So why do it? The answer is simple: America matters. Politically, economically and culturally, the United States is the paramount world influence.
Every day we, out here in the colonies (of New Zealand), are affected by America. From the television we watch, to the runaway films our creative community must make to stay alive, to the rules that influence our food, medical and education systems and standards, to the shoes we choose to wear and the coffee many of us drink.
A number of letter-writers have pointed to the good America does in the world. While there's no denying that, often it's about how you arrange the figures on the page. Like the fact (as one correspondent pointed out) that America is the largest giver of aid in the world. Except he forgot to mention that US aid is tied to goods and services, a practice that cripples developing countries and ensures America is rated last on the international Commitment to Development Index.
America is a complex, diverse and difficult-to-understand country. On one hand it is increasingly defined by extreme security measures, while on the other it has given virtually free reign to corporate hegemony. Tax cuts that have overwhelmingly benefited the already wealthy have been at the direct expense of health and education, while safeguards and protections for people and the environment are being steadily dismantled.
Every column is an attempt to explore a single strand of this multiplicity. Whether it is a comment on the personal impact of a privatized healthcare system or the infantilizing of children's playgrounds because of a litigious legal system that has little to do with safety, or the outright denial of global warming to coincide with the reduction of corporate responsibility for pollution, no one column is definitive. It is simply a perspective.
At dinner late last year in Los Angles, I got into an argument with an actor-turned-businessman who had just shifted his furniture factory from Arkansas to China and was lamenting the loss of the local film industry to cheaper countries, like New Zealand. "New Zealand," he said petulantly, "is irrelevant. Only America has the weight to count."
His hypocrisy aside, he's right. Except that living as he does in his bubble of economic wellbeing, he, like most Americans, doesn't have a clue about the country he was calling irrelevant.
At the premiere of the New Zealand film Perfect Strangers last weekend, Prime Minister Helen Clark gave a short speech, then watched the movie with the rest of us. Afterwards she wandered freely, chatting at length to anyone who wanted to speak with her. She was not the star of the show, the room was not bursting with Secret Service or hovering advisers, and there was no special fanfare for her.
She wandered over and introduced herself to my husband, a new New Zealander. She wasn't in a hurry and they discussed the film and the travails of traveling in a security-obsessed world. They even talked about America.
Think about it. Where else in the world would the head of state discuss anything, let alone politics, with a stranger in a room full of people who had not been searched, screened or vetted in any way?
This is what criticizing America is about. Protecting the remarkable nature of this land that enables our head of state to move freely among the people who elect her. It is for freedom defined New Zealand-style. It's because we live in a freshly minted country on the edge of the world and have the opportunity to learn from history, to not replicate the policies favoring rich over the poor and profit over common good that characterize America in the 21st century.
These columns are not anti-American; they are an attempt to create dialogue, to raise consciousness of the consequences of the globalizing, systemizing and McDonald-izing of our culture and how US domestic and foreign policy affects us all.
Unsurprisingly, most of the disgruntled letter writers are either Americans living here or with business connections in this country, or New Zealanders with business in the US. Take from that what you will, but to them and others who disagree with the contents of these columns, I have one comment -- question authority; everything you see and hear that purports to be fact and everything you read (including this column). It was the mantra my now adult daughters grew up on. It is our only defence, individually and as a country, against the creeping controls of the world's only remaining superpower.
And if you don't believe the sometimes outrageous things I write, look for yourself. There's plenty of choice.
And keep writing those critical responses. I can handle the flak. But perhaps leave out the bad words.
Barbara Sumner Burstyn is a freelance writer who commutes between Montreal, Quebec and The Hawkes Bay in New Zealand. She writes a weekly column for the New Zealand Herald (www.nzherald.co.nz), and has contributed to a wide range of media. She can be reached at: email@example.com. Visit her website to read more of her work: www.sumnerburstyn.com/. © 2004 Barbara Sumner Burstyn