Monday, January 02, 2006

An Island Nation

60 Minutes did a piece last night on Bill Clinton and his work on assisting with the growing AIDS problem in China. About two thirds of the way into the story, the inevitable (and irritating) question was offered up by Dan Rather: Why can't you spend your energy helping those closer to home?

The question is well-meaning in a simplistic sort of way; When neighbors in the old west hit on hard times like a bad harvest or a devastating storm, the folk around them helped them weather the challenge (maybe this is just the movie impression, perhaps it never happened this way. At least now this phenomenon takes place occasionally at the neighborhood level).

But the hidden meaning screams out: American suffering is far worst than general world suffering (a bombing killing 10 lives in the US is perceived in the US as FAR worse than a bombing in, say, Africa which kills 1,000) and American life is far more valuable than general world lives.... at least once you get beyond English speaking countries, then the Western ones (except for the French and the Germans, who for some inexplicable reason have turned them from friends to targets). This is just plain wrong. We are all human.

Our country has turned into an island of sorts, oblivious and isolated from the world, impervious to its cultures, not unlike that of pre-WW II. Yet our government projects power and influence at an unprecedented level unbeknownst to 95% of the citizens, under Democratic and Republican leadership (actually the Reps today are more honest about their intentions). We can't even begin to comprehend the level of suffering in parts of the world (Katrina would be a relief to the black inhabitants of parts of the Sudan).

So one needs to ask, what is the "trade deficit" in terms of travel and cultural interaction between the US and the world?

To start, a little fact finding. First, the US is 4th in the world in terms of square kilometers of land mass. We just barely squeak past China, and are a stone's throw from Australia and Brazil. Second, we are the third largest country in terms of population behind China and India (unless you consider the EU as a country). Yet we represent only 6% of the world's total population.

So why the attitude?

Easy answer. Economic and military power, plus the fact that we yet again have become a cultural island. But the ugly truth is that we subconsciously discount the value of human life that is not American, and Caucasian. Consider the following:

  • How many of you know (within 10,000) how many people died in last year's SE Asian Tsunami?
  • Do you identify with the majority opinion that we'd "rather fight the 'terrorists' over there than here" (really meaning we'd rather have innocent Iraqi deaths than American deaths)?
  • Lastly, how many of you consider 9/11 to be the worst human tragedy of the lat 10 years?
  • How many of you have been to a non-North American country?
The point is this: We as Americans travel overseas far less than other civilized countries (depending upon source, 17% vs. 43%) and are far less likely to speak a language other than our own. We live in a cocoon, the dominating sleeper, unaware of our cultural surroundings. And because of that we're being fed erroneous information about other cultures, information we can't temper with experience. In short, we know nothing of the rest of the world.

To be fair, being the economic superpower we are as well as taking into account geographical considerations, this may be inevitable. Except for those of us fortunate enough to live on the only two borders we have (and I'd question that there is a huge cultural chasm between the U.S. and Canada besides the fact that Canada leans toward more progressive values), most folks don't ever meet "foreigners" face to face, always a guaranteed ice breaker. And its only natural to worry more about one's own friends and family more. But this fact behooves a nation which professes such strong "Christian" values to go the extra mile to walk in another's shoes (if I may mix metaphors!), especially when we are directly responsible for bringing on the much of the pain and suffering in the world.

Why should Bill Clinton worry about AIDS in China? Because we are all humans, equal in importance, equal in need. We are not American, Chinese, Bangladeshis; we are inhabitants of planet earth.

Long live Caesar......

No comments: