Thursday, November 20, 2008

Re: Global Branding


Dear President-elect Obama,

Congratulations on your victory. Though American, I live in Cambodia, and myself and a handful of other Westerners gathered at a local bar at 9:00 a.m. on our November 5th to watch the returns in real time. There were not many of us, and even fewer Americans.

Khmer don’t care about your election or what Americans think of you. In contrast to what seems to have been the predominant feeling across the planet for the past seven years, Cambodia still likes America. The Khmer teenagers my girlfriend and I tutor in English pronunciation eagerly tell us, “American accents are the best.” I don’t know why this is the case. There are more Brits, Canadians, and Australians spending tourist dollars here than there are Americans. Thai, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese shows dominate on local cable TV. The bootleg films available do seem to be largely American, but they are all dubbed or have subtitles. From the pragmatic standpoint of winning the generosity of a tourist, a local person would be better served to know Australian slang or practice using pants only when referring to underwear.

So what is the reason for the average Khmer to still love America when most of the globe has grown accustomed to hating us? In a country where the vast majority of people are uneducated and thus cut off from the tides of international news, does the legendary promise of the Land of Opportunity still reside in the collective conscious? I asked my Khmer friend Diné. “They know America is very powerful,” he said, smiling around a Marlboro Light. “They want to better their lives, so they want to sound like Americans when going for job interviews. Many Khmer do not even know that other countries, they speak English.” I asked the monk that tutors Shannon and me in English, and he said that America is very generous in its aid to Cambodia, apparently either unaware or unconcerned that until the 1990s we supported the maniacal Khmer Rouge as the official regional enemy of Communist Vietnam. But average Khmer people now live calmly alongside former KR soldiers. The prime minister is a former KR head honcho and well liked. Out of decades of chaos has come a respect for strength and stability above any notion of justice. America has the widest shoulders and the best carrots and sticks, and we are widely admired for it.

Every Thursday, Shannon and I go to the pub quiz hosted at an English-owned ex-pat bar named Funky Munky. Money raised goes to local NGOs. Aside from the occasional British football team pennant and the odd LP cover tacked to the wall, the decorations at Funky Munky consist of large, framed silkscreens of legendary Americans with Guns from our popular fiction. There is, of course, Robert DeNiro, surely the most frequently displayed American gangster and mad man, here as Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver and Jimmy Conway from Goodfellas. There’s also a picture of Christopher Walken about to lose Russian Roulette in Deer Hunter, Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, and a 12-year-old Natalie Portman test aiming in The Professional. There’s even a charming black-and-white film still of a handlebar-mustachioed Lee Marvin showing off his six-gun alongside cowboy Jack Palance. I’ve seen this same décor in scores of college dorm rooms, most pizza parlors in New York City, and in bars across the world. Its style is on display on the covers of most of those bootleg films for sale in the Khmer markets. This is an integral part of our global brand, a part of our national image that is incredibly potent. And standing in the Funky Munky a day after your victory speech in Grant Park, I thought of another part of the American image.

I was cynical when you first announced your candidacy two years ago. Your bonafides as a true reformer were lacking. But by this fall, I was as worn down and as terrified of another GOP victory as everyone else. I put my hope in you. And as I watched in disbelief my home state of Virginia turn blue on CNN’s scoreboard and your victory declared, I felt, as simply as if a switch had been thrown, that my country was mine again. After seven years of watching the judiciary, legislature, executive office, fourth-estate press, and general citizenry stray ever further away from my code of ethics, I was suddenly terribly lonely for my home. How powerful, the popular belief of the pack.

I moved to Asia in part to avoid the crush of the 24-hour coverage of the campaign and I had no interest in watching the empty heads chattering at the commentator’s desk. Just as I was thinking that I’d need to leave the TV to keep my happiness safe from those useless human markers between ad spots, those voices just nothing to me, just air and narcissus-breath to me, the camera pulled away to Chicago streaming into Grant Park and I felt like my breastbone might finally crack to let the air and light in. When was the last time a quarter-million Americans gathered in one place and were happy? When has anyone ever seen Al Sharpton smile? I come from a city where statues of Confederate generals line the grandest street, and still that city has voted for you?! It is astounding, and as the camera panned over my ecstatic countrymen and woman, I saw evidence of what I hope we will recognize: that we are all truly The People; of, by, and for each other, and thus, ourselves.

This, Senator Obama, is the part of America that I want promoted to the world, and it is the part of America that you have made your flagship marketing initiative. I don’t blame you for making our best ideas of ourselves into slogans and T-shirts; we live in an age where all is product, and we are all bound by the rules of that age. So I don’t blame you for using U2’s cathedral chiming to close your DNC speech, even though it turned the evening into a propaganda music video. I don’t blame you for the way your campaign sold an abstract like ‘hope’ until the letters were worn translucent and the word was as substantial as the idea of fog in a morning of gray rain. We certainly need hope and you, my friend, are an exceptional namebrand for it. What I want, then, is for that image of America gathered in Grant Park to be as widely admired by the world and on display in the pubs and markets of Cambodia, as is the brute business sense associated with our brandishing of a gun.

I am no fool. I know that a whole universe exists between what we all say and who we all really are. But I am choosing to believe that you are genuine, that your unparalleled adeptness at the political machine has thus far serviced, rather than clouded, this genuineness. You are galvanizing and we need that. We need you because we desperately need each other. You were a good product on the shelf, and we have bought you, Barack Obama. I hope you are as superhuman as we now need you to be.


Jason Leahey