Perceptions of America

Since 9/11, one of the big concerns of America's ruling class is what the rest of the world thinks of the United States -- hence the lamentation of "why do they hate us?"  In fact, one of President Obama's goals when taking office was to change the world's perception of America.  Of course, the ruling class is worried about only what its elitist counterparts think, not your typical citizen of another country.

So what does that typical citizen think?

Since moving abroad last year, I have gained some insight into answering this question.  One recent discussion with one of my law students was quite illuminating.  The student, who is from Cambodia, complained to me that the U.S. government was going to deport a Cambodian national who had been permanently living in the U.S. for over twenty-five years.  The prospective deportee had moved to the U.S. in the 1980s to escape the communist killing fields of the Khmer Rouge.  In those twenty-five years, he never bothered to become a citizen. 

Recently, the man in question was convicted of committing a felony.  Suddenly, the place to which he had fled that saved him from being massacred, the place that has provided him with a level of personal liberty nonexistent in his place of birth -- even before the Khmer Rouge -- is supposedly treating him unfairly. 

When I questioned my student as to why, during those twenty-five years, the felon did not become a U.S. citizen, my student, quite matter-a-factly, "Because [the felon] was Cambodian."  So, I asked, since the felon considers himself a Cambodian, why does he have a problem with being deported back there?  My student responded that the felon had been gone too long and no longer knew the culture.  So this felon considers himself Cambodian and therefore does not want to become an American citizen, but he also does not want to return to Cambodia -- and the U.S. government should accommodate him.

I then asked the student whether the government of South Korea (where I am currently teaching law) has the right to deport me if I commit a felony (or for any reason, for that matter).  The student had no problem answering "yes" and added that "Korea is for the Koreans!"  I then asked, "Whom is America for?"  He did not answer.

This exchange came as a revelation to me.  My student essentially alleged that the United States is there for his (i.e., the world's) benefit if and when he needs something.  Korea is for Koreans.  Cambodia is for Cambodians.   But America must be for anyone and everyone.  Korea and Cambodia have the right to keep you or kick you out, but America does not.

This perception, while problematic at times, is not all bad.  America has always been a beacon for the oppressed.  It is a source of hope for millions.  While most will never make it to her shores, America's very existence is a comfort of possibilities: as long as America stands strong, a better life is possible. 

But the perception typified by my student certainly is not all good, either.  It presumes that America should expect nothing in return.  It also presumes that the world gets to dictate what America can and cannot do.  Thus the deportation of even a convicted felon is unfair.  How dare America have her own laws, her own sovereignty?

Most of Europe views America, especially her military, in the same way.  For the past sixty years, Europeans have looked down their noses at America for its large defense budget.  However, Europe gladly accepted and relied upon U.S. protection during the Cold War while spending little to nothing for its own defense.  Instead of being grateful, Europeans maintain a faux moral superiority.  Of course, it's easy to be "anti-war" when someone else is willing to fight your battles.  Nonetheless, when the U.S. goes to war for her own self-interest, Europe, cozy in the safety not of its own making, preens with jilted outrage.  America must protect Europe, but Europeans think they should get to decide when America can protect herself.

America's immigration issues are tainted with this same perception, especially concerning arguments made in support of illegal aliens.  Not only, as the arguments go, should the illegals be allowed to stay, no questions asked, but they also should have access to all the benefits of citizenship.  And this is not a request or desire; it is a demand (a "right").  Thus, America's laws are to be ignored, but her benefits must be administered, with the American taxpayer footing the bill.  Everyone who crosses into America's borders has a right to America's largesse, but America has no right to ask for or expect anything in return -- not even that her own laws are followed. 

