Growing up in the United States, there’s no question where our country stands in the world. We are the beacon of freedom shining across all free peoples of the world. Anywhere our light fails to glow is an irreparable damnation struggling to survive.
In other words: Best. Place. Ever.
Unfortunately many Americans who for one reason or another do not travel outside our nation’s borders hold onto this narrative until their final breath of freedom. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to travel quickly realize the perception we have of ourselves is a funhouse mirror compared to the impressions the rest of the world harbors of the United States. This has particularly struck me during my time studying my masters at the United Nations-mandated University For Peace (UPEACE) in Costa Rica.
“An Institution Of Peace”
The idea of UPEACE, an alumnus with American and Swiss citizenship tells me, was to create an educational institution promoting peace in response to the increased military presence of the United States in the Americas. Basically if Costa Rica, who had already famously abolished its military in 1948, was going to be surrounded by institutions of war, the world would need an institution of peace.
Today, campus is comprised of anywhere between 150 to 200 international students in any given year with professors who boast their own variety of passports. Granted Uncle Sam still makes his presence known, but the red, white and blue are hardly seen as anything remotely close to the story we have been told all our lives.
Anecdotally, the United States is viewed overwhelmingly negatively by my international peers. An Indian student and lawyer in one of my early seminars frequently blamed the United States for many of the world’s conflicts from our misadventures in Iraq to the situation in the Ukraine. Our North American brethren in Canada are quick to distinguish themselves from Americans, proud of their red-tinted passport. When asked hypothetically why the United States doesn’t invade Canada, a French student joked that it’s because Canada has no oil.
Obviously the latter is a ridiculously and overly simplistic suggestion. Canada was estimated to have 179 billion barrels of oil in 2007. But the anecdote is relevant in that it shows the inherently awful image others have conjured of the United States to the point that some have created a fictional narrative as ridiculous as the polar opposite we’re told back home. Once the topic turns to drones, it’s difficult for any American not to feel a blanket of shame swallow him or her whole.
It also quickly becomes apparent that most Americans are not exactly proud to be an American. American students are often just as skeptical if not more so than any narrative coming out of the United States. Not that I necessarily blame them. American media too often falls for the simplest narrative and broadcasts that message willingly to eager listeners.
Another American, after being told by a Canadian she wants nothing to do with an American passport, admitted to wearing maple leafs on their backpack while traveling abroad. I have my own issues with this. How are Americans supposed to escape the ugly American traveler stereotype if good American travelers are hiding who they are? However, the point remains that being constantly fed a “we’re the best” story growing up has pushed international Americans to the opposite extreme. Though there have been examples of Americans sticking up for their country.
We Don’t All Love Guns
For instance, when a discussion turned to guns, my international colleagues simply shook their collective heads at the United States, unable to fathom why we love guns so much despite their pesky habit of killing innocent people. Fact is, a majority of Americans cannot fathom it either, and one American quickly made the point that most Americans favor increased gun control. Unfortunately that is not the narrative reaching the world, and it continues to paint our country in an embarrassing light.
Finally, we turn to our elections. Back home we are told how lucky we are to have the opportunity to vote for our elected officials. Though of course the luxury increasingly feels pointless given our less than desirable roster of candidates, ridiculous gerrymandering and Super PACs shadier than a frat bro insisting you try thisdrink running the show.
Foreigners, however, seem to love our elections. Particularly our neighbors to the north, who liken our presidential elections to a guilty pleasure reality show. Which I suppose makes sense, since Real Housewives star Teresa Giudice is heading to jail and that’s certainly nothing new for our politicians.
So what does this anecdotal adventure abroad mean for the United States? For me, it means brainwashing our kids into believing a simplistic, nationalistic narrative is destructive for a variety of reasons. First, those who hold onto the narrative are unwilling to change any negative behaviors. After all, why change if you truly believe you’re already the best of the best of the best? Second, it forces some international Americans and foreigners into a polarizing corner, naturally assuming the worst in anything having to do with the United States, even though the opposing propaganda can be just as naive and misinformed as what we’re fed at home.
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