Observing the empire from afar.
Three decades' worth of America-gazing from one of its long forgotten provinces, Romania.
I grew up in Romania, in an era that was either called "transition" or post-communism, depending on who you asked. The 'post-' is still controversial decades later, but at the very least, no guns were pointing inward at our border anymore.
At 13, I went to an internet cafe and got my first email on Yahoo. It was an excellent day for Ksandra6000. All my friends had user names that included a far away sounding year (like 2010). I thought that was terribly narrow-minded. I wanted my email to be fresh and exciting until the day I die, so I went with triple the recent Millenium to cover all the inevitable options for transhumanist life-extension the future would bring. By that time, I already spoke English because that was the language of TV (dubbing is expensive, subtitles are cheap). Even under communism, the streets would empty every time Dallas aired.
Later, The Young and the Restless would exert a similar pull, becoming the obsession of every red-blooded Romanian woman and of a non-trivial number of men. As teens, we watched Dawson's Creek, Buffy, and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. Then, the internet was just like TV, an American cultural artifact, simply with more buttons and more widgets. At 18, I had Myspace. At 19, I had Facebook.
One thing felt constant throughout all of this: the wider world was American, or, at least, our available lens on it was.
Like the disagreeable little sh*t I was, I was the first atheist and the first feminist that my provincial little circle had ever seen. The American internet was there to help set me on my path. I learned that religion was really, really fake and that women were having a very tough time (in the West, of all places). I, too, being female, was a victim, and it wasn't hard to believe in early '00s Romania, a still relatively sex-segregated place, haunted by communist abuses of power, the horrors of illegal contraception, back-alley abortions, and patchy street lighting. Plausible and flattering - the world being a conspiracy explicitly targeting me was quite the narcissistic supply for a teen.
I watched hundreds of hours of Bill Maher & Jon Stewart, and the so-called Four Horsemen: Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris, in every debate constellation ever produced. I read all their books with the zealotry of the initiate. Nobody I knew was in on reality like me.
Conservative voices existed in my satellite existence, but they were mostly known by the shadows they cast. They were the evil businessmen, tenting their fingers and laughing maniacally in almost every American movie but also the toothless inbreds in documentaries about the crumbling Bible Belt or Deliverance. They were scheming warmongers, trading other nations' resources in deceptive democracy-spreading adventures but also callous and uncaring about the plight of the people they pretended to help. Conservatives were more mythical and frightening in their conspicuous absence. If they showed up at all, they were token cannon-fodder on debate shows, punchlines on late-night comedy, or Ted Haggard. I saw a lot of Ted Haggard.
The narrative: America was being held hostage by a dark cabal and was going down the drain. The TV/internet people were sending frantic distress signals, but somehow the "Republicans," whoever these people were, continuously undermined the project of a truly free and equitable America.
Today, a strikingly similar message comes in through American monopoly media. Americans are simple-minded, vote against their own interests, and, as far as civil liberties are concerned, the end is nigh.
The average Romanian knows the following about Americans:
They are stupid and uncultured, though they somehow also have the best universities and lead the world in scientific research.
They are fat and lethargic, but their work ethic is second to none, and they never take vacations.
They have guns, though they shouldn't, though they probably should because criminality is very high.
The evils that befall them was caused by something terrible they did, either now or in the past, though it would have been great to have them “conquer” us just once.
It's hard to emigrate there, but it shouldn't be, because it's also highly desirable, being the "land of opportunity."
America is a perpetual paradox and obsession. How can a people so flawed have been blessed by fortune on such an indecent scale? They keep telling us that they are dumb and incompetent and rotten, but they still seem to be coming out on top.
The American paradox may have a simple solution: America is the only country to have generated so much excess it now exports its own self-loathing, in industrial quantities, 24/7.
The US’s cultural hegemony is so profound that acknowledging it is in poor taste. Beyond that, being this blessed deserves self-flagellation. There is and always has been an eschatological fervor in the US's self-accusations and its visions of itself (at least the ones that reached these shores). It’s obscene to be America.
This seems, at least, a uniquely Western phenomenon. A country like Romania needs comforting myths to compensate for its relative unimportance - tales of heroism, high culture, millennia-spanning civilizations (sometimes involving aliens - really). A small, peripheral country has a chip on its shoulder so heavy that it can only afford to trade in myth and convoluted justification.
Self-loathing is a luxury reserved for empire.