In a sense, America does belong to the world.  For centuries now, America has been a place where the rest of the world's people have come to get away from the rest of the world.  Lately, however, the rest of the world have asked (demanded) only what America can do for them.  Well, America and most of her citizens do more than enough.  How about doing your part?
Since 9/11, one of the big concerns of America's ruling class is what the rest of the world thinks of the United States -- hence the lamentation of "why do they hate us?"  In fact, one of President Obama's goals when taking office was to change the world's perception of America.  Of course, the ruling class is worried about only what its elitist counterparts think, not your typical citizen of another country.

So what does that typical citizen think?

Since moving abroad last year, I have gained some insight into answering this question.  One recent discussion with one of my law students was quite illuminating.  The student, who is from Cambodia, complained to me that the U.S. government was going to deport a Cambodian national who had been permanently living in the U.S. for over twenty-five years.  The prospective deportee had moved to the U.S. in the 1980s to escape the communist killing fields of the Khmer Rouge.  In those twenty-five years, he never bothered to become a citizen. 

Recently, the man in question was convicted of committing a felony.  Suddenly, the place to which he had fled that saved him from being massacred, the place that has provided him with a level of personal liberty nonexistent in his place of birth -- even before the Khmer Rouge -- is supposedly treating him unfairly. 

When I questioned my student as to why, during those twenty-five years, the felon did not become a U.S. citizen, my student, quite matter-a-factly, "Because [the felon] was Cambodian."  So, I asked, since the felon considers himself a Cambodian, why does he have a problem with being deported back there?  My student responded that the felon had been gone too long and no longer knew the culture.  So this felon considers himself Cambodian and therefore does not want to become an American citizen, but he also does not want to return to Cambodia -- and the U.S. government should accommodate him.

I then asked the student whether the government of South Korea (where I am currently teaching law) has the right to deport me if I commit a felony (or for any reason, for that matter).  The student had no problem answering "yes" and added that "Korea is for the Koreans!"  I then asked, "Whom is America for?"  He did not answer.

This exchange came as a revelation to me.  My student essentially alleged that the United States is there for his (i.e., the world's) benefit if and when he needs something.  Korea is for Koreans.  Cambodia is for Cambodians.   But America must be for anyone and everyone.  Korea and Cambodia have the right to keep you or kick you out, but America does not.

This perception, while problematic at times, is not all bad.  America has always been a beacon for the oppressed.  It is a source of hope for millions.  While most will never make it to her shores, America's very existence is a comfort of possibilities: as long as America stands strong, a better life is possible. 

But the perception typified by my student certainly is not all good, either.  It presumes that America should expect nothing in return.  It also presumes that the world gets to dictate what America can and cannot do.  Thus the deportation of even a convicted felon is unfair.  How dare America have her own laws, her own sovereignty?

Most of Europe views America, especially her military, in the same way.  For the past sixty years, Europeans have looked down their noses at America for its large defense budget.  However, Europe gladly accepted and relied upon U.S. protection during the Cold War while spending little to nothing for its own defense.  Instead of being grateful, Europeans maintain a faux moral superiority.  Of course, it's easy to be "anti-war" when someone else is willing to fight your battles.  Nonetheless, when the U.S. goes to war for her own self-interest, Europe, cozy in the safety not of its own making, preens with jilted outrage.  America must protect Europe, but Europeans think they should get to decide when America can protect herself.

America's immigration issues are tainted with this same perception, especially concerning arguments made in support of illegal aliens.  Not only, as the arguments go, should the illegals be allowed to stay, no questions asked, but they also should have access to all the benefits of citizenship.  And this is not a request or desire; it is a demand (a "right").  Thus, America's laws are to be ignored, but her benefits must be administered, with the American taxpayer footing the bill.  Everyone who crosses into America's borders has a right to America's largesse, but America has no right to ask for or expect anything in return -- not even that her own laws are followed. 

In a sense, America does belong to the world.  For centuries now, America has been a place where the rest of the world's people have come to get away from the rest of the world.  Lately, however, the rest of the world have asked (demanded) only what America can do for them.  Well, America and most of her citizens do more than enough.  How about doing your part?

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