Nov 24th 2010

Myths about America and Americans

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

As I have been traveling around the U.S. discussing my new book "Arab Voices", attempting to shatter the myths that many Americans have about Arabs, I frequently get the question, "but do Arabs understand us?".

In response I note that because of globalization, many aspects of American culture are known world-wide. Despite this degree of familiarity, I acknowledge that just as there are many myths that cloud Americans' understanding of the Arab World, there are myths believed by many Arabs that distort their understanding of America and the American people.

Let me describe a few:

First there is the assumption that American policy formulation is deliberative, based on reasoned understanding of problems and consequences. It is this myth that often gives rise to conspiracy theories.

For example, when America invaded Iraq and it rapidly became clear that the entire enterprise was going awry, some Arabs believed that instead of being a massive ill-conceived blunder, the goal all along had been to create chaos, weakening Iraq thereby making it dependent on a continued American military presence. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The reality is that the ideologues who dominated the Bush Administration's policy formulation actually believed their own rhetoric. Seeing the world through their distorted interpretation of what ended the Soviet Empire, and colored by their (let me be blunt) racist view of Arabs, they really believed that a demonstration of overwhelming force ("shock and awe") and firm resolve, backed up by military might, would be sufficient to topple the dictator and liberate the people of Iraq. In their mythic view, they saw the Iraqi people, cowed by power and a firm resolve, greeting American forces with "flowers and candy", with democracy blooming and then spreading across the Middle East. The neo-conservative "planners" of this fantasy-turned-debacle, didn't listen to the more experienced professionals in the military or the diplomatic corps who repeatedly warned them that Iraq would not be the "cakewalk" they expected and that the Iraqi people would not look kindly on an occupation.

That the ensuing resistance and sectarian violence, the unleashing and emboldening of Iran, and the resultant regional insecurity were unanticipated was not accepted by many in the Arab World. That the world's one remaining superpower could simply have been such a blunderer was beyond belief - so conspiracies had to be invented to explain away this reality.

Inventing logical intent to make American policymakers appear smarter than they, in fact, are, is born of myth number one.

Next in line is the myth that the Israel lobby and, by extension, the Jewish community, control all the levers of power in America. It is true that many American Jews have become successful in many areas of U.S. corporate and cultural life. But it is also true that most wealth and power in the U.S. is still in the hands of good old-fashioned White Anglo Saxon Protestants.

There can be no doubt that those who lobby for Israel are a force to be reckoned with, but several facts must also be considered: right-wing Christian fundamentalists (who form 40% of the Republican Party's voter base) have a major role in shaping policies toward the Middle East; polls show that most American Jews (and Christians) do not support hard-line Israeli positions; and the myth of the invincible AIPAC is just that - a myth.

The problem is that this myth is so widely believed, that it has taken on a life of its own and is accepted by AIPAC's supporters and opponents alike. The idea that "if you cross them, they will defeat you" is so widely believed that it causes many in Congress to simply "go along to get along" out of fear. But the reality is quite different. Many of those elected officials who claim that AIPAC beat them (for which, AIPAC gladly accepts the credit, since it fuels the myth of their power), lost for other quite unrelated reasons. And I know of too many instances where AIPAC has tried to defeat candidates and couldn't, and where they tried to defend friends in Congress who ended up losing their elections.

The bottom line: these lobbies are strong and they do exercise an undesirable influence on policy - but it is the result of unwarranted fear, more than agreement - and in many instances they lead to actions not supported by the majority of Americans (even Jewish and Christian Americans for whom these lobbies claim to speak).

Another myth is that Americans are increasingly intolerant of Muslims and Arabs, and that America is a hostile and unwelcoming place. The reality is quite the opposite. It is true that we've had a spike in anti-Muslim and anti-Arab hate crimes, but official statistics establish that the numbers of these incidents still pale when compared, for example, to anti-Semetic acts directed against Jews and Jewish institutions.

More to the point, the far more difficult to measure gestures and acts of support for Arabs and Muslims are too numerous to mention. One specific incident comes to mind. During the stressful period when the Park 51 controversy was raging and that nutty preacher in Florida was threatening to burn a Quran, I had the honor of participating in an extraordinary meeting in Washington. The meeting brought together in one room: the heads of the National Council of Churches USA (representing every major Protestant and Orthodox Christian denomination), leaders from the US Catholic Bishops Conference, leaders from most major Jewish groups (representing Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, the Jewish Community Relations Councils, etc), representatives of major African American religious groupings, and the heads of the Islamic Society of north America and the Muslim Public Affairs Committee. We sat for three hours and debated and passed a strong resolution condemning the intolerance and bigotry toward Islam that was on display in New York, Florida and Tennessee. The group then went to a well attended press conference to present the resolution. The next day, however, this important consensus statement received only scant mention in U.S. and international media - the press was too busy covering the nutty bigot/provocateur in Florida. Also unreported were the many inter-faith (Muslim/Christian/Jewish) gatherings that came together in cities across the U.S. to defy the bigots and chart a course for cooperation and understanding

They say "bad news is big news". And "the loudest voice gets the most attention". But bad news and loud voices don't define reality. So just as extremists and haters in other societies do not speak for those societies, neither do they speak for all Americans.

