America According to Hertsgaard

Mark Hertsgaard talks about the distinction between America and Americans, what retired terrorists do, and why Tony Blair is Bush’s poodle and Ronald Reagan is still President.

November 19, 2002  |  Mark Hertsgaard is the author of the highly acclaimed study of the media during the Reagan years, “On Bended Knee” and “Earth Odyssey; Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future.” On Sept. 11, 2001, Hertsgaard was traveling around the world asking people questions about America. Interviewer Terrence McNally recently spoke with him about his new book, “The Eagle’s Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World.”

Terrence McNally: Mark, how did this new book happen?

Mark Hertsgaard: I was in Cuba right right after the 2000 election, and one morning a young Cuban asked if it was true that Gore had won more of the votes, but Bush might actually be named President. While I was thinking to myself how to explain the Electoral College, he had the last laugh, saying, “Looks like you guys are having troubles. Maybe Cuba should send some election observers up there next time.”

Two days later I knew I would write this book. In it, I use outsiders’ perceptions of us as a launchpad to write an essay with storytelling that attempts to explain why America is the way it is.

I think it’s important that this began before September 11, because the biggest inequality that distorts our relationship with the rest of the world is the fact that the rest of the world has no choice but to pay attention to us. And if we’re honest we’ll admit that before September 11 we never paid attention to the rest of the world. I think on September 11 we learned the hard way that what outsiders think does matter.

What changed about what were you hearing from people before September 11 and after?

The only striking difference after September 11 was how much more overt the sense of solidarity and sympathy with Americans was. People did not forget their complaints about America, but what came to the fore were their deeper feelings. And the deeper feelings, for the most part, are positive ones, affectionate ones.

I interviewed an intellectual by the name of Anna in Barcelona about three weeks after September 11. Bush had gone to the UN and made his famous statement, telling other countries, “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.” And she said, “How dare he say that!” But she also said “It’s not true that America is hated. We don’t hate you. We all have American friends. We like you. Your culture is our culture. I grew up with the music of Motown. I love Hollywood movies. But we do wish that you Americans would think a little more about your government, because we have to live with your government. And that is not easy, especially at times like this when war is in the air.”

The distinction, between America and Americans is a crucial one. It lies at the heart of foreigners’ ambivalence about the United States.

I think Americans, in general, don’t make that distinction. You can see that in the way we reacted to September 11, and in particular to the Bush Administration’s crackdown on civil liberties. Nobody wanted to criticize Mr. Bush, including the press or anyone in Washington. It was thought of as “unpatriotic” to criticize. Well, it is a basic point that the country is not the same as the government. You can love your country and oppose your government. If there is a more fundamentally American idea than that I don’t know what it is. And yet so many of us forgot that.

The book came out in Europe on September 11. What was the response like over there?

It was like being a rock star… I flew overnight over the Pole, got to London at 3:30 in the afternoon and the biggest national evening TV news show was there within the hour to interview me. Then called back an hour later and said, “No, we want you to come now live and be on the air,” and they closed the broadcast with a seven minute interview; a long time for TV. And it kind of went on from there.

I remember in Antwerp one night, there was a debate set-up by the major Dutch language paper in Belgium… it was me, the former Prime Minister of Belgium — who is a center-right politician — and the former head of NATO, who is another Belgian. Of course we all talked in English and I couldn’t help noticing that this center-right politician was farther to the left than any of the mainstream Democrats in this country. That just shows you how utterly anomalous the American political system is. We think here that we’ve got two parties and one’s conservative and one’s liberal. In the European context, the Republicans would be a right-wing party and the Democrats would be maybe a center-right party.

I also think back to a guy I interviewed in Holland who said, “Look, I vote for the most conservative party in Holland and they’re way to the left of your Democrats.”

What did you hear in the Middle East?

In Cairo’s Islamic Quarter, I began one morning interviewing three retired terrorists. It’s an interesting concept. It never occurred to me before that terrorists have to retire like anyone else. These guys were in their 60s. Illiterates. Couldn’t shoot the weapons anymore. And so they were sitting around the tea-shop, smoking water pipes and playing cards. Interestingly, the same guy who had funded them as terrorists was now paying for their retirement.

They were highly hostile. Both to me personally and to the United States and everything that it stood for, except when I said, “Is there nothing that you like? What about… did you never watch the movies?” They said, “Oh, yes. Kirk Douglas, Kirk Douglas. We like him very much.”

