The Eagle, the Olive Branch, and the Dream:
Changing Perceptions of America in the World

by Ihab Hassan

We Americans are the peculiar chosen people.  .  .  .
We are the pioneers of the world; the advance-guard
sent on through the wilderness of untried things.  .  .  .

--Herman Melville

It was wonderful to find America, but it would have
been more wonderful to miss it.

--Mark Twain

America is like a vast Sargasso Sea--a prodigious welter
of unconscious life, swept by ground swells of half-conscious
emotion. All manner of living things are drifting in it.  .  .  .

--Van Wyck Brooks


A personal note at the start may help set the scene of this essay. I was born in Cairo, and came to the United States in 1946, on an Egyptian Government Fellowship, to study for a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. Instead, I earned a Ph.D. in English and American literature, and never returned to Egypt—I was naturalized in 1956. In the six decades that have elapsed since my Liberty Ship, appropriately named the Abraham Lincoln, docked in New Orleans, millennial changes have swept over the earth. These have swept through America as well, which transforms the world even as it changes itself.

        My theme is perceptions of the American colossus, as we think of it now in admiration, or abhorrence, or ambivalence of a thousand hues. Colossus—what does that mean? Is it not an evasion of our altered ideas of America as imperium, ethos, fantasy, global unconscious? Was the “American century” the last, or is it the one we have barely breached? And will the American eagle, olive branch, or dream prevail?

        America does not inhabit history alone. Inevitably, as I observe my country, I see epochal trends of the last century looming hugely into view: postcolonial backlash, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the resurgence of Islam, globalization, terrorism, digital technologies, space exploration, genetic engineering. But these vast, nearly unthinkable, developments reach me only through my felt experiences in America itself, through my perceptions and those of its media—between us and the world falls their shadow. Hence, before engaging my topic, I must touch on the question of truth, the matter of veracity and mendacity of media.


By mendacity I intend a category larger, more insidious, than outright lying. I mean the disdain for fact, the deprecation of truth, the attendant legitimation of bias. Is equity still a virtue among us? Is “negative capability,” as Keats called it? Is altruism, let alone self-denial? Facts don’t matter, I have heard an intellectual shout to an educated audience. You still believe in truth, a colleague once chided me, more in pity than in anger. What could they mean?

        No doubt, the discount of truth has many roots: the sovereign profit motive in our society; the anarchic shoddiness of the Internet; easy misreadings of poststructuralist and postmodernist theories; the currency of postcolonial relativism; the raw equation of truth with power; sundry ideologies that put ends above means and value only conformity to themselves. (Wouldn’t Leszek Kolakowski, say in Freedom, Fame, Lying, and Betrayal, serve us now better than Michel Foucault?) However subtle and various, such trends finally confirm our prejudices, if not arrant self-interest.

        One instance of this high partisanship—why cite knavish examples?—may suffice. In his Reith Lectures, the late Edward Said enjoined his fellow intellectuals to “speak truth to power.” Well and good: hemlock cup in hand, Socrates would do no less, nor would other paragons of the engaged mind, down to Sartre and Chomsky. But what if intellectuals attempted the harder task, telling truth to themselves, or harder still, telling truth against themselves? What if Oedipus at Colonus, rather than Socrates in Athens, proved to be the more luminous example?

        The issue is pragmatic, not mystical. Certainly the word truth applies to a variety of conditions: truths of revelation, tradition, power, correspondence, coherence, expediency, personal conviction, scientific falsification, poetic intuition, and more. All these revert to some underlying axiom or belief. William James knew this nearly a century before Richard Rorty or Jacques Derrida. In Pragmatism, he acknowledges the fecund diversity of truth, a truth, he says “made, just as health, wealth, and strength are made, in the course of experience.” But this is not an invitation to cynicism or prevarication. For at the heart of James’s own philosophical practice is an idea of trust: truth rests not on transcendence but on trust. This fiduciary principle is epistemic, ethical, and personal all at the same time, since our trust must also depend on another’s trust, and our faith, James remarks in The Will to Believe, “is faith in someone else’s faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case.” Hence the self-defeating character of radical relativism, of extreme particularism, which denies reciprocity, denies both empathy and obligation.

