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The Eagle's Shadow by Mark Hetsgaard

Public affairs, Farrar Straus & Giroux (hardcover), 2002, 246 pages

reviewed by Deane Rink,

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at

America is like Narcissus, so obsessed with its own image and private mythology that it rarely thinks of how people in the rest of the world see it.  When the unexpected events of September 11, 2001 occurred, a collective wail went out over the mainstream media: "Why do they hate us?" & "Aren't we the good guys?"

Mark Hertsgaard was just completing a trip around the world, surveying a representative sample of people from other countries on their attitudes about the USA, when the 9/11 attacks occurred.  He found that foreigners regard America with fascination, envy, and rage.  Most foreigners make a sage distinction between the cheerful optimism of the American people, the openness of our social mobility, and the foreign policies pursued by the American government.  But the 45 per cent of humanity that subsists on less than two dollars a day must shake their heads in disbelief when they hear that 46 per cent of all money Americans spend on food goes to restaurants, or that 60 per cent of all Americans are clinically obese.  Americans spent
$535 billion on entertainment in 1999; if we decided to be half as entertained (a major sacrifice, that), how many of the 35,000 children around the world that die of starvation every day might survive?

Hertsgaard cites a few more statistics that begin to illuminate the problem.

American traffic jams cost about $100 billion a year in lost productivity (the average Los Angeleno spends seven days a year sitting motionless in traffic).  The USA is the world's largest arms dealer, and 90 per cent of these sales go to undemocratic or human rights-abusing governments.  With 5 per cent of the world's population, America accounts for one-quarter of the
global man-made environmental footprint.  Almost half the signers of the Declaration of Independence were slave owners.  A mere ten companies control over half the nation's media outlets (and the average thirty-minute national newscast devotes less than two minutes to international news).  The richest 4 per cent of American voters provide almost 100 per cent of all national
political campaign contributions.  Almost 90 per cent of American stock ownership is by the richest 10 per cent of American households.

Even middle class Europeans, a large group culturally closest to Americans, can see from the welter of statistics like those cited above that there is a gigantic gap between American rhetoric and reality.  And what must these people think when an American president, George H. W. Bush, states: "I will never apologize for the U.S.  I don't care what the facts are," in response to our military accidentally downing a commercial airliner over the Persian Gulf?  Or what must foreign observers think when we preach democracy and open elections to other countries at the same time that we rank 114th in the world in voter turnout?

These uncomfortable truths live side by side with an obvious fact.  Technologically, scientifically, economically, America represents the world's future, a level of comfort and security to which most of the world aspires.  Why do we allow our contradictions to undercut and subvert our great promise, and cast a cloud over the great achievements we have made as
a nation?