I had an interesting conversation at an educational meeting a while back. The delightful lady I spoke with was born in Europe, raised in Mexico, and trained as a surgeon. Although she now lives in the United States, where she practices medicine as a federal employee, she has lived all over the world.
We were chatting in the hotel restaurant when the war in Iraq popped up. She shook her head, and told me how she disagreed with the entire affair. She informed me that America was an empire that was too powerful and self-absorbed. She told me that America, consuming too many resources in a world of poverty, was robbing the poor, and that Americans have no real understanding of the plight of other people.
She was convincing. She reminded me of how truly insular we are as a nation. Many Americans live such protected lives that the real poverty, disease, and varied horrors that afflict so many nations are unknown and unimagined in the sedentary, reality-television-induced comas that constitute the lives of so many of our citizens.
If America is so evil, why do downtrodden victims want nothing more than to come to here?
She next reminded me that America had actually supported Saddam Hussein in the past and that we were one of the reasons his dictatorship was successful. She had me. America has a bad habit of climbing into the political bed with some bad characters. Of course, as in the case of Iraq, it sometimes made sense for strategic reasons. In times past, Khomeini's Iran was considered a greater threat to the West. But our pattern has definitely given us some morning-after guilt. If anyone was coyote ugly, it was Saddam in his heyday, even before he was dragged out of the ground like the great hairy, inglorious rat he is.
But as I was being educated in multiculturalism and the need for American self-loathing, I took the opportunity to ask some questions myself. First, I asked her how the resources from other nations actually get here to be consumed inappropriately. “Do we steal them or buy them?” Her answer was honest, “You buy them, but the people in other countries are still poor. They aren't paid very well.”
Visions of the Nobel Peace Prize danced in my head. I proposed a solution. Maybe, in order to stop oppressing other populations and pillaging the world of raw materials, we should simply stop importing. “Would that help?” She admitted that the people in those other ravaged countries do actually need the money that comes from our greedy, self-indulgent commercialism. So I proposed a different solution to our American predations. “Take a poor nation. Mexico, for example. What if we simply sent them billions and billions in cash, no strings attached. Would the poor benefit from the money?” “It would go to only a few rich families,” she said, waving her hands in frustration. Poverty apparently involves more complex factors than American largesse alone.
Next, I asked her about the idea of empire. She used Europe as an example (as always) of an enlightened people fed up with American imperialism. “Let me ask you, since you're French, if France were the preeminent empire in the world today, would things be different? Would they give generously and avoid self-interest, or would they do exactly what they felt was right, like Napoleon?” (You ask a French person about Napoleon and they sit a little straighter.)
“Napoleon was a great man, brilliant,” she said. “And no, the French would do what every empire does.” I reminded her that powerful countries always try to expand their empire and influence. It's a historical reality that every empire leaves the world marked by its economics, military, ethics, art, philosophy, diversions, religion, and technology, for better or worse.
Our discourse on empire continued. I asked her, “Can't empires do good things? Of all the empires in history, Greek, Roman, French, British, Soviet, and others, which empire has probably done the most for the world, in terms of charity, technology, security, and economic growth? How about America?”
I remarked that all around the world, downtrodden victims of American evil want nothing more than to come to, well, America. But people aren't exactly beating down the doors to live under Castro or Kim Jong Il. “DVD players, modern health care, and enough food to get fat? Forget about it.”
We finally meandered back to the question of Iraq. We bantered about Iraq's previous weapons of mass destruction programs, its unabashed tyranny, its potential for stability in a dangerous region. We were getting nowhere when she asked, “Why does your country do this?” A little shocked, I asked her if she meant her country because she lives, works, and raises here family here as well. “Yes, my country,” she answered quickly. Before we could go on, our lectures continued and we stood to leave.
She was beaming, “I love to argue about politics!” I guess I do, too. A proper discussion educates both parties. But even more than arguing, I love exploring the flawed thinking that masquerades as enlightenment when otherwise bright people discuss their disdain for America, holding it to a standard no other nation is required to observe, all while living free and safe within its borders and benefiting from its greatness.