Later that day I interviewed a Mr. Gahly, a retired salesman, and asked him “What’s the first thing you think of when I say ‘America’?” And he shot back, through the interpreter, “Freedom and democracy.” And I said, “Really?! That’s amazing, because everyone else here in Egypt has said, “Israel.” And he said, “Well, it’s true I don’t like the fact that your government is so one-sided and pro-Israeli, but…” and this was the kicker, he said, “But we also know that many of you Americans disagree with your government about that, because you have good minds and you are allowed to think for yourselves.”

Here’s a guy who reveres American democracy even as he lives in a government that is kept in power only by American military, economic and diplomatic support. Egypt is the second largest recipient of American aid. That guy suffers from non-democracy precisely because of the official actions of America. Yet he still loves our ideals and our people.

If I can do one thing with this book, I’d like to put Americans in touch with that kind of sensibility. Those are our allies overseas. Those are the people we want to reach out to. Those are the people we want to listen to. Instead of telling them what they should think about us, let’s just start by listening.

One of the other things we were told after September 11 — that the reason they supposedly hate us is because we’re rich. I spent a lot of time with very poor people around the world. In starvation areas in Africa and China, in particular. They’re very aware that we’re rich, but they don’t necessarily connect that with their own poverty. They do envy us, but not in a resentful way. They want to have it for themselves.

If the poor don’t hold against us our wealth, what about what we do with it? What about the environment?

Exactly — it’s the fact that we’re so wealthy and we don’t share it very much. Indeed we insist on squandering it and wasting it and not doing anything for the environment.

Over here the environment is something nice that never seems to get to the top of the agenda. You’re telling me that in other countries it really matters?

You bet. Everybody knows that global warming is real. It’s only in the United States, and really only in the United States Congress, that there’s any doubt any more about that. Anger really crystallized over the Kyoto accord. That is something that has really been missed in this country and by our press. The fact that Bush rejected it out-of-hand, saying we’re not going to compromise the American standard of living, almost word-for-word what his father had said 10 years ago. Even Tony Blair, George Bush’s best friend overseas, to the point that now the British press is calling him Bush’s poodle. Even Tony Blair criticized Bush for backing away from Kyoto.

In the book I interview a guy who was the Environment Minister for the Czech Republic, and he says, “You Americans are watched much more closely than you realize. And when you fail to take action in something like that, it sends a message to everyone else that they don’t have to do it either.”

Is that because they feel that, “Hey, our little bit isn’t going to make a difference.”

I say in this book that China and the U.S. are the two environmental super-powers. We essentially can veto environmental progress for the rest of the world if we sit on our hands, and that’s what we’ve been doing. And that does make people angry.

Let’s talk about the mid-term elections. As far as I can see, Bush proved that he is popular enough to motivate his supporters… I won’t give him credit for much more than that, because only 39 percent voted.

I think you’re entirely right. The Republicans energized their base and the Democrats did not. Democrats gave people no reason to vote for them. They had no real critique of what was going on.

Now the other thing that Bush did very well was to change the subject from Enron to Iraq. You know, even Time Magazine — which is a very centrist publication — began a piece on war in Iraq by saying, “Whatever you think about the wisdom of invading Iraq, start with this: Four months ago you had no idea that it was necessary.” And suddenly it was.

The President has enormous power over the political agenda. But he cannot change the topic, as Bush did, without at least the cooperation of the media and the opposition party.

One of the points you make in the book is that now… it seems more than ever… the press follows the Administration or the Beltway line, rather than leading.

Part of the reason I put that chapter in the book is that that’s really misunderstood by foreigners. Even quite sophisticated observers of the United States don’t understand that disconnect. Why is it that Americans don’t care about… you name it… the 350,000 Iraqi children who have died because of the U.S.-led economic sanctions against Iraq? Why don’t they care? And I would have to say to people, “They don’t care because they don’t know! Because they are not told! Because our media doesn’t report that!”

Yet during Clinton’s eight years the press featured attacks on a regular basis.

The press in Washington is what I call a “Palace Court” press. They say, “We cannot be politically partisan. All we can do is report what the government or the President says, and then we look to the opposition party to fulfill the role of the opposition.” And so what happens with any President is that if that President is lucky enough to be facing a weak opposition party, he will not get a lot of criticism in mainstream news coverage. Ronald Reagan was not criticized, but Clinton faced a virulent opposition party that went after him and the press reported that.