        We trust, on the whole, those persons or propositions that do not seek to bend or flatter us to their own end. We trust where we sense altruism, dispassion, and self-criticism reign. On the whole, we distrust slant opinions, slicing reality every which way. Reality, some cry, what is that? Ours has become, unwittingly, an “idealistic,” a Berkeleyan age. That tree in the forest never crashes down, rotting through the centuries, not until the media report its fall. Thus perception—nothing so naïve as truth, nothing so complex as ambiguity or contradiction—becomes all. And who knows better than the maestros of spin, the lords of simulation, the moguls of media, to define actuality for us? Define it always from a particular angle.

        Of course, the manipulators are themselves manipulated by their procedures no less than by their interests: there’s no real outside in our symbolic continuum. We all float, in various ways, in the same alphabet soup, the same plasma of signs and algorithms. Has it always been so? Never to this extent—McLuhan and Baudrillard, after all, had their nutty points. The dominance of the image; the heightened technology of deception; the immanence of cybernetics; the mélange of values, identities, cultures around the world: these abrade continually our perceptions, derealize our world.

        But human kind has ever defied Cassandra; human societies have learned the cunning of history to survive another day. My message, then, is neither decadence nor doom: it is simply the predicament of individual perception in our geopolitical space. “How can one and the same identical fact experience itself so diversely?” James asked in A Pluralistic Universe. And his answer is that, in the end, “our passional natures” must decide “between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds” [my emphasis]. The options offered us, in the private as in the public spaces of our time, seem less than genuine because the intellectual grounds for them have eroded under our feet. Our “passional natures,” like quicksand, like blowing dunes, drift free of all constraints. I mean constraints not only of lowly logic or banal fact but also of any larger reference, any obligation wider than self-concern, tribal bond, partisan loyalty. The evidence is rife—rife beyond present varieties of fanaticism—where we may least expect it: in straight news, in ivied academe, among the panjandrums of the humanities and social sciences.

        It is this predicament of perception that has prompted my excursus as I now return to my subject: America in my eyes and the eyes of the world. The difficulties, I believe, defy nostrums left and right, and invite personal testimony again.


In my years at the University of Cairo, during the second world war, my secret and consuming passion was simply emigration: America was the dream. Was America my ticket to freedom, the uncreated? Or was it simply a youthful folly, like the recklessness of boys who run away to sea, dazzled by horizons? And could such desire but contain its own unraveling, a long, loose, fraying of promise? The day came. This is how I put it in a brief memoir, Out of Egypt:

On a burning August afternoon in 1946, brisk wind and salt of the Mediterranean on my lips, I boarded the Abraham Lincoln at Port Said and sailed from Egypt, never to return. My father gave me a gold Movado wristwatch, and waved me goodbye from a bobbing white launch. I waved back, not daring to shout or speak. Churning tugs nosed the battered Liberty Ship into the seaways. I saw the town, the minarets, the high cupola of the Compagnie de Suez, recede. I saw the sands of Sinai shimmer, fade. And gliding past the great bronze statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps, who rose from the barnacled jetty above breaker and spume, one hand pointing imperiously east....

That’s when I shouted, “I did it!”

        In dreams begin responsibilities, Yeats said, and the dream of America became my burden—weight, theme, fate. But it was neither an outrageous nor unique dream, not then, not now. Hollywood had colonized a billion fantasies before the Yanks had ever landed in North Africa and begun to walk on Cairo streets with their RayBan glasses, Camel cigarettes, Chiclet packs, and strange drawls. They were our heroes, though some Egyptians had earlier cheered the Desert Fox. It did not take long afterwards for me to read Melville, Twain, Hemingway—oh, yes, and the Declaration of Independence. Weren’t the British still flying the Union Jack above their barracks in the heart of Cairo, at Kasr-el-Nil?

        How, then, did America become, in half a century, the Great Satan of the Ayatollah and the Ogre of Abu Ghraib, the “fully-fledged, award-winning, gold-plated monster” of Harold Pinter, and Margaret Drabble’s notional emetic (she threatens to vomit at the mere mention of the U.S.A.)? I cannot ask, let alone answer, without hearing voices, three voices, at least—“rabble in the head,” speaking out in different tones, cadences, moods, some nasty I fear, speaking in rowdy counterpoint.


