Last week, in defense of voter access, President Obama mentioned that 60% of Americans don’t have passports. He said this to underscore the need to allow citizens to vote without the need to produce an extraordinary form of identification, normally only bestowed on those who travel abroad.
His next statement was a cheap shot: Some people, he said, don’t have passports because they can’t afford to travel overseas, and they can’t use those for ID. Just because someone doesn’t travel overseas, he said, isn’t a reason for them not to vote in their own country. Something like that.
I get it: He was addressing the American Action Committee which is filled with people who probably don’t do much foreign travel. But a lot of us who travel and in fact live overseas vote for Mr Obama because we think, or thought, he got it.
This is world of global interdependence. That doesn’t mean cooperation; it means suspicion and danger. It is a world where 75% of American high school students can’t point to Afghanistan on a map and aren’t sure whether Alaska is attached to North America or is an island. A world where America expects to be acknowledged as the super-leader of a world its inhabitants know less and less about. A world where 63,000,000 American citizens speak Spanish as their first language, but where its dwindling white majority want to deny access to “foreigners’ (sorry, aliens) from neighboring countries because they come from the wrong places—and know that if they try to come legally, they will be refused. That they are coming back to land that belonged to their ancestors before the European settlers and their descendants drove them away is not to be mentioned.
Before Mr Obama takes cheap shots at passport holders as an example of the elite, he should remember what Europeans, Asians and people in the Middle East think of America. It is true that for a very brief period after 1945 America was the most popular (and prosperous) country in the world. A reluctant entrant into the war, it emerged a victor and proceeded with the advice of its paranoid European allies to divide the world into spheres of influence. Those ‘spheres’ have shifted over the last 65 years: a soviet empire has tumbled, but wants to be big again. An impoverished China had emerged from the rubble of the war and its revolution to become the biggest shopping and trading nation on earth and will soon outclass the US economically. War torn Europe is now a credible alliance of squabbling partners, not likely to erupt in war anytime soon. The Islamic world has moved beyond the post-colonial mandates that once kept it relatively quiet into a loud and preposterous mob ruled by princes who behead and call it law and wild men who behead while America calls it terrorism. Then there is Africa. And, of course, South America.
In this messy world, America is not the worst of the players by any means. In its clumsy (but what they see as their quiet and methodical way based on ‘5000 years of glorious civilization’) China waits for its moment to be the world’s largest economy and builds up its military and export product base to pull even, and then ahead of the United States. It thinks its currency has the potential to be the world currency. Stalwarts are sure that the Chinese language will one day replace English as a global language. It applauds Russia’s tough stance on Crimea because it would like to take tough stance on the disputed islands against Japan and towards Taiwan. It does this with messianic fervor, ignoring even the respiratory health of its citizens to create a new vision of Magnificent China. Most Chinese believe in it, young and old. I cannot imagine, for example, the Tiananmen protests of 1989 happening in 2014, even though in many ways restrictions on individual freedoms and rights have tightened considerably since then.
It’s a world that finds it ridiculously easy to see America in the frames its free press makes possible: overweight, obsessed with visible success, glitz, and money, politically crippled and owned by corporate interests at the wealthiest levels, obsessed by guns and Bibles (as once a certain Barack Obama bravely intoned and was walloped for saying) at the other end of the scale.
That America, which still leads the world by a dazzling margin in producing the best scholarship, medical research, technical innovation, Nobel prize winners, popular music, and drama and film, is a source of constant fascination for the rest of the world. Because—as everyone knows—the End of America has been a popular apocalyptic genre in world polemic since the French invented it in the nineteenth century. It used to be, in Europe anyway, a requirement for being a card carrying intellectual. America used to be just the dead horse that wouldn’t lie down. Now it is the dead horse that everyone wishes would lie down.
But all of this is symptomatic. What is causal is a generation (and I don’t mean kids under 25) that really doesn’t give a fuck about the rest of the world. Their isolation is not that of their great grandparents who could remind their sons to stay out of European wars because they had come from Europe and they didn’t want to get dirty there again. German-American mothers who didn’t want their boys sent to the Front in 1916. Jewish-American fathers who didn’t want their sons to go to France in 1943. American isolation was based on the idea of a self-sufficient continent that wanted tranquility because its social memory had been shaped by the memory of social injustice and war in the old world, not realizing that those memories, like demons, would also haunt the destiny of the new. Unlike China, prosperity and success happened to America because of circumstance and an unusual number of inventive and ambitious young men. There was no five year plan to keep the GDP at 10 percent.
