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America has a strong global presence but we need to take actions to live up to our reputation abroad

By Itak Moradi

Nov. 7, 2011 11:11 p.m.

Correction: The original version of this column contained an error. The joint letter to the editor referenced by the column was written by UCLA’s Muslim Student Association and J Street U.

America. What comes to mind? Democracy, or colonizers of the world? Freedom, or the global prison capital?

There is no simple answer, because we fit no simple category ““ considering our history, economy and dedication to self-representation, images that circulate that name are as complex and contradictory as they should be.

Yet common perceptions are often situated in the media or elsewhere too cleanly, in such a way that others can easily agree or disagree without considering the intricacies involved when an opinion formulates.

In his most recently published book, “American Avatar: The United States in the Global Imagination,” Barry Sanders, an international lawyer and adjunct professor of communication studies at UCLA, uses America to study the process of image formation ““ when attitudes are expressed through selecting from a set of ingrained images and predispositions.

For students, Sanders’ analysis is particularly germane to how we treat the future of country, and our roles in global relations. In a time where our national security and policy depends on external opinion, we must begin to realize how and why our image can fail some people, and what we should do to encourage a more realistic representation that will both fulfill others and that we can actually achieve.

Solving America’s PR crises may seem impossible, but attitudes can change.

For example, there has been a long-standing anti-American sentiment in Libya. After the recent rebellion, masses of Libyans expressed their appreciation for America’s role, and praised us for our commitment to freedom – reversing a long trend of hate. This demonstrates that such images of America were already available in their minds, and that once an experience enabled them to trust such images, aspects of their resentment changed, Sanders explained.

And now exiting Iraq soon, it is vital that we do so as positively as possible ““ if people around the world don’t feel that our actions for mitigating the obstacles in a post-war country are wholehearted, our image will certainly worsen.

We have a reputation of opportunity, autonomy and good will, but a track record of ignorance as well. People’s experiences compel them to identify with these concepts differently, and are crucial to how people form their ideas.

Because of our unmatched global presence, America may be the only place in the world inviting an opinion from everyone.

Fostering a connection between an opinion and the process of its formation can improve relationships. If opposing campus groups engaged in discussions that did not begin and end with how opinions differ, in isolation from how they were built, then agreement, or at least understanding, would be easier.

The joint letter that UCLA’s Muslim Student Association and J Street U wrote about a David Horowitz advertisement is a great example of forging connections in order to achieve something productive, despite fundamental differences. The mere act of sitting together to write an opinion piece means that the two groups were willing to sift through disagreements to discuss something complicated. They should continue to apply this approach to polarizing issues, because their opinions are interconnected ““ they are inevitably based on the same events.

It is important, and more useful for our delicate future, to question the origin of people’s ideas, instead of posing our own alongside or against them.

Pew Research Center surveys on global opinions of the United States show that the majority of countries still think of us favorably, yet it is much less common for people to be satisfied with the direction of our country. This is hopeful. If others are still able to support America despite underlying disagreement with our direction, then in some ways our philosophies may still resonate more strongly than our missteps.

For many around the world, America personifies their deepest desires and aspirations, and we continuously work to encourage that belief, but we may often be held up to a fantastical standard that we are bound to fail fulfilling.

We don’t always meet our admirers’ expectations, and the envy and disillusionment that this fuels is dangerous.

Worldwide, America is expected to assist others when there is disease, disaster or oppression. This is only so because we have built that idea. But of course, we also suffer from problems, and accordingly prioritize our own economic and political interests with less regard for other countries than people would hope for. Our reputation as the world’s support system invites accusations of hypocrisy.

Disillusionment plays an enormous role in how people think about our country, and disappointment is often the fuel for hateful actions and words we receive.

We must maintain an awareness of what our expectations are, and the obligations our history has set for ourselves. For the sake of both commitment and safety, we need to help others in achieving what our philosophies purport they can.

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Itak Moradi
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