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Wednesday 18 June 2003

What the World Thinks of America

This BBC program(me)’s website is a rich vein to be mined for comment.

One of the things the BBC did, in advance of a recent broadcast entitled ‘What the World Thinks of America’, was conduct polls in a number of countries designed to answer the titular question in a number of aspects. (BBC style is to refer to the United States as ‘America’. This is wildly inaccurate — ‘America’ properly includes nearly all the land in the western hemisphere —, and goes against the Tinotopia style guide. I have left their references to ‘America’ intact when used in quotes.)

The general question, ‘how would you say you feel towards America?’ had France, Indonesia, Brazil, and Jordan returning unfavorable responses, and Canada, the UK, Israel, Australia, Korea, and Russia returning favorable ones.

The biggest surprise for me was the hostility from Brazil in the responses to all the questions. I suppose they blame American banks and the U.S. government for their financial mess.

But the overwhelming impression I get is that these responses tell us much, much more about the countries polled than they do about the United States. When it comes to religion, for example, 78% of French people polled see the United States as ‘religious’, and 15% as ‘not relirioug. In Jordan, 67% see the U.S. as ‘not religious’, and only 10% as ‘religious’. Brazil and Indonesia also only had a minority of respondents report seeing the United States as ‘religious’.

Whatever they think about religion in the U.S., though, everyone agrees that “the world looks at America and they see money and sex”. We do have a lot of both.

Almost everyone likes American movies and music, while American television is less popular. All but three countries (Brazil, Jordan, and Korea) like American-made clothing. I have to say I’m baffled by this as there is almost no clothing actually made in the United States.

It’s ironic, then, that people in almost all countries said that the influence of American consumer products and entertainment is too great.

Very few people in any of the countries surveyed said that the United States was a better place to live their their home country. The countries most like the United States — Canada and Australia — predictably were the least likely to think the U.S. to be a better place.

But while only 6% of Canadians said the U.S. was a better place to live, 17% said they’d like to live in the United States. Since it’s unlikely that Canadians would be interested in living in the U.S. in order to experience its exotic culture (Canadians like to deny this, but there’s almost no difference between Canada and the U.S., culturally), I think I smell a rat. 1% of Australians said the U.S. was a better place to live, but 16% would like to live here; most countries exhibited a similar mismatch in their responses.

The most interesting responses by far came in a section of the poll where people were asked what things about the United States that their home countries should aspire to achieve.

In France, only 19% said that France should aspire to achieve the level of economic opportunity that we have in the United States. 13% said that France should aspire to achieve U.S. standards of freedom of expression; 27% American democratic institutions.

Now, some of these questions are a bit daft. Why should France want American democratic institutions? They have their own democratic institutions. I don’t understand what they have against freedom of expression and economic opportunity, though. I would like to see the French version of these questions.

Interestingly enough, a majority of Jordanians said that Jordan should aspire to achieve American-style economic opportunities, freedom of expression and democratic institutions, by 80%, 51%, and 65%, respectively. This despite the fact that only 15% of Jordanians thought that the U.S. was a better place to live than Jordan, and despite the fact that nearly all their other responses were hostile to the U.S. And, despite the fact that 79% of them think the U.S. military is a threat to the rest of the world, they apparently believe that the road to freedom, opportunity, and democracy for Jordan is best travelled in a tank; alone among those polled, Jordanians believe that their country should aspire to American-style military power.

The main conclusion that I draw from these polls is that foreigners’ opinions of the United States are based almost entirely on prejudice, and that any similar poll that would actually seek the truth (as opposed to fodder for the BBC cannon) needs to be very carefully crafted. Good surveys are carefully constructed in order to avoid ‘survey bias’. For example, when you ask Americans if they would accept fewer government services if they would also get a tax cut, the majority respond in the negative: they appear to prefer the taxes. If you ask the very same people whether they’d like to pay lower taxes even though this would mean fewer government services, they say they’d accept a cut in services. Two questions, same meaning, completely different answers.

The responses in these BBC surveys seems to show a whole lot of survey bias, and a number of the questions (‘Should [your country] aspire to achieve American pop culture’) are either absurd on their face, confusing, or seemingly designed to elicit an anti-American response.

Posted by tino at 16:28 18.06.03
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your opinion is just as biased towards your country as you say the survey results are. express your opinion but do not accuse people of being prejudiced when you are yourself

Posted by: hmmm... at October 28, 2003 02:57 AM

My point is that people in most of these countries appear to admire the opportunities the United States affords. At the same time, though, they say that they don’t like the things that those opportunities result in.

They overwhelmingly say that the US isn’t a better place than their home country — totally understandable — but more of them say that they’d like to live here, in a place that they’ve said is a worse place the live in than where they are now.

What I get from this survey is that people admire the constituent parts of US society, but they don’t like the whole. Frankly I think it’s more charitable to believe that they’re prejudiced — that they believe that they should dislike the US no matter what they think of the parts — rather than assuming that they’re too stupid to understand that the bits that they admire directly lead to the whole that they complain about.

Posted by: Tino at October 28, 2003 10:52 AM