Seeing the US from Afar: How Foreign Observers Might Help Americans Understand Our Brave New World

 I was in France this summer during the Democratic National Convention and here in the US for the Republican version. After both events had ended I realized that while I had been interested in the press coverage throughout I had been even more interested in the fact that I saw these conventions through very different and very particular lenses: one as an American watching Americans talk about the US, and another as an American watching the French talk about the US. Seeing the US from afar during the DNC was powerful. Seeing my country’s political process, social mores, successes and failures edited, commented on, and replayed by the French reminded me of the value of stepping away from what is familiar in order to engage it more fully.

In my early 20s I read Cathy Davidson’s account of her time as an American academic in Japan— 36 Views of Mt Fugi: On Finding Myself in Japan—and was struck by the way Davidson verbalized what I had felt in my own life and yet had never been able to articulate in quite the right way. It was in leaving the US, she wrote, in viewing it from afar that its contours, its nuances, its glory and its flaws, were illuminated. The distance allowed her access to thoughts and images of the US (and of herself) that were often hidden in plain view stateside.

In this historic year in which Americans have elected a new President and the US economy has taken a nosedive, many Americans are trying to make sense of what all of this means about “America” and for “America’s” place in a shrinking global community. In one form or another questions such as What does America stand for? What do Americans believe? and Who is an American? are appearing in newspapers, on blogs, in offices, in coffee shops and even in my college classrooms. As we talk to one another and follow the continual updates of the 24-hour cable news world it strikes me that the ability to step away from our local or even national take on these new realities might help us in our quest for answers.
But…hold your passport…there is no need for everyone reading this to jet off to a foreign destination. I see the internet (with its access to newspapers from cities and towns the world over) as a grand way to gain access to new angles and insights. “Afar” might be as close as a keyboard.

There is precedent for this approach to “seeing the US from afar” via the written accounts of non-Americans. In the early 19th century as Americans were struggling to understand what democracy meant and what a “United” States of America might mean, foreign observers Alexis de Tocqueville, Gustave de Beaumont and Harriet Martineau recorded their observations and analyses of US society (including race relations, the economy and access to the democratic promise) in books devoured by Americans in their time and ours. The Americans who read their works in the 19th c. and the Americans who read them today are Americans looking to those who might, from a distance, be able to shine a light on some key issue or detail that could help explain America to Americans. In many cases…the search is successful! These days works by Tocqueville, Beaumont and Martineau are held up by scholars of all stripes as brilliant insights into the American mind, social systems and mores.

In this spirit I can not help but point out too, that two years ago another Frenchman—philosopher Bernard Heni-Levy—wrote American Vertigo as a way to shine a 21st c. light on 21st c. America in the spirit of Tocqueville. In that 2006 book (which I found myself running to find when Barak Obama accepted the Democratic nomination), Levy speaks about his meeting with the then Illinois congressman the morning after Obama’s speech at the 2004 DNC and writes, prophetically, that Obama seemed to be creating “the beginning of the end for identity-based ideologies.” Furthermore, Levy suggested (again, in 2006) with no hesitation that this man had what it took to be President…in part because he had removed himself from labels that others might want to attach to him. Levy makes clear that in Obama he (and perhaps the rest of the world…?) saw something very different from US politics-as-usual.

I bring Levy’s comments up here because I am struck by the way in which the cable news conversations about our new President these days seem to be repeating observations about Obama and the US which I read two winters ago. Without making too much of Levy’s prescient observations, I think we need to at least recognize their existence because there are other “from afar” observers today—journalists and bloggers and visitors—viewing and commenting on the US from vantage points that US citizens cannot access. Might their observations help us (help me!) make sense of America c. 2008? I hope so.

So, in this era when markets around the world rise and fall together and children in Kenya are following the election of Barak Obama, I plan to continue reading the French press and speaking with friends and colleagues around the world. I am hopeful that this way of stepping away from the US might clarify some of my own big questions about the place I call home.

Author: Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello

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