From Chinese immigration stories to European comedies, world cinema shows the U.S. and its people in surprisingly consistent themes of adoration, hope, and suspicion.
A young Chinese couple arrives in New York, hopeful but terrified, in A Beijinger in New York. (AAWW)
In February 2006, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled to a disappointed Egypt to meet with President Hosni Mubarak, who a few months earlier had defied both Egyptian popular will and President George W. Bush's "freedom agenda" by declaring reelection victory with an insultingly improbable 89 percent of the vote. In Washington, the trip marked the beginning of the end of Bush's democracy-promotion agenda: Rice, who had spent much of 2005 very publicly pushing Mubarak for democratic reform, instead re-built ties with the Egyptian dictator, who was an important U.S. ally on counter-terrorism and the Israel-Palestine peace process. Historians (and partisans) may debate for decades the extent to which Bush saw through his mission to champion democratic ideals around the globe. But Rice's 2006 trip, a signal that the U.S. would continue its decades-old practice of supporting useful dictators, was a low point in Bush's particularly American dream of democratic universalism.
However closely Egyptians watched Rice's visit, many of them were, at the time, crowding into movie theaters to see her in a much more compromised position: belly-dancing. In The Night Baghdad Fell, a farce with surprisingly complicated geo-political and even Freudian overtones, a handful of Egyptian men struggle with feelings of emasculation and paranoia brought on by the American invasion of Iraq, which they fear will soon be repeated in Egypt (the tagline asks, "What If You Were Next?"). The movie, controversial in Egypt, is probably not on its own an especially telling barometer of global, or even Egyptian, popular perceptions of America. But it is part of the vast and diverse history of foreign films that prominently feature the U.S. and its people, one with surprisingly consistent themes and portrayals.
In The Night Baghdad Fell, a schoolteacher, believing occupation imminent, asks his star student to design a defensive super-weapon. The student agrees, even marrying his teacher's daughter. When he can't perform on their wedding night, he fantasizes about a belly-dancing Rice. He overcomes his problems when his new wife dresses up as a U.S. Marine named Jack.
"The student hates U.S. officials, so he defeats them in bed in the form of Rice. Rice is always coming to Egypt to lecture us. It is like fantasizing about your sixth-grade teacher," the film's director explained to the Washington Post. "I felt that an event like the fall of Baghdad could not pass without some sort of comment. ... All we Arabs could do was sit and watch it on TV. So I decided to make a movie about impotence. That is what it is all about."
When the teacher wants to boost the morale of his militia, he produces a video of Egyptian achievement since the 1973 war with Israel. It is composed of a single goal in a soccer game in which Egypt tied its adversary. He approaches a general to ask about developing weapons, but the officer says military industry is engaged in producing umbrellas. An acquaintance says Egypt already possesses weapons of mass destruction -- he knows it's so because, once, the entire country suffered a blackout when all energy was diverted to enriching uranium.
The film's plot turns are less funny. The schoolteacher, reading about the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq, fears his daughter will be raped by U.S. soldiers. When the Americans finally invade Egypt near the movie's end, one Egyptian who goes to greet them is shot dead. "The problem is not only that Egyptian men are impotent, but that they are feminized: American dominance is translated on the screen into sexual dominance of Arab men (this is not hinted at; it's quite explicit)," a feminist Arab blogger wrote at the time. "In one key scene in the film, at a moment of frustration and defeat, the main character shows them that now that they have failed in inventing a weapon, they can only go on their knees in front of the invading Americans, raise their hands, and say in English: 'Please, do not f--- me.'"
American dominance is seen as so threatening, so pervasive, and so smothering that it takes on, in The Night Baghdad Fell, am explicitly sexual quality that affects the Egyptian men (not the women, you'll notice) personally. "The feeling of impotence in regards to the Americans is a common feeling," an Egyptian columnist told the Post, which noted that similar themes of fear and unease toward the U.S. have been common in post-Iraq-invasion Egyptian popular culture, but also that a number of Egyptians criticize these as "sophomoric" efforts to blame Egyptian problems on outsiders.
Foreign films often touch on U.S. politics and foreign policy, on American society and culture, or simply on their own country's fleeting but memorable intersections with the richest and most powerful nation on Earth. Though each film is unique, as are the various national attitudes and perceptions they represent, taken together they are a reminder of America's pervasive political and cultural role in the world that it is so frequently covered in foreign films, and with such remarkable complexity. They offer a window into the world's fascination with America, its antagonism for American power and admiration of American culture, its embrace of the American dream and rejection of what is often portrayed as American hegemony.
