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An Interview

With Sara Polak

As a staff member of English language and culture, you are perhaps most known for your expertise in American studies. You have traveled back and forth between Leiden and America quite a bit. What do you think are the biggest cultural differences between the Dutch and Americans?
First of all, it's hard to generalize about the United States because it is such a big and very diverse country, so it really depends on where you are. I've been to different parts, but there are also huge parts that I don't know at all. I tend to go to academic conferences and I spent some months at Yale University, which is a very particular context. One difference could be that we are more used to going abroad and speaking other languages. On the other hand, sometimes you hear people laugh at Americans not being able to tell the Netherlands and Denmark apart. Then I think: do you really know the difference between Missouri and Montana? So it’s dangerous to generalize, but one thing I always notice is that things in the US are big: Cars, roads, portions, houses. I quickly got used to taking up a lot of space. Perhaps that is why it also tends to be more wasteful.

When I was living in the States just over a year ago, the Zwarte Piet debate in the Netherlands coincided with the protests against the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the Ferguson officer who shot Michael Brown. That made me think about the different forms and perceptions of race and racism. In the US many people are very aware of race and very well trained in thinking about various types of discourse you can use, whereas in the Netherlands people are often awkwardly looking for ways to talk about race. For Americans it's really obvious that any stereotype or caricature of a black person is off-limits and not politically correct, because of the US’s slavery history and the now reviled tradition of black minstrel shows. In the Netherlands slavery feels very remote for white Dutch people. Dealing with that past has never become embedded in the Dutch culture. So Americans may be more educated about the topic, but at the same time Americans, especially of color, die at the hands of police officers almost daily.

In The Netherlands, we are very interested in other cultures because we travel so much. There are a lot of opportunities for us to study a different language and/or culture here. Do you think the USA offers the same opportunities?
Well, not the same, but it offers great opportunities in a different way. Many Americans have traveled, and moved around, within the US. They know very different parts of the US and different cultures. Because so many do that, for work, family, studying, they are also very good at being new somewhere and at receiving someone else who is new. Generalizing again, I would say that Americans are actually more outgoing than we are, and more open in some ways.

A really good and rich university like Yale also does have lots of opportunities for students to go abroad. If you study, say, German there, you have lots of opportunities, including funding opportunities, to spend time in Germany. Perhaps more easily accessible and generous than the Erasmus programme. But that's limited to top, rich universities, I bet it is different for students who go to a community college.

You wrote your PHD thesis on Franklin D. Roosevelt as a cultural icon in American history. Could you briefly tell us what your research was about and what you think made him so memorable?
My research tries to do two things. On the one hand understand how Roosevelt's rhetoric worked, and how particularly he tried to project himself into future memory. Every statesman thinks about how he'll be remembered in the future, but he was a specific figure as he was the first mass media president. He had radio, news reals, photographs. He seems to have been very conscious about projecting into the future a particular memory of himself.

One way in which you can see that is he build the Franklin D Roosevelt presidential library. It's both a museum about him and an archive with his papers in it. 'This was me , this was an academic institute to study me in the future'. Which is a very interesting thing to do of course. On the one hand, it doesn't particularly steer towards one specific interpretation because it mainly has all of his archive, on the other hand it is a strangely arrogant thing of course, which I don't think I'll be doing however famous I become.

One thing that's interesting about that, is that in projecting a future image, he left a lot of gaps and room for interpretation. And that is partly, I argue, why it all worked so well. Because in later eras people always could interpret into his words or documents, what they were interested in seeing. It were all the self-projections which were very vague but it made them very fruitful in the future. I look at how he did that rhetorically and on the other hand I analyze how he has been interpreted and made relevant to the present mostly since 2000. So I look at recent movies, museums, novels, where there is a Roosevelt and how it deals with or negotiates what we know about him historically, and how that brings up particular interests in the present.