Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Land of the Free(est?).

Sometimes, when as a foreigner asks permission to do something, in America, some people will reply “Of course, this is a free country”, which undeniably means that if you ask the question, that must be because where you come from is not so free.

Without trying to read too much into a simple expression, this is often said in a tone of voice that transpires pride, patriotism and even a sense of exceptionalism. It may at times make you feel that wherever you come from cannot be as free as the United-States.

If you pursue the question and ask Americans what makes their country so special, most will say that it is their assurance that “America is a free country.”. This is true I if you compare it to, say, Saudi Arabia or Russia, and for that matter if you compare it to most of the world, BUT what about Europe or most of Latin America?

As a Western European, it is hard to fathom how my everyday life is any less free that of an American. Without getting into a controversial political debate, one could even argue that the difference, if it ever existed has almost completely vanished since 9/11 and the beginning of the “War on Terror” anyway. In reality the difference has constantly diminished since the 18th century and is not longer relevant. Yet most Americans are still hung up to the idea that their country is the freest.

This article published in the German Financial Times Deutschland (via Watching America in English) makes the point that this idea that America embodies freedom is the direct consequence of the cult of the Founding Fathers.

...the U.S. draws its pride and the perception of its special calling, at least as much from the achievements of its founding fathers. This manifests itself in monuments like the Jefferson Memorial in the capital, Washington DC, and in the way they carefully maintain the physical condition of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, both of which are ranked as nearly divine in the United States.

Which shapes not only the way Americans see their country but how they see the rest of the world as well:

Anyone who listens to the way Americans discuss themselves is surprised at America's implicit self-comparison, less with real foreign countries than to another, mythical, abroad. And it's this imaginary abroad which is manifestly ruled by an unrestrained monarch where no constitutional court dominates state and government, and where people are not equal and less free than the citizens of the much-blessed United States.


It appears that the abroad against which the United States established and still defines itself is none other than the England of religious persecution lead by King George.
The article also argues that this cult prevents Americans from seeing reality - an idea that seems quite relevant to me - :

In America, the collective image of foreign countries is a mythical one, preserved as if in formaldehyde, handed down from the time of the founding fathers with the Kingdom of England circa 1776 unconsciously serving as the main point of reference.

This allows the United States to persist in describing itself as the freest country on earth, although by nearly every objective criterion, most European nations are more liberal and free than the United States. One only has to recall the repressive American culture of prohibition and punishment.

It is in this way that the tradition-arrested Americans protect themselves against the pressure to compare their own achievements and social structures against real foreign examples. Thus the myth and collective emotion stabilize society. But this happens at the expense of critical thinking and lessons learned. It is a double-edged phenomenon that has worked its way into every aspect of American public life.

To finish on a more sarcastic note, and to make sure the myth is debunked, it is worth keeping in mind that when the words of the poem “Defence of Fort McHenry” were written in 1814, with the famous line “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”, the land was full of slaves and slave owners and women or landless men still couldn’t vote. But of course this poem only became the official national anthem in 1931 – long was gone slavery but the land was not as free for everyone either. It is all a question of perspective, isn’t it?


Monday, July 09, 2007

Iraqi Subtitles.

You know how sometimes are subtitles are used for people who actually speak perfect English. Ever wondered if they find it insulting? Here's the answer:

[this by the way, has been all over the Internet, sorry if you've seen it before but it's still a riot to watch!]


Americans or Unitedstatesian?

Last week, the New York Times published a translation of a French post by two Le Monde journalists on whether Americans should call themselves “United Statesians” instead of “Americans”.

The word "American" is so deeply embedded in your nation's identity that it may seem curious to you that there could be any discussion about it, but some people - in Latin America, for example - find it offensive, while others, including some in France, simply find it imprecise.

Granted there may be some ambiguity at times:

“Américain” (in French the ethnonym is capitalized, the adjective is lower case) is a word with many meanings, depending on context: “américains” applies to all Américains (from the United States), yet all Américains (from North and South America) are not necessarily américains.

But it seems to me that this is mostly a problem in Latin America and in Canada. Some Canadians resent being referred to as Americans and many people in Central and Southern America would not use it at all.

As Wikipedia puts it:

In Spanish, americano often refers to the entire New World; the adjective and noun describing the United States is estadounidense, deriving from Estados Unidos de América, the United States of America. Also, the terms estadounidense, norteamericano and gringo are popularly used in some Central American and South American countries to describe the people of the United States. The differences in usage of the cognates cause some cultural friction between U.S. nationals and Latin Americans; Latin Americans, in particular, may object to the primary English usage of American, feeling it unfairly appropriates the term.

