Islamic education, like the other locals in the room.

After a few minutes of pleasant conversation, the senior figure in the room, an Islamic studies curriculum head at a local high school, goaded the soft-spoken man to relate his personal history, which the latter did in even, yet emotional tones. The young man, it turned out, was living in the US after 9/11/01, and had been a prominent terrorist suspect and defendant. He had been acquitted by a jury of Americans, despite government prosecutors’ strong efforts to prove him guilty of facilitating terrorism. The ex-defendant related a troubling story of incarceration and persecution in the US to the Embassy diplomat and me, and said that he would never return to my country. I realized that the meeting was a set-up by the senior Islamic studies teacher to make the diplomat feel bad. The point was to demonstrate that devout Muslims, like the acquitted terrorist suspect, were better and kinder than most Americans, who had arrested a kindly, bookish young man unfairly and at great cost to his professional and personal well-being.

There are a lot of possible meanings for this encounter. Perhaps the diplomat was moved or troubled by what appeared to be a miscarriage of our justice system, as I was. Possibly there were lessons here about US policy, Islamic values, or the importance of face-to-face communication between two nearly opposite sides of the “war on terror.” Maybe the point to take from the man’s story was that the US jury system can work. Or maybe the upshot of the meeting was that scholars and self-styled civilian diplomats like me were pawns in a larger, high-stakes political game, in which true intellectual communication took a back seat to posturing and diplomatic advantage. The only thing that I knew for sure is that it was an uneasy meeting, but one that I hoped stimulated as much anxiety and questioning for others present as it had done for me.

I would not say that this type of exposure to views of my country from afar is enjoyable, although it was at least completely safe, unlike the situations of my students in the military or some of my colleagues who delve deeper into non-Western social networks. But encounters like the one I described are essential, because they expose in multiple and complex fashion some of the multiple and complex challenges that our country faces in the world and that affect us.

I present this story as a variation on Liz Duclos-Orsellos’ comments that being open to foreign perspectives can help us understand our own country. Naturally, I agree with Liz' points. Yet I would go two steps further. First, integrating the insights of foreign observers is not just an option; it’s a necessity.

Second, opening ourselves up to foreign views of the US won’t always be pretty, or even pretty accurate. Yet this doesn’t mean we have the option to shelter ourselves from the ways that our country is viewed from afar.

In addition to the challenging interactions with no straightforward lesson that I have experienced in my travels and residence in Europe, Asia and, especially, the Middle East, I have had lots of encounters with non-Americans and non-American works that have provided useful insights on my own society, as Liz’ post describes. I also have assimilated lots of unfair, or even silly, perspectives on the US while abroad, ranging from Middle Eastern canards about tightly-knit conspiracies between Washington and Hollywood to destroy all Arabs to European misunderstandings of American history and ideals. Not every foreign insight about the US is worth great effort to absorb; Americans have no monopoly on uninformed, inaccurate or just plain silly ideas about our society.

Yet even the untrue or unfair perspectives about us from the outside inform us of what problems we face in the world. And these problems do connect to us, whether through our government’s ability to get help with the global involvements of our soldiers or the type of trade agreements or global economic performance that shape what we can buy or where we can work.

So seeing the US from afar isn’t really a choice or a luxury; it’s an engagement that we all should undertake to make a difference in the kind of lives we have and the way that our country embodies or implements its ideals. If we can’t travel, using the Internet to read perspectives on us from France, South Asia or the Arab world is quite easy to do practically, if it may not necessarily always be easy to do emotionally or intellectually. Yet, with the global enthusiasm generated by the symbolism of the election of a non-white president, a lot of heartening foreign insights about the US are out there these days. Whether in person or from your computer, a world of perspectives awaits.

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