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Saturday, January 25, 2003

This week, I've made some progress on two books. I finally started, and finished more than half of "Why Do People Hate America" by Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies, and I read a bit more of "On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace" by Donald Kagan.

The former is praised by The Independent, which tells you something, and Noam Chomsky, which probably should tell you something too, but since I don't know the latter's claim to fame, I don't know what I might conclude from his endorsement (besides the fact that he was happy at being quoted favourably in the book). "Why Do People Hate America" is, probably quite obviously, not printed in the USA. It is distributed in the United Kingdom, Europe, South Africa, Asia and Canada but, oddly enough, not in the USA itself. Thus, most of the people whom the book is putatively meant for will not get to read it.

As I'm not done reading the book, I can't produce a general conclusion, but I have to say that the USA's ends are generally good. Self-interest is usually first, but generally they coincide roughly with the ends. And of course, if there are many aims to fulfill, naturally those agreeable with one's self-interest will be pursued first. Of course, the ends don't justify the means. The USA is made out to be bad for the world in many ways, but I wager it being the world's sole hyper-power is a lesser evil than, say, Iraq occupying that position.

To support the authors' claims that the USA has been imposing its will willy-nilly, they reproduce a list, "A Century of US Military Interventions: From Wounded Knee to Afghanistan", compiled by Zoltan Grossman, with a listing of 134 interventions from 1890-2001. However, many of these involved the evacuation of foreigners from war-torn countries, domestic deployments and states of high alert without any overt military action, and worse still, the Gulf War counts as 3 different military interventions.

The book deals with the issues of stereotypes. Stereotypes are unhealthy because people tend to stick to them, but the reason they exist is that, very often, they are true. Thus, while we should keep open minds, the stereotype is a good bet as to what the reality of the situation is.

The economic arguments about how America is trying to dominate the world aren't very convincing. If America was really trying to accumulate all the wealth in the world by exploiting everyone else, then why isn't anyone protesting (the half-washed protestors bandying billboards at conferences of world leaders because they have nothing better to do, and don't understand very clearly what they are protesting against do not count)? Why don't countries break free of the IMF, World Bank and WTO and just go into isolation since they'd be better served so? They can't all be daft.

The arguments about America's evils socially too smack of sophistry and sound shrill and alarmist. For example, the authors claim that one in ten Americans works for the Fast Food industry. Huh? American culture has, and is sweeping the world, but this is not due to some vast US conspiracy to extend US culture and soft power throughout the globe. People *want* McDonalds, baseball caps, MTV, Seinfeld and the like. Is it fair to deny them their choice? Local culture can and should be protected - but not through exclusion of American culture.

American culture also is not as contemptuous of foreign cultures as the book makes it out to be. The arguments do ring largely true, but what about where Americans have taken to elements of foreign cultures? Italian food? Tae-bo? Yoga? Acupuncture? Admittedly, they are modified somewhat, but when borrowing from other cultures takes place, rarely are traits borrowed wholesale.

One person, seeing me read the book, asked why no one wrote "Why do people hate Singapore?" or "Why do Singaporeans hate to be army boys?". Heh. I doubt any publisher would risk publishing that.

The latter book was considerably more readable once I'd gotten past the chapter on the Peloponnesian War. I'm not quite sure why - the Peloponnesian War has always held my interest more than the First World War. Maybe it was the way he retold and analysed it.
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