These questions haunted me and three other American visitors as we studied a huge display of cartoons drawn by local schoolchildren, third-graders assigned to convey their impressions of the United States. Panel after grisly panel depicted the United States, George Bush and those ubiquitous symbols of American commercial culture -- McDonald's and Coke -- as murderous, predatory and gleefully vicious.
Obese Uncle Sams chopping up Iraqi children with a knife, their blood gushing across construction paper. A leering Statue of Liberty holding a hamburger in one hand while firing missiles at dying Afghan civilians across the ocean. The American flag, its bars transformed into prisons for the child inmates of Guantnamo. A baseball bat painted red, white and blue poised to smash a ball -- which is a globe.
I didn't see a single positive portrayal of the United States.
Organizers of Carquefou's annual cartoon art festival had invited four American newspaper artists to this industrial town in conservative western France to discuss the deteriorated state of Franco-American relations.
All four of us have used our cartoons to convey our dim opinion of the Bush administration's domestic and foreign policy agenda. We oppose the war in Iraq. We despise the French-bashing that has arisen since the Chirac government threatened to veto Bush's Iraq war resolution in the United Nations. We're a pretty liberal group; that's probably why they chose us.
We don't take issue with most of the cartoons' messages. They see Bush as a vicious, thoughtless warmonger with fascist tendencies, Americans as arrogant brutes who don't give a passing thought to the innocent people who die at the hands of their government, and rapacious corporations as hegemonic steamrollers that crush cultural distinctiveness and independence in their ceaseless quest for the almighty dollar.
What must Palestinian kids think of us?
It would be nice to see these opinions expressed with more subtlety and nuance. Walking past those drawings felt like getting slugged in the stomach. Part of it was the sheer scale -- there were more than 700 pieces on display. But the level of rage and vitriol against America and everything related to it (one kid even trashed Tropicana orange juice) surpassed prewar propaganda in Saddam's Iraqi press.
And these are kids. What a difference a hundred years makes: the Statue of Liberty, France's second great gift to America after freeing it from England, was funded by millions of centimes collected by French schoolchildren.
It hurts to see what Bush has done to our international reputation.
We repeatedly explained that there's more to the United States than George Bush. We pointed out that most voters supported Al Gore in the last election, that hundreds of thousands of Americans marched against the war. We argued that Americans are kind, big-hearted people. French attendees listened politely, and we were treated with the utmost kindness and hospitality, but their kids' cartoons screamed: We hate you. That hurt.
Children get their politics from their parents and teachers, who form their impressions from the media. The European media has covered a different war than the one you've seen on CNN and Fox News. A 14-year-old Iraqi boy, shot by U.S. troops in Baghdad, was interviewed for five minutes on the evening news. "They did it on purpose," he said. "They were laughing."
The bloody corpses of Iraqi civilians are standard TV fare here.
"The United States is using excessive power," Ghazi Ajil al-Yawar, a moderate, pro-American member of the Iraqi Governing Council, told The New York Times Magazine on Jan. 11. "They round up people in a very humiliating way, by putting bags over their faces in front of their families. In our society, this is like rape. The Americans are using collective punishment by jailing relatives. What is the difference from Saddam? They are demolishing houses [of insurgents' family members] now. They say they want to teach a lesson to the people. But when Timothy McVeigh was convicted in the bombing in Oklahoma City, was his family's home destroyed?"
It's striking that al-Yawar knows McVeigh's name. How many Americans can identify any Iraqi other than Saddam Hussein? Most foreigners know more about us than we know about them. Hell, they know more about what we're doing in Iraq than we do ourselves.
Of course, many of us don't give a damn whether French schoolchildren, or anyone else, think Bush's United States is a land of butchers and thugs. Whether or not we care, however, it matters.
Ted Rall is the editor of the new anthology of alternative cartoons Attitude 2: The New Subversive Social Commentary Cartoonists, containing interviews with and cartoons by 21 of America's best cartoonists.