Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Americans Need To Live and Travel Abroad More

“Don't tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you have traveled." — Mohammed

The childish narrow minded name calling and temper tantrums that took place when Iranian President Ahmadienjad visited Columbia University and the UN in New York demonstrates, among other things, how globally isolated and narrow minded American thinking is when it comes to understanding how we appear in the eyes of most of the rest of the world. Put aside whether you agree with Iran's Punch and Judy show being orchestrated by Ahmadienjad.

Once a nation others looked to as a beacon of tolerance, justice and for a free flow of ideas. We have become something rather ugly, isolated and ill tempered in the eyes of the world these days I fear.

I think it’s because most Americans don’t travel enough very far from home. Disneyland, Aunt Martha's or Sturgis, South Dakota being the extent of it usually. President Bush prior to being elected apparently hadn’t really gone anywhere or immersed himself in a foreign culture of any kind. Many Americans are sort of one dimensional in their thinking about foreign countries and people. Often it seems they are more concerned with the trivial things then understanding any relationship to other countries and their people, not understanding the cause and effect of American foreign policy on others. They call it blowback these days.

Maybe there should be some government program that requires that American students travel in conjunction with learning geography and history. Emphasis has been placed on the importance of math and science. Perhaps it’s travel and the study of history and geography that’s really needed to further the cause of understanding cultural differences and as a path to world peace or empathy for others.

I recently traveled to the Catalan region of Spain for a three-week vacation. Something I do every few years when I can afford it. Several native Catalan friends there always welcome me with open arms and unbelievable amounts of hospitality. It would be unthinkable to them to be rude to visitors even if you disagree with their politics. A custom found and practiced in many cultures. Simply don’t be rude to a guest, especially if you invited them.

Politics have changed drastically in the United States and there since the first time I traveled to Catalonia in 1979. I'd been living in Europe busking and performing street theater with a troupe for nearly a year by the time I finally reached Spain. Spain’s fascist leader Francisco Franco’s rule had ended with his death in 1975 and his authoritarian regime came to its end just one year before we arrived when a new Spanish constitution was drafted and was being implemented.

There was an exuberant display of the new freedoms recently gained by the people, and the unfettered creative possibilities they offered were the talk of in every bar, bistro and sidewalk cafe in Catalan capital of Barcelona. Millions of Catalans, whose unique culture and language had been forcefully suppressed under the rule of the Generalissimo, openly celebrated life. For the first time many were allowed to speak their native tongue in public without fear of being beaten or worse by a member of the Guardia Civil police.

This last trip in June and July was very interesting in that I was able to see distinctly how much suspicion and apprehension there is about American foreign policy these days. Most people had a hard time understanding how George Bush could ever have been elected president of the United States. He appeared to them to be limited in his understanding of the world around him. Even though I’m from a blue state it was not easy to explain. Nor was it easy to explain that evidence exists that not one but perhaps two presidential elections had be stolen from the rightful winner through conservative based vote manipulation or tampering.

I would guess that many Americans who voted for Bush haven’t traveled much out of their own immediate backyards. They apparently don’t understand much about other cultures. They tend to see everything with sort of a American insular tunnel vision. European culture is perceived as being inferior to that of the US. Conservative politicians rhetoric constantly tells Americans that we are the greatest and biggest and best thing going. We’re god’s gift to humanity, when more often the facts prove otherwise.

The ironic thing about it is I sense that many people I’ve met in my travels have in the passed look to America for moral and political leadership. They find it troubling that apparently such leadership cannot be found in today’s America.

A good example of this is the way people acted when dealing with the Ahmadienjad visit. The insulting and juvenile tone of the Columbia President Lee Bollinger speech before the Iranian President spoke certainly show the world an America that was acting out it’s fear, without manners, paranoid and weak.

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