Despite the inexcusable actions of some, the anger of others, and some bad policies put in place by our government, America remains a welcoming country and Americans continue to be a generous and hospitable people. And while, in this period of economic stress and political insecurity, some communities do experience hardships, this remains a country where immigrants can find a welcome home and work to realize their dreams. And it happens every day.

In short: American policy-makers aren't as smart as many believe them to be; American policies don't always reflect the will of the American people; and Americans are more hospitable than press accounts would reveal them to be.

Now this short piece can not explore and explode all the myths about America in the same detail I devote in "Arab Voices" to shattering myths about Arabs. But consider it the beginning of a needed discussion to help us bridge the deep divide that has made it more difficult to understand each other.

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More Current Affairs

Sep 24th 2021
EXTRACTS: "We have found that 47 million American adults – nearly 1 in 5 – agree with the statement that “the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president.” Of those, 21 million also agree that “use of force is justified to restore Donald J. Trump to the presidency.” Our survey found that many of these 21 million people with insurrectionist sentiments have the capacity for violent mobilization. At least 7 million of them already own a gun, and at least 3 million have served in the U.S. military and so have lethal skills. Of those 21 million, 6 million said they supported right-wing militias and extremist groups, and 1 million said they are themselves or personally know a member of such a group, including the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys." ----- "..... the Jan. 6 insurrection represents a far more mainstream movement than earlier instances of right-wing extremism across the country. Those events, mostly limited to white supremacist and militia groups, saw more than 100 individuals arrested from 2015 to 2020. But just 14% of those arrested for their actions on Jan. 6 are members of those groups. More than half are business owners or middle-aged white-collar professionals, and only 7% are unemployed."
Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "That long path, though, has from the start had within it one fundamental flaw. If we are to make sense of wider global trends in insecurity, we have to recognise that in all the analysis around the 9/11 anniversary there lies the belief that the main security concern must be with an extreme version of Islam. It may seem a reasonable mistake, given the impact of the wars, but it still misses the point. The war on terror is better seen as one part of a global trend which goes well beyond a single religious tradition – a slow but steady move towards revolts from the margins."
Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Is it not extraordinary that in a country that claims to be as enlightened and advanced as ours, the combined wealth of three individuals – Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and investor Warren Buffett – exceeds the total wealth of the bottom half of Americans? One has to return to the days of the pharaohs of Egypt to find a parallel to the extreme wealth inequality that we see in in America today." ...... "The top tax rate remained above 90 percent through the 1950s and did not dip below 70 percent until 1981. At no point during the decades that saw America’s greatest economic growth did the tax on the wealthy drop below 70 percent. Today it is somewhere around 37 percent. President Biden’s American Families Plan would increase the top tax rate to 39.6 percent – a fairly modest alteration, albeit in the right direction. It is true that there was a time when the top marginal tax was even lower than it is today: in the years leading up to the Great Depression it hovered around 25 percent."
Sep 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "But Biden can’t be blamed for the rise of the Taliban, or the fragile state of a country that has seen far too many wars and invasions. The US should not have been there in the first place, but that is a lesson that great powers never seem to learn."
Sep 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "The world is only starting to grapple with how profound the artificial-intelligence revolution will be. AI technologies will create waves of progress in critical infrastructure, commerce, transportation, health, education, financial markets, food production, and environmental sustainability. Successful adoption of AI will drive economies, reshape societies, and determine which countries set the rules for the coming century." ----- "AI will reorganize the world and change the course of human history. The democratic world must lead that process."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Although the Fed is considering tapering its quantitative easing (QE), it will likely remain dovish and behind the curve overall. Like most central banks, it has been lured into a “debt trap” by the surge in private and public liabilities (as a share of GDP) in recent years. Even if inflation stays higher than targeted, exiting QE too soon could cause bond, credit, and stock markets to crash. That would subject the economy to a hard landing, potentially forcing the Fed to reverse itself and resume QE." ---- "After all, that is what happened between the fourth quarter of 2018 and the first quarter of 2019, following the Fed’s previous attempt to raise rates and roll back QE."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Today’s economic challenges are certainly solvable, and there is no reason why inflation should have to spike."
Aug 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, they have focused on their agenda, which is totally misguided—not by our own account but by the account of the majority of the American population, who view the Republican party as one that has lost its moral footing to the detriment of America’s future generations, who must now inherit the ugly consequences of a party that ran asunder."
Aug 21st 2021
EXTRACTS: "Now that so many sad truths about Afghanistan are being spoken aloud, even in the major media – let me add one more: The war, from start to finish, was about politics, not in Afghanistan but in the United States. Afghanistan was always a sideshow."--- "....the 2001 invasion was fast and apparently decisive. And so it rescued George W. Bush’s tainted presidency,..." --- "Bush’s approval shot up to 90% and then steadily declined,..."