The Night Baghdad Fell hits a few common themes in how foreign movies portray the U.S., some of which you might have seen yourself in the 2003 British romantic comedy, Love Actually. Mostly about stodgy Brits learning how to embrace love, it included one very geopolitically charged scene. Hugh Grant naturally plays a lead role, though as the U.K. prime minister. After Grant discovers the U.S. president making unwelcome advances on a secretary for whom Grant has feelings, he publicly rebukes both the president and America. "The special relationship is still very special," President Billy Bob Thornton tells a London press conference. "I fear that this has become a bad relationship," Prime Minister Hugh Grant retorts, to audience gasps and rising music.
A relationship based on the President taking what he wants and casually ignoring all those things that really matter to, erm, Britain. We may be a small country but we're a great one, too. The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter, David Beckham's right foot. David Beckham's left foot, come to that. And a friend who bullies us is no longer a friend. And since bullies only respond to strength, from now onward, l will be prepared to be much stronger. And the President should be prepared for that.
The scene, potentially a bit jarring for American viewers, may have reflected British skepticism of U.S. leadership, which the U.K. had followed into the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and, much more unpopularly, the invasion of Iraq just eight months before Love Actually premiered. That skepticism carries over to British politicians perceived as too subservient to American power, which The Atlantic's Heather Horn termed "Britain's Blair-Regret Syndrome," for Prime Minister Tony Blair's support for the Iraq War, sometimes treated as an American disaster into which the U.K. was unfairly dragged. That syndrome still persists in British politics, in which leaders who appear too cozy with their U.S. counterparts are accused of allowing the U.K. to become America's 51st state.
For all the suspicion and even defiance shown in Love Actually or The Night Baghdad Fell, another Egyptian film, 1993's Amrica Shika Bika(sometimes translated as America Abracadabra) represents the similarly crowded opposite end of the spectrum: chasing the American dream. In the coming-of-age drama, a group of young Egyptian men pursue their own dream of immigrating to the U.S., a quest portrayed as so sacrosanct that they never even actually achieve it. They hire someone to shepherd them across the Atlantic, who instead cons them into taking menial jobs in Romania. There, they have a moment of realization, expressed by singing "America Song," that emigrating will not solve their problems and that they are foolishly chasing something beyond their reach. You might say the message is something like, "what we call the American dream lives in each of us, not in some far away country."
If you're surprised that the same country that produced The Night Baghdad Fell could also put out Amrica Shika Bika, you shouldn't be: these apparently conflicting perceptions of the same America seem somewhat common, at times even within the same narrative. The ultra-popular Chinese TV mini-series, A Beijinger in New York, serialized over 21 much-watched episodes in 1993, grappled with that very contradiction that seems so often at the heart of foreign perceptions of the U.S. It told the story (fictional, based on a best-selling 1991 novel) of a young Chinese couple who moves to New York, full of hope and anxiety about joining America. The Los Angeles Times called it "an electronic allegory for the love-hate spectrum that has colored Sino-American relations for the last half-century." A party cultural official told the paper, "Everyone has the American dream, but we still don't know what that place is really like." (China has changed a lot since 1993, of course, but this view might still hold true in parts of today's world where breakneck development and endless cross-cultural exchanges have not brought America so close.)
In the very first scene of A Beijinger in New York, as the couple arrives at the overwhelming John F. Kennedy airport, the wife worries that her aunt will not pick them up as promised. Don't worry, the husband tells her, your aunt will have Americanized by this time, and Americans always keep their promises. Over the years, the couple splits under the pressures of the same American affluence and make-it-on-your-own competition that had attracted them. Their daughter eagerly flies out to join them but becomes a drug addict (this was produced by Chinese state TV, after all). Some moments are less heavy-handed; when the father sees his daughter embracing her white boyfriend, he embarrasses himself by flying into a rage, telling off the school principal and white boy's parents. A Chinese novelist who had watched the show at the time later explained how the book explored this incident:
At one point in the book, she says to her parents that when they had left her alone in China -- which was a common practice back then -- all she wanted was their love and attention. But when she arrived in New York, they were preoccupied with making money and told her to work on assimilating into American society. Yet when she did assimilate, her parents were angry at her for doing American things like having a boyfriend and experimenting with drugs. I really enjoyed that part. I like how the parents conceded that raising a child in America was confusing.
