The View from Abroad:
A Personal Reflection
Ernest Partridge, Co-Editor
The Crisis Papers
February 7, 2006
Except for a Naval Reserve cruise to Hawaii when I was nineteen, I had not, until my
fifty-fifth year, stepped off the North American continent.
The decade that followed made up for all that. During that time, I was
invited and participated in nine scholarly conferences abroad (four in
Russia, two in Italy, and one each in Germany, Japan, and at Oxford
University in England). In all, I visited fourteen countries for durations
varying from two days to six weeks. Whatever I might have contributed to
these events, I can testify that I returned home with a much-enriched
understanding and appreciation of the cultures that I visited, and with the
advantage of perspective gained through detachment and distance, an enhanced
understanding and appreciation of the heritage, traditions and values of my
Here are three impressions that are both vivid in my memory, and relevant
to our current political circumstances.
War and Peace:
War, to the Europeans, and especially
the Germans and the Russians, means something quite different than what it
means to most Americans.
Since the close of the Civil War in 1865, "war" for the United States has
always been "over there." For the Europeans, as well as the Japanese, it was
"right here!" In World War II, not a single Nazi shell fell on American
soil, and except for one fatal "balloon bomb," the Japanese caused no damage
to the Continental United States. In all fronts of that war, we lost a quarter million
dead in combat.
In Europe, in that same war, entire cities were reduced to rubble. At
least ten million Germans and more than twenty million Soviet citizens were
killed. Of the Soviet males born in the early twenties, ninety
percent perished. For every American GI who fell in combat, over fifty
Russian soldiers were killed. Scarcely a single family in Germany or Russia
was spared the loss of several close relatives.
For all too many Americans, war is an adventure, especially so to those,
who, like George Bush and his cabinet, have never experienced combat. "F—
Saddam, we’re taking him out," Bush was heard to say, and when he decided
to launch his war, he struck his fist against his palm and said "feels
good!" That decision was to cause the death of more than one-hundred
thousand, and still counting.
To the Europeans, who have experienced it, war is an unmitigated disaster
and an unspeakable horror. And a half a century later, its evidence is
everywhere. For example, across the street from my friend's apartment in St.
Petersburg is "Park Pobedy" ("Victory Park") -- a pleasant plot of trees,
ponds and lawn through which I walked to and from the Metro station. Under
that turf lies the bones and ashes of tens of thousands of Leningrad
citizens, victims of the 900 days of siege in which up to a million
residents starved. About a kilometer past the park on Moskovsky Prospect
(Boulevard) is a monument to the siege of Leningrad, and a museum that
commemorates that horror. There I saw on display a small cube of sawdust and
wallpaper paste -- the "bread" that served as a daily food ration -- and
lighting the perimeter of that huge room, there were 900 lanterns placed in
shell casings, one shell for every day of the siege.
True, just a mere twenty-one years after the first World War, the
Europeans were back at it again. Even so, I am convinced that as long as the
general public has a significant say in the matter, the Europeans will
remain at peace with one another. Given the recent behavior of United States
governments, both Democratic and Republican, and the scale of our so-called
"Defense" budgets, I am not similarly confident of our own peaceful behavior.
"Infrastructure" refers to roads,
bridges, telephone service, electricity, water and sewage disposal – in
short, the facilities and accommodations in place that service and sustain a
nation’s economy. With the exception of Russia, I found the European
infrastructure to be excellent, as was the Japanese. In Russia, the
infrastructure varies from "adequate" to sub-standard, although I can
report remarkable improvements between my first visit in 1989 and my
last in 1999.
An informed account of European and Japanese infrastructure would require
an unacceptable investment in research time and in space in this essay. So I
will confine my remarks to my personal experiences with just one
infrastructure: rail transportation.
