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What know they of America…

2010 June 13

| Twitter: @matthunte

War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.

— Ambrose Bierce


One of the strengths of Western Civilization, perhaps its greatest, has been its ability to glean knowledge and technology from all over the world. Books and gunpowder came from China; much scientific knowledge came from Africa, the numerical system came from Arabia. America has been especially blessed in this regard; being a young nation which sprang not from ancient bloodlines but from the conscious efforts of immigrants, America has been particularly receptive to ideas from around the world. Indeed, America’s great artistic achievement, Jazz music, came about from the reconciliation of European classical music with African polyphony.

Despite this legacy, insularity dominates much of contemporary American discourse. (If you don’t believe me, watch a cable news network, some more than others.) This apparent paradox is hardly new and to be fair is somewhat understandable. An at times hostile indifference to the outside world is a by-product of America’s historic geographic isolation, not only to other countries, but among its own constituencies, particularly before the advent of the railroads and telegrams. (Indeed what do they know of America, who only America know?)  The tendency is further exacerbated by a political culture which reinforces it and is manifested by periodic flare-ups of nativism, particularly during periods of economic anxiety.

This insularity is reflected in the education system. Only sixteen states have a foreign language requirement to complete high school, up from nine at the start of the previous decade. According to a 2008 report by the American Council on Education, “Asked about their ability to speak a language other than English, 17 percent of the national survey respondents claimed a working fluency in another language, while 48 percent professed to be fairly or at least somewhat proficient. Both figures are a substantial drop from the 58 percent found in a previous survey of foreign language proficiency done in 1988.”

As would be suspected, there is a great correlation between education achievements of a foreign travel: “More than 75 percent of the college graduates had been abroad, a percentage more than twice as high as people who had not finished high school.” Eighty-six percent said they planned to participate in international courses or programs, and almost 50 percent expressed an interest in study abroad. Meanwhile, only 3 percent actually do go abroad, currently.

In an effort to measure the public’s overall level of international awareness, all the responses were aggregated to create an international knowledge scale. The results showed level of education to have the most significant impact on response success: Out of 15 questions, respondents with less than a high school degree averaged fewer than five correct answers; high school graduates, just under seven; and college graduates, nearly 10. The report continued: “Ninety-eight percent of the students reported having taken a foreign language in primary or secondary school, with the majority planning to take additional language courses in college. Despite the linguistic interest and ability demonstrated by this group, colleges and universities nationwide continue to decrease foreign language requirements.”

(There are concessions to be made of course: America isn’t quite insular as China during the Qing Dynasty, much less Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate when leaving the country was a crime punishable by death. So it goes.)

Despite those findings, the problem is not so much a lack of traveling per se, but a lack of cultural and intellectual curiosity. A greater knowledge of the world helps engender an expansive view of the possible, which has great implications for not just foreign, which is fairly obviously, but on domestic policy.

During the recent debates of over healthcare reform, it was notable that fairly little reference was made to the systems of the other industrialized countries, particularly by those advocating the status quo whose analysis was often limited to rejecting them as inherently ‘un-American’. (The one notable exception was T.R. Reid’s Frontline documentary ‘Sick Around The World.’) This indifference to the rest of the world created a vacuum and left many believing foreign healthcare systems were totalitarian institutions with bureaucrats making arbitrary decisions about life and death. The notion that America could learn from its neighbor Canada, which whom they share a border, similar values, as well as a federal system of government was considered anathema. The country that was ranked just ahead of the United States on the Heritage Foundation’s index of Economic Freedom was none other than Soviet Canuckistan. (I while concede that Voltaire described Canada as “a few acres of snow”, I doubt many philosophes are caught up in the Tea Party movement.) Taiwan on the other hand, created a healthcare system from scratch in the nineties and the designers pulled ideas from various countries. Hongjen Chang, one of the officials who designed the new system, told Reid in an interview “Taiwan is a small island. We always look abroad internationally for ideas. Chinese saying, we say, “The track of the previous cart is the teacher of the following cart.”


