"History is important. If you don't know history it is as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody up there in a position of power can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it." -- Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States.
"How many senators are there? A poll a few years ago found that only 20% know that there are 100 senators, though the number has remained constant for the last half century (and is easy to remember). Encouragingly, today the number of Americans who can correctly identify and name the three branches of government is up to 40%. Polls over the past three decades measuring Americans' knowledge of history show similarly dismal results. What happened in 1066? Just 10% know it is the date of the Norman Conquest. Who said the "world must be made safe for democracy"? Just 14% know it was Woodrow Wilson. Which country dropped the nuclear bomb? Only 49% know it was their own country." -- Rick Shenkman. He is the founder and editor of History News Network.
The only "good news" is that the level of ignorance has remained constant over time. Americans today are about as knowledgeable about history and civics as were Americans in the 1940s.
The lack of knowledge may partially explain why so many Americans do not vote -- they do not have the knowledge to cast an intelligent vote. Of course we also know that many people -- on the right, the left and in the middle -- do casts votes who do not have much know knowledge, haven't utilized critical thinking skills and are easily manipulated by the temper of the times.
The Pew Research Project on People and the Press in 2006 offered some insight into who votes, who doesn't vote, and why. About one-third of American adults are regular voters; about one-quarter are registered but rare voters; about 23% of adults are intermittant voters; and about 22% of adults are unregistered. Not surprisingly, those who don't vote are more socially isolated and more distrustful of people than than those who do.
From the perspective of an American living abroad, for the most part my country does a remarkable job of avoiding the kind of ethnic, religious and political strife that has haunted Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa for centuries. And yet America has a long history of violence and lawlessness. The lunatic fringe have no trouble obtaining firearms and going on shooting sprees.
In Columbine, Colorado in 1999, two students massacred 33. In 2002, a sniper in the Washington, DC metro region shot 13 over three weeks. In Bemidji, Minnesota in 2005, a high school student killed 10 and wounded 15. In Blacksburg, Virginia in 2007, a student killed 33 and wounded 17.
"People elsewhere in the world think differently from us. I can sort of see 'us' Americans with their eyes. Not all that I see is attractive. I see an insular people who are insensitive to foreign sensibilities, who are lazy, obese, complacent, and increasingly perplexed as to why we are losing our place in the world, to people who are more dynamic than us and more disciplined." -- Edmund Morris, author of a series of books on President Teddy Roosevelt, speaking on "Face the Nation."
On Facebook, some of my friends and I are meditating on what it means to be an American. Over the past 10 months, while working abroad and visiting the countries of Turkey, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Spain, France, and the islands of Cyprus and Mikonos, I've had a chance to reflect on what it means to be an American, what I love about my country and where I think we have room to grow. I've posted my observations:
Update: Not surprisingly, my friends have posted eloquent reflections as well.
On Facebook, an American living overseas says she's "thankful for her home country...one can't truly appreciate the depth of our freedom and a democracy that liberates its people until one has lived where it does not exist. Thank you to our forefathers for their vision."
Doug Chandler recalled the "60 Minutes" interview, 33 years ago, in which Vladimir Horowitz played the "Stars and Stripes Forever," and spoke about the deep love he has for this country. Click.
Abe Katz, an American who has spent the last year in Egypt, wrote: "The US flag is pretty good, and so is the republic it stands for: allegedly one nation, maybe or maybe not under God, variably divisible, with liberty and justice for most. Happy independence day and never forget the essence of America is that it's an organism more than an institution. The least worst polity on the planet, woot!"
Riots are generally sparked by desperate and angry people. Yet they often produce a backlash that is counter-productive to the goals of the demonstrators. The riots of the 1960s and early 1970s helped create the reactionary third party candidacy of Alabama Governor George W. Wallace who abandoned the Democratic Party to call for "law'n'order." The ultimate beneficiary of his apostasy was Republican President Richard Nixon.
I'm trying to use the new "Reblog It" feature of Typepad blogs. Let's see how well this works. EdCone.com has a link to a CNN slide show, and provocative discussion. It's shocking that after all these years (the Kent State shootings were in 1970) that some people still believe that killing unarmed students was justified.
