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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 own country.

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.
 

Public Infrastructure: "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 fifteen minutes).

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 explained.

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 Japan.
 

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 говорит по 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 home.

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 Americans.

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 capital.

In the darkest hours of that founding struggle, the cause of freedom and independence seemed hopeless – "these were the times that tried men’s souls."

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

 


Ernest Partridge's Internet Publications

Conscience of a Progressive:  A book in progress. 

Partridge's Scholarly Publications. (The Online Gadfly)


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers".   His e-mail is: gadfly@igc.org .


Crisis Papers editors, Partridge & Weiner, are available for public speaking appearances