The Lonely Business of Defending America

America can be hard to love these days. And persuading non-Americans even to like it can seem an impossible task.

Believe me, for I have tried.

Last week, in the run-up to the Fourth of July, I was invited to participate in a radio discussion in my native Ireland. The subject was the United States. I wanted to talk about the aspects of the nation that I have grown to admire in the four years I have lived here.

I didn’t get a chance. The discussion revolved around President Bush, America’s myriad social and political problems and its plummeting standing in the world.

I ended up on defense for the duration.

I am getting used to this kind of experience. To mark last year’s Independence Day, I wrote an article for an Irish newspaper headlined “50 Reasons To Love America.” I listed everything from the Gettysburg Address to Seinfeld, hoping, just once, to undercut the hostile assumptions implicit in so much European media coverage. I got a slew of responses from my compatriots deriding me as a Bush apologist.

On one recent New Year’s Eve, back in Ireland, I found myself on the receiving end of a verbal assault from a woman after merely telling her I lived in New York. She delivered a lengthy harangue about American foreign policy, then moved on to condemn Mr. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and various other people of whom she was less than enamored. “And I’m surprised at somebody from Belfast choosing to live among that shite!” she concluded.

Conversation rather dried up after that.

Personal anecdotes only prove so much, but hard statistics tell a similar story.

The latest Pew Global Attitudes survey was released two weeks ago. The news was grim.

Since 2002, favorability ratings for the U.S. have fallen in 26 of the 33 countries for which trends are available.

An estimated 78 percent of Germans held a positive view of the U.S. in 1999-2000. Today, that figure is 30 percent. In Turkey, the drop was from 52 percent to 9 percent. In Argentina, 50 to 16 percent. Even in the U.S.’s leading ally, the United Kingdom, America’s favorability rating has fallen precipitously, from 83 to 51 percent.

Among some figures on the liberal-left in Europe, especially those long motivated by a visceral dislike of all things American, that data is a source of perverse glee.

To me, though, it swells with sadness. The promise of America, a precious thing, has become cankered.

When my friends and I were growing up in Ireland in the 80’s and 90’s, the nation on the far side of the Atlantic was an object of desire. We vested such hope and even excitement in the idea of America. We did so to an extent that now seems absurdly naïve.

Back then, in teen years or young adulthood, our understanding of America was primarily rooted in popular culture rather than politics. But the two often become woven together into one epic narrative. That narrative then stretched back, drawing in charismatic figures from the U.S.’s recent and not-so-recent past.

To think of America was to think not just of, say, Bill Clinton and Kurt Cobain, but of John Kennedy and Marlon Brando, of Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali, of Franklin Roosevelt and Aretha Franklin.

That America is fading from memory. Its glory has been extinguished by this administration.

I doubt whether the adolescents of Ireland or anywhere else now grow up feeling affection for a nation that has grown synonymous with its bull-headed president and his sepulchral deputy.

When I go back to Ireland these days, every assertion of American good intentions is met with a sneer; every attempt to talk about America’s role in the world is beaten back by the example of Iraq; every effort to draw attention to the injustices perpetrated by America’s enemies is met with one of two responses: one involves the word “Guantanamo,” the other the words “Abu Ghraib.”

The Lonely Business of Defending America