The Image Of The U.S. Around The World
Barry Sanders Discusses His Book, “American Avatar,” During Aquarium Talk, July 26th
By Michael Gougis - Contributing Writer
July 17, 2012 - It’s a bizarre paradox. To the rest of the world, we can be the home of The Ugly American and at the same time be the nation where, given the opportunity, most of the rest of the world would move in a heartbeat. We are a cultural leader and a cultural backwater. We are generous and we are stingy. We are efficient and we are fat (ouch!) at the same time.
What exactly is the image of the U.S. citizen in the minds of the other inhabitants of the planet?
It is a question that Barry Sanders, a former international lawyer and professor of communications at the University of California, Los Angeles, explores in depth in his book, “American Avatar: The United States In The Global Imagination.”
“This explains the basis for the unique love/hate relationship that people around the world have when it comes to the United States, particularly as it relates to the working of their minds,” says Sanders, 66, of Los Angeles, who will be speaking on the topic at an upcoming event at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach.
“There’s been much written since September 11 about people’s views elsewhere about the United States and most of the focus has been on one or another aspect of the U.S. or its foreign policy,” he says. “In fact, when you’re talking about images of the U.S., you’re really talking about ideas that are in someone else’s mind. Some of it has to do with the behavior of the United States, but most of it has to do with the attitudes in their minds.”
Sanders worked for 35 years in international corporate law with Latham & Watkins, and has worked with influential people from around the world. He headed up the Rebuild LA movement after the 1992 riots, headed the city’s bid to land the 2016 Olympics, is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Pacific Council on International Policy and sits on the board of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School.
So when Sanders sought a textbook for his students on the image of the U.S. in the minds of the rest of the world, and found nothing, he possessed a rich set of experiences and observations from which to write his own.
One of the most immediately striking observations is that the image of the U.S. in the minds of others frequently has nothing to do with anything the U.S. actually has done, or is responsible for. Instead, Sanders argues, the “United States” is actually more akin to a brand name or a stereotype overseas.
“Images – whether they are of another person or another country – are ideas. Some ideas exist about things that aren’t even real. So the book is called American Avatar because the U.S. is a symbol around the world for millions of people and often it’s a symbol beyond its reality,” Sanders says.
“It’s like saying Hollywood. That doesn’t relate to the place that you, being here in Southern California, know as the neighborhood called Hollywood. The U.S. is a symbol of many things around the world for millions of people, and often it is not related to reality.”
In his book, Sanders traces the roots of some of the contradictory images, and finds that some key foreign ideas that exist today about the U.S. go back decades in time, some to the founding of the nation and even earlier.
“There are millions of images of something as complex as the U.S., and many of them are contradictory. Most of the things you hear said about America, positive or negative, during the past 10 years have been said about America for hundreds of years,” Sanders says.
And that data, the information about the U.S., actually does little to change our image in the minds of many outside the country, Sanders says. It’s in the way the human mind works – overloaded by a plethora of information, our minds revert to our existing worldviews and simply pick out the images that reinforce our pre-existing concepts. In other words, the image of the U.S. isn’t created by the U.S. Instead, it’s created in the pre-existing concepts that many foreign people hold independent of the issue of the United States.
“Much more commonly, the point of view comes first. And there are so many data points in most people’s minds that they can pull out the ones that are in support of their point of view,” Sanders says. “So then the question becomes, these points of view, these attitudes, are they permanent? Are they changeable? Some are permanent, some are changeable.”
The book explores the areas where anti-Americanism is found most strongly – and interestingly, that sentiment is found not only in societies steeped in traditions, including religious ones, but in cultures that in many ways appear to mirror our own.
Sanders calls this concept romanticism – “An attitude about the world that is sort of the yin to the American yang, an attitude that doesn’t worship progress the way we do,” he says.
“It’s an attitude that is more groupthink than individuality. It’s a way of thinking that scorns middle-class life, and that looks at America as a middle-class place. That’s a fixed way of thinking,” Sanders says.
“It’s particularly found in some very intellectual, high-level thinkers. It translates itself into what you might write off as intellectual or European snobbery. It has a fundamentally anti-American slant to it that comes from an image of America as a bourgeois country.”
And Sanders argues that in these cases, as with those set in traditional – religious or otherwise – societies, efforts to change the image of the U.S. are low-yield at best.
“I urge us not to worry about those whose minds are not subject to change,” Sanders says. “You’re not going to talk someone out of their ideology.”
Instead, Sanders encourages a policy of foreign diplomacy – communication with foreign publics – that focuses on the sentiments that are most receptive to change and at the same time present the greatest dangers. In an age of electronic media that, as he says, “trumps everything else,” the sentiments of envy, fed by the ability of foreigners to compare their reality to the idealized fiction of U.S. life propagated by our commercial media, offer the greatest threats and the greatest opportunity for change.
“The surprising way is that it (modern electronic media) has a real impact on the issues of envy. It greatly increases comparability. When people lived apart from each other, and didn’t have a clear idea of how the other half – or the other one percent – lived, the resentments did not arise so quickly,” Sanders says.
“People sitting in Morocco would not compare themselves to someone in Texas and think, why does he have what I don’t have, and why don’t I have it? But once you’re watching American television and you see Dallas and you see Baywatch, which was the most popular television show in the world in the 1990s, you have comparability. And comparability is a critical necessary component for the resentment that is envy. And that’s a destabilizing resentment. So you concentrate on the images that are most malleable.”
Sanders suggests that for those who are most receptive to change, U.S. foreign diplomacy emphasize the ideas that the U.S. is reliable and constant, open to other people and to their ideas, takes the interests of others into account, is compassionate and adheres to its principles.
Perhaps most fascinating is a fact that U.S. residents often overlook. Most people on the planet still like us, Ugly American and all.
“Nobody is wanting to move to China. Nobody. This (the U.S.) is a place where a large percentage of the world would move if it could,” Sanders says. “Mostly they don’t hate us, mostly they like us. And that’s a (situation) equally worthy of study.”
Sanders is scheduled to speak from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursday, July 26, on the topic of “The World and the Dream of America: Thinking About How Others Think About Us,” as part of the guest speaker series at the Aquarium of the Pacific, 100 Aquarium Way. Admission is $5 for the public and free for Aquarium members, seniors age 62 and up, teachers, and students with valid ID and advanced reservations. For more information or tickets, call 562590-3100 or visit on the Web: Visit for more information..
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