First Voice (with a tick in the left eyelid)
        Why am I in America? I have come on the wings not of a cruise missile but of an idea. Why am I in this land of latter-day obesity, gross flesh waddling everywhere or stuffed in airplane seats? What anxiety, desperation, indulgence, or surrender—surrender to fast-food conglomerates—heaves beneath the fat? Why must I count among my fellow citizens Jerry Falwell, Tupac Shakur, and Timothy McVeigh? Why should I drive behind slovenly drivers who never use turn signals, one hand on the cell phone glued to their ear, a dent in every fender? And where else in the world would a crazy steal a tank, demolishing countless cars and hydrants on the streets before SWAT marksmen shoot him dead, while Seinfeld sneers, snickers, and ironizes on the screen? A religious country too, if you please, trusting in God without increment to civic virtue or moral well-being. And do I need to decline, day after day, dishwater coffee served before dessert? Above all, must I turn away, everywhere I go, from dreck and dross, triteness and sentimentality, seas, miasmas, geysers, the air thick with hype, the streets awash with vulgarity and kitsch...?

Second Voice (with a twitch in the right cheek)
        Stop! This rant is more noxious than the America you revile. And which America is that? The country of teeming artists, scientists, Nobelists; of great universities and peerless medical schools; of celebrated orchestras and outstanding museums, in nearly every major city; of prodigal libraries, research institutes, philanthropic foundations; of distinguished publishers, prominent intellectuals, vibrant cities; of dominant cultural styles and pop entertainments? Do you mean the culture that enacted, if not invented, Modernism? The people who continue to treasure and testify to poetry in best-selling anthologies across the land? The country that went twice to war against oppressors, saving Europe, Australia, Asia? I won’t mention sports, military technology, exploration of space....

Third Voice (stroking a virtual beard)
        Please! This triumphalism is no more seemly than rant. Why not speak equably, mindful of truth in all its shades? In nations as in persons, vices and virtues draw on the same source. You want to name the virtues of America, speak of its openness, generosity, inventiveness, the energy it brings to initiatives of mind, body, and heart. You want to name its vices, speak of the same energy, the inexhaustible power of its illusions, which Hollywood—that world empire of fantasies—partly reveals and profoundly corrupts.

        Take openness. It derives from a kind of naiveté as well as a “willingness of the heart” (Fitzgerald). But doesn’t it also derive from mawkish hope, easy to sour, “trailing the foul dust of dreams” (Fitzgerald again)? Idealism and optimism have become a secular eschatology in America. But they may also nourish infantilism, a peculiar type of superficiality. Remember Emerson in “Fate”: “Our America has a bad name for superficialness. Great men, great nations, have not been boasters and buffoons, but perceivers of the terror of life, and have manned themselves to face it.” Perhaps our historical experience of deracination, the illusion of a new start, unmans us to face “the terror of life.” Perhaps the doctrine of Puritan Election, blending into the Inner Light of Transcendentalism, has eroded our sense of tragic reality. In any case, America has been its own best critic, as Emerson himself—one in a legion of self-critics—proves.

Second Voice
        Yes, yes, America is not just the Dreaming Monster others make it out to be, not an Air-Conditioned or Moronic Nightmare, but a Stupendous Antagonism of itself....

First Voice
        Ah, Emerson meets Eminem at last. Allow me a word here, since I march with the legion of self-critics. Yes, I speak in anger, in exasperation, but also speak—let’s face it—in sorrow disguised. This devotion to illusion is really the Self with a Thousand Faces, and it robs us of dignity. We have invented the cult of celebrity because we aspire hugely but don’t know who we are. “Superficialness,” Emerson says. It seems to me more like an emptiness within, an exteriority without interior....

Second Voice
        Our great mobility may have something to do with that....

First Voice
        Please don’t interrupt. An exteriority of everted egoism, a corona of nothingness. We divorce serially and rack up huge credit debts in pursuit of our happiness. We blog inordinately to reflect our narcissism in a billion pixels. We fly the Stars and Stripes on every occasion and betray the country for a few grand—Pollard, Ames, Hanson, Leung. Can China or Russia match our home-grown America-haters?

Second Voice
        Well, you may be one yourself. But at least we’re not talking about bad coffee and sloppy drivers now. The American Self may be both imperial and distressingly thin, but its substance is not simply self-regard. We give more to charities, foundations, communities than all others. We’re not the soft underbelly of Leviathan, as others see us, unready for any sacrifice....

