Why do they hate us?
That’s a question many Americans have asked, particularly since Sept. 11, 2001. There is no simple answer. And while John Tirman’s 100 Ways America is Screwing Up the World may not be specifically intended to address that question, it certainly is a step toward some comprehension of America’s current stature in the court of world opinion.
The book is meant to be a liberal response to similarly titled books attacking the left. Tirman’s intent, however, was to address issues and events, not personalities, be they celebrities or critics. Tirman covers everything from politics to health issues to religion to economics to pop culture. It may, however, serve best as an introduction to America’s path to its problems on the global stage.
With a foreword by Howard Zinn (whose People’s History of the United States is almost indispensable in understanding that path), Tirman easily blends history with current events in assessing America’s impact on the world. The problem with the book is one that is perhaps inherent. There is a great deal of overlap and repetition among the 100 Ways. For example, the military-industrial complex predicted by President Eisenhower, America’s prior interventions in foreign countries, support of foreign dictators and the desire that economic policy in developing nations follow our model are just a few of the elements appearing in many of the 100 Ways.
As would be expected, many of the issues arise from the political and foreign policy. As for the former, Tirman is highly critical of Republicans, particularly the Reagan Administration and what he terms “the failed presidency of George W. Bush.” Religion is also the subject of criticism, both politically and from its proselytism. Too often, Tirman believes, it produces too narrow a focus and gives rise to levels of hypocrisy. As such, our “Puritanical Ethic” leads Tirman to note “how much more energy is put into blocking the sight of a breast on television than drawing attention to poverty, environmental destruction, war, or racism.”
Still, Tirman says he is attempting to be “rigorously nonpartisan.” Granted, he does also take on Democrats, as well as the New Age and self-help movements. Yet there is no doubt his views find their source in traditional liberal thought. This may be seen best in his evaluation of Bill Clinton. Tirman refers to “the ‘wise men’ of the Roosevelt and Truman presidencies,” who helped produce the UN, the World Bank and the Marshall Plan. He then condemns Clinton and the Democrats for moving toward the center or even right of center and squandering eight years in the White House. “It is difficult to recall a single phrase, a single initiative, a moment of inspiration in global affairs that was of Clinton’s making,” he writes.
As the executive director of the MIT Center for International Studies,Tirman is particularly qualified to evaluate the impact of America’s policies and actions in foreign relations. As noted, he often touches on America’s past foreign interventions and support for dictatorial regimes. In this area, 100 Ways tend to explore the animosity toward America. Among other things, he notes that the problem isn’t that other countries and people don’t understand us. Instead, Tirman believes we are the ones who tend to lack understanding.
We know so little of the developing world in particular that we could not possibly grasp that hatred could mount to such a point that a 9/11 attack could not only happen, but that it would be treated with outright glee or a nod of “they finally got theirs” in many quarters of the global south. And that hatred, or disgust or disappointment, is based on misunderstandings, necessarily, but on the sometimes accurate perception of an America that cares only about itself, enriches the wealthy at the expense of the world’s poor, and belittles their aspirations, their cultural preferences and religions, and their politics.
This is one of the myriad ways in which Tirman’s 100 Ways encompasses far more than formal policy decisions. Another underlying theme is that many of the ways actually stem from America’s stature itself. Both the good and bad of our culture spreads throughout the world, leading to efforts to imitate America. Tirman also tries to help the reader understand the impact of our own actions both locally and globally. He labels “Consumerism” as one of the ways, saying:
It can be argued that consumption is normal desire and that a successful economy has made it possible. Why the bitching? We don’t need all this stuff, not even close. Consumer desires are fabricated, not natural. The only reason to relentlessly stimulate these consumption habits is to make a buck, not to make people better or happier or safer. Ordinary folks are going into debt and leaving little for their communities or children. . . . . The mountains of waste increase. The imports of cheap stuff are hurting our long-term economic stability as a country and not doing enough for third world development. It’s circular bad behavior, seemingly innocuous, but in the end enormously harmful.
Many will reject 100 Ways out of hand as a liberal diatribe that shows Tirman is among those who hate America. Yet Tirman continually suggests methods of potentially reducing or eliminating the problems he sees. Similarly, the book concludes with a list of 10 broad virtues that imbue America, such as fairness, belief in the rule of law and being a secular state while still being strongly religious.
Instead of considering 100 Ways “an anti-American rant,” Tirman suggests in his introduction that it is something else — “simply truth telling inside a family that needs to hear it.” Tirman may have that right. Ultimately, it may be that it takes books like his for many Americans to learn the myriad, often interrelated, ways that have brought us to the point that we need to ask why hatred for America exists.
America’s aspirations and self-image are not matched by its actual achievements or intentions.
John Tirman, 100 Ways America is Screwing Up the World