If the top Democratic hopefuls are under the impression that the way to stop Third Worlders from hating America is to build schools in their countries, they need to think again.
On Tuesday, Senator Clinton floated the idea that we should spend 10 billion dollars over a five year period on schools and teachers in poor nations. The justification for this being that such schools could give children an alternative to the anti-Americanism they are so often steeped in these days. Senators Obama and Edwards are of similar mind as well.
It’s a nice idea, but I’m not sure these august persons quite understand how deeply seated the tribalist, us-againstthem impulse is in human beings.
I think about what happens every time I go to a linguistics conference in Europe. It happens not on the first night but the second, when a certain level of social comfort has been established, and not after the first glass of wine but the second. Someone asks me how my country could have elected “that idiot,” and for the next two hours most of the table engages in a civilized rant over how much they hate the Bush administration.
Certainly this sentiment has been exacerbated by the war in Iraq. This gleeful anti-Americanism, however, was typical in my European colleagues long before 2003. The general feeling during these Bush-bashing sessions is that we should not have invaded Afghanistan.
Ten years ago, I recall a discussion with a German schoolteacher proudly recounting her tween-age students’ contempt for America for “doing whatever it wants.” I asked her precisely which actions on America’s part these students, born in early 1980s, were so offended by. The answer was much longer on emotion than fact.
And that’s just it — we are dealing with an emotion. Although anti-Americanism is sparked, of course, by actual events, it takes place as a sentiment, and sentiments die hard. The sentiment in this case is the self-perpetuating demonization by some Third Worlders of a perceived enemy, founded on tribalism. Tribalism is programmed into our species as a survival strategy: humans began as small bands of hunter-gatherers. It’s not an accident that in many indigenous cultures, the name of their tribe is the word for “people,” the assumption being that nontribal members fall outside of that definition.
Thus, by building police forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, we struggle to get local recruits to develop a sense of loyalty beyond their clan. After September 11, two American Muslims I knew harbored a sense that Osama Bin Laden was, on some level, a hero: he was “one of them” despite their genuflective assertions that what he did was “terrible.”
I once knew a Romanian who upbraided at length someone bold enough to suggest that under the first president of Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu, his country was not exactly the best run outfit in the world — she incoherently remarked that she and fellow students often had had to wear gloves in underheated school rooms.
This is gut impulse. None of these people acquired their sentiments from a blackboard, nor could anything on it teach them to reverse their thinking. Indeed, recent actions by America have reinforced anti-Americanism abroad. But that sentiment was already there — it is as typical as a David vs. Goliath underdog orientation, sparked by events much less polarizing than Iraq and blazing out of proportion.
To the extent that a sentiment so deeply wired can be undercut at all, school will be of little help. Students spend most of their lives outside of the classroom. It would seem that more promising strategies would be ones in which America helps to improve the daily lives of poor Third Worlders.
How about — take a deep breath — eliminating the subsidies to American farmers that keep Third World farmers from being able to make a living selling their products? Or, how about admitting that Rachel Carson was wrong about DDT and restoring its use in African countries to help beat back the malaria epidemic? Then, a targeted effort to resolve the Darfur conflict would be crucial, especially given that, of late, there are small signs of hope there.
Anti-Americanism is not a product of ignorance. Convictions are not always based on the rational: Recently, I met two PhD candidates in linguistics who are avowed creationists. Anti-Americanism is parasitic on obsolete mental hardwiring, and only transformations in the whole of daily experience can reach it.
Gut-level, placard-waving contempt for America in poor countries will ebb only when a generation of people are raised who see America leading fundamental reforms concrete and relevant to the quality of life that human cognition will be unable to iron out the dissonance between the tribalist rhetoric and real life. Mere schoolroom teaching, on the other hand, will make not a dent in the Third World brand of Hating Whitey.
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