For years, research studies have observed an overall decline in the level of U.S. interest or expertise in world affairs. According to a 2002 study by National Geographic, American young people ranked second to last in knowledge of geography, with 11 percent not even able to locate their own country on a map.
This is not merely an academic concern. In adults, interest in international affairs has seen a steady decline as well, with the media serving the public’s appetite for less foreign news and more pop culture infotainment.
Even as Americans seem more interested in the current “American Idol” contestants than the war in Iraq, our influence on the world stage grows unabated – often without the scrutiny and oversight that democratic governments are supposed to foster in their citizenry. Our government nurtures this self-defeating insularity quite well, dumbing down complicated issues and appealing to a false sense of nationalism – note President Bush’s famous proclamation to the world in 2001: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
All this only begets more ignorance and creates false divides and prejudices. According to a survey by the Program on International Policy Attitudes, as recently as last fall, half of all Americans still believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, despite highly publicized evidence to the contrary.
The lack of interest in international affairs and the sometimes-blind patriotism and nationalism have created a rift between the U.S. and the rest of the world, notably across the Atlantic, where the U.S. is often seen as arrogant, unilateral and ignorant of the issues important to other countries. At home, resentment has manifested itself in incidents such as the vandalism of a local French wine merchant and the boycott of French fries in the wake of anti-France hysteria after the country dared to oppose the U.S. invasion of Iraq. While some say there is a thaw afoot in trans-Atlantic affairs since the Iraq elections and the small conciliatory gestures by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, there still appear to be great differences between how the U.S. is perceived in the world and how it perceives itself.
In an effort to bridge this gap, through mid-March I will be traveling in Europe as part of a 17-member delegation of Americans on an educational mission through the fellowship program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. This program was established as a gift from the German government to the U.S. in appreciation for the 1948 Marshall Plan – a foreign-aid program endorsed by then-President Harry Truman that helped rebuild Europe after World War II. It brings Americans face-to-face with Europeans from all walks of life, from NATO officials and members of the European Union parliament to local journalists and social-justice activists. The program’s aim is to help bring Europe and the U.S. closer together through educational exchange and close, interpersonal contact. We will begin our travels in the “capital” of Europe: Brussels, Belgium.
I am excited to be able to bring what I learn to help broaden the work we do at ColorsNW. Virtually everything we struggle with as communities of color in the U.S. – sense of belonging, economic and social disparities, persistent discrimination – has parallels in other parts of the world. How do other countries deal with similar issues?
In Denmark, I am looking forward to learning why its criminal-justice system has one of the lowest lengths of incarceration as well as one of the lowest recidivism rates in Europe. In Belgium, I will examine the legacy of colonialism for one of its former colonies, Rwanda, whose genocide victims will be the focus of our April cover story. Threaded throughout the trip will be a focus on one of Europe’s most troubling issues: immigration. With rising immigration, there has been a chilling increase in right-wing nationalist parties throughout the continent that urge the closing of borders and the expulsion of “foreigners,” particularly Muslims. (In some European countries, such people are still considered foreigners even if they are native-born.)
Largely because of the pressure from these parties – which are seeing rising support – immigration has become one of Europe’s most controversial and complicated issues, begging the question, who is European? Where does the often-unsuccessfully realized U.S. principle of multiculturalism and pluralism fit in a continent of nations with such a long sense of history and national identity?
I will examine these issues and more in an effort to bring to ColorsNW’s local coverage about people of color a greater consciousness of global connections and complexities and a deeper understanding of the common threads that bind us all together.