The contrast of European and Japanese railroads with our own is
breathtaking – and acutely embarrassing to the American tourist. Clean,
quiet, comfortable, reliable, efficient, all describe these accommodations,
though they must be experienced to be fully appreciated. At the Osaka
airport, I walked a short distance from the baggage pickup to the awaiting
train, which looked like it had just been delivered from the factory. In
just forty-five minutes I was in Kyoto. (The trains run every
Most astonishing was the "Chunnel" train from Paris to London: 213 miles
in two and a half hours, at speeds up to 140 mph. (The British rail-beds
require reduced speeds). From downtown Paris to downtown London, the Chunnel
train is faster, cheaper and more comfortable than a flight, and at a small
fraction of the energy cost per passenger. By comparison, auto travel
between the cities, involving a time-consuming ferry across the English
Channel, is unthinkable.
Why don’t we have such facilities in the United States? Why not a "bullet
train" between Boston and Washington? Why was a proposed fast-rail link
between San Francisco and Los Angeles recently de-authorized? With even the
aging equipment and decaying rail-bed, the downtown to downtown travel times
between Washington and New York, by air and by rail, are comparable. Imagine
the savings in time and fuel if a European- or Japanese-quality rail link
were established between these cities. As for the advantages in time, fuel
and convenience over auto travel, you have no idea!
How did it come to this? It happened by design, and not by accident. Soon
after the end of World War II, a consortium of auto, gasoline and tire
manufacturers bought up and then shut down major intracity commuter
railroads, and the passenger railroads went into steep decline as
investments dried up. Then Congress approved and funded the interstate
highway system, "for national defense," we were told. Autos and airplanes
were to be the transportation of the future, and they were subsidized by tax
revenues for highway and airport construction and promoted with untold
billions of advertising dollars. Public investment in rail transportation?
"No way!," we were told. "That’s socialism!" Why public
investment in roads and airports were not also "socialism" was not
The short-term return on investments for the holders of automobile and
petroleum stocks were extravagant. The long-term social, environmental and
economic costs – well, we’re beginning to find out. In the coming global
competition among nations, as energy costs rise (as they must), economic
advantage will be enjoyed by nations with fast and fuel efficient
transportation and distribution infrastructure in place – the sort of
infrastructure that I experienced when I rode the trains in Europe and
Language. The United States is a nation predominantly
of monolingual citizens, the few exceptions are found in Louisiana (French), Florida and the Southwest (Spanish), Indian
reservations, and in our largest cities, some ethnic neighborhoods. Otherwise,
despite immigration, our population is becoming ever-less acquainted with
foreign languages, as language instruction is disappearing from the public
schools, and the language requirement of the Bachelor of Arts is being
discarded in our Colleges.
Thus the American visitor abroad, this one included, depends upon the
language skills of others to get around. For the most part he or she is
generally well-accommodated. The American tourist’s response to this
limitation may go in two opposite directions: arrogance ("what’s wrong with
these people; why can’t they understand me?") or, more appropriately,
embarrassment and humility.
I knew, of course, that there were many distinct languages in Europe, but
came to appreciate it in a five-day train ride from St. Petersburg, Russia,
to Florence, Italy, as I encountered, in sequence, Russian, Finnish,
Swedish, Danish, German, French and Italian. And throughout all, English.
Much impressed with the linguistic skills of even the ordinary citizen, I
encountered mind-boggling virtuosity in an attractive, twenty-something tour
guide in Copenhagen. As we were about to embark on a boat tour of the
harbor, this young lady asked us, in sequence: "please raise your hands, who
speaks English?" Then she continued, "Qui parle française?"
"Wer spricht Deutsch?" "Quien habla Espagnole?" "Кто
Русски?" And perhaps a couple
more languages including, of course, her own: Danish. She then proceeded to
conduct the tour in six languages. How many more languages she had in her
repertory, one could only guess. Amazing!
I have often pondered the price that we Americans pay for our neglect of
foreign language study. Of course, it aggravates our isolation from the rest
of the world, for our confinement to a single language shuts off the
opportunity to study, understand and appreciate other cultures on their own
terms and with their own evolved meanings.
But even if we confine our travels and our studies to our own country and
culture, our failure to study other languages might also constrict and
distort our thought-processes. Monolinguals, I suspect, are more susceptible
to "word-magic" – the linkage of words with the things and ideas that they
designate, a cognitive trap that is much less likely to ensnare a person who
has the capability of expressing a thought in two or more distinct
languages. Moreover, multilinguals are well aware of the limitations of a
language, as they struggle with translations and encounter "untranslatable"
words and phrases.
