Added: 7-2-2006 1
This section of the website is dealing with what I am currently calling ‘The Project’. The Project refers to a more academic side of our walk, a side which I am particularly concerned with but one that will no doubt involve Dave all the way along. To describe The Project simply: I am interested in Americans’ views of Europe and Europeans post-9/11, and whether or not the events of that day and the subsequent response of the European countries – and the invasion of Iraq most definitely – have changed the way Americans think of their allies in old and new Europe.
Now that is putting it at its most simple. And investigating this topic at its most simple will involve talking to Americans and observing American culture, particularly its print media and TV. I purposefully leave out the Internet here because the Internet is one of the reasons why I am interested in this topic in the first place. Since 2001 I have been studying freedom of access to information on the Internet, on a global scale, and I have been studying in particular the effects of the ‘war on terror’ on information flow online. This means that I have spent a great deal of time in the company of American news and opinion websites and, more recently, blogs. The time I have spent reading American-based opinion has created the impression that, for example, a large proportion of the population views the French as cheese-eating surrender monkeys, or that American high school kids have very little idea of where Iraq is. This is something I want to question, and try to get to the bottom of.
You see, I noticed during my PhD (or even earlier) that a good way for people to get a laugh at a gathering was to tell some sort of joke about Americans, usually involving ignorance and/or geographical knowledge, or obesity (or George Bush in a triple whammy of all three). Over four years I heard even the lamest American jokes get a laugh and hell, even I sometimes indulged in this sort of thing. In my defence I am going to say that anyone is fair game in my book. The Brits, for example, have got a whole lot of things going on – everyone knows that we take tea at five o’clock every day and wear our socks during sex, right? (oh, and American readers will know that we have the worst teeth in the world. They think that we don’t know that they think that, but we do)
This prejudice thing for me cuts both ways then. I am interested in the stereotypes we are creating of each other, most specifically in this new world we have found ourselves in since 9/11. The Americans are warmongers. The Brits are lapdogs. The French…well, I’ve covered them. The Poles, the Romanians and the Bulgarians will do anything to get the Americans onside. The Spanish are lily-livered and give in to terrorists. Muslims in all of these countries and elsewhere are fanatics who cannot handle the modern world. I could go on. Sometimes I feel that more and more the world seems to be coming down to stereotypes of what people are like in foreign places – I’ve been living and working in Denmark (in the area of freedom of expression, of all things) during the ‘Cartoons crisis’ and it feels like we are all drawing each other in black and white, like globalisation, multiculturalism or integration (or cheaper travel and more inquisitive minds, for that matter) never happened.
ut it is America that I keep coming back to for a number of reasons. First, because America suffered an amazing, audacious and downright terrifying attack on 9/11 and no one else did. Americans lost lives in numbers they thought unthinkable. Second, because, like it or not (and apologies here to those who think that 9/11 did not signal a new era at all), America has taken the lead in really trying to dictate the direction of global politics and power structures ever since. One only has to point to the decision to invade Iraq to see this. And third, it is to America that I am constantly drawn in a cultural sense, I feel an affiliation with people and things from James Brown to hip hop to Six Feet Under to Darren Aronofsky to Neal Stephenson. For most of my life America truly has been the source of a huge amount of my favourite things.
So to put this all back into the context of the walk, I guess the simplest way of putting all of this is that I want to meet Americans and talk to them. Like that’s really academic. But it is more than that. I don’t want to know about their favourite colour or their favourite burger dressing – I want to know how Americans feel about their place in the world and their relationship with the rest of the people in it, because, sad as it is to say it, I think a lot of the people I have met in the past five years have begun to feel that Americans really haven’t got a clue about how people in e.g. Europe live and in fact don’t really care. So therefore I figure I’m setting out to see if this is true. My parameters for investigation are the US role in the world post-9/11 and the only academic tools I am making available for myself at this point are my wits and my ability to talk to complete strangers and read local newspapers. Oh, and to watch TV.
I realise at this point that this might not sound ‘academic’. Truth be told, I’m not sure how ‘academic’ it’s gonna get. But the things I write in this section are going to be different that the things you’ll find from me in the Journal, because I want to reflect on what I find during the walk and try to fit it into a bigger context. One of the reasons I am undertaking the walk is because I have been an armchair spectator and pub pundit on the ‘Decline of America’ for the past five years; now is my chance to get over there and actually see for myself if all the crap I’ve read (and spouted) has any truth to it at all.
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