I’m quoting Sting, of course, in his famous — and at the time daring — song, released in 1985, during the Cold War. He was hoping that Russians, though our enemies, are human too, loving their children enough not to push the button to start nuclear war. Fortunately, it turned out that indeed, Russians love their children, too.
Imagine a bunch of Russians on an internet forum debating the merits of capitalism. Imagine that they’re talking about the United States in the 20th century as if it was all one, unchanging thing. As if the Civil Rights movement, the Great Depression, and post-Reagan neoconservatism were all happening simultaneously, and all characterize who we all are as a people. Imagine that people are saying all Americans have been merely reactive to our regime, that we are materialistic products of the free market, which drives our every action. Imagine that these writers on an internet forum acknowledge no social or cultural changes of any kind, and seem to believe that all our political leaders (FDR and Hoover, Coolidge and Clinton, Bush—either Bush what’s the difference— and Obama) had essentially the same outlook (because after all we’ve been a capitalist democracy the whole time, haven’t we?). Now imagine that these Russians are arguing that these “facts” about the U.S. prove that capitalism must necessarily lead to chauvinistic imperialism and enormous gaps between rich and poor to the degree that thousands of people are homeless in the richest country in the world (Russians didn’t know homelessness until they “democratized,” a correlation that could easily be misunderstood as causation).
It’s all patently ridiculous, of course. It’s hard to even know where to begin to correct all the false assumptions embedded in that argument.
Yet, I’ve heard it — often. Pretty much every time either “capitalism” or “democracy” is mentioned in my presence when I’m in Russia, actually, most of the points I’ve outlined here are made to me as if this should suddenly make me understand everything about my homeland that I’ve been blind to all these years.
The thing is, Americans just as frequently make the same mistake about the Russians. Every time you see a bunch of Americans (often on an internet forum) talking about how Russia proves that socialism isn’t possible, you’re seeing that same mistake being made.
I wrote that imaginary scenario by reading an actual internet argument by Americans about the Soviet Union and socialism, and just replacing the USSR with the US, socialism with capitalist democracy, to show how silly it is.
You can’t look at one moment in time and use it to characterize a whole century.
It is a mistake to confuse rhetoric and reality.
It is also a mistake to assume that socialism, an economic idea, has in inherent connection to authoritarianism, a political system. Socialist democracies exist, and so do authoritarian societies with capitalist economies.
It’s a mistake to confuse a people with their government.
It’s a mistake to lump hundreds of millions of people together and imagine they all think and behave the same way.
Yet everybody does makes these mistakes, all the time. People are ignorant everywhere, too — which is only natural. You can’t know about everything, and it’s easy to be unconsciously influenced by media. Does anybody think middle-class New Yorkers really get to live in apartments like the ones you see on Friends? If you do, I have a bridge to sell you. For the same reason, you shouldn’t imagine that the movie From Russia with Love tells you anything about Russia — it tells you only what those western filmmakers imagined about Russia for their own artistic and economic purposes. See my previous post on Rocky IV.
Interestingly, I’ve noticed that there are a lot more realistic Russian films set in normal-looking apartments than there are American films featuring people living in anything like any dwelling I have ever known in real life (though Russian TV is getting weirder and weirder and there are fewer realistic films and more ludicrous shocksploitation ones being made, so this is changing; I refer mostly to the 1970s-1990s).
I don’t think most Americans walk around deliberately spreading unfounded assumptions about other countries. We have a reputation abroad for doing it more than anyone else, though, deliberately or not, and that’s embarrassing. I find the the most effective way to remember not to make these kinds of mistakes oneself is to see how it feels when someone else does it to you. I’ve lived in Norway and in Russia for fair amounts of time and traveled briefly around Europe, so I’ve collected my share of anecdotes of this nature. A woman in Prague in 1992, who checked my passport at a currency exchange point, saw that it was issued in Chicago and asked me if I was afraid to live there. I thought it was the usual “don’t you get shot by gangs whenever you set foot outside” thing, but it turned out it was Al Capone — she thought he was still alive and busy! That was not the last time I came across someone who thought Al Capone was our contemporary.
The first time I lived abroad in 1991-92, I was continually asked if I lived in New York. No. Miami? No. L.A.? No. Well, but you can tell me what they’re like, right? No, actually I’d never been to any of those places. WHAT?!! But you said you were American?! Even those Europeans who have traveled to the US often visit only a major city or two, so many have little idea what’s “in” the rest of the US. Outsiders’ perceptions of our economic status are also often taken from Hollywood, or otherwise filtered through lenses. For example, when I taught English in St. Petersburg in 1998-99, a student of mine once confessed to me that he saw a documentary about the homeless in American back in the ‘80s and because he saw the homeless people on TV wearing blue jeans — which at the time cost a month’s salary in Russia — he concluded that even the homeless in American were rich!
Before you laugh too hard, remember that the assumptions Americans make about other countries are often distorted in exactly this way.