The United States often sees itself in a much different light than do those in the rest of the world. It is this perceptual difference that sparked York English Professor Geoff Hamilton to create a website inviting scholars and lay people alike to debate issues that impact how the US is perceived.
Having taught at an American school in Minnesota about five years ago, Hamilton says that students who had recently returned from international exchanges “were absolutely stunned that the rest of the world didn’t regard their country as highly as they did.” At the same time, he was struck by the lack of knowledge these students had about other nations – including, of course, basic facts about America’s close neighbor, Canada.
“So I thought this was an interesting topic to get into in a larger way,” says Hamilton, who confesses to being obsessed with the United States, partly as a result of teaching American literature. But as he aptly points out, “most Canadians never stop thinking about the United States.”
The website Their America: America in the eyes of the world is not just for Canadians, but for anyone in any part of the world to explore historical opinions of, and contribute to evolving debates about, the United States. “Their America is devoted to significant expressions (speeches, essays, political cartoons, fiction, news stories etc.) about America by non-Americans,” states the website. It is designed to be a “global, synoptic” site, an “unpolemical, informative and provocative resource” for anyone “interested in studying and debating America’s global reputation.”
The intent is to have classes and individuals around the world tap it as a resource, discuss issues in the forums and retrieve relevant archival material. The website is already visited by several hundred people, from more than 20 countries, on an average day.
“Some good discussions are unfolding,” says Hamilton, who monitors what’s going on in the forums and lists highlights on the homepage.
Some of the highlights include discussions on the following topics: the ethics and efficacy of drone strikes, America’s bombing of Hiroshima/Nagasaki, NSA spying, America’s motivations in the Middle East and films that have definitively shaped one’s understanding of the US.
Part of the surprise Americans feel when they realize their perceptions of their country are not necessarily shared by others comes from not really listening to the rest of the world, says Hamilton. “It’s a big and very patriotic country, and there is, of course, a lot to focus on domestically. America is influential enough to think it ought not to care too much about what happens elsewhere and what others think.”
All the same, Hamilton hopes Americans are listening. They are even welcome to participate, although he prefers that the site remain a forum dominated by those outside the US.
For more information or to join in a discussion, visit the Their America website.