First Voice
        Oh, didn’t you hear about those parents of enlisted Marines, who screamed and howled when their sons went to Afghanistan and Iraq? Marines! Should they have stayed behind to peel potatoes at Camp Lejeune?

Second Voice
        As I was saying, the American Self is not only the sign of a petty selfhood, SUVs driven by “Bobos in Paradise;” it’s also a guarantor of freedoms, spiritual and material, that few others enjoy. Have you ever wondered why Americans, who invent so much, have never invented Gulags, Death Camps, Ethnic Cleansing, or Killing Fields?

First Voice

Second Voice
        That’s not quite the same. Anyway, have you pondered why states, even in “democratic” nations like France, wield so much more power over their citizenry than in the United States?

Third Voice
        Now you are both speaking with some cogency, if not great nuance. We, Americans, may lack the tragic sense of life, but we do not lack entirely in dignity, despite the strain of democratic buffoonery, from our Presidents down to the lowliest drunk. Has the Declaration of Independence or Constitution no dignity? Did not thousands, including those New York City firefighters, respond to 9/11 with dignity? The Protestant ethic has declined, as has self-restraint, but so has the feel-good ideology of unearned self-worth. Americans work hard, probably longer hours than anyone else, including the Japanese, and that requires discipline....

First Voice
        What kind of discipline? Discipline without inner rigor or exactitude. We are still a careless, esurient people, a throw-it-away nation, a society perpetually on the make. And what is the motivation of our work? Probably greed, greed confused with the obligation of happiness. And what word comes easiest to our tongue? The first person singular, of course. This self-entitlement makes for a culture of hustlers and cheaters, from the majority of high school students who confess cribbing to Wall Street honchos who will lie, steal, and kill as long as they succeed. I won’t even mention our garage-bred supernerds, with the social conscience of bespectacled slugs.

Second Voice
        PLEASE! I won’t say Greed is Good. But remember “this lustre of our country,” as James Madison put it, meaning immigration. A nation of immigrants, like all three of us here, does not always share a single code. It must also make room for self-creation. Self-fashioning is still America’s Manifest Destiny, more than the West, the Pacific, Outer Space, or Making the World Safe for Democracy. Self-invention....

Third Voice
        A good point overstated. Self-invention, as you were about to say, is by necessity self-regarding. More, it triggers violence, personal and geopolitical, because it refuses limits. Still, I must say, I would not give up American dynamism, nor accept limitations that pre-assign each person a place in life. It would be fair to say that America is the oldest and most successful multicultural society, despite its history of lynchings, massacres, internment camps, despite its continuing—if declining—racism and flashpoints of violence....

First Voice
        Hold it! Let’s talk about violence. I borrow your high tone and ask: is violence a legacy of the American frontier; of cultural and racial and religious diversity; of contempt for law—a nation of cop haters obsessed by crime; of the Constitutional right to bear arms; of feeble family ties; of frustrated expectations; of individualism berserk; of a collective id that has found, since the sixties, no authority to trust; of historical amnesia, reinventing the wheel of humanity continually? Tell me, why is violence as American as apple pie?

Third Voice
        Because people like you spout slogans and believe them. Violate language and it will allow violence to your mind, your body, your neighbor. A society reckless of words becomes reckless of blood. Everyone speaks of media hype and hyperbole. But a version of “newspeak“ may have also seeped into our theories and ideologies, our intellectual discourse, into our conscience even, just as it has settled into our fantasies.

First Voice
        Well, yes. The “scumerazzi” are everywhere, and even enlightened media mount campaigns in defense of television brutality and sleaze, claiming the First Amendment, if you please. What’s the overriding motive of media? Money, money, money....

Third Voice
        You keep shifting and sliding. Presumably you are concerned about commercialism in America, its “hyper-capitalism.” It concerns me, too. I doubt that the Business Model should rule supreme. A university, a church, a hospital, an army, a marriage, a court of law, must all be accountable, must all answer to economic principles—but they are not businesses. Other values must be factored into the market. But no promise of the left has proven effective, no panacea of the laissez-faire right. This is a practical and intractable issue the whole world is struggling to resolve.

