A Question Of Who We Ought To Be
James Fallows has a short piece in Atlantic Monthly. I want to quote a bit of it for everyone, and then ask your thoughts:
What I’ve learned from China, so far, is that instead of girding to defend the American idea against some new foreign challenge, we should take the opportunity to shore it up, in three ways.
The first way is ensuring a particular kind of openness, which at all times has been the essence of America. The country needs to keep making room for its own people, while also continuing to make room for people from outside. It’s not easy to achieve both goals, since in the short run, they conflict. The Americans most likely to be muscled aside by hungry outside talent are those with the odds against them in other ways. That’s a reality. Rather than ignore the tension or use it as an excuse to close the borders, we have to find a way to reduce it. Otherwise, we cut off one of the two strengths (the other being military power) that no other country can possibly match….
Second is being idealistic but not consistent—or not foolishly consistent, as one of this magazine’s founders put it 150 years ago. The United States can’t and shouldn’t be a status quo power….Globalization has had a large Americanizing component—that’s part of the complaint against it. While any sensible person wants to learn as much from other cultures as possible, Americans are bound to think that we have something to tell others about individual potential, about the idea of equality, about respect for civil liberties. The rest of the world understands this, which is why our recent infringements on our own civil liberties are so damaging to our image worldwide.
But retaining that idea doesn’t mean believing two apparently consistent corollaries: that everyone else actually does want to be like us, and that it is within our power to force or entice them to. Believing this makes us believe that other countries—Japan a generation ago, China today—are just about to become America-like, and that if they resist, they can be forced to comply. (To say nothing of Iraq.) Speak for our values, yes, and clearly. Be deluded about them, no.
Finally, we should display the confidence, good humor, and thick-skinnedness befitting a country of our stature….
Foreign examples are useful spurs to internal action. Sputnik served that purpose 50 years ago, and Japan’s industrial successes led to valuable changes in American corporate and fiscal practices nearly a generation ago. A look at China can help America address its main shortcomings—reckless fiscal and foreign policies, delay in moving away from dependence on oil—and perhaps also suggest ways the nations can work together on challenges, mainly environmental, that threaten them and others.
But let’s not panic. Let’s show the patient confidence—Lincoln, Marshall, Eisenhower—that is part of the American idea. Let’s not look for slights or imagined insults to react to. Among our worst enemies at the moment is our own hair-trigger mentality about foreign challenge, and the enemies that outlook generates. Our idea is strong. We should act as if we know that.
It seems to me that Fallows is saying we need an idealistic view of who we ought to be as a nation, but a realistic eye toward how we go about achieving those aims. And to get there, we need some real, honest leadership. That is up to all of us, I suppose, but how we get there is a big bunch of questions. Especially given the petulant vortex of inertia, inanity and ineptitude that is the Bush White House.
What should we be asking for from our government? Where does our responsibility start, and where does it end in ensuring good governance by and for the people? It seems to me that there are an awful lot of mistakes that have been made in our nation’s history (and are still being made), but it is in the picking ourselves up and striving toward “a more perfect union” that we come closest to achieving who we ought to be. But how we get to that “more perfect union” is an awfully wide field for debate these days, isn’t it? At least, we ought to be talking about bettering ourselves and our nation instead of nitpicking ourselves to death over gossip and innuendo. And we should especially be asking these questions before the 2008 election, oughtn’t we?
Which renders the whole “everyone does it” dismissive tone or slavish devotion to false equivalence and lying gasbags from the Heathers (and the wannabes) when our nation’s “leaders” fall far, far short of the mark all the more disgusting.
(Photo of school children in San Francisco in 1942 by Dorothea Lange via PingNews.)