Friday, 6 February 2009

Letter from America

(A guestpost written by Balázs Szendrői.)

Walking across the University of Berkeley campus one sunny afternoon, I could not help but notice two young, scantily dressed people on the grass in front of the Campanile, Berkeley's iconic bell tower. They were engaged in an activity which, in most countries I know, would have counted as sex and therefore strictly forbidden in public places. Not in California; the words "yoga", "acrobatics" and "massage" were whispered amongst the small but reverent group of casual onlookers of whom I was by no means the only one.

America: the Land of Freedom. And the Land of Free Enterprise. Well, you could argue that Free Private Enterprise has not been doing so well here lately. Yet it is clear that even at this hour, is the world's largest economy that the rest of us look to for leadership, growth generation and a general cure to our ills. Despite its evils, in a way the USA still seems to be the best we have.

One way out of the present mess might be a global framework along the lines of the federal structure the USA has successfully adopted over the course of its existence. It might perhaps be of interest to pause and recall one or two factors that played a role in its formation, at least in an impressionistic way.

First, necessity. The cellar of the apartment block where I am staying contains, along with the expected assortment of broken light bulbs and other assorted bric-a-brac, a collection of about fifty leather bound volumes humbly entitled The Annals of America. Volume 1 contains the documents relating to the prehistory of the USA, starting with Columbus' triumphant report of his first encounter with the Indians. Later, there are long descriptions of the now well-known difficulties the first settlers encountered, including loss of crop, hunger, cold and isolation. But one striking aspect was the description of the first encounters between emissaries from Virginia, Massachusetts and other early colonies. It is clear from the excitement of the reports that the settlers thought of unity and cooperation as a necessary virtue.

Second, the Founders, among them the Committee of Five who drafted the Declaration of Independence. John Adams, lawyer and historian. Benjamin Franklin, polymath, scientist and author. Thomas Jefferson, philosopher. Robert Livingston, diplomat who helped Fulton develop the commercially viable steamboat. Roger Sherman, influential lawyer without any formal training. Surely not without their faults, nevertheless these were people of huge intellectual and moral standing. Along with the other Founding Fathers, they were entrusted by their communities with the job of creating a system that would outlive them. This they certainly accomplished.

Third, America's moral Coming of Age: the long civil war, starting with the Civil War itself, and culminating in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's. Walking the streets here, talking to people or looking at the newspapers, it seems clear that people of colour get more opportunities, have more freedom and command more respect than anywhere else in the developed world. And this was true (and had to be true) even before one of them became President. Some American (wo)men are more equal than others in many respects, but at least this is decided to a much lesser extent by their racial heritage.

Back to us, then. The necessity for global governance has been amply argued elsewhere, not least in these pages. How about founding fathers? It is clear that the election of President Obama has presented the US and thus the world with a unique opportunity; just imagine attempting to build global institutions with a US president with 20% home and 10% overseas approval ratings. Looking further afield, an unlikely globalization hero has recently emerged in President Ghaddafi of Libya. Bring along President Lula of Brazil, the reluctant European Union, start talking to China, and we would have most continents covered.

Finally, the moral coming of age. If there is to be lasting peace, surely a condition for a successful global governance framework, it is necessary for different communities to accept, trust and value each other to a much greater extent than currently is the case. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is but one of the starkest illustrations of this. It would be truly tragic if mankind were destined to only achieve moral peace through many more local, or even worse, global wars. Give peace a chance.


  1. Balazs, your piece reminds me of an other text I recently came across (also written in America):

    "For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. [...] We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace."

    As well as:

    "Our founding fathers, faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all the other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more."

    Unfortunately, due to space constraints, I had to turn author's application for a guestpost slot down, thus the text was used in a lesser occasion.

  2. I still think the best chance for global peace is the discovery of life on another planet. There's nothing like an external enemy to spark unity and cooperation...

  3. "Walking the streets here, talking to people or looking at the newspapers, it seems clear that people of colour get more opportunities, have more freedom and command more respect than anywhere else in the developed world."

    Really? Define "people of colour" and "developed world".

    Are "people of colour" everyone who's not white? Or are they people who have a skin tone that is in the minority? Do black people in America have less opportunity than white people in Japan, or Chinese people in Malaysia?

    Classing people by tone of skin is far too blunt and imprecise an instrument to be useful these days. Culture is what forms the real dividing line. Sure, you can make reasonable judgements about a person's culture based on their race and be right a reasonable percentage of the time (advertisers make their living doing this), but holding up Barack Obama for adulation is far from the same thing as establishing true employment equality.

    Not that all countries (developed or not) don't have their own issues with race but I'd hardly hold America up as a beacon of hope just because in an upper class Harvard boy (who just happens to have some African heritage) got voted into office.

    As far as our chances of world peace go... I'm with Liz... Obama seems like a pretty intelligent guy, and he's very likable, but world peace in the next 4-8 years? That's going to take a serious cataclysm on the scale of alien invasion.

    Or zombie apocalypse.

    One other other.

  4. After reflection, I vote zombie apocalypse. I'll be safe in Timor...

  5. Liz and John,

    There might be some human ethology reasons for the need of an enemy, but maybe, systemic reasons could be argued for as well. In other words, you might not need an external enemy. Perhaps all you need is a 'need'. For instance due to a major global systemic instability, of, say, ecological in nature, or socio-cultural in nature, or even financial in nature. In all of these examples, if the shock to the system is large enough, say in terms of massive collapse of the eco-social equilibrium, or a substantial rise in cultural difference originated terrorism, or, say, a proper economic meltdown due to mass mismanagement of gigenourmous risk structures, it might not be that difficult to imagine the rise of some global institutions, identity, etc.

    I wonder if Jess will come in here with her social networking - global identity idea.

  6. The difference between what Liz and I describe and a sort of generic cataclysm that you describe is the existence of the other (incidentally, I find the idea of an evolutionary advantage for the need of an enemy very plausible). While counterproductive, I'm pretty sure that game theory tells us that in a widespread global cataclysm (e.g. asteroid, plague, financial crisis, drastic climate change and sea level change over a short period of time, etc) that people are more likely to do the selfish thing. i.e. buy a gun, stockpile food and hunker down rather than try and cooperate on a global scale.

    Incidentally, in the sorts of global catastrophes you propose, I find it hard to believe that the tools of global culture (power, internet, etc) will still be operating to the point where we can make coordinated decisions.

    There's also the more inherent problem of trying to represent 6 billion voices equally... I'm pretty sure that's impossible. I'm sure that tools like social networking make the people that we can meaningfully keep track of bigger and bigger, but surely there's a limit. If not an inherent one, at least a practical one that's going to be reached in the next few hundred years.

    The only option I see for world peace is Global Boring. If everyone becomes the same and has the same values then there'll be nothing to fight about. I don't think I want to live in that world though...

    I think the world is too complicated for world peace and will remain so as long as we're around.