The argument of the journalist is, “Look, I can’t editorialize in the news columns.” So there will be occasional stories critical of any president, but the whole point in the modern era — and Reagan understood this beautifully — the only thing that gets through the clutter is repetition. The occasional story here or there is not going to hurt you. What matters is when things become a drumbeat.

Given the recent elections and the likelihood of war in Iraq…Where do you think the levers of change are going to be?

I think if soldiers start coming home in body bags people are going to get engaged. I remember a poll in USA Today, 10 days before the election… 60 percent of the American public opposed unilateral war with Iraq. They don’t like Saddam, they don’t want to criticize their President directly, but they don’t want him making war on Saddam without the rest of the world going along. Now he has the fig leaf of the UN Resolution. Nevertheless, the view out in the country is this is a very dangerous course. And I think it could very well doom Bush’s presidency. When you’ve got that kind of opposition before a shot has been fired, I think it’s a harbinger for Bush.

In addition to opposition to the war — which I expect to come not just from the usual suspects, but from a pretty broad cross-section of the society — I think that what really needs to happen, in terms of making political change in America, is to copy the way the right-wing made political change. By doing the hard, tedious, long-term work of grassroots organizing. Reagan got elected, because in 1964 — this is ancient history but important to know — Barry Goldwater, the right-wing candidate got stomped….

In 1960, Nixon and Kennedy were both very close to the center, and Nixon lost. Folks responded by saying the GOP needed to offer “a choice not an echo” — the title of Goldwater’s book and the slogan of his ’64 campaign. We’re hearing the same now about the Democrats.

Goldwater may have defined himself too far to the right for the mainstream populous, but then the Republicans said, “Okay, we’re going to go and organize.” And instead of asking, “Who do we run in the next two years for Senate? Who do we run four years from now for President?” Which is what always happens on the left. “Who’s going to carry our banner this time?” You know — Ralph Nader, Jessie Jackson — whatever.

In 1964 Republicans started going into communities at the School Board level, at the County Commissioner level, running people for State Assembly and State Senate and building slowly among civic groups and church groups, and so forth. It takes a long time and it’s not glamorous. And nobody’s going to win the Presidency right away. But 16 years later, in 1980, they elected Ronald Reagan president — and as I argue in “The Eagle’s Shadow” — Reagan is still president, for all intents and purposes. His ideas are still what dominate policy in this country.

Not only in the guise of W. Bush, but also under Clinton/Gore.

Clinton did not repudiate Reagan’s basic policies. That’s the kind of thoroughgoing change that I think is possible when you organize from the bottom up.

Robert Reich points out that 50 percent don’t vote in a Presidential election, and we just saw 60 percent don’t vote in a mid-term… That’s an enormous amount of disaffection. Do you really believe that the ballot box is ever going to become again a lever of positive change? I’m saying this because voters just voted for the party of oil, war, deficits, corporate corruption, environmental damage and recession. How do you lose to that?

Because most Americans didn’t vote. Because they’ve been alienated from the political process. But I think we have to remember where our country came from. And if we are going to let that stop us then I’m sorry, we don’t deserve to be a great nation anymore, much less a great democracy.

The people who founded this country had bigger ideas. The people in the Civil Rights Movement in the ’50s and ’60s who revolutionized this country, went up against much tougher odds than we face today. And they changed the country not because the leaders at the top wanted to, but because the movement created such a force from underneath that no politician could avoid it. Richard Nixon got out of Vietnam not because he wanted to, but because any President would have had to bow in front of that popular pressure.

I think Jim Hightower has the right idea, going around the country with his Rolling Thunder Revue, organizing people. We need to recognize that we are the majority. Most people agree that the minimum wage should be increased to a living wage, that Social Security should stay intact, that women should have freedom of choice, that we should have a national health care system. But we’ve been out-organized by the right. It’s really that simple.

The grassroots right that we’ve been out-organized by also happens to serve the interests of big money. There’s an alignment between corporate libertarianism on the top and right-wing activism on the bottom.

But I don’t think we can let that stop us. We also have the numbers. And in a democracy the numbers eventually matter.

So you think it’s going to take a slow, gradual process of grassroots organizing that may not even show up for a while?

Ten years. We should stop pissing away so much money running people for president and put it into organizing at the grassroots. Why focus on Washington? That’s where the game is rigged against us by the big money interests! Instead focus out in the country, where we’re the majority. Start there and create a force that no one in Washington — Republican, Democrat or the Purple-haired Party — can go against.

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