The novelist seems to be describing, in part, a sort of push-pull experience of both wanting to become American and wanting to maintain their own cultural purity against the sometimes corrupting influence of American culture. It's a feeling that seems to pop up with some frequency in foreign movies about America. Shanghai Calling, a sappy, by-the-numbers romantic comedy, tells that story in reverse. It portrays a Chinese-American (fully Americanized; second generation at least) businessman who is sent on assignment to China. Though he believes it will be poor and backwards (perhaps channeling some Chinese anxieties about how they are perceived in America), he discovers it to be so exciting and alluring that he plans to stay. Varietycompared his character to an orphan who discovers that the parents he thought were beggars turned out to be rock stars. The American expats in China are shown as eccentric (the oddball businessman who sips tea as he says he's "fallen in love with Chinese culture"), self-interested and a bit greedy (the executive who calls China "a land of opportunity"), or virtuous and relatable (the fixer and love interest who convinces the main character to stay). All three characters, though, are shown as welcomed to China.
The joint U.S.-Chinese production, which showed at U.S. film festivals but received wide release only in China, seems to achieve the opposite effect of A Beijinger in New York, affirming the relateability of both the Americans in China (including the Chinese-American main character) and of the American dream itself, which the Shanghai Calling protagonist discovers is just as abundant in China. Still, the two films, for all their differences, colored by the dramatic changes in China and the U.S.-China relationship since 1993, seem to reach for the same ideas: the American-Chinese cultural divide, the high expectations for Chinese who emigrate to America as well as the sense of their loss, and the question of who can access the American dream.
Sometimes, though, America is portrayed in foreign films in simpler, sweeter terms. The 1977 German comedy Stroszekdepicts some misfit Germans who try to strike it rich in America but end up fumbling around lost-in-translation cultural nuances: shotguns and frozen turkeys, two distinctly American icons, make appearances toward the end. India's enormous Bollywood film industry -- the country produces more movies every year than any another, including the U.S. -- is increasingly setting films in America. Its cities, particularly New York, make for glamorous backdrops to the movies, which are often preoccupied with wealth and with syrupy-sweet plot lines about making it big and having it all. Those backdrops come at a heavy premium, particularly for Indian filmmakers that tend to emphasize volume, which means they must be worth something to audiences.
Even Love Actually, the British romantic comedy, though relatively sophisticated for the form and serving an audience presumably quite familiar with the American reality, can't help but indulging the American dream. A down-on-his-luck, awkward young British man spends his last dime to fly to America, where he believes he will find countless beautiful young women eager to meet him. His friends tell him he's crazy, and when he lands in Milwaukee in December and asks a cab driver to take him to "just an average American bar," it looks like they'll be proven right. Within minutes, however, three flirty, gorgeous, hard-drinking, tackily dressed super-models are pouring over him, buying him drinks and taking him home to their one-mattress apartment.
It's a self-consciously silly scene; so over-the-top it's clearly meant as satire, and yet the joke only makes sense if the audience understands the stereotypes about American drinking, American sex, and American women. Unfortunately, those stereotypes have at times helped bring danger or worse to American women abroad, who must fend off men who assume their advances are welcome or at least tolerated. In a very, very different way, those real American women share something in common with the fictionalized Egyptian men of The Night Baghdad Fell or the young couple of A Beijinger in New York, victimized by effect that America can sometimes seem to produce on people of other countries. Of course, there are also the American expats abroad, like those fictionalized in Shanghai Calling, who enjoy the residual glow of the American dream so highly sought around the world. But that's part of what's so complicated about foreign movies and how they show America. Their portrayals, however grounded in reality or stereotype or myth, sometimes become a sort of reality in themselves. America seems to elicit strong, complicated emotions in people, which is perhaps why they keep crowding into theaters to see the country and its people onscreen.
Choosing a president isn’t easy in this election, but here are three ways a principled conservative might vote.
The day of decision is nearing. All the talk fades, and one mark must be made beside one box on the ballot. Many Republicans are agonizing. They reject Donald Trump; they cannot accept Hillary Clinton. What to do?
I won’t conceal, I’m struggling with this question myself. I’ve listened to those Republicans, many my friends, who feel it their duty to stifle their anger and disappointment, and vote for Trump; to cast a protest vote for the Libertarian Gary Johnson or the independent Evan McMullin; or to cross the aisle and vote for Hillary Clinton as the lesser evil. On the way to my own personal answer, I found it helpful to summarize the best case for each of these options.
Emphasize the word “best.” If your case for Trump rests on the assumption that America is hurtling toward national doom, if your case for McMullin rests on the hope of tossing the election into the House of Representatives, if your case for Hillary argues that she is a large soul eager to work cooperatively with those who think differently from her. I’d say you are not thinking very clearly. Despair and fantasy are misleading counselors.
