Thursday, August 02, 2007

On Working towards a Better World

Jolanda Dubbeldam by Jolanda Dubbeldam

The United States of America is a very young country. Much is made of its mishmash of citizens, and in truth it is an amazing thing that entire peoples leave behind the weight of the histories of their old world countries and reinvent themselves entirely once settled here. Reborn, that’s what they are, and it is a good analogy. In many ways US citizenry are like kids, with a child-like view of life and their place in the world.

People are preferably energetic and smiling and friendly and eager to be loved. At the same time, fearful to the point of unreasonableness, imagining a boogeyman in every shadow. Emotional displays in any public or private arena are condoned, even encouraged, self-discipline not so much. And truly quite naive and unsophisticated about the rest of the world. “I’m the king of the world!” - the sentiment shows up everywhere: little towns calling themselves the so-and-so capital of the world, politicians advocating the US judicial system as the best in the world, tiny restaurants that bake the best pizzas in the world. Really! Is this hubris or dumbassness?

The older, more settled countries look at all this and wonder, what are we to make of it? Yes, they are adorable, these Americans, with their toothy smiles and eagerness to be friends (except, of course, if they decide we are Evil, then we don’t get to play). They have great toys and cool clothes and sugary foods. But they sure do break a lot of stuff. Is it not odd that one country so disproportionately uses up the planet’s natural resources and fouls up air, land and sea for all of earth’s people just because, it seems, this is the American way? Or that voters let their government run unchecked across the planet, trampling all over ancient civilizations without understanding or taking into account their histories, their intricate relationships with each other, their dreams for the future?

But we can take the analogy one step further. Because if the USA is the over-indulged child running amok, then Europe is the curmudgeonly pedantic old aunt. If you ask the average American what he knows of the Netherlands - my home country - he will somewhat shamefacedly admit: nothing. Adding: I wish I knew more. His counterpart in the Netherlands will not respond similarly. He will have a whole rant of opinions about the USA (though he has never visited the place and may never encounter a real live American). He will list all of the US’ problems and announce solutions, growing more and more irritated with this young country that will not pay attention to or respect its elders, who so obviously know better.

What is it that Europeans base their opinions on – why do they presume to know so much about their neighbor on the other side of the ocean? The American way of life has inundated the free world. It is fair to say that most households across the planet find that the USA enters their lives every single day through whatever media they have access to. CSI, the OC, the Jerry Springer Show on TV. Local magazines discussing the latest escapades of Ms. Hilton and pals. Newspapers full of the Iraq War, US energy conservation policy (or lack thereof) and whatever interesting thing Mr. Bush said today. Blockbuster Hollywood movies hit theaters all over the world simultaneously with LA. Look around you in the streets of Europe (and far beyond): Coca Cola, McDonalds, Levis, Nike, Harley Davidson, Stephen King ... the USA is everywhere. It is a bit much, actually. And perhaps it makes people everywhere think they somehow also have a voice about this place that is increasingly infiltrating every aspect of their lives.

The USA has simply grown too big for its citizens to continue to be oblivious to what is going on outside its borders, and the stakes are too high – so much economic and military power must be applied responsibly. Having good intentions or being uninformed can no longer be accepted as an excuse for misguided actions. On the other hand, blind US-bashing by people who unwittingly base their opinions on media entertainment or politicians’ sound bites is not helpful. Adult skills such as education, communication, negotiation and an honest attempt to keep an open mind in the face of unfamiliar cultures will be required by every person who is serious about helping the world become a more peaceful, clean and equitable place.

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