What are we selling to the rest of the world?
Carlton M. Caves
2002 December 15

This second essay was written toward the end of 2002. It's certainly not a seamless piece of work, because I never really finished it, but perhaps it's worth posting now (04-9-30) for completeness.

What exactly is it that we Americans see in ourselves that we want other countries to emulate?

Is it our cities, with their decaying cores and inner-city slums?

Is it our public-transportation systems, which except in a few large cities, are put to shame by those in other parts of the industrialized world?

Is it our indifference to the crisis of global warming? When we could be leading the way into a new world of sustainable economic growth, freed of fossil fuels, with clean air and water, why aren't we doing so?

Is it our population policy, which lets conservative ideology trump the need to keep the world's population in check and eventually to reduce it?

Is it our way of conducting election campaigns, controlled by large monied interests, which buy elections right and left?

Is it our way of conducting elections, not spending enough to provide equal voting opportunities for all Americans or to ensure that the results are certain and reliable?

Is it our economic system, with its vast disparities between the rich and the poor, where working mothers are forced to abandon their children to the whims of fate?

Is it our health-care system, which leaves tens of millions of people receiving inadequate care?

Is it our culture of fear and violence, so poignantly portrayed by Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine?

Is it our venal and utterly corrupt system of corporate governance, with its greedy CEOs whose modus operandi is to jack up the stock price till they can cash out their own stock options and then after leaving their company in ruins, to react with utter indifference to the plight of the tens of thousands or more whose lives they have ruined?

Is it our penchant for ignoring the hard work of the rest of the world on such issues as the Kyoto protocols?

Is it our increasingly fragmented society, where the left wants to organize us into competing camps based on ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc., and the right is so besotted with celebration of the individual that it can't find any place for the public interest?

Is it our fundamentalist religious right, with its smug self-righteousness, assurance that it has all the answers, intolerance for others, and ideological commitment to ignore the discoveries of science?

What exactly is it that we want the rest of the world to emulate? I think we do have some things to offer. Partly it is our system of government, a representative democracy capable---we have to hope---of facing up to its serious problems, like those above, analyzing them, and working toward solutions. More important, I think, it is our ability to welcome people from around the world, from all sorts of backgrounds, and to make them into Americans even as they add their own distinctive characteristics to what it means to be an American. But the most important American lesson for the world is an old one: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Americans believe that power must be carefully hemmed in, with competing power centers checking and balancing one another. Americans never believe in trusting the good intentions of those in power; we believe that institutions must be governed by laws, rules, and procedures that ensure that even when the worst sorts of people have the levers of power, there are always other centers of power with the ability to oppose them.

Surely we should apply this fundamental American lesson to our attitude toward the world. We should be working toward multilateral institutions and an international rule of law, both of which act to oppose undue concentrations of power.

At home we need to renew our commitment to our most important lesson, to realize that the power concentrated in the wealthy elite and big corporations has become too great. They have to be cut down to size, and the only entities capable of doing that are our governments, particularly the federal government. Other power centers, not dominated by the greed and avarice of the private economic sector, are must also step up to the plate to make this happen: former military officials, with their sense of duty and honor, far removed from the greed of the private economy; religious institutions, with their traditional sense of what is right and of the need to promote social justice based on what is right; the academy, if it can free itself from petty discussions about whether there is any truth at all and instead agree to promote the ancient and modern truths that we teach our students; the scientific community, with its absolute commitment to truth in understanding the world around us; and fair-minded businessmen and businesswomen who are appalled by the avarice that dominates the corporate world. We're going to need the efforts of all fair-minded people to oppose the radical new conservatism and to build a society based on truth and justice.

Times of threat are traditionally times of conservatism, with everybody too scared to rock the boat in the face of external threat, but that response is going to lead to disaster now, when radical conservatives are taking advantage of our fear to promote a new and radical agenda for the country. We must oppose terror in all its guises, with force when necessary, but we will not win the fight against terrorism unless we also acknowledge our own shortcomings and dedicate ourselves to correcting them. Our greatest influence in the world is not through our military strength. Rather it is our way of life, warts and all, yet still good enough that others want to have something like it.

The world is crying out for leadership and wants us to assume the mantle of leadership, but they don't want to be dictated to by a bully that arrogantly assumes the right to run the world. They want to follow a country that truly represents the best in the world. We've got to become an example, both in the way we run our country and in the way we deal with the rest of the world.

   Index to CMC commentaries