Christopher Hitchens writes in the Examiner today about why we shouldn't pay attention to opinion polls that purport to show how the rest of the world views us. Since I have long been a critic of polls and polling, this rings for me.
For example, I am quite certain that an opinion poll of any kind, taken in the Muslim world in 1992, would have discovered enormous resentment at the failure of the United States to intervene militarily in Bosnia. But this ingredient in the famous mixture of Islamic grievances is seldom, if ever, mentioned, and certainly wasn’t head-counted at the time. As a result of that just and necessary intervention, large numbers of Orthodox Christians, not just in Serbia, now record strongly “anti-American” opinions. Which goes to show that you can’t please everybody.
It also goes to show that you probably shouldn’t try. A country that attempted to be in everybody’s good books would be quite paralyzed. The last time everybody said they liked the United States (or said that they said they liked the United States) was just after Sept. 11, when the nation was panicked and traumatized and trying to count its dead. Well, no thanks. This is too high a price to be paid for being popular.
Measurements of opinion are in any event static, and they assume passivity, and a consensus upon knowledge. If you had asked people in 2001 whether they thought it was likely that Afghans and Iraqis would be holding free elections in a couple of years (not that any polling group ever did even suggest such a question), I doubt you would have got a very good response. And how, in any case, could people have known enough to know what they were supposedly talking about?
If I was to interrupt this article every few sentences, asking you whether or not I was making a good impression on you, I hope and believe that you would think I was a servile jerk. Yet this is what our politicians are doing in every speech (most notably in the absurd recent debate on “flag-burning”) and this is apparently what we hire Karen Hughes to do in our public diplomacy.
Read the whole thing, I think Hitchens has nailed this one.