Poor, Depressed America

Poor Lady Liberty has an inferiority complex

US domestic news has gotten me down recently, and it seems as if I’m not the only one. A Pew Center report issued last week reports for that only 49% of Americans surveyed agreed that “our people are not perfect but our culture is superior to others.” This is down from 60% in 2002. It’s not hard to speculate on reasons for the decline. Since 2002 we have been plagued with two expensive and not overly successful wars, our economy is in big trouble, unemployment is high and political leaders on both sides have proven themselves completely inept. Gosh, I got depressed just writing that sentence!

Public diplomacy scholar that I am, it makes me wonder what effect this pessimistic attitude will have on public diplomacy. Americans have a reputation of having a superiority complex, but maybe this is more perception than fact. For instance, according to this NYT opinion piece, young adults in Germany, Spain and Britain have higher opinions of their country than do young Americans (at least we still have better self-esteem than the French!). On one hand, I am distressed. How are we supposed to sell ourselves to the world if we don’t even believe in ourselves? On the other, I wonder if acknowledging our fallibility may improve our image in the world. We spoke in class Thursday about how a State Department official was applauded a few years ago for making self-deprecating comments about the US on foreign television. Is this a good tactic for outreach, making us seem more “human,” or is it showing a lack of confidence in our own policy? I’m really not sure what the answer is. Any thoughts?

-Tory

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3 thoughts on “Poor, Depressed America

  1. Tory, I honestly think that it depends on where you are in the world. I feel like countries that are prone to having a hard time are more likely to respond if you show them just how human we actually are. I know when I lived in Egypt many of the people assumed certain things about me because I was American, but when I would talk if I put it in the perspective of “just because I’m American doesn’t mean X, Y or Z”. I think it made them feel like they had more of a connection with me.

    But, on the other hand when I lived in the Czech Republic, a similar tactic would not have worked at all. I remember one conversation with a Czech professor just after Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize where he was all excited about that, but when he asked me I was still skeptical and told him such. The downplay of my country not being as great did not work well. If I’m not mistaken, I was actually told that I needed to have more pride in my country.

    So, I guess what I’m trying to get at is that it depends on where you are and who you’re talking to. I don’t think that there is a “cure-all solution.”

  2. I’d have to agree with Becky. Every new country that I visit, I feel as though it takes me a day or two to acclimate myself to my surroundings. I need to figure out “how” to act like an American, and become this culturally acceptable representation of not only myself, but also my country. I think there are still countries that aspire for American “ideals,” and as such, when you are in those countries, it is important to act the part. I don’t think it’s ever a good idea, at first, to completely let your guard down in another country. There are many American-isms that we do here that just don’t go over well in other countries. It’s all about your audience.

    -DR

  3. Tory, you raise a really interesting question here about whether a culture can advocate for itself if it does not believe in its own cultural superiority. To be honest, I’m not sure that I would agree. Maybe I’m prejudiced, but I found it comforting to find that people are less certain of American superiority than previous polling indicates and I believe you can appreciate other cultures while still advocating for your own.

    Political spin-meister that I am, I would argue that this actually illustrates the strength of American democracy and an eagerness to improve the quality of life here. Furthermore, I think there is a sense overseas that the United States can be a little full of itself, so a little humility may go a long way to improving the standing of the United States in international public opinion.

    So maybe bad news is good news…

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