Friday, September 26, 2008

Ethnocentric Blinders For Everyone

I went to Whitworth University and listened to our former congressman, George Nethercutt, give a speech about Citizenship in the 21st Century. The audience consisted of young college students. The only other "older" people were various Whitworth leaders sitting up front and then me sticking out like a sore thumb among the young folks.

Mr Nethercutt started out with some definitions and a fluffy general overview about citizenship. One thing that struck me was his emphasis of American exceptionalism; positing that American society, culture, and it's form of government is better than that of any other country. He also kept harping on the principles and values that guided America without saying what they were. Had he brought those out he could have given a much better speech without having to say "citizenship" over and over.

He made an interesting contrast between (part of) the Bush doctrine of spreading democracy and our founder's feelings on international affairs and entanglements. He questioned whether the founding fathers would approve of spreading democracy to other countries since they obviously had no intent to do so themselves.

Making sure to link in 9/11 the former congressman mentioned that only one of two times that Congress met in session outside of the Capitol was at Federal Hall in New York City not long after the attack. It was sad that he thought this was so significant yet he didn't remember doing it. But he said he knows he was there because he saw he was in the picture that was taken. And he thinks that disconnect is humorous?

He made excellent points about how young people (but this could apply to all ages) are not familiar with American history, are not involved or interested in society and government, and how this adversely affects us as a nation. He said there's an "under education" of our youth. I have to agree. And he re-emphasized the guiding values and principles again, but again without stating what those might be.

He compared the sentence lengths of the inaugural speeches of Washington and John Adams (60-70+ words) with those of Clinton (26) and Bush (18) and then asked, "Is that important?" His answer, "Probably not." So no telling why he brought it up.

He made quite a few references to God throughout the evening. And he said that since the founding fathers were all Christian, they intended this to be a Christian nation. I thought that made as much sense as saying since they were all white they intended this to be an all white nation. However, after looking around the room, I think he would've been singing to the choir on that point as well.

Overall, he had a valid argument that people should be involved in their community, society, and government. But for me he didn't sell citizenship well at all.

There was a short Q&A period afterward. A young man said he wanted to be a good American citizen. He agreed with the idea that American culture was better than any other country's. (What does that mean exactly?) But since we live in a global environment, he wanted to know how could he be a good global citizen. (No doubt, once life is discovered on another planet he'll be concerned with being a good galactic citizen.) Mr Nethercutt's answer: the young man should be a good American citizen and "export that", which seems to run contrary to the intent of our founding fathers he mentioned earlier.

I was most disturbed by this sense of American exceptionalism and American superiority. I don't know if there was a general consensus or just a lack of expressed disagreement in the room. But having lived in and visited other countries, I am not about to say that American culture, society, and/or government is better than any other. There are aspects I would say are better as well as some that are worse, respectively, freedom of religion and health care are good examples. International respect for America is in the tank and we're not about to win that back by looking down our noses and telling others they should be like us. When I go to Italy I want to experience their culture. I don't go to Rome to eat at McDonalds. It's wonderful to experience the differences and doing so opens your eyes. Sometimes it makes you appreciate what you have at home. Sometimes it makes you envious. But to approach it with an air of superiority is a good way of ensuring that, at best, you get spit in your food.


christine said...

I'm a Whitworth student, and I get paid by Whitworth to stalk all mentions of Whitworth for archival purposes. Thus, I stumbled upon your blog.
That Nethercutt lecture was ridiculous. And no, you weren't alone in thinking that. Even the guy who asked the question about global citizenship, is a solid conservative who thought Nethercutt was missing some of the big picture. One of the teachers said that s/he had to keep his/her mouth clenched closed the entire time to keep from laughing. There may have been some choir members in there, but there were definitely more people who want in on his fellowship (which is a good program). And there were a fair amount of people who were just too shocked and amused to come up with a rebuttal.

Hank Greer said...

Thank you very much for your comments.