Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Flat World, Fat American

The world is shrinking, and like Thomas Friedman suggests, it is also flat, (or at least it is getting flatter all the time).

As an American, living in Seattle, I am fairly sure Melbourne, Australia qualifies as somewhere “very, very far away”. The thing is though, it really isn’t, and indeed putting aside the marathon flight it takes to get here, it is pretty obvious as you travel these days just how real the "global village" truly is.

I was 8000 miles from home, a distance just a century ago that was beyond the reach of everyone except the truly rich, and even then, would take months to traverse. Travel in the 21st Century is wondrous, because while the flight may not be faster than it was say 25 years ago, the speed at which information, communication and commerce could be conducted was measured in the blink of an eye.

On my recent trip, I kept up with local news, I even watched local sporting events, on-demand and at my convenience. I tracked my bank accounts, paid bills and monitored the situation at my work via email and Skype.

I didn't want to pay for any outgoing phone service, so instead, I'd email my wife via a cheap, but high-speed internet connection and this would signal her to call me, via our cheaper phone service from home. Literally her phone would receive the email, buzz her that I was contacting her, and she'd push a single button to talk to me. Another button later, and I was on speaker talking to my whole family, my voice emanating from the center of the dinner table, while my kids ate macaroni and cheese and told me how about their homework.

I thought the city of Melbourne was a poster child for the dawn of the 21st century. We live in a century where slowly the national and cultural lines have begun to blur, and we are becoming citizens of the world. Melbourne reflects this progression just as well as any other modern city I’ve recently visited. In Carlton for example, (the academic neighborhood of Melbourne where I stayed), the student population was literally, a world-wide population. I met students from China, Japan, India and North America, who blended in and mixed with the local students; the cafes and eateries too offer a variety of fare, curry at one stop, falafel in another, and then eggs and bangers in another.

During a taxi ride, I met a student from India, who worked a cab at night to pay his bills. He was in Australia on a student visa, and working on a path for Australian citizenship. When he learned I was originally from Canada, he immediately inquired as to the ease of immigration for students there. He seemed willing to contemplate moving there, if the economic and academic prospects were brighter. He resolved to research these opportunities, and the idea stunned me. Literally, this young, bright and ambitious young man was shopping the entire world for opportunity. The concept is not new or revolutionary, but it made me realize, even the cab drivers have become international citizens of the world. The very man driving me to the pub in Australia could be building bridges in Vancouver just five years from now.

I picked up a local newspaper in Melbourne one afternoon, and digested the front section in its entirety, editorial section and all. The paper had a conservative lean, and was commenting on the global financial crisis and the American election, with a unique Australian-conservatism. It smeared Barack Obama in one editorial, linking him to Ayers and suggesting strongly Obama was far more radical than America realizes. On the very next page, George W. Bush was ripped apart for his ineptitude. It seems even conservatives in Australia can't stand America right now. One out of three entries in the paper had an extremely anti-American take, and therein lays the problem.

As the 21st Century starts its second decade, our political and social biases haven't kept up to speed with the advances in communication and multiculturalism. We still define one another by our nationalities. While I was in Melbourne, I was nothing more than a fat American tourist in most places I visited, and I was sized up and categorized into this pidgeon hole quickly and often.

I understand and even empathize with international resentment of America right now. However, to judge someone purely based on their nationality, is a shallow and extremely outdated prejudice. I was born in England, I was brought up in Canada, and now I reside in Seattle, Washington. Along the way, I called Mexico and the Bahamas home for brief periods. I have about as much in common, with the stereotype of the "fat, ignorant American" caracature as the Australian serving me has in common with "Crocodile Dundee" (well except the fact, I must confess, I could probably shed 25 pounds). I don't suggest I'm the most intelligent, or open-minded fellow on Earth, far from it, but I deserved a better chance to distinguish myself from a stereotype than I received in many places I visited while in Australia.

So while the world may be flat, and it may be shrinking, our minds have not broadened to match. I concede, I am just as guilty in this regard as anyone. All of us, still occasionally cling to this idea that we're culturally divided, and that these cultural lines define precisely who we are. While we can all draw strength and a sense of purpose and faith from our ancestry, we are all much more than the flags and governments of our countries. Indeed, most of us (myself included), now draw our identity from several nations, and thus, borrow bits of culture from all over the place.

