Shoe on the Other Foot

I am so used to having to defend and explain the Arab/Muslim world when I am in America that it always comes as a bit of a surprise to me when I am abroad to have to defend and explain America. On my first night in Italy, over a delicious dinner of home-made pasta, I was told that Americans were fat. “Like this,” my friend said and held her arms out as if she were holding a door. There was not much I could say to that. Yes, Americans are obese, and the trend is only getting worse, even as all the actresses and models are starving themselves to death.

On my second day, someone asked me why I lived in America. I can think of one very good reason; it’s called Alex. But, in any case, my friend was asking out of genuine curiosity. Why, he wanted to know, did someone like me wish to live in the deep, dark pool of ignorance that is America? (He was far too polite to put it that way, so I am paraphrasing a bit here.) We had just walked into a restaurant to have dinner. The conversation veered from Colin Powell’s lies at the United Nations, the war in Iraq, and the murder of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, to the consumerism of American society, Bratz dolls, and the TV show Kid Nation. “What is that?” asked another one of my dinner companions. Our friend explained, in English, “They created a town run by kids, and they divided them into groups. So one group, for example, is the aristocracy and they don’t do anything.” I don’t speak Italian, but it doesn’t take much to understand our fellow diner’s response: “è una follia totale!” I felt compelled to point out that Kid Nation was widely criticized and did not do that well in the ratings. America is a diverse nation of 300 million people. There are bound to be a few cretins who think these shows are worth making or watching.

It was very hard to argue with the image of an imperialist, consumerist, excessive America, though, and I was quiet for a while. After all, I spend a lot of time criticizing all these things myself. The restaurant was empty by now, and there was a lull in conversation as everyone contemplated America’s excesses. Then the voice of Louis Armstrong came on the stereo. “It’s Louis Armstrong,” I said, to no one in particular. He is America, too, I wanted to say. America is not just the idiocy of its TV shows and the stupidity and cupidity of its rulers, but also the brilliance of its writers, its musicians, its filmmakers, its artists.

I feel like I’ve been having this sort of conversation a lot since September 11. In Morocco, in France, in Holland, and now in Italy, I’ve been having similar experiences. There is no amount of ‘public diplomacy’ this Administration can do that can cover up its belligerence, and the corporatization of the media isn’t helping. What can I say? We need a new administration. And I don’t mean Hillary.