The BBC welcomed the new year with its latest planetary poll on the perception of American wickedness in the world. The survey, one in a long series conducted, as usual, by GlobeScan/PIPA, was unveiled earlier this week with the kind of suspense that usually decorates the cake at the bachelor party: You already know what’s in it. The question is how ugly can it be?
Really ugly. As polls go, this was Dennis Kucinich in a tutu. According to the report, deftly titled “World View of US Role Goes from Bad to Worse,” half the people on earth think America plays a “mainly negative role in the world.”
The issues that bother Earthlings the most? According to the poll, “After the Iraq war (73% disapproval), majorities across the 25 countries also disapprove of US handling of Guantanamo detainees (67%), the Israeli-Hezbollah war (65%), Iran’s nuclear program (60%), global warming (56%), and North Korea’s nuclear program (54%).”
These are silly polls, of course, and they’re ubiquitous. I talked about a similar poll here a few years ago, and you can get a snootful of them from World Public Opinion here. They’re more fun than a tank full of drunks! With this one, for example, you know that more than half the people on the planet don’t really disapprove of the U.S. handling of “North Korea’s nuclear program,” because only a fraction of the planet’s population knows there even is a North Korea; like many Americans, they couldn’t find it on a map and the first news they will have had about the “North Korean nuclear program” will have come when the phrase passed the poll-taker’s lips.
Instead of taking them seriously, take them with a rye chaser. That’ll help you find other ways to make the poll useful. For example, fans of repetitive homonyms will like the fact that the poll says Poles are the poll’s most honest pollees: 34 percent admitted they didn’t know enough about American policy on North Korean nukes to venture an opinion. Meanwhile, don’t believe anything you hear in Buenos Aires: almost 80 percent of Argentinians claim to be sufficiently up-to-the-minute on the six-way talks to say the American policy is muy awful.
The part of the poll I found most interesting was in the views of the Lebanese. Here’s a little country seen by much of the world’s press, and especially by the BBC, as a theatre for American-sponsored Israeli war crimes. Yet, according to the survey, 34 percent of them think the U.S.’s role in the world is “mainly positive.” That’s more than twice the support we get from Germans, where only 16 percent think we’re up to any good. So if you believe polls, you must assume one obvious way to double America’s approval rating in Berlin is to ask the IDF to bomb Neuschwanstein and other potential Hezbollah redoubts in the Bavarian Alps.
As we all know by now, the real function of these things is to validate the perceptions of the editors and producers who use polls as the basis for headlines that lend credibility to their own points of view. Libération, for example, went with the news that half of humans think America’s bad. The New York Times ran an item under the headline, “Global View of U.S. Worsens, Poll Shows,” while the LA Times ran the AP’s version: “Poll: Foreign View of U.S. Deteriorated.” But the real news about the poll was how little news it made. Most coverage — other than the BBC’s own, which of course was full-on all day — was scanty, perhaps because the poll itself was so embarrassing. The first question, for example, asks if you think the United States has “a mainly positive or mainly negative influence in the world.” Good thing they didn’t ask the same thing about the media.
From the European press’s perspective, another problem with the poll was that the news wasn’t ugly enough: Only a ten percent drop in two years? Come on people! Obviously, neither the New York Times nor the World Service has yet to sufficiently sculpt public opinion in Nigeria, Chile, Portugal, and elsewhere, since on West 43rd Street and in Bush House, London, 99 percent of the population thinks the U.S. is the Evil Empire.
Besides, who knows what people are thinking when they bother to think about politics on the other side of the globe? I was in the American midwest a few days ago with a couple of Parisians working on a documentary film. A young man invited us all to his church to join in commemorating the life of Martin Luther King Jr. The theme was “People Together.” After singing the national anthem and presenting the colors and saying a prayer or two, one person after another got up to talk about where his ancestors had come from and what his neighborhood was like. My companions were enthralled until one guy rose to praise the wildly diverse demographic of his nearby housing tract: “We all get along just fine,” he said, “and we have blacks, whites, French and everything in between.”
The BBC needs to ask those people in between how they feel about Gitmo and North Korea and whether the U.S .is a force for evil in the world. I have a hunch, however, they will only be disappointed.