As George Orwell was so well-aware, "word magic" is the primary tool of
the propagandist. Newt Gingrich was also aware of this when he drew up and
distributed his notorious memo,
"Language: a Key Mechanism of Control." The master’s project has
been carried on, with great skill and effectiveness, by such GOP
spinmeisters as Frank Luntz and Karl Rove.
A public of monolinguals, as victims of "word-magic," are more inclined
to focus on what politicians say, and less on what they do. Thus supporters
of Bush and his policies applaud his "Healthy Forests" and "Clear Skies"
initiatives, after all who is not for healthy forests and clear skies? They
do not bother to notice that "healthy forests" allows clear-cutting on
national forests, and that "Clear Skies" permits an easing of pollution
controls. Similarly, "No Child Left Behind," "USA Patriot Act,"
"Compassionate Conservatism" and so on.
Search the Bush/GOP educational policies, and you will find scant
attention to foreign language study. Small wonder.
In general: I found that Americans were well-liked and
respected, but then I was usually among professional colleagues. The general
public abroad that I came in contact with treated us, in all but a very few
cases, with courtesy. I gained the impression that American political
institutions and traditions were genuinely admired, but that some American
personal traits, in particular ethnocentrism and arrogance, were not. My
last trip was in 1999. What the typical European thinks of Americans today,
I dare not contemplate.
I encountered a sample of that American arrogance on a return flight
from Moscow. I was assigned a seat next to the President of a prominent American right-wing
think tank. He explained that he was in Moscow to conduct a seminar in
free-market economics – in effect, he was a missionary to the heathen. For
several hours he related what he had taught the Russians. I don’t recall
that he said a word about what he had learned from the Russians. I listened
and occasionally posed some innocuous questions. But by then I had learned
not to engage a dogmatic regressive in an argument. Might as well attempt to
persuade Jerry Falwell to accept evolution. It was, after all, a long flight
The countries I visited were not "teeming" with populations desperate to
emigrate to the United States – with "huddled masses yearning to breath
free." Instead, I met people who were proud of their own countries,
and content to remain there. Many live comfortably on much less then we do –
or did, since, of course, the median American standard of living is
in decline. I found no slums, such as I find in Los Angeles and other
American cities, though of course I did not visit Africa or south-east Asia.
Europe and Japan, are free and prosperous, and Russia less so. I remain
fully aware that the vast majority of the world’s population experiences a
level of poverty that is unimaginable to most Europeans, Japanese, and North
We like to call ourselves "the leaders of the free world." But world
news, along with personal correspondence with my friends and colleagues
abroad, tell me that this leadership is slipping away. News from within the
United States, when read critically, tells us that our self-congratulatory
"freedom" is eroding, and that which remains is in grave peril.
After a decade of travel abroad, I remain proud of our political heritage
and of our scientific and technological accomplishments. I cherish our
natural environment, and I revere our founding documents and the political
and moral principles therein. My recent world-travels have served to
intensify these sentiments. Thus I am enraged as I see that heritage
betrayed, that environment despoiled and sold-off, and the Constitution
tossed aside by a President who regards it as "just a goddam piece of paper."
Will "government of the people, by the people, and for the people" not
"perish from the earth," as Lincoln resolved on the field of Gettysburg? I
believe, with Lincoln, that it shall not "perish from the earth," as
I have met in foreign lands, many admirable individuals who are so resolved.
But will such a government survive in the United States of America? Of
that outcome we can not be assured, for we have, in five brief years,
traveled far along the road toward despotism. The government now in power
will not turn us back on that road; this is something that we the people
must do for ourselves. The United States was born out of a struggle to
overthrow a despot from abroad. Now the despot resides in our Nation’s
In the darkest hours of that founding struggle, the cause of freedom and
independence seemed hopeless – "these were the times that tried men’s
Our times are not as grave – not yet. We the people can still prevail.
After all, we’ve done so before.
Copyright 2006 by Ernest Partridge