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Not Everyone Wants to Sail on Our Ship

In the American dream, others' beliefs are mere flavors of mankind.

April 01, 2002|MARK BOWDEN | Mark Bowden is the author of "Black Hawk Down" and, more recently, "Killing Pablo" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001).

We Americans like to think that people the world over are, at heart, just like us.

This isn't because we're a simplistic and naive people. It is part of our national faith. We are, after all, a melting pot, a country made of people from everywhere. No one faith, tribe or race created America, and no one of the above defines it. The virtues of tolerance and mutual respect--though too often betrayed--are such a part of our national faith that they are considered trite. Those of us born in the last half-century were raised on it, from the dolls at Disney World singing "It's a Small World" to Michael Jackson's "We Are the World."

We cling to this belief despite ample evidence to the contrary, whether it is political oppression in China, racial hatred in Zimbabwe, religious fanaticism in Iran, tribal conflict in Somalia or ethnic battles in the former Yugoslavia. The fact that these conflicts persist is blamed on backwardness or the bad influence of oppressive leaders. We assume that the people who inhabit these countries, unlike their leaders (who are not chosen democratically, after all) long for peace, freedom and prosperity, a world where differing races and religions are respected, even treasured, and where the human family is enriched by variety and the free exchange of ideas.

Well, we are not the world.

In most places, people long for victory, not peace. Their lives are shaped as much by fear and hatred as by acceptance and love. They are often complicit in the crimes of their leaders. At heart, they want their tribe, their race, their political system or their god to rule. They want not only to live their lives in the manner they choose but to compel others to do so. They want to kill their enemies, establish traditional homelands, avenge historical wrongs and preserve ways of life many Americans fled on their way here.

"We Are the World" is largely an American dream. It rests upon certain basic suppositions that are far from universally embraced. It presupposes an overarching secular legal frame around religion, race and ethnicity. It rejects, at its core, the final truth of any faith, or of any distinct tribal, racial or ideological destiny.

In this utopia, our utopia, the righteous beliefs of millions are relegated to mere flavors of mankind. The ongoing struggle to create this kind of state is one of the great triumphs of Western civilization. Our pride in this dream has led us to believe that the rest of the world would be eager to share it.

It isn't. Our utopia is just one of many. As the attacks of Sept. 11 illustrated horribly, there are plenty of people who would rather die (and kill as many of us as possible) to prevent it from spreading further. Tribalism, political totalitarianism and religious zealotry still define the way most people live, and there is nothing inevitable about their decline. Indeed, at the outset of the 21st century we find ourselves engaged in a great cultural conflict, one where we see ourselves as the flag-bearers for goodness, truth and justice, while others just see us fighting for the "American Way."

Ten years ago, when the Berlin Wall came down, for a brief time the global future seemed uncomplicated. For most of the 20th century, our government approached the world as the theater of a great showdown between personal freedom, capitalism and democracy and authoritarianism, communism and one-party rule. Less powerful nations were irrelevant, Third World, undeveloped and largely forgotten unless their location or resources gave them strategic importance. Then communism collapsed, and a "New World Order" began to take shape. The triumph of democracy and capitalism seemed inevitable. What drama remained concerned the pace at which rebuilding states could achieve economic and political parity. With only one successful model to choose from, the path of the Third World seemed set.

Hardly. In parts of the old Third World our fundamental values are under siege. Many people the world over, it seems, don't want to be like us. Our enemies see the rapid spread of the "American Way" as cultural aggression. In a way, they have a point. Our fast food, entertainment and lifestyles are invading more traditional societies. But this is not aggression. The U.S. doesn't impose McDonald's, "Baywatch," Puff Daddy and Britney Spears on other countries; they eagerly import them. Anyone who has ever traveled in Africa, Asia or the Middle East sees the near universal enthusiasm for pop culture.

Likewise, the concepts of human rights, equality of women, democracy, tolerance and free speech are infectious. They threaten traditional societies precisely because they are so seductive to their own people, particularly the young. Much of the upsurge in Islamic radicalism is a backlash against the ongoing story of American success. The ideals that we take for granted are in fact actively opposed by those who want to preserve more authoritarian states.

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