After a visit to Rome, I noted the parallels between the U.S. and ancient Rome, and how we Americans would be darn lucky to match "the glory that was Rome." In addition, high unemployment in America for the long term sparks economic pessimism and raises questions about whether America's best days are behind it. But Piers Brendon, author of "The Decline and Fall of the British Empire," offers an optimistic assessment of America's future. Brandon, in a New York Times article, says America is in a far superior position to ancient Rome in its ability to maintain its world leadership because its economy is far more diversified: "The Roman economy depended on agriculture whereas the United States has an enormous industrial base," Brandon writes. The U.S. produces "nearly a quarter of the world’s manufactured goods, and dominates the relatively new invention of the service economy." Unlike Rome, America is constitutionally stable and not currently vulnerable to internal strife. Militarily, Rome was overrun by barbarians, but America's military remains powerful around the world. "It is hard to visualize an attack on America as devastating as that inflicted by Vandals, Goths and Huns on Rome," Brendon writes.
Unlike the Roman empire, the British empire, or other relatively small countries that once had empires of one kind or another, the American empire is founded on a huge and bountiful continent bordering two oceans.
To avoid over-extending itself, America needs only to reduce its hard military commitments to make them more compatible with its resources, and rely more on soft power, diplomatic and economic strength, Brendon writes.
Far more important than grasping tightly on the trappings of empire and geopolitical power -- manipulating other nations like pawns on a chess board -- Brandon believes Americans should strive to maintain national self-esteem the way the Brits have done, by perpetuating “ 'the imperishable empire' of their arts and their morals, their literature and their laws."
Living in Turkey, it's difficult not to see America as an empire. Despite the anxiety Americans currently feel about their economy, the American economy is still by far the largest economy in the world.
As an American, I'm reluctant to think of myself as part of an "empire," as one of the world's aristocrats by accident of birth. I like to think of America as mainly a humble force for good in the world, absent imperialist motives or the desire to dominate others for my country's own less than noble reasons. The notion of empire is an offense to our democratic heritage, as the American Empire project points out.
I'm reminded of the U.S. empire on an almost daily basis. The U.S. dollar is still one of the world's strongest currencies. We're still one of the richest countries in the world. Even in a relatively isolated Turkish city like Kayseri, where I live, the Hilton Hotel is one of the most prominent buildings on the downtown skyline, with a hopping nightclub. Citibank has several branches here. Clear Channel dominates the airwaves.
Two gleaming U.S.-style shopping malls are quite popular here, with The Gap, Levis, Reebok, Dockers, McDonalds, Burger King, and other American stores. Turks are flocking to the American-made film "Avatar" at the movies and marveling at the 3-D effect. Young Turks listen to American pop music, buy American CDs, watch American television shows like "Family Guy" and "The Simpsons," and buy American electronics (far more expensive here than in America). Unfortunately, many Turks also smoke American-made cigarettes, I'm ashamed to say.
Without strong U.S. influence and financial largesse, Turkey's neighbors of Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Pakistan and Afghanistan would arguably be quite different today. Iran and Syria might not be considered international outlaws, as George W. Bush called them. (Turkey has recently defied its previous history as an American satellite and seeks good relations with both Iran and Syria. It is also showing independence from America in its relationship with Israel, expressing severe criticism of Israel's war in Gaza, and of Israel's militantly hawkish goverment.)
Officially, the European Union beats the U.S. out in some measures of GDP, but individual European countries do not come close. The EU is certainly not united in the way that the "United States" are, and the EU faces a debt crisis far worse than America's.
America's military power is paramount in the world. English is the language of business. Other nationalities must learn our language. We feel little need to learn their languages. America's cultural influence -- some call it cultural imperialism -- through media and financial institutions -- throughout the world is undisputed. American movies and television shows, actors and rock stars, are seen the world over. Despite severe problems in the U.S., American auto makers like General Motors are doing great business abroad. Ford cars are popular here in Turkey.Wikipedia has a thought-provoking article on American Empire.
