March 6th, 2011 12:12 EST
Are Americans Too Smug and Self-Righteous to Care What Foreigners Think?
Have you ever wondered what the foreign press says about us? You don`t care? Well, that`s what our press says, that you don`t care. I care, and I go to some lengths on the web to find out what the foreign press says, because I like to look at things in new ways.
If you don`t care what the foreign press says, do you care what your neighbors think, what people of a different color think, what people in a different region think? Or do you like your own ideas so much that there really isn`t any room in your head for anybody else`s ideas?
If your answer to that last question, an admittedly trick question, is that you`re perfectly content with your own ideas, then you know something all the teachers and all the principals and all the superintendents and college professors don`t know "you know what`s wrong with our schools. You know why our kids rank so low compared to kids in other nations.
Recent events in North Africa and the Middle East show us people seizing the opportunity afforded them by Facebook and other social networks to learn about each other, to speak with foreigners. Google Earth has allowed Bahrainis to compare their substandard crowded housing [seventeen to a house, for example] with the palaces and open land of the ruling party, according to Thomas Friedman March 2 in The New York Times.
In other words, recent events fly in the face of American indifference to foreign thought, an indifference demonstrated in our publishers` reluctance to translate foreign literature "as if we were the only people writing anything worth reading.
Along with the haughty notion that ordinary rules and even morality doesn`t apply to us goes a sense of American exemptionalism, the idea that we`re immune to the consequences that befall others when they behave badly. It comes from once having had a seemingly limitless frontier and a manifest destiny. If the Jews were God`s chosen people, then Americans were his favorite people. We`re having a hard time adjusting to these notions being proven wrong. And this hard time we`re having rubs our noses in our own egalitarian notions. How can we be just and nativist at the same time? How can we get along in the world without throwing our weight around? How can we get along when others have a lot of weight of their own to throw around?
From time to time American newspapers have offered summaries of press reports from other nations, but it has always been considered a kind of frippery. We treat history books with the same morbidly incurious eye. The myth persists, for example, that most slaves were well treated and satisfied with their condition in the antibellum South. The myth persists that the Portuguese invented the Model T Ford of the 15th Century, the caravel, when they obviously knocked it off from the design of Arab ships they were encountering. And those are just two of the thousands of corrections that should be made in standard histories.
George W. Bush was a remarkably incurious man. In retrospect his presidency may have held a mirror up to us. It suggests a picture that is profoundly disturbing to other nations "a smug, self-righteous world power that prefers its opinions unseasoned by the facts. In other words, we often come across as just the sort of smart-asses we profess to loathe.
A docile, self-satisfied press drummed up support for a war launched by a man who found the facts a pestilence, a press that makes no connection between our perilous debt and war, a press insisting that more housing starts will revive an economy stripped of its industry and shipped in pieces to cheap-labor markets overseas, a press that insists an uptick on the Dow is good news for all of us.
A look at the foreign press would suggest these contradictions and paradoxes, but we have sunk into a vast contempt for discourse, for history. We say, for example, that we revere our Founding Fathers, but we indulge increasingly a form of take-no-prisoners politics. Our Founding Fathers, who were politically, philosophically and culturally divided, forged a consensus in the fires of discourse, but today we witness a major political party unwilling to compromise with anyone who disagrees. Such men and women may be Republicans, but they are not small-r republicans, because no republic can survive such intransigence. Democracies move forward by consensus, not fiat. Republicans are behaving like fascists, and, like all ideologues, they are armed to the teeth with bromides. They insist on pushing us over the Rubicon, transiting from republic to imperium.
The purpose of education "denied by the odious idea of teaching to the test "is twofold: to teach us how to learn, and to teach us how much we have yet to learn. The purpose of reading the foreign press would be similar, to discover what other people think. But that presumes room in our heads. It presumes a willingness to accommodate new and dissenting ideas. It presumes moderation as opposed to extremism. It presumes an ability and a willingness to balance facts and ideas against each other.
If we practice extreme politics at home it should come as no surprise to us that extremists attack us. Extremism breeds extremism. Our insistence on being right breeds others insisting that we are wrong.
The point is not to worry about what others think of us, not to remake ourselves according to someone else`s lights. The point is to know what others think and use that knowledge to enrich our own understanding.
The minute our increasingly puerile press took the flip-flop issue seriously I figured our culture was in much deeper trouble than we knew. Here you had grown-ups claiming that to change one`s mind, to nuance one`s views, is tantamount to spinelessness. In other words, I already know all I need to know, so don`t bother me with facts.
It reminds me of my grandma smiling sweetly at a bridge table and turning down her hearing aid because she simply didn`t want to hear what was being said. When she saw that I knew what she was doing she would wink at me. Is that what we`re doing, winking at each other because we know we`re not listening?
Djelloul Marbrook is a retired newspaperman. His second book of poems, Brushstrokes and Glances, will be published by Deerbrook Editions on December 20, 2010. His first book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. It won the International Book Award in 2010. His novella, Artemisia`s Wolf, will be published by Prakash Books of India in December. His novella, Saraceno, was recently published as an e-book. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com