Second Voice
        Let me raise a small voice in defense of capitalism, if not of rabid globalization. The same young people who cry foul on capitalism would howl about the least abridgment of their human rights or political freedoms. How many of them would choose to live in Cuba, Russia, China, or even Sweden? Why do immigrants, legal and illegal, risk their lives—risk and lose their lives by the thousands—to come to the States? Why do refugees and emigrants still prefer America to start over their lives again? Why does the “brain drain” favor America more than any other immigrant nation? The answers, I suggest, involve dynamic capitalism and its attendant liberties.

First Voice
        Really? I don’t know why they come, but once in America, they stick to one another like duct tape. Remember West Side Story? “A boy like that, who’d kill your brother.... Stick to your own kind.” “The lustre of our nation,” indeed, Mr. Fourth President—you should see it now. And by the way, sir, what does your friend, Justice Marshall, think of our present legal system, where hordes of prisoners (mostly black) face execution, a six-year-old boy who jumps from his bathtub naked to stop a school bus is suspended for sexual harassment, and “people of advanced chronology” sue when called elderly. Of course, we sue everything and everybody, including God.

Second Voice
        Would you have resolved the Bush-Gore Presidential election by force instead of law? Would you have called in the paratroopers or emptied the ghettoes into the streets? And isn’t our judiciary still the most independent of its kind in the world?

Third Voice
        This has gone far enough, it can go no farther, it will find no conclusion. The Republic retains a bedrock of common sense. A nation is more than the sum of its virtues and vices. And what is the point, after all? That America is flawed, that it is lovable and unlovable, that its preeminence is just and unjust? The United States will be here when we have all come and gone, and it will go when its time comes.

No doubt, these voices will seem programmatic, like diversity in a newsroom or on a campus. Still, joining countless other voices, they echo in the cacophony of pro- and anti-Americanism around the globe. But truth is not simply pluralist and conflictual; it lives closer to self-heedlessness, self-dispossession, human kenosis. That is another story, however, and I have this story about America to finish.


America with its Liberty Ships, like the Abraham Lincoln, and America with its Abu Ghraib effigies, masquerading as the Statue of Liberty, share the same founding traditions, belong on the same tectonic plate, if not the same slice of history. Can I put aside my yearnings to see it clearly, mute the rabble in my head to hear America singing, raging, groaning, gasping? The way of self-heedlessness is devilishly hard. More modestly, perhaps, I can try the way of self-criticism.

        The West, after all, has a tradition of self-examination, self-critique, missing in large parts of the world. What else are dystopian literature, science fiction, all those works from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to Wells’s The Time Machine, Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, and all those films from Metropolis to Blade Runner and Soylent Green? What else is the power of darkness in American literature, from Puritan sermons to the novels of Pynchon, DeLillo, Doctorow?

        We might as well admit it: the sins and omissions of America are numerous and sometimes grave, but the world does not necessarily see America with a lucidity greater than its own. As Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit have argued, a powerful Occidentalism, to which Americans themselves contribute, distorts the image of the West, of America especially. It is a lethal force field, this Occidentalism, energized by emergent hopes and old resentments as well as the greed and fecklessness of the American imperium, not to say its “arrogance.” (That buzz-word has displaced “hegemony” in geospeak.) But let us not beat our breasts till they sound hollow; stereotyping has no compass and recognizes no frontiers. Its lineage is also ancient. In 1068, for instance, in the Moslem city of Toledo, a Quadi called Said spoke of northern barbarians, “more like beasts than like men,” their “humors raw, their bellies gross, their color pale, their hair long and rank,” lacking “keenness of understanding and clarity of intelligence.”

        America will attract envy, pique, animadversion, limitless odium—and grudging admiration, of course—like a lightning rod in a ravening global storm. It will do so by its sheer preponderance, its exorbitant existence. A righteous America, on top of that, would be simply intolerable to the planet. We cannot judge attitudes to America, then, by rational standards alone. Nor can we judge perceptions of America by its blunders alone. The blunders are ours to rectify; the perceptions are another thing. The lone preeminence of the United States will remain its radical fault, preceding all criticisms, outlasting all amends.

