Elite Perceptions of the US

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It is hard to find more intense or radical criticism of the American establishment than from Americans themselves


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  • People and culture
  • Perceived arrogance
  • Domestic factors

As a Brazilian-born journalist now in my sixties, the United States has been a source of both admiration and contempt for me, with more than half of my life spent outside my own country, partly in the US but mostly in Europe. And this contradictory mixture is now affected by growing feelings of disappointment for the directions the US is taking both nationally and in its foreign policy.

The admiration is long-standing, originating in my upbringing in 1950s and 1960s Brazil, in a society that was then heavily influenced by American soft power, and submissive to US foreign policy in its higher echelons.

American popular culture has intensely influenced Latin American society - especially since the Second World War - through films, music and television, to a point where people in the region became familiar with the values and aspirations of middle class American families (through TV shows), the determination of the rugged individual (Western films and TV series), and the material comforts of everyday life in US (projected by the media), especially when compared to what existed then in our own Third World societies. In many aspects, these perceptions still exist in Latin America.

The tragedies of racial discrimination in the US were kept mostly at a distance until the growth of the civil rights movement brought the attention of the world to the existence of at least two separate societies living different realities in the same American land. The race riots in the 1960s served as a dramatic lesson of internal divisions which were not the usual themes coming out of the US for worldwide consumption.

On a personal level, my first journey to the US as a 17-year-old exchange student took place in August 1965, when violent riots exploded in the Los Angeles black ghetto of Watts in the same week when I arrived in the city to spend a year living with an American family, and going to what was then a predominantly white high school in a middle-class neighbourhood (recent visits showed that the racial component changes dramatically, towards a higher percentage of Hispanics now). The Watts riots provided an appropriate reality check to my teenage misconceptions of the US as a society where people lived in harmony.

As much as the abominable racial divide became clear and disappointing to the world, the national mobilization to fight it through the civil rights movement brought my admiration for the capacity of a nation to recognize its errors and struggle to correct them.

I followed the struggle and the transition as I returned to the US in the 1970s, initially to complete a Master’s degree in California, then as a foreign correspondent for a Brazilian newspaper. My job was to observe the US with foreign eyes for my readers in Brazil.

For someone living under a military dictatorship in Brazil – as were many of my fellow Latin Americans – it was encouraging to see American society exercising its right to free expression and opposition to the establishment

Progress on race has been substantial over the years. It is enough to look at Obama’s 2015 country (despite inexcusable periodical incidents such as Ferguson) and compare it to the 1960s of Lyndon Johnson’s country that I saw in my first journey. And credit must be given to Johnson, a Texan, for the anti-discrimination laws he managed to convince Congress to pass in 1964 and 1965.

The same admiration for the national struggle for racial and civil rights grew even stronger during protests against the war in Vietnam. It was spirit-lifting to see a society in turmoil against the foreign policy of its own government and the brutal actions of its military in a weak Asian country.

For someone living under a military dictatorship in Brazil – as were many of my fellow Latin Americans – it was encouraging to see American society exercising its right to free expression and opposition to the establishment. The protesters faced occasional repression with police forces using batons and tear gas, but activists were not tortured, killed or made to disappear - as often happened in my part of the world then, and continues to happen in many countries today.

As I learned then and kept telling friends or colleagues who had never set foot in the US, it is hard to find more intense or radical criticism of the American establishment, power and society than from Americans themselves in their own country. Fortunately, that still holds today.

The criticism of the US then - and worsening in recent years - has to do with its foreign policy, its arrogance of power, its assumption that as a rich and powerful country it has the right to fix the world to its liking, according to the ideological whims of political leaders in charge at the time.

In the 1960s and 70s, that attitude in Washington led to the support of repressive military regimes in my region of the world as well as in others. Even admirers of American culture, society and people could not restrain their fury when they realized that the torturers of their friends and relatives received help and support from the US government. The horror happened again in recent times with the practices of extraordinary rendition and widespread torture in the name of the so-called war on terror.

In recent times, this arrogance of power reached its zenith under George W Bush with his misguided response to a despicable terrorist attack in New York and Washington. Bush’s war on terror became a byword for excessive use of force abroad (the brutal and failed invasion of Iraq being the foremost example) and a growing disregard for freedoms in the US itself. The use of torture overseas, with the approval of Washington officials, became a practice as common as the government spying of individuals at home.

A continuous growth in the country of a backward-looking, religiously-animated right wing, with a ‘my-country-right-or-wrong’ mentality and considerable influence in the Republican side of Congress disappoints foreign admirers of the US, who worry about the future of American society under such values. Our only hope is the extraordinary capacity of the US to renew itself periodically and expurgate this aspect of society.