America has abandoned the isolationism which was a natural extension of its insularity and managed to combine it with, inadvertently or not, imperialist aspirations. Ignorance, which is merely crude when combined with isolationism, is hardly an ideal stance, and becomes dangerous when it fuels adventurism abroad. Trying to impose your will on the rest of the world is hard enough; trying to do so with a studied indifference to where they are, their histories and political cultures, is a recipe for disaster. Charles Krauthammer wrote in Democratic Realism, and I do note the irony, “We like it here. We like our McDonalds. We like our football. We like our rock-and-roll. We’ve got the Grand Canyon and Graceland. We’ve got Silicon Valley and South Beach. We’ve got everything. And if that’s not enough, we’ve got Vegas–which is a facsimile of everything. What could we possibly need anywhere else?” Krauthammer’s explanation is somewhat counterintuitive: “That’s because we are not an imperial power. We are a commercial republic. We don’t take food; we trade for it. Which makes us something unique in history, an anomaly, a hybrid: a commercial republic with overwhelming global power.” Of course, being a commercial republic doesn’t preclude imperialism but that’s a fight for another day.

This dichotomy is probably best displayed in the rivalry between the State Department and the Pentagon. According to Robert Kaplan: “The Pentagon, because it represents a more old-fashioned, conservative America, is more bureaucratically dynamic than the State Department. That is because old-fashioned, conservative values translate into more autocracy, with less individual dissent … The State Department, on the other hand, is comparatively more democratic. That often translates into more internal dissent, and thus less unity when confronting outside bureaucratic forces. For analogies, think of the Pentagon as a 1950s-style corporation; the State Department as a university.”

(During the first Gulf War, Christopher Hitchens asked Charlton Heston to list the countries that have borders with Iraq, live on CNN. After mangling the question, Heston criticized Hitchens for “taking up valuable network time giving a high-school geography lesson.”  Hitchens replied: “Oh, keep your hairpiece on.”)


In his famous dissent in New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, Supreme Court Justice and Progressive reformer Louis Brandeis wrote: “To stay experimentation in things social and economic is a grave responsibility. Denial of the right to experiment may be fraught with serious consequences to the Nation. ” This statement was a summation of Brandeis’ eclectic approach to jurisprudence which privileged concrete facts over abstractions. (Similarly, Michael Walzer said that he considered himself primarily a political theorist as opposed to a philosopher because he wasn’t able to breathe at the “high air of abstraction” that true philosophy required.)

Along with his counterpart Benjamin Cardozo, Brandeis incorporated the latest economic and social theories into his opinions, thus ignoring the arbitrary dichotomy between “legal and nonlegal authorities” as one which “no serious philosophy of law can well maintain.”

Despite the absence of a towering figure like Louis Brandeis, the rejection of what Cohen derisively referred to as judicial “phonograph theory” continues to this day. Justice Anthony Kennedy, a native of Sacramento, (hardly a great cosmopolitan city but good enough, eventually, for Chris Webber) has been one of the leaders in incorporating foreign and international law into his interpretations of the Constitution. His international perspective has been prominent in his application of the Geneva Conventions to the Guantanamo prisoners, and even cited Sommersett’s Case from 1772, which involved the freeing of an African slave. Kennedy justifies his stance with his belief in values which transcend national borders. One of the tenets of conservatism has been the penchant of accessing the received wisdom of the ages, though these days it doesn’t include issues like habeas corpus. Kennedy’s colleague, Antonin Scalia scorns such allusions to universal values, retorting “we don’t have the same moral and legal framework as the rest of the world, and never have.”

Over the past decades, many have trafficked what are deemed as common sense policies, often simplistic slogans with superficial reasoning, and have arbitrarily labeled those ideas as “The American Way.” New ideas are considered un-American not because they are dangerous but because they are new; Unfortunately the terms ingenuity, innovation and experimentation no longer carry their original meaning but are buzzwords used to market straitjacketed dogmas from years past; as Morris Cohen wrote “Those who are not aware of theory assume as facts the theories of an older generation.”

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