‘Why Do They Hate Us?' A Personal View

Manfred Wolf is a visiting professor of Dutch. Respond at [email protected].

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When I first came to this country 50 years ago, the contrast between the niceness of Americans and a certain public boastfulness was the first thing I noticed. I was almost 17, a freshman at Brandeis University, from Curacao in the Netherlands West Indies.

The university president addressed the student body by saying, "Here at Brandeis we believe in excellence. Nothing less than that. And excellent is what we are."

I was astonished. The Dutch culture in which I had been raised did not permit you to say that your school (or you, or your country) was the best. You were not supposed to praise yourself. Which did not mean, of course, that Dutch officialdom did not praise itself or its country. But it was limited praise for specific accomplishments or distinctive cultural traits. "The Dutch are the best bridge builders in the world," proclaimed my high school teacher.

You never heard that Holland was the greatest country on the planet, or that the Dutch way of life was superior to all others.

I happen to think that the United States is the greatest country in the world, and I might even say so to people; but I think I shouldn't say it often and certainly not to foreigners.

One of the things we have slipped into as a culture is a kind of unwitting boastfulness that actually

doesn't go with the generally restrained demeanor of many Americans. In this society, we're almost required to sing our own praises and call attention to ourselves. If we don't, we get overlooked.

For some reason, what in private life is done discretely, or even indiscreetly, is in public always trumpeted loudly. Any candidate for office will have to declare sooner or later that America is the greatest, our democracy the finest, our way of life the best, and our freedom the envy of all people everywhere.

Politicians frequently say this to one and all, and when they do, it often comes out sounding like this: "America is great because of the greatness of the American people. And because the people are great they have created this great system of freedom and justice. That's what it's all about."

It is the sort of garbled bragging that foreigners dislike about us, and for good reason. Then when they actually meet Americans, they're pleasantly surprised by how relatively modest and unassuming we turn out to be in person.

Most cultures boast, of course, and it makes them look arrogant from time to time. But we in the United States have raised the volume, and we perennially boast with a sort of vast inclusiveness, praising ourselves not for this or that accomplishment but for what we have and what we are. Because we seem unaware of doing so, we also create the impression of ignorance, a sort of blindness, a self-deluded innocence. When this innocence is linked to great power, it is seen as all the more obnoxious.


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