It may come as a shock to some, but as an American, I am not particularly fond of hamburgers (and prefer falafel any day), and I actually do know the rules of cricket, and yes, I have a basic understanding of the history of some other countries. I am not George Wallace, I am not Gordon Gecko, I am not Fred Flintstone. I also do not wander the Earth with a sense of manifest destiny. Similarly, I assume most Australians I meet don't wrestle alligators, or barbecue shrimp, or have blonde air, blue eyes and funny cowboy hat.

Yet, when we travel, it is amazing how quickly, we seem to call upon these wretched caricatures and apply them instantly to those we meet. Some of this is pure social anxiety of course, but mostly I think, we've just simply not caught up mentally to the realities of the world around us.

We are all connected now, and all reliant on one another. What makes the Bush administration such a dangerous anachronism, is more than anything, it ignored this basic reality, and tried to execute its policies unilaterally.

Perhaps, more than anything, this is why Americans are loathed abroad (and believe me I was snobbed in enough restaurants in Melbourne to verify that we are indeed loathed abroad). American government has refused to act like a member of the global village, indeed perhaps, denied it even existed, and more than anything I feel this is what other citizens of the world seem to resent most.

The global village is real. If there is any positive lesson at all from the current financial/banking crisis, it is that it demonstrates clearly, just how utterly dependent we all are on one another. A badly structured mortgage in Ohio, will eventually cause the Australian government to pass new bank deposit reform. A butterfly flaps its wings, and the price of tea in China changes.

Now that we're all in this together, economically and politically, its time to take the next step socially as well. Although the world is changing quickly, and often this is difficult to cope with psychologically, we need at least to make the effort.

Don't let Lou Dobbs tell you, that internationalism and multiculturalism is something to fear. It is as inevitable as the construction of roads, after the invention of the combustion engine; as inevitable as electronic commerce, once the computer modem was perfected. You shouldn't waste energy trying to stop, fear or demonize the realities of human evolution. This kind of resistance inevitably hurts your culture, and holds it back.

Look, I am narrow-minded as the next fellow, I am not trying to preach from a soapbox, I just see what I see, and try to understand for myself what I can learn from it. To do that, I must admit my cultural prejudices, my biases and distortions run as deep as any other. More than not, these prejudices are barriers to my happiness, and now more than ever, they are far more out of touch with the realities of the world today than ever before.

Bigotry, in any form, simply isn't a 21st century idea, and to put it bluntly, bigotry is bad for business. While all human beings cling to cultural distortions and consume propaganda from their governments a little too willingly at times, the good news is that the ugliness of nationalism and racism are slowly eroding. They are eroding because we all rely on one another to survive, and we are learning through one on one contact, that we are all not so very different from one another.

The good news here is, the more we connect, rely and depend on one another in the global village, the less likely we seem to want to destroy it. The 21st Century more than any other time in history, has all the right tools and technology for us to forge a level of prosperity and peace that seemed like an utter pipe-dream just 50 years ago. It might take the rest of this century to come even close to this, but the tools and progression are already there, we just need to advance socially to keep pace with the technology around us.

That's a comforting thought, especially as the anachronism of the Karl Rove era of gunboat diplomacy comes to an end. And to those waiters, hosts, clerks and others who treated me like a second-class human being simply because I was American I simply say this: I may be American, but I am also much more than the cartoon figure that word seems to conjure today.

Let's shake loose these mental shackles. If a cab driver from India can see the world as a marketplace of opportunity to consummate his dreams, so can the rest of us; if a girl from Shanghai can perfect her doctorate in microbiology in Melbourne, then move to a research facility in San Francisco to help isolate a new vaccine; if this fat American can sit in a college pub watching live cricket from Bangalore, while drinking Australian beer with students from New Delhi, Perth and Adelaide, then maybe we can finally catch up socially and mentally, to the technology and advancements and realities of the 21st Century.

We are neighbors. We are neighbors, just as surely as the woman next door who trims her hedge and shares with you the chocolate cake she just pulled from her oven. Our technology, our email, websites, cell phones and economies have brought us together. So lets act like neighbors, and lets not punish Americans just because they elected a bad president. Heck, Canada made Brian Mulroney Prime Minister, and nobody ever complains about “that fat Canadian at the end of the bar”, well except for one bar I know, but that’s because it’s a bar full of Husky fans, and they tend to behave that way after they lose the Apple Cup. :)

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