published: Sunday | June 20, 2004

Kevin O'Brien Chang, Guest Columnist

IF YOU judge countries by how many people want to visit and stay, America must be the best place in the world to live. There are huge line-ups at the U.S. embassy in every country, and even Castro's anti-American rhetoric doesn't stop Cubans from risking their lives to reach American shores.

Personally I've never had any great desire to live in the U.S. I find life there too money-obsessed and lacking in spontaneous warmth. But then I grew up in comfortable circumstances. Few poor non-Americans have not dreamt of a green card. Whatever its faults, America remains the country above all where sheer hard work can achieve freedom from hunger and want. It's also the richest and most powerful nation in history, and ­ with the possible exception of the British Empire ­ the most benevolent.


America is hardly blameless, as Mai Lai in Vietnam, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and the Cold War era support of many murderous Latin America regimes bear witness. But even its worst crimes pale beside Soviet Russia's Ukraine famine, Nazi Germany's Jewish holocaust or Communist China's cultural revolution. No victor has shown more goodwill to vanquished enemies than America did when helping to rebuild post-war Europe and Japan. While Russia annexed East Germany, the U.S. returned freedom to West Germany. But despite its greatness and essential goodness, like most non-Americans I have a love-hate attitude towards the U.S. You can't help admiring it for its energy, efficiency and generosity. But it's hard to like any country, or person, that incessantly keeps proclaiming "I'm the greatest!".

Now the U.S.'s constant boasting is puzzling. Its pre-eminence is quite obvious. So why does it need to constantly remind everyone of the fact? And why does it so often react testily to any suggestion that it may not be the best at everything all the time? Take the Olympics. Not content with winning the most gold medals, America seems to covet them all. It habitually hurls accusations of foul play, rarely admits to being beaten fairly, and readily points the 'illegal drugs' finger at others. Of course its winners are always squeaky clean.

The U.S. media heaped abuse on Jamaican-Canadian Ben Johnson for using steroids. But it saw nothing suspicious about the rippling-thighed Florence Griffith-Joyner's amazing transformation from fairly gifted runner to weirdly untouchable record setter ­ though she may have paid the ultimate price for artificial athletic enhancement with her unnaturally early death. The U.S.'s refusal to punish Americans testing positive stymied the IAAF's attempts to clean up athletics for years. Since the U.S. would lead the Olympic standings whether its athletes take drugs or not, it's hard to understand why it has ­ until of late ­ so adamantly protected cheats. But then Americans seem to have a paranoid fear of losing in anything.


Al Gore was a clear winner in the classic democratic sense of getting more votes than his opponents ­ only a hundred or so Florida hanging chads and the convoluted electoral college system made George W. Bush president. Yet instead of lauding Gore for magnanimously accepting an unfair twist of fate, the American press mocks him as a laughing stock symbol of loserhood. Maybe this "America is the greatest and never loses" attitude is more understandable to those born there. And no doubt a great portion of 'down with America' chanters would be 'U.S. number one' shouters if they belonged to the top dog country.

I'm always equally amused and disgusted by some Jamaicans' arrogance towards our smaller island West Indian brethren ­ imagine our attitude if we were 250 instead of 2.5 million strong! Yet America's boastfulness is no laughing matter, for it stokes murderous resentments. After 9-11 many Americans plaintively asked 'Why do they hate us so?" Well, yes, a great part of the 'death to America' mindset is rooted in jealousy. And some of it is anger at the perhaps inevitable consequences of oil realpolitik. But it also stems from the sheer human instinct to strike back at a big loudmouthed bully any way you can.


I despise murderous criminals like Osama bin Laden and felt great sympathy for the thousands of innocent dead. But to be honest a tiny voice inside did spontaneously murmur ­ and I doubt I was alone ­ 'it serves the arrogant so-and-so right'.

An open society's only effective long-run deterrent against suicide terrorism is to reduce the angry resentment that fuels such attacks. Yet instead of trying to win global hearts and minds, the U.S. has become even more disdainfully self-absorbed since 'twin towers'. George W. Bush's 'We're gonna do what we damn well please no matter what you midgets think' smugness has whipped up an unprecedented wave of anti-Americanism around the planet and swollen Al-Qaeda's ranks. Now hegemons are always arrogant. The British Empire's contempt for 'lesser races' was only exceeded by China in its 'middle kingdom' heyday ­ God help the rest of us if China ever becomes as world dominant as the U.S. is today. Nor can you blame the U.S. of acting in its own perceived self-interest ­ has there ever been a country that did not? But looking out for number one doesn't have to mean heedlessly infuriating those who disagree with you ­ especially when you have foes who place little value on their lives. A great American president once summed up his foreign policy as "Speak softly, but carry a big stick". The U.S. would have a lot less enemies today if its current leaders took his advice.

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