Everyone reading this is an American or has encountered one. That’s an unverifiable but certain-to-the-point-of-idiotic assertion that would not stand had I substituted American with say, Andorran or Senegalese or Kiribati. But perceptions of Americans often have less to do with America in the flesh than in its politics (see Ukraine or Israel) or in culture (see Miss Americana herself, Taylor Swift). All this inevitably creates a myth Americana, and it’s not always flattering.
As a dual citizen of the U.S. and Cyprus, who’s lived throughout my life in both countries, I’ve looked down both ends of the barrel. The following Bush-era opinion piece, which I wrote a lifetime ago (2005) for the Cyprus Mail, reflects my experience as an American in post-9/11 Europe / Middle East. The op-ed’s emphasis on the foreign perception of Americans, the conflation of a citizenry with its government, and questions of censorship feel especially relevant to headlines from recent weeks, whether that be the circulating Bin Laden letter or the senate hearings on antisemitism and campus free speech. I elaborate on this in the afterword.
Some of the assessments about the U.S. in this piece may be more historic than contemporary due to an increasing chilling of press freedom (think Assange) and erosion of free speech (think pretty much anything from the last four years), not to mention its depiction of the U.N. is overly sunny, but for the most part, I don’t find the op-ed too moth-eaten.
You’ll need to zoom in on the image. It’s no 4K, but the text is clear enough to read. If you want the clearest possible version, the pdf version is available for download below.
My latest Rogue’s Gallery on Orwell, whose writing as I mentioned spurred much of my journalism, got me looking back through some of my articles. On re-reading my above op-ed on the view of America (the first half of a two-part article published over two Sundays), I saw its themes playing out in these recent events:
On October 19, the U.S. government issued a “Worldwide Caution” travel advisory to Americans. This stemmed from a perceived elevated risk to traveling Americans due to global resentment over U.S. military and diplomatic support of the Israeli bombing campaign in Gaza.
In mid-November, young Americans began sharing via TikTok Bin Laden’s “Letter to America” that had been up on the Guardian website for over two decades. The letter outlined Bin Laden’s grievances toward the U.S. and explained why he considered it justified to target civilians in democracies, where populations elect their leaders. When the letter began going viral, TikTok banned the hashtag #lettertoamerica and the Guardian deleted the document (although you can still find it, of all places, on Newsweek).
On Dec. 5, there was a Senate hearing with the presidents of Harvard, M.I.T., and Penn on alleged claims of antisemitism on campus. After a furor that the presidents had equivocated over whether genocide of Jews constitutes harassment, the Penn president resigned and the other two came under pressure by big donors and politicians to do the same. Supporters of their ousting say these presidents were getting their due for erroneously invoking the First Amendment for a private institution and/or for hypocritically preaching free speech after years of snowflake safetyism; others have condemned it as the latest iteration of corrosive cancel culture and argued that the presidents’ discomfort in responding had roots in a recent redefining of all criticism of Israel and anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism, whereby the chanting of longstanding political slogans (river to the sea) now implies promotion of genocide, by which any Palestinian protest could be ostensibly defined as genocidal, or at least anti-Semitic.
Now, I could have gone on about these issues to no end, especially on censorship and on the myths around free speech vs. hate speech. In fact, I already took a stab at reverse engineering the First Amendment in my last fairy tale, “Mouths Wide Shut”:
Fortunately for us all, instead of hammering out a righteous jeremiad about the news of the day, I instead took the easy route and dug up an old op-ed. So next time you hear someone mutter that “Americans are dumb” you can direct them to this here Myth Americana and, well, hopefully not prove their point.
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