Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Hitchens on polls about what others think about America.

World: Who gives a damn what the rest of the world thinks, you cannot govern for everybody. Don't like America, tough.

WASHINGTON - Here’s what I want to know, and here’s why I want to know it. At what point in history, exactly, did the Pew Center decide that it knew how to measure world opinion? I ask this because almost every week I seem to read a study of how the rest of the globe thinks (or at any rate feels) about the United States. The polls in this country are unreliable enough and are often used to measure intangibles, such as “approval ratings,” which is why there is so much fluctuation within and between them. But who’s doing the random samples in Somalia and Tajikistan and Ecuador? I ask because these polls tend to inform Americans that the rest of the world has a decidedly low view of them. That this is true in large parts of the Middle East, and among large swathes of European intellectuals, is something that I can already tell you from experience. For that matter, it was at one point true that the majority of Pakistanis, say, believed not just that all Jews had left the World Trade Center on time, but that (therefore) they had all reported for work on time, hung around for a bit — presumably whistling and wearing unconcerned expressions — and only then left; doubtless offering some clever Semitic excuse. Not even al-Qaida’s pilots had as exact a schedule as that. Nonetheless, and despite the absurdity and hysteria of much of what is said and believed, we seem almost ready for a poll of Americans on what they think the rest of the world thinks of them in opinion polls, where the “finding” would be that most of those Americans polled think that most other people polled think they stink. There are several possible responses to this. One of them — no doubt to be found in the presumed “red states” — is to say “who gives a flying flip?” Another is not to surrender to impressionism, and to do some work of one’s own. Large numbers in India, for example (another multiethnic federal and secular democracy), report highly favorable views of the U.S. A very important poll in Iran (where polling is illegal) found that a huge majority of Iranians considered better relations with America to be the single most urgent priority. One of those who conducted the survey was a former American embassy hostage-taker, who was jailed for publishing his findings. Then there is the question of method. Polling in the U.S. depends on finding a lot of people who are identifiable by name, and at home in their kitchens when the poll-taker calls. How is this feat replicated in the Andes, say, or in the Congo? Who pays for the work? When is it decided that the time is right? For example, I am quite certain that an opinion poll of any kind, taken in the Muslim world in 1992, would have discovered enormous resentment at the failure of the United States to intervene militarily in Bosnia. But this ingredient in the famous mixture of Islamic grievances is seldom, if ever, mentioned, and certainly wasn’t head-counted at the time. As a result of that just and necessary intervention, large numbers of Orthodox Christians, not just in Serbia, now record strongly “anti-American” opinions. Which goes to show that you can’t please everybody. It also goes to show that you probably shouldn’t try. A country that attempted to be in everybody’s good books would be quite paralyzed. The last time everybody said they liked the United States (or said that they said they liked the United States) was just after Sept. 11, when the nation was panicked and traumatized and trying to count its dead. Well, no thanks. This is too high a price to be paid for being popular.

One poll that came out from the Telegraph on what the British think about America has one disappointing finding to me.

Among other findings of the survey: 83 percent of respondents said the United States "doesn't care what the rest of the world think,"
We need to convince the other 17%, 83% is too low.

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