Aug 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Taliban’s virtually uncontested takeover over Afghanistan raises obvious questions about the wisdom of US President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US and coalition forces from the country. Paradoxically, however, the rapidity and ease of the Taliban’s advance only reaffirms that Biden made the right decision – and that he should not reverse course. ...... The ineffectiveness and collapse of Afghanistan’s military and governing institutions largely substantiates Biden’s skepticism that US-led efforts to prop up the government in Kabul would ever enable it to stand on its own feet. The international community has spent nearly 20 years, many thousands of lives, and trillions of dollars to do good by Afghanistan – taking down al-Qaeda; beating back the Taliban; supporting, advising, training, and equipping the Afghan military; bolstering governing institutions; and investing in the country’s civil society. .... Significant progress was made, but not enough." ....... "That is because the mission was fatally flawed from the outset. It was a fool’s errand to try to turn Afghanistan into a centralized, unitary state. "
Aug 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "But even in the US, which is more lenient than most countries, the principle cannot be absolute. Inciting imminent violence is not permitted. Donald Trump’s speech on January 6, urging the mob to storm the US Capitol, certainly came close to overstepping this boundary. It was a clear demonstration that language can be dangerous. What the internet media has done is raise the stakes; “fighting words” are spread around much faster and more widely than ever before. This will require a great deal of vigilance, to protect our freedom to express ourselves, while observing the social and legal bounds that stop words from turning into actual fighting. "
Jul 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "When it comes to the Chinese economy, I have been a congenital optimist for over 25 years. But now I have serious doubts. The Chinese government has taken dead aim at its dynamic technology sector, the engine of China’s New Economy. Its recent actions are symptomatic of a deeper problem: the state’s efforts to control the energy of animal spirits." ---- "... the Chinese economy, no less than others, still requires a foundation of trust – trust in the consistency of leadership priorities, in transparent governance, and in wise regulatory oversight – to flourish. --- Modern China lacks this foundation of trust ."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "It seems that they are, as the last 18 months have seen a remarkable expansion of the central banks’ fields of activity, largely driven by their own ambitions. So they have moved into the climate change arena, arguing that financial stability may be put at risk by rising temperatures, and that central banks, as bond purchasers and as banking supervisors, can and should be proactive in raising the cost of credit for corporations without a credible transition plan. That is a promising new line of business, which is likely to grow. ---- Central banks are also trying to move into social engineering, specifically the policy response to rising income and wealth inequality, another hot button topic with high political salience."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "The EU’s ambitious unilateral climate strategy will transform Europe into a trade fortress, encourage green protectionism worldwide, and give other regions the opportunity to develop using cheaper energy. And without China, India, and the United States on board, other countries will be careful not to follow the EU in its self-appointed role as the world’s green guinea pig. If Europe is not careful, it will risk finding itself in a climate club of one. "
Jul 9th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... ruminants belch and fart methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. As a result, rearing beef cattle brings about, on average, six times the contribution to global warming as non-ruminant animals (for example, pigs) producing the same quantity of protein. ..... if projected to 2050 [beef production], would use 87% of the total quantity of emissions that is compatible with the Paris climate agreement’s objective of staying below a 2° Celsius increase in temperature."
Jul 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " .... while China’s leaders never mention it, they are just as embittered over Russia’s theft of Chinese territory in the nineteenth century as they are over the West’s imperial predations. With Western imperialism having been largely rolled back, it is Russia’s continued occupation of historic Chinese territory that stands out the most to ordinary Chinese observers. For example, the city of Vladivostok, with its vast naval base, has been a part of Russia only since 1860, when the tsars built a military harbor there. Before that, the city was known by the Manchu name of Haishenwai." ---- "There is also a demographic argument for Putin to consider: the six million Russians spread along the Siberian border face 90 million Chinese on the other side. And many of these Chinese regularly cross the border into Russia to trade (and a good number to stay)."
Jul 7th 2021
EXTRACTS: "According to a new analysis by researchers at Brown University, America’s two-decade war in Afghanistan cost it nearly $2.3 trillion. Now, Afghanistan’s neighbors – Pakistan, Iran, China, India, and the Central Asian countries – are wondering just how much it will cost them to maintain security after the United States is gone." ----- "After clandestinely supporting the Taliban as a means to undermine the US war effort, Russia now fears broader destabilization in Central Asia and beyond." ---- "Similarly, after having made nice with the Taliban, China also now fears the greater regional instability that the US withdrawal may incite. In addition to disrupting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Eurasia-spanning Belt and Road Initiative, a revitalized Taliban could re-energize the Islamist extremist threat in China’s western Xinjiang province."
Jul 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "When former Fed Chair Paul Volcker hiked rates to tackle inflation in 1980-82, the result was a severe double-dip recession in the United States and a debt crisis and lost decade for Latin America. But now that global debt ratios are almost three times higher than in the early 1970s, any anti-inflationary policy would lead to a depression, rather than a severe recession. ---- Under these conditions, central banks will be damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and many governments will be semi-insolvent and thus unable to bail out banks, corporations, and households. The doom loop of sovereigns and banks in the eurozone after the global financial crisis will be repeated worldwide, sucking in households, corporations, and shadow banks as well. ---- As matters stand, this slow-motion train wreck looks unavoidable."
Jun 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect."
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "