Two very different stories from around the world gained a lot of attention this past week. On the one hand, the democratic revolution in Egypt that started in Tahrir Square as part of the Arab Spring of 2011 took a new turn, with tens of millions of protesters in the streets calling to oust President Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was elected after Hosni Mubarak saw the writing on the wall and ended his dictatorship, and who decided shortly thereafter to suspend the newly implemented constitution and, as one commentator put it, “Declare himself a pharaoh.”
That’s one story—and it’s a good one—though that whole thing with the army overthrowing the government, arresting sympathizers to Morsi, maybe massacring women and children and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, shutting down opposition media and so on feels an awful lot like a military coup. Nobody’s calling it that, but that’s how it feels. The other story was about a Brazilian soccer match that ended in bloodshed when a referee, after fatally stabbing a player who refused to leave the field after being kicked out of the game, was beheaded by an angry mob from the crowd, his head reportedly put on a spike presumably in a Game Of Thrones-style warning to other officials.
These weren’t the only news stories happening—there’s the U.S. spying on European diplomats, as if anyone around the world doesn’t do that, and that train crash in Canada, Andy Murray winning Wimbledon, etc.—but it seems to me that those two have gotten a tremendous amount of play here in the States and they stand out to me as proving a point about our perspective and how we view those living in the world around us with our peculiar blend of isolationism, xenophobia and raw ego.
First Egypt. This is a country where, after decades of living under a U.S.-supported dictator, they are shown to be experiencing the growing pains of political change that either will or won’t result in a system much like our own. From where we sit, these are growing pains similar in concept if not reality to those surrounding the business of writing the U.S. Constitution and maybe even to an extent our own Civil War. If Egypt gets out of these growing pains without staring their own civil war in the face, more the better.
We like democracy. We’ve touted it for a long time as being our thing. Sure, America has propped up its fair share of totalitarian regimes over the years, but we’ve always done so paying fantastically hypocritical lip service to the idea of popular rule. So when it comes to Egypt sorting itself out, we’re on board, watching as though we’ve settled these issues a long time ago, like, “Oh, look at these kids getting their feet wet,” when of course Egypt was a society when Europe was still more or less Neanderthal and the thought of a colonial experiment on the North American continent would’ve required any knowledge whatsoever of said continent’s existence.
It’s a fun if not-at-all-realistic take—let’s see how settled Wendy Davis thinks our democracy is as she rubs her still-sore feet—but one with which we’re plenty familiar, culturally. When it comes to the soccer beheading, our interest is purely racist. Yes, people got killed. It’s weird and it’s unfortunate, but the only reason those deaths are even given the remotest glance of a second look is because the stereotype of Brazilians loving soccer so much. The first reactions I saw were, “Wow, I guess that’s why you don’t mess with a Brazilian soccer game.” It’s not about giving a crap about a loss of life, it’s about, “Golly aren’t foreigners weird?”
This notion of people-as-others—that’s not to say people-as-barbarians—stems from American exceptionalism, the fact that we’re taught from an early age that America is special, that we as Americans are special, that we’re the greatest country on earth, on and on. Not true on any observable level, but as these two stories and our reactions to them demonstrate, it is something that bleeds into everything we see and to how we react to even the smallest-scale dramas (that’s not to say a murder is ever small scale, only that it’s not as complex as millions of people toppling governments) happening both in our own country and in the world outside of it.
Not to put words in anyone’s mouth, but why don’t we ask some of the parents in Newtown, Connecticut, how civilized we are? How exceptional they feel?
Oh right, because that would require talking to them.