What use is there today for one of the oldest virtues?
As many Americans go about their days, I imagine they have two little angels perched on their shoulders, whispering conflicting messages about happiness and material wealth. One angel is embodied by James Altucher, a minimalist self-help guru recently profiled by The New York Times. Altucher claims to have only 15 possessions, after having unburdened himself a few months ago of 40 garbage bags’ worth of stuff and never looking back. As I read about Altucher, I rolled the numbers 15 and 40 over in my mind, thinking about the belongings in my bedroom and the garbage bags under my kitchen sink.
The other angel is Tyler Brûlé, the editor in chief of the fantastically high-end lifestyle magazine Monocle and a columnist for the Financial Times. He is the sort of writer who tosses off such lines as “I zipped along the autostrada through the Val d’Aosta with the ever-trusty Mario (my Italian driver for the past 20 years) at the wheel” with little regard for how privileged and pretentious he sounds (especially in his superfluous parentheticals). Still, there is something, I’m a little ashamed to say, that I envy about Brûlé’s effortless cosmopolitanism—which, it’s hard to miss, is only made possible by unusual wealth.
“Light” events are some of the heaviest lifting in political life. Comedy is hard to begin with, and for the kinds of people involved in politics, jokes are vastly more difficult to write or deliver than “substantive” remarks. And for presidents or presidential aspirants, we’re talking about a special kind of joke. These eminent figures need to come across as “modest” and self-deprecatory, but only up to a humble-brag point. (That is, just enough so the audience and reviewers will say, “Oh, isn’t it charming that he’s willing to laugh at himself!”) Real comedy often includes a “what the hell!” willingness to say something that will genuinely shock or offend, which national politicians can’t afford to do. The White House Correspondents Dinner, the Gridiron, the Al Smith Dinner—any event like this is hard (as David Litt, a former member of the Obama speechwriting team, explains in a very nice item just now).
Why the WikiLeaks revelation about a “pay-to-play” deal with Morocco is a quintessential Clinton controversy
The chief complaint that critics make about the Clinton Foundation is that the former and perhaps future presidents engaged in a “pay-to-play” scheme, whereby donors—many of them foreign governments—would contribute money to the charity in exchange for access to Bill or Hillary Clinton, or worse, beneficial treatment from the State Department.
On Thursday, hacked emails from WikiLeaks suggest that is precisely what happened when the king of Morocco agreed to host a Clinton Global Initiative summit and give $12 million, but only if Hillary Clinton attended the May 2015 meeting.
“No matter what happens, she will be in Morocco hosting CGI on May 5-7, 2015,” Huma Abedin, a top Hillary Clinton aide, wrote in a November 2014 email to several other advisers, including campaign chairman John Podesta. “Her presence was a condition for the Moroccans to proceed so there is no going back on this.”
It isn’t the only democratic institution that finds itself in danger.
Four years ago, as a speechwriter for President Obama, I commissioned a binder full of women.
A little context. It was the morning of the Al Smith Dinner, the election-year tradition in which both parties’ nominees don white-tie attire and deliver comedy monologues to New York City’s elite. Our opponent, Governor Mitt Romney had recently used the words “binders full of women” while discussing gender parity in government. Eager to mock the clumsy phrase, I asked a staffer on the advance team to put together a prop.
But our binder never saw the light of day. Obama nixed the idea. I remember being disappointed by the president’s decision, and wondering if POTUS was phoning it in. Of the jokes that did make it into the final draft, one in particular stood out for its authenticity.
First there was McCain’s caving to Bush’s signing statement on his own torture bill, then his selection of an extremely unqualified and unvetted running mate, then he backed Trump until nearly the bitter end—even after Trump insulted his POW experience and his fellow vets with PTSD. And now, a shameless betrayal of constitutional principle that would have gotten far more attention this week if Trump hadn’t one-upped McCain with all his incendiary “rigged” rhetoric. Reader Don explains:
I don’t know if your readers have seen this yet, but it seems that McCain has announced that his fellow GOP Senators will not confirm any Supreme Court nomination by Clinton. Trump is an ignorant, narcissistic, nasty piece of work. But McCain used to be a guy who remembered and honored (at least sometimes) the old bipartisan traditions of the Senate. His statement is just outrageous and inexcusable. What he’s basically saying is that only Republican presidents get to appoint Supreme Court Justices.