Ibrahim Kalin in Today's Zaman asserts that "empire" is defined by five factors. A country is an empire if it has 1) amassed land; 2) built a huge army; 3) exploited cheap labor; 4) has political and economic colonies; and 5) engages in cultural influence or imperialism. By those definitions, America comes pretty close to achieving empire.
I have been discussing global politics with Turkish students in my advanced English classes. They are highly skeptical of America's positive influence on Iraq and Afghanistan, and concerned that America might attack Iran. The U.S., they say, has unfair standards in seeking to dictate which nations should be allowed to develop nuclear capacity. If Israel has that right, Iran should have that right, they say, and the U.S. has no business attacking Iran over nuclear energy development.
I point out the despotism of the Iranian regime and the desire of the Iranian people for democracy. But I caution that America is spread far too thin to attack Iran. We have our hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan, where outcomes to our liking are far from assured, and we could get bogged down in quagmires.
My Turkish students ask why America chooses to be involved in countries where we are not wanted, like Iraq and Afghanistan, and why we largely ignore impoverished Africa if we are such humanitarians. The reason, they suspect, has little to do with stopping terrorism, creating democracy, extending human rights, and economic development, and much to do with oil and other products America needs (See U.S. oil dependency map).
I assert that America's empire may be in decline, because we've borrowed so much from China, we don't produce enough products for the world to purchase anymore, and we've over-extended ourselves militarily. China might take America's place as an empire-building superpower, I say. Or "how about Turkey?" My Turkish students laugh and say, "now that would be good."
A Reader Responds: "I've always tended to think of America as a modern empire, a rather benign one. We're not the first empire not to insist on domination - the Romans had "client kings," like Herod, and much of India and Africa were governed by native rajahs or kings aligned with Britain. I don't think there's any way not to be a de facto empire when you have so much wealth, military might, and influence..."
As for the omnipresence all those multi-national corporations as evidence of American economic success, my reader is dubious. "One has to wonder, in a globalized world, how much longer institutions like McDonalds' will be regarded as American, as opposed to being seen as global institutions that started in America. How many Americans stop to think when they get gas at Shell that they're patronizing an Anglo-Dutch company? Or picture Swiss mountains as they drink Nescafe coffee?"
Historian Sam Huntington, writing in "Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity" points out the importance of studying history as a way of knowing who we are. How much we owe to the decisions of early explorers, colonists and settlers, particularly from the British Isles, and to the intellectuals in the British Enlightenment. If America had started as a colony of France, it would essentially be Quebec today. If America had started as a colony of Spain, then it would essentially be Mexico today. If America had started as a colony of Portugal, then it would essentially be Brazil today. (Hat tip: TGGP at Marginal Revolution)
"The strongest part of the book is its premise: that nationality matters -- and that, despite the universalism central to our values, America is different from other countries. In Huntington's view, this distinctiveness is based in "culture," by which he means neither Walt Whitman nor MTV, but rather a shared sense of community and common mores, including the premium we put on individualism, the work ethic, the gospel of success and an often crusading moralism. One can quarrel with some of the elements he thinks are central -- most important, a single, shared religion -- but plainly Huntington is on to something. Hard as it may be for us to define what it means to be American, people the world over know it when they see it, and we lose touch with it at our peril...Huntington argues convincingly -- and who can doubt? -- that the soil in which America's distinctive culture first took root was both English and dissenting. The earliest settlers' values still do much to color ours, and the "American Creed" that unites us politically -- our belief in freedom, tolerance, equal opportunity, the rule of law and the like -- is plainly a product of the British Enlightenment. But to say that our national character is Anglo-Protestant is to mistake origins for essence." - Tamar Jacoby, Washington Post review.
Skimming this book as I am living in Turkey, I wonder what a book titled, "Who Are We? The Challenges to Turkey's National Identity" would look like. Some say that Turkey does not know who it is as a nation -- whether it is European or Asian or Middle Eastern. I think that's a strength, not a weakness. It is all three.