01 April 2007

Unclear Thinking

The good news is that I've found that living in a foreign country goes a long way in understanding people, specifically what traits tend to be more universal. The bad news is that I've found people to be prone to disastrously unclear thinking and completely irrational behavior. Naturally, a few examples:

Two weeks ago I had a coffee with a woman in my French class from a Central American country. After a little bit of chit-chat about our common experiences as foreigners, she launched into a series of accusations and speculations against the United States. This isn't anything new, most people have some pretty strong emotions about the United States and I understand their desire to share them when they meet an American. When in this situation I try my best to explain that, yes, the United States has done and is doing some bad things but that it also does plenty of good things as well. Yes, there are plenty of crazy, nationalistic people in the United States but that they are vastly outnumbered by the good, normal people. Normally people grasp this and I feel that, even if they haven't changed their mind about the United States, they are a little more balanced in their analysis of it.

In this case, however, there was something qualitatively different. My classmate would concede that, yes, surely there are good people in the United States, but that it is an evil empire out to destroy the little countries and people of the world. For example, she told me that she had read that there are private citizens camping out on the Mexican border trying to "defend" it. I told her that this was correct, that they call themselves the Minutemen, that I think they are wasting their time, and that they just want to play soldier. She told me that they were actively hunting and killing immigrants. I told her that they had never killed anyone, at most they notify the Border Patrol who then arrests the immigrants. She told me that she "wasn't sure" about that, which is to say that she went on believing that the American government is letting its citizens kill immigrants because they are considered "less than human, like animals" (her words). In a different story, though in the same conversation, she told me about a friend of hers who had won a full-ride scholarship to an American university. When applying for the required long-stay visa, however, she was turned down and wasn't able to take advantage of her scholarship. Obviously that would be rough, I commiserated a bit and then said that there must have been some reason to deny the visa, that the State Department doesn't simply deny visas at random. (If they did, it would be a much cheaper and quicker process.) To this, my classmate said, "You really think so? I'm not so sure, the entire experience is designed to be psychologically terrifying. There are huge walls around the embassy, there are soldiers with automatic weapons guarding it and then they give you a scholarship and then take it away." This line of logic was simply stunning to me and I found it really difficult to respond. The whole conversation was a real mess, I got up to leave in frustration at one point, explaining that I wasn't the ambassador of the United States, that I didn't need a lecture about the bad things that my country does (there are enough easily substantiated ones that these ridiculous, half-baked theories that she was telling me weren't at all necessary). In the end, I was polite and we went away from it saying that it was a worthwhile exchange (though we haven't spoken since).

This conversation left me thinking, why was it that someone would spend so much time concocting absurd conspiracy theories about another country and then feel the need to explain them to a citizen of that country? Was it something peculiar to Latin Americans? I have noticed far more anti-American hostility from this quarter than from any other, including the Iraqis and Iranians that I have interacted with.

[Side Story: At one point the classmate from the above story along with a group of other Latin American women questioned me about why we call ourselves "American". I said that I could see why they wanted to ask this, they, of course, are "American" too. I said something about the original distinction between "American" and "European" dating from the creation of the country and that the name has just stuck. Also, it's difficult to create a descriptive from "United States of America", what else could it be, "United Statesian"? Anyway, they already seemed to know the answer and were only to happy to tell me it. That answer is, "Because you (i.e. Americans, or United Statesians) take the whole continent for yourselves." You can't really say anything to people when they confront you like this, they already have their minds made up so I just let it drop.]

Why were these people behaving like this? I get the sense that they are blaming the US for a lot of the problems in their countries. Certainly there is some support for this, the US has had a long history of not-so-positive involvement with Latin American countries that has led to a general anti-American sentiment there. But, it ignores all of the ways that the leaders of the countries have driven them in the wrong direction for so long. I get the feeling that there is a sort of victimization present, that people want to believe that somebody is out to get them. The appeal of this is intuitive, by blaming a huge outside power you get to feel that you are doing all that you can to improve the situation. Since the huge outside power is unchangeable, the most that you can do is complain. Also, there is a certain egoism involved in this too. Take the case of the friend of the classmate who got the scholarship but was denied the visa. In thinking that there is a big machine working against you you have to believe that you, yourself or a group that you belong to, are important enough to get the attention of this machine. This is almost never the case. There are huge, bureaucratic policy decisions that create these massive government machines that can chew a person up if they don't navigate it well. It's awful that it works this way but it is a reality of modern governments. If you were denied a visa, it's not because the US government is out to get you, it's because the series of bureaucrats pushing their papers around came to a systematic decision. That's all, it's not as romantic as being the victim of some terrible hegemony, but it's the ugly truth of it.

I don't want to give the impression that this tendency toward victimization and egoism are peculiarly Latin American traits, by all means they are not. In fact, that is the central point of this post. These are universal traits that people across all nationalities and cultures share that are most often, but certainly not always, expressed in relatively difficult economic times (by which I mean situations where there are close neighbors who are doing much better than you). In fact, when I was jotting some notes for this post, I overheard a discussion of some American girls. They were talking about the difficulty they had registering at the Sorbonne, that it took a long time, etc... What was their conclusion, "I think that they are purposely delaying our paperwork because we are American." Are you serious?! Why would they do that? What interest of the Sorbonne's would that serve?

