A walk on the wild side of the net.
As an American living abroad, and even more so in my role as a diplomat, I am always on the lookout to find out what host country and other non-American nationals think about America, on an individual level. Most people, one on one, are very nice. It seems to me that all mothers around the world teach their children to be polite and avoid voicing an opinion that might be offensive to a guest in an intimate (i.e. personal, small group) setting. At times this can make it extremely difficult to learn what our hosts are thinking, let alone establish a dialogue. This is one of the reasons I am glad that we work with so many host country nationals in our embassies and consulates. They often are willing to have a direct and open conversation after some time working together, or at least repeat things they have heard.
Today while surfing the foreign press I found an article that made me think the world had either ended or would end at any moment: "Germany Calls for Bigger US Role in Mideast
." That was going to be the centerpiece of tonight's post. As interesting as that story is, however, and for all the possibilities it offers, I found something that lead me down a different path.
I found "Talk to U.S
.", a collection of short video and audio clips, some obviously prepared and scripted, many apparently "man on the street" interviews. This site was established with the November elections in mind, and most of the clips are addressed to potential voters.
According to the header on the site:
The US election in November 2004 affects everyone, everywhere. Talk to US is a global video forum, inviting ordinary people around the world to speak directly to the American public.
I could not stop watching these videos. Many of them were predictably anti-Bush, but for everyone like that there was one with a hearfelt and honest opinion. This got me thinking- and I decided to check out some sites related to Talk to U.S.
From there it was a short leap to Open Democracy-free thinking for the world. I did not have high hopes for this site, based on the name- free thinking, in my experience, often means anything but. Then I found this article, and this (click then scroll down) amazing collection of photos from Afghanistan, many showing American soldiers actually helping Afghans! On another section of this site I found a project called "My America: Letters To Americans", subtitled "Letters to Americans: the hidden treasure of the US vs the World." I could tell you all about it, or you could read about it in this Turkish newspaper.
What the heck was going on here? Where had all the anti-Americanism gone? Where were all the crazed foreigners screaming for the election of John Kerry? Those folks are still out there, I found with a few clicks, and the International Herald Tribune is all too happy to collect them in one place for you. And some of them are still in America, like the California college professor who told a Kuwaiti exchange student to seek psychological counseling over a pro-US essay.
All in all, however, there are a great many people out there who do not "refuse... to see America for what it really is--a large community of normal people--families, children, workplace colleagues--just like themselves." (Tip o' the mug to Expat Yank for the lead to that piece). We need to remember that, and we need to continue to reach out to these people.
America and Americans will never have great success convincing the rest of the world, the portion that is predisposed to hate us without knowing us, that we are not the global bogey man. We must rely on those who know us as a nation of basically good individuals, and we must be willing to engage in honest debate those who are willing to learn about us and teach us in turn.
Can we do this simultaneously with the hunting down and destruction of al-Qaeda and other terrorist threats? We have no choice. In the next two weeks the world will see America extend the hand of peace to tsunami victims across SE Asia while at the same time holding back the darkness in Iraq with force as they take up the torch of liberty. Those of us in the Far Abroad, and at home, need to stay engaged even if means leaving the echo chamber occasionally for a walk on the wild side of the net.