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Spring Books

America through global eyes

by Mark Hertsgaard
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 256 pages, $23


A picture of an eagle engulfs the cover of this book -- dark, ominous, consumed with a terrible burden, wings spanning off the page, as if there is no end to the creature’s presence. Author Mark Hertsgaard introduces The Eagle’s Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World, utilizing the symbol of America’s power and might, the provocation of anti-Americanism abroad and captivation with the country’s successes.

“For we Americans cannot escape a certain responsibility for what is done in our name around the world,” the author writes. Hertsgaard strives in his book to awaken Americans to the consequences of their government’s actions abroad and to convince citizens to refuse to give up their power and sacrifice freedom. He develops insights from two trips around the world and face-to-face conversations with both ordinary and sophisticated non-Americans to craft a complex, paradoxical and often contradictory profile of the way outside observers perceive Americans and their government.

He uncovers nuances in their reactions, stating that though they criticize they rarely hate, and they often admire. Though the subject matter is heavy, the book transcends a dark mood through the author’s fresh and optimistic approach. He employs clever and simple prose throughout and serves up his agenda at the outset.

A mixture of thoughtful, off-hand, comical and sometimes brutally honest impressions by friends and interesting observers from his diverse travels provide the desired enlightenment. The book is not stilted, remote or condescending in the least, although the data has obviously been carefully selected and the author possesses a wealth of personal experience in the world. The author cannot help but take positions on U.S. politics since it is political America that infuriates the world. However, specific comments about politicians and their policy positions mean some readers will not be able to see beyond the political fog and differentiate objective information. The book becomes even more credible with the knowledge that much of the research and interviewing were done before Sept. 11.

Hertsgaard is careful to distinguish between opposing attitudes in response to U.S. policies and the representatives of American power abroad -- U.S. corporations, for instance -- and the more positive feelings foreigners reserve for the American people. However, the negatives have a way of sticking, and they are not exclusive to U.S. government. He delves into perceptions abroad of Americans as workaholics who can no longer enjoy holidays. No matter how much of the world is affected by U.S. foreign policy actions, Americans do not seem to care enough about politics even to inform themselves. After Sept. 11, Americans prefer to glorify their existence instead of facing hard truths while the government pursues a militaristic policy to the dread of the world.

Hertsgaard’s book sounds an alarm at a time when, it seems, leaders have convinced themselves that Americans don’t want to know the gory details of providing homeland security, and Americans may tolerate torture of terrorists to extract vital information and civilian deaths to punish dangerous regimes. The author is especially concerned about how blithely Americans give up their freedom, the one value people living under horrible regimes crave the most. Official disinformation thrives in an environment where citizen watchdogs are overcome by fears, distracted by the pursuit of wealth or otherwise reduced to passivity.

Americans are content to rely on opinion leaders in the media who have, in Hertsgaard’s words, “fluff-in-mouth disease.” The American press has abandoned its responsibility, catering to the powerful and dumbing down the news. An almost fated lament follows these conclusions: “How different the world might be if the American people knew all the things their media keep from them!”

The mere fact that Hertsgaard has to lay claim to his love of America shows how much people in the current climate consider criticism to be un-American. Undoubtedly, this book will seriously agitate anyone who believes that criticism interferes with national security or who is not the least bit interested in the opinions of foreigners. If Hertsgaard has it right, more than a few Americans fall into either or both camps. Besides qualifying as legitimate expression in a democracy, the criticism in Hertsgaard’s book is constructive.

A special vantage point is achiev-ed when Americans see themselves through others’ eyes. As the country readies itself for military action abroad, it is important to take stock of international opinion, for the sake of national security. Furthermore, objective self-evaluation is difficult, if not impossible, so close to a traumatizing event as that of Sept. 11, not to mention the distortions that war will bring. Indeed, opinion abroad may provide a more reliable gauge.

In the final analysis, Hertsgaard is not content to shrink the whole understanding of Sept. 11 into truisms about terrorists’ being jealous of America’s wealth and freedom. In his determination to press and deepen our understanding, he joins a very human and American tradition of believing in human progress through learning, even in the most painful of circumstances.

Mary Troy Johnston is associate professor of political science at Loyola University, New Orleans.

National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 2003