Saturday, November 26, 2005

America Is Losing What Made It a Country To Be Thankful For

Yesterday, I browsed through the paeans to Thanksgiving among conservative bloggers -- all saying basically the same thing: that they are so grateful to have freedom and democracy, and to live in the most wonderful country in the world. They spoke about being grateful for the men and women in the military who "keep us free" and "defend our freedom."

Well, maybe we should think a little more about what America has always meant to the rest of the world -- but no longer does. Maybe we should worry more than we do about the fact that the rest of the world used to love America as much as we did -- that they somehow felt a part of America, no matter where they lived, because America represented the ideals and dreams everyone had for their present and future.

In his powerful and moving op-ed in the Washington Post, David Ignatius says that we better start caring about what the rest of the world thinks, or the American Dream will be only a memory:

When I lived abroad, Thanksgiving was always my favorite holiday. It was a chance to scrounge up a turkey, gather foreign and American friends, and celebrate what America represented to the world. I liked to give a sentimental toast when the turkey arrived at the table, and more than once I had my foreign guests in tears. They loved the American dream as much as I did.

I don't think Americans realize how much we have tarnished those ideals in the eyes of the rest of the world these past few years. The public opinion polls tell us that America isn't just disliked or feared overseas -- it is reviled. We are seen as hypocrites who boast of our democratic values but who behave lawlessly and with contempt for others. I hate this America-bashing, but when I try to defend the United States and its values in my travels abroad, I find foreigners increasingly are dismissive. How do you deny the reality of Abu Ghraib, they ask, when the vice president of the United States is actively lobbying against rules that would ban torture?

Of all the reversals the United States has suffered in recent years, this may be the worst. We are slowly shredding the fabric that defines what it means to be an American.

Not so long ago our country really was seen as different. Foreigners queued up outside any institution that called itself an "American university," hoping for a chance at their piece of the dream. My own ancestors were educated at such a college, and their children's and grandchildren's success in the new land was part of a global chain of American affirmation and renewal.

We are eating up this seed corn. That's what I have seen in recent years. We inherited incredible riches of goodwill -- a world that admired our values and wanted a seat at our table -- and we have been squandering them. The Bush administration didn't begin this wasting of American ideals, but it has been making the problem worse. Certainly George W. Bush has been spending our international political capital at an astounding clip.

When I began traveling as a foreign correspondent 25 years ago, I thought I understood what the face of evil looked like. There were governments that used torture against their enemies; they might call it "enhanced interrogation" or some other euphemism, but it was torture, and you just hoped, as an American, that you were never unlucky enough to be their prisoner. There were governments that "disappeared" people -- snatched them off the street and put them without charges in secret prisons where nobody could find them. There were countries that threatened journalists with physical harm.

As an American in those days, I felt that I traveled with a kind of white flag. We were different. The world knew it. We might have allies in the Middle East or Latin America who used such horrifying methods. But these were techniques that Americans would never, ever use -- or even joke about. That was our seed corn -- the fact that we were different.

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