No, this new isolation is the isolation of the self-satisfied. It’s a world where people can forget about geography, languages (they already speak the right one), ideas, beliefs, and other people’s values. They can get what they want online at Amazon, or at Walmart, or eBay—whatever. They don’t need to leave home except, perhaps, for a new job in a new place where the perks will be better and the shopping will be at least as good. They don’t see healthcare as an issue because they’ve got theirs. They don’t see guns as an issue because they either don’t need one or they have one, but just one, and they have a permit for it. Those massacres? Crazy people, and me and my friends are not crazy. Travel? Expensive. Need a new car. Maybe a new house.
And then there are those who may not feel that way at all: who would love to travel but can’t make their mortgage payment, are trying to buy four news tires for the car, and can’t afford to send their kid to college or buy health insurance. I feel sorriest for them because they wake up every day and go to their jobs, try to be brave, pretend that they have a voice, that voting matters, that things will get better if they just hang on. Barack Obama’s primary appeal in 2008 was to this enormous sub-middle class struggling to avoid poverty and keep their chins up.
It is no wonder that in a country whose inhabitants seem to be obsessed with electronic toys, bacon and their front lawn, the rest of the world sort of disappears—unless it happens to be a case of Americans being kidnapped in the hinterland of Afghanistan or plunging to the depths of the ocean in a plane off the coast of Australia. Naively, America has always wanted the world to love it for services rendered—in the same way a high school football star expects his home town crowd to love him for a surprise touchdown he scored twenty years back and ignore the drug dealing he pursued later in life. Americas’s problem is that expects—no, thinks it has a right to expect—the world to be ever grateful for its vigilance in the name of freedom and democracy. But in the real world, place names like Viet Nam, Iraq, and Afghanistan have come to symbolize something else—something sinister in the rest-of-the world’s imagination. No amount of spin will change it. No amount of revision will turn those wars into blows for freedom and democracy. America has not prepared itself to live in a world where it has begun to seem old and Europe and China, and now even Russia, seem to be new.
It is still playing the Cold War drama as the only player on stage; but the rest of the cast has moved on to new roles, a new playscript.
It does amaze me how bad America is at controlling its image compared to (again) China, which has entered a capitalist paradise and still manages to pay tribute to the Leader who killed and displaced thousands on thousands of Chinese, eviscerated its university system, and destroyed almost one half its cultural patrimony in his own Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward in the 1970’s. I say this knowing that many Chinese do not even know this happened, and many who know about it think it is a lie concocted in the West.
America can be proud that the criticisms I have collected here are sins that are well known because freedom of speech, press and inquiry tell us these things happened.
And yet they happened. In my own opinion, George W. Bush should have been impeached because they happened, Dick Cheney should have been arrested and sent to the Hague because they happened. They did not happen like Viet Nam happened, on the back of a slippery slope of involvement caused by French abandonment of Indochina. They happened because elected officials lied to get the country into a war that has lasted a decade–wars in countries that high schoolers can’t identify on a map. And while the most impotent parliament on earth, the United States Congress, tries to find out what ‘went wrong’ at the American consulate in Benghazi, no one officially is asking, What went wrong in Iraq? 4,486 U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq between 2003 and 2012, that’s what went wrong; 174,000 civilians. The President of the United States, if you recall, imposed a press blackout on filming coffins being loaded onto planes. And an anesthetized American people watched Desperate Housewives and Survivor for a decade while this was happening. That is what went wrong.
Which brings me back to world knowledge.
A passport a physical thing, but at a very small level it might betoken curiosity about this big, bad complicated, dangerous world. Used well, it’s a ticket to a kind of education you can never get in a classroom. It’s certainly no disgrace not to have one if you can’t afford to travel. But it is pandering to say that people who have one have a jaded view of America, caused by our addiction to vacations on the Cote d’Or and Monaco. Never been there. My view of America, on the other hand, is a much clearer vision than the vision of someone who never sees it from the outside and mistakes the view inside the bowl for the whole of reality.
Barack Obama, born in Hawaii, reared in Indonesia and the son of a Kenyan father and an anthropologist mother is the last person I would have expected to be disingenuous about the need to know the world, the world that once liked him more than any US president since JFK and wished him well.