In the closing days of the U.S. presidential campaign, I realized how much influence America still carries: Who else’s politics do journalists around the globe cover with such intensity? Of what other nation do people worldwide care to have a vote for president? In light of this obsession, the meaning of anti-Americanism deserves a rethink.
Frankly, I’ve been chewing on it for years. Shortly after U.S. President Barack Obama’s first term began, I dined with some of my students at New York University. During an otherwise upbeat conversation, two Americans grew annoyed with their international peers. Usually devoid of anything good to say about the U.S., the international students were suddenly effusing about it. The Americans were not impressed.
“So now you love us because we did something that your own countries would never do?” snapped one of them. “Instead of making it seem like we’ve redeemed ourselves, don’t you think you should be criticizing yourselves?”
“Yeah,” piped up the other American. “If we were patting your countries on the head, giving you guys gold stars, you’d be calling us hypocrites because we haven’t earned the right to be your judges.”
A protracted pause followed. I could tell that many of the foreign students agreed, but did not know how to say so. After enough dead air to make the point, I jumped in. “Maybe there’s a positive way to think about this,” I suggested to the Americans.
Then I turned to the internationals. “Obviously, you expect a lot from the United States. Don’t you see that you’re showing deeper faith in America than in your own nations?”
More dead air. “Admit it or not,” I continued, “you embrace the ideal of American leadership.” About half of the international students nodded approvingly. The rest visibly bristled at the notion of “embracing” anything American.
So I pushed on, reminding them that there is a concrete history of American innovations being voluntarily adopted elsewhere. I am not referring simply to hip hop or fast food or iPods or ladies’ panties designed with images of Bugs Bunny (which you can buy at almost any bazaar in Damascus).
I am referring to the serious. Consider the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, the world’s first secular constitution. It influenced governance throughout Europe even before becoming the basis of the U.S. Constitution.
To be sure, American notions can also set a negative example for the world. Nazi Germany justified its atrocities in part by spotlighting America’s segregation of blacks and whites. When president Franklin Roosevelt stated, “I myself could scarcely believe that such things could occur in a 20th century civilization,” he was referring to Kristallnacht. But Third Reich spin doctors shrewdly grafted his words onto posters of black men lynched and dangling from tree branches in the U.S. South.
As head of the human-rights watchdog Amnesty International, Irene Khan told the story of her meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin. She questioned his abuse of authority, whereupon Mr. Putin reportedly muttered only two words: Guantanamo Bay.
To their visionary credit, America’s founding fathers saw such manipulation coming – and warned their countrymen to be mindful. No wonder the Declaration of Independence opens with a paragraph invoking a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”
Thomas Paine, the 18th-century revolutionary who prepared the Yankee masses for independence, was more explicit: “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression, for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.” Translation: What happens in America does not stay in America.
The idea of American exceptionalism has been much maligned because it is been taken to mean that the U.S. can be excused from high standards of conduct. But I conclude exactly the opposite. America’s responsibility is to live up to the highest standards of all because the globe turns to the U.S. as its role model.
It is why soon after Mr. Obama’s election in 2008, the German Green Party made history by catapulting a politician of Turkish heritage, Cem Ozdemir, to its top post. In reporting this development, a German scholar speaking at Harvard University ended her analysis with a smile and a statement: “Yes, we can.”
All of which brings me to a final exchange over dinner with my students. Directly addressing the international contingent, I said the unsayable. “When you announce that American leadership has disappeared in the age of Abu Ghraib, you’re actually revealing your deep respect for the United States.”
“You know why you’re focusing on Abu Ghraib instead of, say, the genocide in Darfur?” I continued. “Because Darfur is a multilateral failure whereas Abu Ghraib has happened at the hands of America. And America remains the measure of our own potential.”
Dinner lasted late into the night. The students felt a curious need to continue debating. I, for one, am not surprised. America has a way of keeping us engaged – a sign of how much we value its presence in our lives. Call it the love that dare not speak its name.
Irshad Manji is founder and director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University.