Barack Obama is back from Asia and his bow to the Japanese, his handshake with the tyrant from Myanmar and his difficult sessions with the Chinese. There sure has been a lot of talk about the president and his submissiveness in Asia.
But though our historical memories are full of Commodore Perry and the opening of Japan, John Hay and the Open Door in China, and Lyndon Johnson and the open-ended war in Vietnam, it’s important to remember that there always has been a strain of deference in American relations with the East.
Of course we Americans have been historically illiterate from the beginning. This has been (as the Chinese might say) both crisis and opportunity — or, more precisely, both our charm and our curse.
Our eyes have always been on the future, not the past. We’ve ignored the past — not such a wise practice, as we have seen repeatedly — but we have built shining futures: a frontier future, then an industrial future, now an information future. When people say America is no longer the land of the future, they are forgetting that we already have had more futures than any people on earth. Who is to say we don’t have one more in us, or more?
This historical forgetfulness is one of our national character flaws. We forget, for example, that most of Asia once was colonized too, just as we were. We forget that Asia, like America, once was ransacked by Europeans avaricious for natural resources and on the prowl for hungry markets. We forget that Asians, like Americans, defined themselves simply: We are not Europeans.
Now we are ascribing to Asians the important traits we think we need today, having forgotten that they were ours in the first place. This became clear last week when Time magazine identified five things Americans needed to learn from China. Let’s not pick on Time here; the editors of the newsmagazine are right — admirably right — to argue that we would do well to be ambitious, prize education, attend to the elderly, save more money and look to the future.
But these are not foreign ideas. They’re our ideas, or have been for a good part of our short time as a country. The suggestion that they are alien tells us how little we understand ourselves — and how far we have drifted from the anchors of Americanism. Let’s look at them briefly:
- Be ambitious
That’s the key to Americanism. Whether in colonial times or our own, few have come to America with small ambitions. One of the most useful cliches of the colonial period was that dukes didn’t emigrate. America was the world’s first enterprise zone, a congenial locale for second sons and others who wanted to dream big, think big and build big. President Johnson is not often remembered for his elegeic views, but he expressed this American ambition when he spoke of seeking “the star that is not reached.”
- Education matters
It always has here. Americans planted schools on their soil before there even was a United States, and Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann sowed ideas about public schools that sustain us still. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, adopted before the Constitution, provided for land sales to support public education. Amid the upheaval of the Civil War, Congress and Abraham Lincoln still managed to create a network of land-grant colleges that remain the envy of the world.
- Look after the elderly
This we have not always done so well, in part because the mobility of our society — first the move to the United States, then the flood west, then the internal immigration prompted by industrialization — separated families and generations. But because we all are immigrants, we all have an Old Country (Native Americans excepted, of course), and we all have reverence for the pioneering strivers who first came to this land and who suffered and worked to build a better life and a stronger country. At times in the 19th and 20th centuries, multi-generational families were common, and the loss of that tradition has resulted in a loss of connection to the past. (The advent of the nursing home may seem an improvement — until you are sent to one or visit one.)
- Save more
We were frugal once, even amid great national wealth. We once reused wood and nails, and we saved pennies and dollars. We did that because, despite the munificence of this land, we understood the caprice of the economy, and of life. In colonial times, natural resources were bountiful, but manufactured goods and finery were rare; they were saved. Only a few years ago, our streets and stores were full of people who had experienced the full fury of the Great Depression. These survivors of hard times husbanded their savings and found a second use for everything; it is not uncommon to see people of this generation wash and reuse common plastic bags. Earlier Americans recycled at a time when the word “green” meant nothing more than a color.
- Look over the horizon
It was an American, Robert Goddard, who looked over the horizon, quite literally, and invented modern rocketry, building on a tradition of tinkering that dated back 11 centuries to the experiments of Chinese alchemists. It was an American who saw the neutrino, the Van Allen Belts, the forward pass and the McDonald’s hamburger. We know how to do this.
Now to what we can learn.
We’re good at reinventing ourselves and, despite the F. Scott Fitzgerald aphorism, at providing second acts to American lives. We know the old-fashioned values. But the goal in the 21st century — the Chinese Century, if we are not careful — must be to reinvent ourselves by seeing the virtues in the values we think are so old fashioned, the values the Chinese think are relevant to our times.
The argument here isn’t that China doesn’t have a lot to teach us. China has an awful lot to teach us. And what it can teach us is that the tools it is using to forge ahead in the 21st century are the very tools Americans used in the 19th and 20th centuries. The tools for success going forward are not foreign. They are our own. We should remember that, and use them.