The most serious problem that I see with this trend is that it leads people to misunderstand the problem which, in turn, prevents them from finding a good solution. One response of Latin American countries to the transgressions of the United States is to elect leaders like Hugo Chavez who do silly things that are almost certain to be harmful for the country in the long run. This victimization and egoism leads people to blame the bad guy next door rather than look inward and see the more serious problems therein. This misses the point and leads to only more problems in the future and sets the whole process of reform and improvement back years.

On a final note, one of the topics that came up often in the big conversation with the classmate was immigration to the US. She was arguing that the US should be more open to letting immigrants in, although she said that she understood that they couldn't let everyone in (though offered no opinion on where the right balance was). I was reminded of an interview I saw of Dean Kamen, founder of FIRST Robotics, inventor of the Segway scooter and many other vastly more useful devices, on the Colbert Report. Colbert, in character as always, asks about some water purification and engery generation devices that Kamen has invented and whether they can be used to solve the illegal immigration problem. Kamen answers yes, saying that if they can be used to raised the standard of living in these other countries, they will reduce the demand to come to the United States to have clean water, regular electricity, and to earn a decent wage. This is where I think the focus should be, helping other people get into situations where they are no longer wanting basic services or some particular luxuries. How to best do that? That's another post all together...


  1. unfrozencavemandad10:07 PM

    I agree with your entry. The common thread seems to be the politicians that are elected, or more so, the choice the voters are given, tempered by the societal climate at the time. That's how the world ends up with Bush, Chavez, Chirac, Blair, Putin, and soon enough in France, Sarkozy/Royal/Bayrou. In fact when the desire of the people is to elect the ideal candidate, pragmatism intervenes as in the case of one person quoted in the linked NYT article: "I’d like to vote for Besancenot — a simple mailman who speaks to the little person — and there are a lot of people like me,” said Azzedine Hamet, a 25-year-old unemployed metal worker, referring to Olivier Besancenot, the 32-year-old Trotskyite mailman-candidate. “But I feel the burden of 2002. To vote like that is to throw away your vote." Unfortunately, I do not have an answer to this problem. I typically vote for the person who I believe will do the least harm, and assume that the local and global economic and political forces combine to create a crude system of checks and balances to keep things in a semi-harmonious/tense state of existence.

    Oh yeah, and regarding why we get to call ourselves Americans (beside because we say so and therefore do, not to mention we invented NASCAR, WWF, and the latest TV show "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?"), here's an excerpt from an essay in the Bristol Times in 2001: "So if the author is correct and Vespucci never claimed that he named America, where did he get the word ‘America’ from?

    According to Broome the answer is simple – English fishermen visited Newfoundland long before Christopher Columbus or John Cabot crossed the Atlantic.

    “Bristol merchants bought salt cod in Iceland until the King of Denmark stopped the trade in 1475,” he said.

    “In 1479, four Bristol merchants received a royal charter to find another source of fish and trade.

    “Not until 1960 did someone find bills of trading records indicating that Richard Amerike was involved in this business. Records show that in 1481, Amerike shipped a load of salt (for salting fish) to these men in Newfoundland and I believe the Bristol sailors named the area after the Bristol merchant they worked for – Richard Amerike.” Iss dis great kountry or wot?

    P.S. Enjoyed the title -- another Mullerism: "There is an example of unclear thinking."

  2. I agree.

    This Spanish guy was trying to tell me that America had no good food! Ha! I calming explained to him that all food reaches its highest form in the United States. Sure we didn't invent spanish food, but we have the best spanish food. Then he cleverly changed the subject to how nobody likes americans. Cause he knew he was wrong! ;-)

    Then there was an israeli guy who was telling me that American scientists had it all wrong about global warming. I using nothing more than my intuition, explained that American scientists were actually always at the for front of global warming research. It wasn't the scientists who had it wrong, or who were behind the rest of the world, but the rest the population and the politicians.

    Anyway, perhaps you can tell me if that intuition is correct. My impression is that much, or even most, of the global warming research has been done my Americans.


  3. UFCD:
    In these weeks leading up to the first round of French elections there is considerable unease, both spoken and unspoken. Some socialist party loyalists are going to cast an unenthusiastic vote for Royal. Others are confident that she has no chance of making it to the second round and are, therefore, going to vote for Bayrou. There is considerable fear that Le Pen, the ultra-right nationalist will make it to the second round again (most likely against Sarkozy, the center-right enemy of the immigrant class) just as he did in 2002. For the generally left Parisians, this is a mark of considerable shame and something worth avoiding at all costs. You will be here for the first round (April 22), if it should go Sarkozy/Le Pen (unlikely at best) you can expect some fireworks in and around Paris. My bet is that it will be Sarkozy/Bayrou to the second round with Bayrou prevailing. We can only wait and see...

    As for the Mullerism in the title, it was intentional.

    Anti-Americanism surfaces so easily, it's really quite amazing. I'm not at all surprised that you've heard what you have.

    As for American scientists, they have been at the forefront of climate change research with the exception of a half-dozen oddballs financed by various interest groups that have been ostracized from the community. In doing all of my research for my thesis, the majority of the work was by Americans, published in American journals. As far as I know, your intuition was absolutely spot on (wouldn't be the first time...).