Author of The Eagle's Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World, Mark Hertsgaard is an American journalist, broadcaster and author whose previous books include On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. Research for the present book involved a trip around the world asking people from 15 different countries what they thought about America.
To say that America is "a place that is very rich and shoots lots of guns" is, according to the author, a fair shorthand for how the United States is seen by many people around the world. Whether the respondents are rich or poor, friend or foe, it seems that foreigners fear America's military might and envy its dazzling wealth. The view of America from the outside provides Hertsgaard with a platform from which to launch his own politically informed and engaged analysis of the United States and its people.
The book is organised around a list of things that "foreigners think about America that American's usually don't talk about". A single chapter is devoted to each of the following propositions. America is; parochial and self-centred; rich and exciting; the land of freedom and opportunity; self righteous about its democracy; the future; out for itself; a hypocritical and domineering empire. Americans are philistines who are incredibly naive about the world. The author makes a sensible distinction between Americans as people and American political, corporate and media power structures before elaborating his case.
It's no surprise that the really interesting and often shocking parts of the book deal with the disparity between American ideals of freedom and democracy and the actuality of America's ruthless, self-serving and hypocritical foreign policy. Of the American press he asserts that Americans have the worst of both worlds: "a press that, at best, parrots the pronouncements of the powerful and, at worst, encourages people to be stupid with pseudo-news that illuminates nothing but the bottom line". To support this view he tells us that corporate news organisations had the chance to report the story of bin Laden's plan to attack the US eight weeks in advance, yet they choose not to run the story because they were too busy chasing money. Other serious problems include the erosion of civil liberties, a ruthlessly divisive economy and a television and shopping culture held up as a model for the rest of the world to follow.
Damning as all this is Hertsgaard is hopeful that--provided Americans start talking again--there is a chance of reclaiming the ideal of democracy and moulding it into something Americans can once again be proud of. It will be interesting to see how The Eagle's Shadow is received in America because, as the author himself points out, books that criticise America's power elite--books such as Naomi Klein's No Logo--are often ignored. Both books deserve better. --Larry Brown