        That is why the epicenter of anti-Americanism is not simply the Middle East: the epicenter is immanent—immanent like globalization, immanent like the ceaseless tremors of anti-imperialism cracking the world. (Paradoxically, anti-Americanism surges with pervasive Americanization.) Under what conditions, then, could we hope to see a world at ease with the United States? Under a different Administration? With an improvement in Franco-American or German-American relations? With a perdurable peace in Israel? With the relief of horrendous poverty and disease in the southern tier? By turning over world leadership to the Secretary General of the United Nations? Or perhaps by reasserting American ideals—they were never pure—and curbing American power? No doubt, some of these measures can ease the afflictions of America, the miseries of the world. But none—not even all—can pacify the world or bring history to an end (in Francis Fukuyama’s sense).

        This said, can we hold the country—hold ourselves—blameless?

When I consider altered perceptions of America, their causes and consequences, I think of external and internal factors, intermeshed. I have already adverted to some external factors: the preponderance of America, which no earlier empire, neither Roman nor British, could have achieved without the means of globalization; the combustible mix of Middle Eastern politics, Islamic renascence, petrodollars, terrorism, postcolonial resentments and hopes. (Regarding the latter, we do well to realize that “developing” nations will no longer lie supine before the West, though they may crave Western ways and wealth.)

        But there was also Vietnam! How much has America lost in moral prestige since that multiple debacle? How often has the Stars and Stripes burned in far-flung places, with names few Americans can even pronounce?

        Then again, since the end of the Cold War, many nations, notably in Europe, feel no need for the American nuclear umbrella. They feel, instead, their cultural difference, feel it suddenly and acutely, though it was “always already there,” in Derrida’s quaint old phrase. They seek their own destinies within the European Union, and their gloire leading it.

        Add those recent military interventions: Libya, Kuwait, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq. They do not endear America, though they may earn it some respect. They do not endear America because they may earn it respect. What endears—is that quite the word?—America is Schadenfreude, from the hostage crisis in Iran to September 11.

        Add, again, the growing indifference of American policy makers, in Congress particularly, to projecting the serious culture of the United States abroad, not just its kitsch or pop entertainments. Hence the dissolution of cultural institutions like the United States Information Agency. Starkly put, America does not know how to present its best self to the world.

        Altered perceptions of America? How could they have failed to alter, given the earlier, relative isolation of the United States before Pearl Harbor, given its postwar lapses and the momentous changes in the world since then? But is it tactless to recall some things that America did, on the whole, well: the Marshall Plan, the Fulbright Program, the reconstruction of Japan, the containment of Communism without resort to war, the restraint on the use of nuclear power, including its own, the ability still to serve as a lodestar to ambitious youth everywhere, seeking the finest education?

The internal changes in America, however, touch me deeper. They do so because foreign criticisms come fraught with foreign interests; because, also, the failures of American society wound both my ideal and self-esteem.

        The America I knew, back in 1946, in the Philadelphia suburb of Upper Darby, may seem idyllic now. It was, though never innocent, a welcoming environment, clean and orderly and decent above anything I had hitherto known. Of course, I had come out of Egypt, an exotic place then, not out of black Africa, and I did not reside in a ghetto of the City of Brotherly Love. The point signals a larger and more positive fact: that since 1946, whatever else America may have lost, it has gained in social justice and multicultural awareness, in the conditions of women, minorities, gays, the aged and the disadvantaged, the natural environment. How can anyone carp about such gains, however partial or imperfect? Since the sixties, these gains have enriched the image of America in the world; they have helped to make it the cutting edge, not only of democratic ideals, but also of social justice.

        Still, like others, I sense a growing distemper in America itself: an expansion of greed, anxiety, and girth; a diminishment in the civic—and increase in the partisan—spirit; a trivialization of values, of which television is both symptom and cause. (American television now serves as a cybernetic loop, amplifying everything lazy, trivial, and spurious in the land, melding entertainers and entertained in one continuous illusion of life.) Like others, I sense a strain of madness in American energy, or, at least, a strain of unreality in the personal and social priorities we express. How, then, can we be convincing to the world, without dispatching Marines? And just what is it we have to say, if we ever learn to speak softly and carry a big stick? Buy, Buy, Buy? Why not, instead, like Diogenes of Oinoanda—not that grouch who told Alexander to get out of his sun—build stoa, its columns inscribed with the sayings of Epicurus?


