Jean Barker

Be nicer to the USA?

2013-01-25 07:36

Jean Barker

"They get offended by everything! Even New Yorkers do - and they're the liberals! They can't even discuss Israel-Palestine. It's like they've already been told by the media what they think and they just can't think at all!"

Exhausted from a rough semester in California, jet-lagged and overjoyed to be home, I offloaded along these lines to a close friend, while wolfing down a delicious Cape Town breakfast involving fried halloumi cheese. Her reaction was completely unexpected, and it made me reconsider my feelings.

"Well, that's understandable if you think about it," she said. "It's not nice to hear outsiders complaining all the time about the country that's nice enough to let them live and work there. I have some colleagues from the UK. They complain about this, and that, and the other, and even when what they're saying is true, I resent it coming from them."

"And I think," she added, putting me in my place: "Who do you think you are? If you don't like it, get out of my country and go live in yours."

When we diss America for ignoring the massacres in Rwanda while wading in wherever oil was available, do we ever ask: What did we do about the slaughter? When we bring up the Apartheid government's close military links with the Israeli state in the 80s and America's links with Israel, do we consider our government's long-term loyalty to Gaddafi, or the fact that we refused entry to the Dalai Lama to avoid pissing off China?

If we are honest, we're no better. South Africa is the America of Africa. We are richer per capita than the rest of Africa. We are more powerful than most. We feel responsible for leading the continent and representing it to the world. We claim the high ground. Yet many of our policies are morally dubious.

Like Americans, we are ourselves critical of our own country but we are intolerant when non-citizens are. Take President Zuma: ineffective and corrupt. A worldwide embarrassment to South Africa. Here is a president who has multiple wives that South Africa's poor have to house, clothe, feed and transport. AND he cheats on them. If he were a woman he'd be denounced as a slut by a sexist nation. But if Americans mention Zuma, I get really defensive and point out that corruption is effectively legal in the USA thanks to the system of massive election campaign donations. And that most American presidents couldn't keep it in their pants.

I can't take the kind of criticisms I like to so freely dish out. My inner 6-year-old brat has a tantrum: "I hate you. Just leave!"

Still, I couldn't help countering, as I walked home, it's not like South Africa is invading other countries and forcing democracy upon them, deciding who is allowed to have nuclear weapons (and who will face nuclear bombardment if they do), or going around saying "Our country is the best in the world!"

Here's how I see it: If American voters want their president to be president of the world, and if they believe their moral burden is to play World Police, maybe they have to accept that those subject to their authority and military might have an opinion on how they conduct their business internationally.

But as someone who enjoys living in the USA, I should probably more frequently temper my unavoidable political criticisms with praise, for the many things I love about the USA: The fantastic films and music, the technological luxuries, the oddly innocent people, the huge, beautiful land itself, the amazing cities, the insane culture salad, the excitement, the learning it offers me, and most importantly of all, the freedom to bitch about it without being deported. 

- Jean is a screenwriting/directing dual MFA student in California, USA. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.

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