America is often seen from afar as the “land of plenty.”
I remember when I was doing research overseas, back in 2001, I had more than one conversation with bright, educated, young Indonesian men who saw America as the rich land — a land of wealth and opportunity. They might not have literally believed that the roads were paved in gold, but they might as well have. Their images of the “other” were just as warped by culture and narrative as my own. It certainly made for interesting conversations.
The imagined “America” they saw was far from the truth. It was an America imagined by Tony Montana, a place where ruthlessness and rough justice ruled. It was also a place of barely imaginable wealth. The questions came fast, “Is everyone rich?” “Does everyone carry guns?” “Can I work on my English with you?”
These young men didn’t know the realities of wealth disparity in America. Their ideas came from the images on television and in movies. Maybe not always consciously, but certainly unconsciously, these images have come to represent America. It is, in truth, a modern brand of Occidentalism.
Perhaps even more than politics, news, or history, our entertainment media builds the face that we show to the world. They are bards, not scholars, and tell stories of a country rife with greed, violence, and sex, where a manly man or a cunning woman (because our stories reflect our own cultural values) can take what they want through force or trickery. We tell these stories because they’re entertaining and escapist, but they are watched as a slice of American life.
The Media Bards
Our media, which over-represents not only our wealth, but also our violence and open sexuality, tells the stories heard overseas. No words of a lone anthropologist, even one who’s lived there, could sway these young men from those images.
And it’s not like those young Indonesian men were alone in this. For those of us who live in America, the same stories help shape our senses of self. We can imagine people around the world understanding America through the lens of such entertainment as Baywatch and The Replacement Killers, but how much more so do these images and narratives actually affect our own senses of self?
Edward W. Said’s Orientalism (1978) points out that Western images of the “Orient” have been historically shaped by colonialism and developed through literary narratives that were written by the West. These narratives explain exotic foreigners (in all their supposedly glorious and savage difference) to Westerners, and have often been mistaken for the truth.
But just as much as the power structures of the West have shaped our idea of the “East,” they have also worked in reverse, giving the world false images of Western Culture. The images that we consume, as well as export to the world, support these same narratives of hierarchy, unity, and wealth.
Edward Said shows that our culture carries false images of other countries, seeing them as some “other” — in a way that reflects and expands difference, ignoring commonalities. In the same vein, we carry these false images of ourselves, and share them with the world.
Our stories reflect the power of the Lone Ranger (in metaphor and sometimes reality) — the power of a single man to make a difference through violence and commitment to some version of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way“.
The “funny” thing is that we’re not trying to fool the rest of the world. We’re just trying to fool ourselves.