As I move toward a close—there can be no conclusion—I realize, once more, that the central themes of this essay, perceptions of America and of myself, will not escape challenge. Controversy is the breath of politics.

        Take the edgy debate about the new American imperialism (Samuel P. Huntington, Michael Ignatieff, Niall Fergusson, Richard White, Fouad Ajami, John Lewis Gaddis, Paul Kennedy, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Neil Smith, Robert Kagan, Jedediah Purdy, Bill Emmott, Fareed Zakaria, Peter Singer ... listed purposely pell-mell). How could such a mass of moot opinion resolve itself into a conclusion? Or take a narrower topic, the abominations at Abu Ghraib. Are they due to the excesses of a few misfits, to malfunctions in the structure of military command, to the invasion of Iraq itself, to the ethos of the Bush Administration, to flaring hatreds between Christians and Moslems around the world, to the tendency of conformity and obedience in extreme situations—recall the harrowing experiments of Stanley Milgram at Yale—to the work of the Devil, to...? And how can I persuade outraged critics that the Iraqi prison is finally not comparable to Stalin’s gulag and Hitler’s camps?

        Preset assumptions, ingrained values, imperious needs, will compel judgment more than we like to admit. But that is a motive for wariness—I will not say kenosis—a motive for ethical dispassion. Certainly, I want my experience of America answerable to reason and clarity; but I want it answerable to an ideal too. For ideals exert a pressure on reality. Hence the hypocrisy of nations, which find advantage in claiming for themselves truth, justice, and rectitude on every public occasion: they seek a respect they have not earned.

Nearly half a century ago, an American stepping on the moon claimed a “giant step for mankind.” Billions on our globe still cannot see where that step may be leading. Still, I cheer Neil Armstrong, as I cheer Amin Maalouf—a Franco-Lebanese writer who has survived the insane factionalism of his native land—when he enjoins us, in In the Name of Identity, to act and to dream so as to include in our particular identities “a new ingredient ... the sense of belonging to the human adventure” as a whole. And I cheer Avishai Margalit when he calls us, in The Ethics of Memory, to the hard task of “forgiving and forgetting” in geopolitics. But these may prove long, slow cheers.

        Meanwhile, America must act as well as dream. It must find ways to re-establish its legitimacy in the world and to resolve its unipolar predicament. Robert Kagan believes that such ways must accord with America’s historical experience, “in the manner truest to its nature: by promoting the principles of liberal democracy not only as a means to greater security but as an end in itself” (“America’s Crisis of Legitimacy,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2004). We know now what that entails; there is no predestined success to America’s actions in the world. For if history repeats itself, it may do so neither as tragedy nor as farce but simply as muddle.

        Thoughtful visitants to the planet would agree: America needs to do better, somehow, by itself and the world. The visitants do not specify how. In this essay, however, I have suggested that America would benefit from a freeze on partisanship and self-regard; it would benefit from a gust of civic altruism in the land.

        America should certainly do better than Dali did in his painting, “The Geopolitical Child Visioning the Birth of the New Man,” full of surreal slickness and bathos. The New Man appears to be a colossus emerging from the Egg of the World, head and one shoulder thrusting from North America, the left hand leaning on the British Isles, a streak of blood oozing down from the crack. The Geopolitical Child hangs to its mother’s knees, looking on with fright and wonder—actually, we do not see the child’s face. The mother is old, haggard, weary, and she points to the New Man, a figure still struggling to be born—or is her finger pointing to the Caucasus, mythic cradle of humanity? The Geopolitical Child and its mother stand in a dreamscape, outside the World Egg. We see, on the Egg, viscid outlines of Europe, Africa, the Americas; we do not see Asia or the Antipodes. The date of the painting is 1943, barbarism at high tide on the European Continent and in the East.

        Dali’s vision seems to me both prophetic and purblind. When the Geopolitical Child grows up, his mother now a huddling crone, what will that being see? A desolate dreamscape, with egg shards scattered on some barren plain, which a colossus bestrides? That’s less prophecy than allegory, a fantasy of world fatigue. I do not know what the Geopolitical Child would see. But I like to think that a visionary scape would focus, not on the birth or death of monstrous entities, but on new conjunctions of beings sharing this earth.

This essay first appeared in the Georgia Review, 59, 2 (Summer 2005).

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