I understand that their thinking is that they don’t want the bias of the Court to shift from conservative to liberal. But the Court has shifted back and forth over the years, and we have managed to survive those changes. Apparently, today’s Republican Party feels that the country somehow won’t survive a Democratic administration or a liberal Supreme Court.
We have what might be described as an asymmetric politics. One party disagrees with the other party’s policy domestic policy positions, but recognizes the legitimacy of an opposition party and accepts that the other party is patriotic and loyal to the country. The other party rejects the legitimacy and loyalty of the other party. The efforts to de-legitimize former President Clinton, President Obama, and likely future President Hillary Clinton are part of this effort. The refusal of the GOP Congress to allow Obama any legislative accomplishments was another part of it. I expect that a GOP House will adopt the same obstructionist tactics starting in 2017.
People predict that the U.S. population will continue to get younger, better educated, and less white. I hope our political experiment lasts long enough to see that day.
Science says lasting relationships come down to—you guessed it—kindness and generosity.
Every day in June, the most popular wedding month of the year, about 13,000 American couples will say “I do,” committing to a lifelong relationship that will be full of friendship, joy, and love that will carry them forward to their final days on this earth.
Except, of course, it doesn’t work out that way for most people. The majority of marriages fail, either ending in divorce and separation or devolving into bitterness and dysfunction. Of all the people who get married, only three in ten remain in healthy, happy marriages, as psychologist Ty Tashiro points out in his book The Science of Happily Ever After, which was published earlier this year.
Social scientists first started studying marriages by observing them in action in the 1970s in response to a crisis: Married couples were divorcing at unprecedented rates. Worried about the impact these divorces would have on the children of the broken marriages, psychologists decided to cast their scientific net on couples, bringing them into the lab to observe them and determine what the ingredients of a healthy, lasting relationship were. Was each unhappy family unhappy in its own way, as Tolstoy claimed, or did the miserable marriages all share something toxic in common?
What began as a two-hour morning outage spanned well into the afternoon as Twitter, Reddit, Spotify, Github, and many other popular websites and services became effectively inaccessible for many American web users, especially those on the East Coast.
The websites were not targeted individually. Instead, an unknown attacker deployed a massive botnet to wage a distributed denial-of-service attack on Dyn (pronounced like dine), the domain name service (DNS) provider that they all share.
A distributed denial of service attack, or DDoS, is not an uncommon attack on the web, and web hosts have been fending them off for years. But according to reports, Friday’s attack was distinguished by its distinctive approach. The perpetrator used a botnet composed of so-called “internet-of-things” devices—namely, webcams and DVRs—to spam Dyn with more requests than it could handle.
Tristan Harris believes Silicon Valley is addicting us to our phones. He’s determined to make it stop.
On a recent evening in San Francisco, Tristan Harris, a former product philosopher at Google, took a name tag from a man in pajamas called “Honey Bear” and wrote down his pseudonym for the night: “Presence.”
Harris had just arrived at Unplug SF, a “digital detox experiment” held in honor of the National Day of Unplugging, and the organizers had banned real names. Also outlawed: clocks, “w-talk” (work talk), and “WMDs” (the planners’ loaded shorthand for wireless mobile devices). Harris, a slight 32-year-old with copper hair and a tidy beard, surrendered his iPhone, a device he considers so addictive that he’s called it “a slot machine in my pocket.” He keeps the background set to an image of Scrabble tiles spelling out the words face down, a reminder of the device’s optimal position.
It’s fiction to pretend that the most powerful nation can ever be truly “neutral” in foreign conflicts.
The eight years of the Obama presidency have offered us a natural experiment of sorts. Not all U.S. presidents are similar on foreign policy, and not all (or any) U.S. presidents are quite like Barack Obama. After two terms of George W. Bush’s aggressive militarism, we have had the opportunity to watch whether attitudes toward the U.S.—and U.S. military force—would change, if circumstances changed. President Obama shared at least some of the assumptions of both the hard Left and foreign-policy realists, that the use of direct U.S. military force abroad, even with the best of intentions, often does more harm then good. Better, then, to “do no harm.”
This has been Barack Obama’s position on the Syrian Civil War, the key foreign-policy debate of our time. The president’s discomfort with military action against the Syrian regime seems deep and instinctual and oblivious to changing facts on the ground. When the debate over intervention began, around 5,000 Syrians had been killed. Now it’s close to 500,000. Yet, Obama’s basic orientation toward the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has remained unchanged. This suggests that Obama, like many others who oppose U.S. intervention against Assad, is doing so on “principled” or, to put it differently, ideological grounds.