When Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez ripped into George Bush in his speech to the United Nations on Sept. 20, Americans could scarce believe what they were hearing. The head of state of a Third World country most Americans could not locate on a world map was calling their president the devil.

The inconsequential patter in the American media echo chamber was temporarily interrupted as the pundits struggled to find different ways to say: “How dare he!” Apparently, Chavez didn’t know that the privilege of criticizing the American president did not extend to non-Americans.

Relations between the White House and Venezuela have been chilly ever since 2002, when an administration-backed coup failed.

Chavez may have broken with diplomatic etiquette, but he can hardly be accused of being the first world leader to do so. We are familiar with American presidents labeling other nations as part of the “axis of evil.” Why be shocked when others return the favor?

Beneath Chavez’s colorful language, there was actual content. That’s more than can be said for his opponents. Chavez began by recommending Noam Chomsky’s book, Hegemony or Survival, to his audience. MIT professor Chomsky is an American genius whose contributions to the field of linguistics are legendary. He is also an outspoken critic of American foreign policy.

In his speech, Chavez praised the American people, and spoke admiringly of Lincoln. But he vigorously opposed Bush’s version of “democracy,” which must be imposed through war and the killing of innocents. American administrations pick and choose the elected leaders they will support (Israel’s Sharon) and those they will assassinate or overthrow (Iran’s Mossadegh, Chile’s Allende, Venezuela’s Chavez, and Palestine’s Hamas).

To this Indian American who has some knowledge of colonialism, Bush’s rhetoric sounds disturbingly familiar. The British justified their empire under the excuse of spreading civilization. Bush wants to wage war in the name of “democracy and freedom.” The British never asked their subjects if they wanted to be ruled. Bush’s America feels no need to consult others; it acts alone, without restrictions, and it alone knows what’s best for others.

Today America leads by example, whether it be through its civil rights movement, or through its war-making machine. Critics like Hugo Chavez, Noam Chomsky, and Gore Vidal challenge us to rise to our full potential as Americans and as world citizens. We have it within us to evoke admiration, not fear.