Of course, there is not so much passion about this word in Europe. In French the term étatsunisien ("Unitedstatesian", derived from the French for United States, États-Unis) which came from French Canadians is rarely used.

But despite what the two Le Monde journalists claim, when the word is used, it is politically charged in French. It is always used by people who have an agenda: usually of anti or alter-globalization. It may even often connote anti-Unitedstatesianism (i.e. anti-Americanism for the rest of us). I have yet to see it used in a neutral non-political way.

If it were not so politically charged, I think it might be worth considering, although, the word sounds ugly and complicated to pronounce in English.

Some have had other suggestions:

Readers also suggested similar terms that they considered more melodic, like Usaniens or Usiens (following the example of the Greek word Usanos, derived from U.S.A., even though those initials are actually the equivalent of I.P.A. in that language)

And here's one more:

One uncommon alternative is "Usonian," which usually describes a certain style of residential architecture designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. (Wikipedia)

Personally, I will stick to “Americans” in English for the two reasons I just mentioned (because the word "Unitedstatesian" is hard to pronounce and because it is politically charged). But most of all, I will use it because... everybody else does, which is the most reasonable argument for efficient communication.

As far as the name of the country is concerned, I tend to use either "the U.S." or "America” indifferently, mostly to avoid repetitions, although I must confess I find the former more appropriate. ‘North America’ includes Canada and should include Mexico, the West Indies, and even Central America - but really does not! Sometimes I am inclined to use the word “America” to refer to the mythical country (the one where one finds the “American Dream” - or not) and the word "U.S." to refer to the political entity. But that's just me.


A President and His People.

The Guardian has made a good yet somewhat chilling point:

Although never a social animal, he [President G. W. Bush] is reluctant to drop into Washington restaurants unannounced for dinner, as the Clintons did, in part because he is fearful of the public response. This week, in particular, because of the Libby decision, he has largely avoided public contact - his July 4 speech in West Virginia was invitation-only. (full article here)

When a U.S. president becomes afraid of the people, he can only slip further into a siege mentality and disconnect himself a little more from reality.


Friday, July 06, 2007

Both Venus and Mars are Talkers!

Since both the Joker and the Thief tend of be males of the talkative type, we feel some relief in this study:
An article in this week's issue of Science blasts the popular myth that women are more talkative than men.
This was the first research to "systematically record the total daily output, in natural conversations, of a sizable number of people."
It seems that the study found that men tend to go extreme: the most talkative and least willing to speak were all men in the group.
Now, I can finally and safely come out of the closet as a "talkative man" (not that no one had actually noticed). Believe it or not, it is hard on us - men who like words:
Psychologist Matthias Mehl of the University of Arizona says the stereotype needs to be debunked. Not only because women are harmed by the "female chatterbox and silent male" stereotype, but because men are disadvantaged by it, too."It puts men into the gender box, that in order to be a good male, we'd better not talk — (that) silence is golden," Mehl says. "The stereotype puts unfortunate constraints on men and women – the idea that you can only happily be a woman if you're talkative and you can only be happy as a man if you're reticent. The study relieves those gender constraints."
If the difference in the number of words uttered is not significant, I would bet though that the content is very different. I'd say men tend to talk more about politics for instance and women more about relationships. But that's just an easy guess.
It'll be very interesting to see what the researchers find out when they publish their next results.


Wednesday, July 04, 2007

How to Make Children Terrorists.

In the wake of the failed terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow, t(ahere has been much speculation (again) as to how people become terrorist.
There is a lot of blame to put on the West for sure, but there is even more blame to put on extremist ideologues who indoctrinate youths.
Here's a good example of indoctrination of children by Hamas television with their weekly children's show featuring "Farfour,"a Mickey Mouse look-alike preaching Islamic domination of the world and armed struggle to youngsters.
Thankfully, the program was only on the air for just over 2 months. There was so much uproar all over the world that Hamas finally decided to take it off the air.
This is a bit surprising in the context of the war with Fatah which actually opposed the program.

After the liberation of Alan Johnston; this may be a sign that Hamas is showing some good-will to the West.
Maybe so... but as far as "Farfour" is concerned, he did not go off the air quietly : he actually died as a martyr. Some dramatic way to go off the air!
In the final skit, Farfour was beaten to death by an actor posing as an Israeli official trying to buy Farfour's land. At one point, Farfour called the Israeli a "terrorist."
"Farfour was martyred while defending his land," said Sara, the teen presenter. He was killed "by the killers of children," she added. (The Jerusalme Post)
Who knows what program will replace "Farfour"? I don't know how many kids have actually watched "Farfour" but there's great potential for a whole new generation of terrorists out there.
Some day, some Palestinians may need de-hamasification just some Germans needed de-nazification. And who knows? Maybe Hamas will some day go mainstream the way the PLO went mainstream.... but they'll of painful healing to do.


