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As Others See Us | The Nation

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As Others See Us

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A few days ago I found myself at a meeting of journalists from around the world. They had been brought to the United States by Harvard's Nieman Fellowship Program and were giving presentations to a small group of mostly older Americans in a Maine Congregational Church.

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Nicholas von Hoffman
Nicholas von Hoffman, a veteran newspaper, radio and TV reporter and columnist, is the author, most recently, of...

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It was a chance to hear what is on other people's minds. So much of what we get is Yankee-centered, it's easy to believe there are no people elsewhere with other desires and other points of view.

The program was kicked off by Mary Ann Jolley of the Australian Broadcasting Company. Without bitterness and without anger, she discussed the Iraq War and the mountainous lack of enthusiasm for it in her country. Though she didn't allude to it, you could not listen to her without meditating on the number of times the people of this far-off land had shouldered arms to take part in remote slaughters engaged in by Britain and the United States.

More immediately, Jolley spoke about the reaction in Australia to the 2002 Bali bombing in which eighty-eight of her countrymen perished. The event, she said, brought home to Australia that it is an Asian nation and that its future must rest on strong ties with other Asian nations. She was too polite to say so, but the message seemed to be that America cannot automatically count on us anymore.

A similar sentiment came from Claudia Antunes, Rio bureau chief for Folha de S. Paulo.

Brazil, she pointed out, is not economically dependent on the United States, with whom it does only a quarter of its foreign trade. Moreover, she seemed to wonder what kind of a future Brazil, the giant of the south, could have with the giant of the north, considering the United States has a protective tariff so high that Brazilian ethanol, the cheapest in the world, cannot get into this country. Antunes sees her country's future lying not with any NAFTA-like treaties but with Mercosur (Mercado Común del Sur), the common market trading agreement among Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.

As a group these journalists know more and care more about business and economics than a comparable group of American news people. It is on their minds. It was certainly on the mind of Bill Schiller, the foreign editor of the Toronto Star.

Schiller brought up the lumber import tax dispute, about which most Americans are ignorant and most Canadians are not. The American impost has been ruled in violation of trade agreements eleven times over twenty years and has only recently been settled, sort of. In a pleasant way he reminded his audience how dependent America is on Canadian energy and added that Canada's disillusionment with the behavior of America, its single largest customer, is spurring the idea of constructing a pipeline for selling oil and gas to China and Japan.

Takashi Oshima, a reporter for Asahi Shimbun, spoke of his country's worst nightmare, which is the decision his nation would have to make in the event of an open conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan.

Altin Raxhimi from Albania TV and Transitions Online gave us a different look on the "coalition of the willing." He expressed gratitude for America in the past and fear of America in the future, but after having covered the region, he could say that the former Soviet satellite nations who have sent troops to Iraq have done so in contradiction of public sentiment. Most coalition partners did so because they were afraid that holding back would cost them US aid and trade benefits.

Beena Sarwar, op-ed editor of Pakistan's The News International, remarked that the long on-again, off-again relationship between the United States and her country reminded her of a series of "one-night stands." In similar tragicomic spirit Guillermo Franco of Eltiempo.com in Bogotá, Columbia, told his audience that he believed his country was number one in the length of civil wars, number of militias and export of cocaine, whose number-one customer is the United States.

There were two journalists from Africa present. One was Kim Cloete of the South African Broadcasting Corporation, who said that although the political transition from white dictatorship is what it is cracked up to be, she had forebodings: disease, staggering unemployment, terrible housing, nonexistent sewer and waste disposal systems, lack of electrical power, frightening crime and endemic HIV-AIDS, plus lack of foreign investment. Cloete left the audience with the impression that South Africa needs to have something good happen very soon.

Alice Tatah of Cameroon Radio and Television was not reticent about describing the corrupt authoritarian government under which she must live, nor of the poverty of the people. As with several of the others, Tatah spoke of the international debt weighing on Cameroon and the impossibility of ever discharging it. Again, as with some of the others, she talked about the trade imbalance resulting from American export barriers.

Tatah discussed the effect of American TV and movies on her nation's young people. She said in a very nice way that the nudity, the open sex and homosexuality were offensive to her people, their culture and their ways of life. She might have but didn't talk about the inherent conflict in American notions of diversity as opposed to respect for other people's ways of life.

As with her fellow journalists, Tatah was careful to make a distinction between the American people and their government. She said that she had been taught to read and write by a Peace Corps volunteer who, as she put it, had left the comforts of a luxurious home to go to a hot, insect-infested jungle to give a little girl the tools to open up a new life.

What none of the journalists brought up was how long people around the world will continue to separate the American people from their government and its policies. In the end it is the American people who install those who run that government and make its policies. Of course, many of the journalists come from nations where the people do not rule and so cannot be blamed. What is the American excuse?

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