After Trump was elected in 2016, I studied in Prague and entered every space as quietly as possible. The “American” identity I once embraced meant something rhetorical. Some Czechs surprised me with how much they knew of American politics, and then oftentimes, I would feel ashamed at my own lack of knowledge. I thought of the United States far more than I did while home, and those pauses for reflection were some of the most fruitful points of my stay.
This is precisely the point that the Mexican diplomat Jorge G. Castañeda makes in America through Foreign Eyes. In this personal, analytical, and intuitive consideration of the United States, Castañeda argues that the special isolated position of America is changing — and with that change comes a necessary attention to the rest of the world.
I am reminded of my feeling of living in the “best country” as a little girl, something that informed a sort of blindness to foreign affairs in my young adulthood. I internalized this feeling of the “decline” of the United States when I was in Prague, embodied in my shame and hiding of my American identity. This change from pride to a more critical awareness mirrors this exact shift in attitude from a national confidence, resulting from years of being “top dog,” toward a more considerate — and healthy — curiosity for the opinion of others.
Castañeda was born to an elite family in Mexico and educated at Princeton and the University of Paris. His perspective is paradoxical: he declares his position as offering Americans an analysis of the “evolution of their country from within and without,” constantly trying to both claim familiarity and credibility within this country, yet simultaneously feigning the distance necessary to claim a “foreigner” identity.
This may be precisely the point. For so long, Americans have maintained a conservatism as to what it means to be American, from attachments to whiteness, to considering ourselves a nation with a large middle class, to believing in American exceptionalism, when in reality, the demographics of Americans and international perception of the United States today are much different.
Foreigners often recognize the “sameness” of the United States (i.e., the same strip malls, chain restaurants, nuclear families), yet, this universality does not withstand scrutiny. Castañeda challenges readers, especially conservatives, to reconcile a changing American identity of economic inequality and greater diversity. He quotes Fatimah Asghar, a Pakistani American writer and poet, on this subject, who feels that in America “I’m constantly reminded that I’m not actually from here. But when I’m abroad, I feel the most American I’ve ever felt.” From this “traumatic self-examination,” we are forced to reevaluate, but are also granted what British Indian writer Salman Rushdie calls a “stereoscopic vision,” an opportunity for beneficial change.
Castañeda believes in an American welfare state, and sees the emergence of that trend in the imminent 2020 election. Democratic candidates reflect this vision in their calls for universal health care, a higher minimum wage, free college and student loan forgiveness, and a Green New Deal. “The need for a plain-vanilla welfare state like elsewhere became apparent, as American society started resembling everybody else’s,” he writes, even as he asks how the United States remains one of the most religious countries, yet also one in which divorce rates are high and many couples live together before being married? How does the creationism debate persist today, when evolution is widely accepted and taught almost in every other “top” country? Why do “anachronistic” values like the right to bear arms, the death penalty, the abortion debate, maintain divisive relevance today? I appreciate Castañeda’s questioning of the deeply rooted American conservatism that has kept this country in gridlock, from systems such as gerrymandered districts to the Electoral College, to the “pragmatism and hypocrisy” of immigration and mass incarceration for drug crimes.
There are lighter observations here, too, on musical theater as a uniquely American advent, and a surprising question: is self-depreciating humor distinctly American? Castañeda argues that what the country lacks in history — or rather, lacks in appreciation of history — it makes up for in its scathing sense of humor. Both this “ability to mock everything” and an increasing awareness to historical importance will prove vital in raising internal awareness with coming national challenges.
America through Foreign Eyes seems a poignant read for 2020, as the election burns on, but one that will also last beyond this year. This country has been torn for a long while, and this division will not go away with a new presidential term. Now is the time to reconsider who we are.
I admit to being disillusioned with my country. I laugh at the irony of being a nation that claims to be built on freedom, independence, and equality, who simultaneously has a ridiculously high incarceration rate — the United States includes five percent of the world’s population, and almost a quarter of its prisoners — and threatens to “build walls” to keep out the tired, poor, and huddled masses we purport to welcome. Castañeda charges us to engage in mindful reinvention and make change:
Americans themselves acknowledge the decline and end of their difference with the rest of the world, or at least with its rich countries. […] It is especially strenuous for a society that was born with the ingrained notion of exceptionality, and that has sought to reproduce it from generation to generation. […] The journey toward that modernity — and full-fledged civilization — is underway. It will be arduous, but ultimately successful.
As international cooperation gains new importance with the impending climate crisis, we should be thinking more globally than ever before. We should see what “foreign eyes” have to teach us about ourselves — we all share this same planet.
Savy Janssen is a professor of first-year composition and rhetoric at Chapman University. More of her work is published on her blog, dontfeedthehippies.wordpress.com.