Anyone who isn't American has no trouble realizing there's an entire world with people who do art, science, medicine, and everything else. Americans are insular. We Americans just don't get we're 3% of the world's population. Oh we'll say we get it if you press us, but in our gut we all think we're #1, and that them foreigners with their colored skins, the languages we don't speak, and the accents we can't understand their English through (which they'd damn well better speak), means everyone else is just plain stupid. We know in our hearts we will always be able to out perform everyone else when it counts.
Sixty years ago when the U.S. was the most powerful country in the world and had just won World War II, perhaps this knowledge, knowing other countries and people mattered, knowing it deep-down in our gut as a matter of reflex like knowing not to go into certain neighborhoods or you'd get your ass kicked, didn't matter.
Now it assuredly does.
Actually, I think the rest of the world mattered deeply to our grandparents. After all, over 16 million of them served in World War II. They'd left the cities and farms to spend the most important years of their lives in impossible places they'd probably never heard of before they ended up there. And then, they risked (and many lost) life and limb protecting, defending, conquering, or rebuilding those places.
The war made the world a bigger place to Americans. Sending those millions of kids off to see all those obscure but suddenly essential places was, in large part, how the American Empire happened. In the decades just after the war, many of those young men packed up their fresh GI Bill college degrees and their big dreams, went back to the countries they'd fought in to do business. At the same time, the Marshall Plan offered tens of thousands of scholarships to the world's best and brightest so they could come to the US to study. The lucky recipients either stayed here and put their talents to work enriching America and serving as informal ambassadors of their home nations; or they went home and rose to positions of leadership and power in their own countries, making sure the whole world did things the American way. Either way, through those scholarships, the US continued to make powerful friends abroad -- and they, in turn, made it harder for us to lose sight of our connections to distant people and places.
In 1961, this same generation created the Peace Corps specifically to ensure that their own kids would have the same opportunity to see and serve the world -- this time by more constructive and peaceful means. Places in the undeveloped South that had never seen Americans got to see us at our best. We sent teachers, doctors, and engineers; they got schools, clinics, and public works. Another generation of Americans came home with that bigger view of the world; and the world still (mostly) liked what it saw of us.
All of that started to fade around the time Reagan was elected. The GI generation was mostly retired by the 1980s -- and it was replaced in power by people who didn't share their expansive sense of the world, or their first-hand understanding of how to sustain the intangible goodwill that was the deepest source of the nation's power. Funding for international scholarships and student exchanges was starved by tax cuts. Would-be Peace Corps volunteers got offers from Wall Street they couldn't refuse. Altrusim was for suckers, America was #1, and there was nothing the anyone could offer us that we didn't already have. It was a turning-inward that, in time, would cost us the world.
My daughter has decided to take a "gap year" following her high school graduation next June. My American mother is deeply concerned about this: in the US, a kid who doesn't go straight on to college is seen as, well, something less than a dedicated scholar. Mom's afraid that taking a year off will put her at risk of losing momentum, getting distracted, and somehow not making it to college at all. And even if she does, she'll be a year older than everyone else in the dorm -- and it just won't be the same.
But I'm taking it as a strong sign that our little Miss Born-On-The-Fourth-of-July is simply becoming Canadian. The gap year is a popular custom here, and a lot of college-bound kids here take it -- in fact, there's a lot of cultural support and some sweet inducements to encourage it. The Canadian government has treaties with over a dozen other countries that allow young adults 18-30 to go on "working holidays" of up to a year. The program sets you up with short-term jobs abroad that can help finance your travel. (Working Holidays isn't the only option, either: there are NGO and service group working internships and British Commonwealth exchanges -- so many opportunities, in fact, that entire expos and publications are set up to make kids aware of their options. I admit it: I'm jealous.) Universities like kids who take gap years, because they come back a little more settled, focused, and world-wise. After college, employers like them, too, because well-traveled people tend to be flexible and open-minded, and hence better employees. It's considered a real bonus to have this on your entry-level resume.
The US doesn't have anything like this. But Canada's a small country (just 32 million people) with an economy that's almost entirely based on resource exports to the rest of the world. It cannot afford to insulate itself from its customers; and the gap year is one way it ensures that its next generation will have the global awareness needed to maintain the nation's prosperity. The US may think it's so big and powerful that it can afford to turn its back on the world. But Canada knows, viscerally, that that's a fatal conceit.
America may not know the world is still out there. But they sure as hell know we're here. In much of the world, you can't get anything done -- build a road or a dam, start a new business, rearrange your government -- if somebody in the US doesn't think it should happen just that way. Through our choices and actions, we grant other countries the right to exist, or sentence them to die. We are the center of gravity around which their own choices must revolve. We, and we alone, are the metric by which "good" and "evil" are allowed to be measured; and we also own the global trademark on the only acceptable definitions of words like "freedom," "rights," and "democracy." If your definition is at all different than ours, it's not valid. The British Muslim futurist Zia Sardar argues that, by these means, we have effectively taken over the role of God for the entire world. And in doing so, we have extended our empire to the point where it occupies not only their lands and cultures, but also their futures.
There's a new blog that publishes "Letters to America" from people in other parts of the world. While BloggerPlay shows you the pictures, Blog to America provides the words. If you're really, truly ready to make your own view of this tiny globe a little bigger, click on through and hear what these people have to say about your country.
Some of it is vicious. Some of it is beautiful. All of it is heartfelt. The good and the bad are both enough to make you want to weep for what we have been, and can be.