Tuesday, July 03, 2007

European View of Americans, the U.S.

A couple of recent surveys (one carried out in June by Harris Research for the Financial Times and one by Pew Global Attitudes Project) found that the number of Europeans who have a favorable view of the U.S. continues to decline.

The Harris-poll shows in particular that Europeans consistently regard the US as the biggest threat to world stability:

- 32 % of respondents in 5 European countries regard the US as a bigger threat than any other state. (and the most concerned are the Spaniards with 46%)

Even more surprisingly, the youngest US respondents share the Europeans’ view that theirs is the biggest threat:

- 35 % of American 16- to 24-year-olds identify their own country as the chief danger to stability.

The second poll that came out this month (the Pew Global AttitudeProject) also shows that the view of the US in Europe continues to decline.

Germany has the lowest number of respondents who have a favorable view (30%), compared to 78% in 2000.

France is really average with 39% who have a favorable view. (less than in Britain or Italy but more than in Germany or Spain).

So does this mean that Europe is becoming more anti-American? Not quite.

The poll also indicates that a majority of Europeans have a favorable view of Americans: 63% of the Germans, and 61% of the French have a positive view of the American people. (the lowest number is in Spain with only 46%).

What’s to conclude?
Well, while the Europeans have a very negative view of the Bush administration, this does not seem to translate into anti-Americanism. People do differentiate between the people and their leader, and that is certainly good news for all of us.

On more point: The Pew poll also contrasted unfavorable ratings of the US with much more positive responses in Israel, Poland, Japan, India and parts of Africa and Latin America.


Monday, July 02, 2007

Dying of Laughters!

It seems that the Pentagon has a lot of money on their hands: they have been trying all sorts of new weapons to incapacitate the enemy. Here's a pretty good one:
"It might sound like a joke, but documents unearthed by New Scientist show that the Pentagon actually funded research into 'non-lethal' bullets that would also hit a target with a dose of laughing gas. That way, they'd not only be stunned but incapacitated by fits of giggles. Another idea was to put stink bombs inside rubber bullets. I guess it would work, but the idea of crowds of rioters giggling uncontrollably while being pelted with rubber bullets is truly bizarre... (via
This comes after other wacky proposals such as "building a bomb that would turn enemy soldiers gay to distract them from fighting" in a document that contained a variety of highly imaginative ideas. (The New Scientist)

Can you imagine? A war that would turn men into "laughing queers"? Yep, only the army could come up with that idea. (Who said homophobia was dead?!).


Sunday, July 01, 2007

The End of the American Empire?

Undeniably, the U.S. is internationally in a weaker position today than it was in 2000. It would also be hard to deny that this is mostly the result of the mismanagement of the Bush administration.

The problems are multiple: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; Abu Ghraib; Guantánamo; the Arabs' rejection of the American project of democratization; the instability in the Middle-East; the U.S.’s neglect of the Palestinian crisis; the emergence of China as a competitive economic power; the resurrection of bellicose Russia; the Chávez-led resistance to American capitalism in Latin America; the fear of massive immigration in the U.S.... and a few more!

As a result, isolationism, nativism and Arab or China-bashing are on the rise among Americans.

Despite all that, The Economist believes that this is not the sign of deep weakness but simply “the short-term failure of the Bush administration”. In other words, they believe the U.S. is still the indispensable power and is likely to remain so for some time:

In all sorts of areas—be it the fight against global warming or the quest for an Arab-Israeli peace—America is quite simply indispensable.

The surveys that show America's soft power to be less respected than it used to be also show the continuing universal appeal of its values—especially freedom and openness. Even the immigrants and foreign goods that so worry some Americans are tributes to that appeal (by contrast, the last empire to build a wall on its border, the Soviet one, was trying to keep its subjects in). Nor is it an accident that anti-Americanism has fed off those instances, such as Guantánamo Bay, where America has seemed most un-American. This is the multiplier effect that Mr Bush missed: win the battle for hearts and minds and you do not need as much hard power to get your way.

With a typical business-metaphor, they conclude:

If America were a stock, it would be a “buy”: an undervalued market leader, in need of new management. But that points to its last great strength. More than any rival, America corrects itself. Under pressure from voters, Mr Bush has already rediscovered some of the charms of multilateralism; he is talking about climate change; a Middle East peace initiative is possible. Next year's presidential election offers a chance for renewal. Such corrections are not automatic: something (a misadventure in Iran?) may yet compound the misery of Iraq in the same way Watergate followed Vietnam. But America recovered from the 1970s. It will bounce back stronger again.