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Thesis & Antithesis

A critical perspective on energy, international politics & current affairs

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Location: Washington, D.C.

greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

08 July 2005

Imperialists abroad

It is easy for foreigners to be cynical about American tourists who are ignorant of foreign lands. But this apparent ignorance is caused less by a lack of knowledge on the part of the Americans as it is by an abundance of knowledge on behalf of the locals. Foreigners know much more about America than would be expected based on geography or history; they watch American films, consume American brands, and are affected by American politics in a proportion that is incomparable to their own influence on America.

It is therefore unreasonable to expect Americans to be too aware of the places they visit. All the same, there are times that Americans are “rightful” targets of cynicism, especially when their culture makes them unable to comprehend the world they travel in.

America is a diverse society held together by a common denominator: reason. It is the Enlightenment society, premised on the belief that rationality can bridge the gaps of history, ethnicity, and race. But little of the world is like that. The fixation with progress and perfection is hardly a global preoccupation; it becomes even less so when the means to achieve it are entirely rational. Societies have been hardened and tempered over time and are much tolerant of the imperfect, either because they have tried to be perfect and failed, or because they have tired of the efforts to be perfect. It is in places such as these, as Joseph Conrad suggests, that anything “merely rational fails.”

America is spreading an empire of reason over a world of unreason—where the passionate and the emotional have more currency than the reasonable and the rational, where progress is agonized over rather than welcomed with open arms. It is this incompatibility between the American experience and the world experience which poses as the hardest management problem for the American empire.

Reference: Robert Kaplan, “Conrad’s Nostromo and the Third World,” National Interest 51 (Spring 1998)


Anonymous shanti said...

Hi Nikos,

I enjoy reading you blog a lot, even though I don't agree with some of it :)

What do you mean by a "society founded on reason?" I can understand why one would make that comment in a comparison of, say the west and the middle east, but what makes you think that america is more rational than europe or austrailia or japan?

8:20 PM  
Blogger Nikos Tsafos said...

What distinguishes America is its tendency to use reason to assume things about the world; it is an American trait to believe in the exceptionalism of the American experience whilst also holding that the values that Americans share are universally applicable and desirable. This often translates into a lack of imagination about the world, and it often fosters an impatience with those places that are less willing or able to adapt to the ways that Americans find rational. In that sense, America differs from other countries not because it is more rational, but because it is least irrational when dealing with places where some irrationality is required to understand them.

11:42 AM  
Anonymous Peter said...

I was just about to write something similar to your post in my journal, so good job at getting thoughts right for once :-).

A few thoughts on your post. What do you think the power of tradition is in non-American paradigms of society? Of course we have tradition in US ethnic groups, neighborhoods/small towns, and the like, but there is always the knowledge you can rebel and change your life, marry someone your mother hates, etc. This tradition vs. "why not?" battle is a major clash in American culture and arts, and has been for a long time. Do you think tradition is more powerful in other parts of the world, and so they're resistant to this 'Imperial' way of thinking--that any attempt to even question long established local ways of life is itself a new lifestyle imposed on them?

Certainly you make excellent points otherwise in this post, which I discussed with you and your friends in Greece--specifically, the expectation that Americans should/shouldn't know something about the cultures they travel through (and how the French are the vanguard of the be-exactly-like-us-before-you-come-to-our-country culture), but also the assumption by many locals that Americans are all the same, and not thinking too much about the stresses of travel, lack of local knowledge that anyone would have, etc. And for that reason behavior can't necessarily amount to a good read to someone's character, politics, and values, especially if they just arrived in foreign territory.

It seems interesting to me that in the many foreign-speaking countries I was recently in, I felt the most at home in one particular scene, pushing aside the times I was with English speakers and friends in hostels and peoples' houses. This was my trip in Freiburg, Germany, where the university atmosphere exudes conversation in reasonable and curious tones, and my 7:00 AM train ride from Freiburg to Basel, Switz., with all the laptop & cell phone business-y commuters. They were more concerned with business and getting past cultural divides to get things done. I think this experience is along the lines of the "reasonable" world you're talking about, and immediately came to mind as I read your post.

4:32 PM  

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