Dancing Around Substance
“We expect to eat and stay thin, to be constantly on the move and ever more neighborly ... to revere God and to be God.”
Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image
There was an old chestnut some of the teachers at my elementary school used to pull out every few years. It was the story of Acirema, a land far away where doctors stuck needles into patients to “cure” them and children were forced to sit in dark buildings for eight hours a day, even when the sun was shining. The Acirema ate soft, mealy foods and had huge, dangerous weapons that they rode around on and that ran on a noxious tincture made of decayed animals. Boy, you’d say as a wee one. That place sucked. Then Ms. Kuhn, the ex-hippie who couldn’t believe she ended up with a mortgage and a drunk for a husband, would ask us kids to reverse the letters.
She was talking about America, not some barbaric nether-world. Whoa.
Unfortunately, Mark Hertsgaard, who never got the punch line, spent six months after September 11, 2001, on the trail of Acirema instead of America. He asked folks in all those crazy countries out in Europe (Western, Central and Eastern), the Middle East, and Asia what they thought of the barbaric land across the sea. The reviews were mixed, but his book, The Eagle’s Shadow is a strong piece of journalism that seems to spin its wheels and ultimately disappoints.
Hertsgaard, who teachers non-fiction at the Berkeley School of Journalism, writes from the vantage of a world traveler, touching down in Durban, Prague, and Madrid and asking a few basic questions: What do you think of your fat, jolly, gun-happy, rich uncle to the West? Do you like him? Do you hate him? Why? The answers are simple. Hertsgaard lands like a Martian in the middle of the Arab street or downtown Prague and starts interrogating the locals. The locals respond, depending on the relative prosperity of their nations, with varying degrees of awe and anger. To some America is the place to be. To others, its a bossy, parochial, domineering bull. It’s fat and lazy, but then aren’t we all, ultimately. They like a good meal in Durban as much as they do in Dubuque, and everybody wants to drive a Mercedes.
But as is the case in many well-meaning travelogues, the dynamic is changed by the very presence of the reporter. Hertsgaard is putting folks on the spot, making them decide about something they probably rarely think about. Sure, they liked DiCaprio in Titanic, but China has its own problems. The thought that they have nice SUVs in Montana doesn’t really come into play when trying to find enough to eat in Zimbabwe. Then again, the thought that a Hungarian writer was recently given the Nobel for Literature doesn’t really interest the lads in Brooklyn fighting over parking spaces. In the end, Hertsgaard is wading into a torrent against the current. He’s missing a hell of a lot because the water is rushing around him faster than he can drink.
His idea is also flawed because he is really just writing about himself. Do you like me, he asks. Am I too fat? Am I too dangerous? He wraps the questions in the interest of journalistic exploration, but he’s really just asking himself if he shouldn’t move to Paris because of the great bread, and whether they would serve him at the corner bistro in spite of his status as “Ugly American.”
“It’s easy for Americans to forget: we live in a land of freedom, but many people in the world do not,” he writes in a chapter entitled “Taking Freedom for Granted.” Pretty powerful commentary. He writes as if he wonders how anyone could take issue with the U.S. and then tries to get the basic criticism out of the way, as if we could roll up our sleeves and tackle our problems with some Trim Spa and a little cash. The problems here are deeper than that, as are everyone else’s. The questions he asks have easy answers. Yes, America is fat. Yes, America is violent. Yes, America is bad/good/rich/unjust/beautiful/ugly/powerful. But so is Germany. So is Egypt. So is Russia. And each plays as an important part on the world stage as the U.S.
Admittedly, Hertsgaard is a good sport. He drops a few lines near the end of the book apologizing for the book’s inadequacies and that’s what saved this one for me. But Hertsgaard claims to be writing with the curious seeker in mind. He targets this book, in the last chapter, at those who might want a better understanding of his nation, both at home and abroad. A valiant goal. However, he admits that people in many countries are not free. How then are they supposed to read his book? Maybe we can drop it in with psy-ops pamphlets over Iraq, North Korea, and, most importantly, besieged downtown Denver and Detroit? Maybe a few folks in Midwest America will look up from their 99-cent value meals and Big Gulps and take a second look at this nation that is slowly and inevitably losing its lead-dog status.