Saturday, August 9, 2008

America, America

If you haven’t yet read Fareed Zakaria’s Post-American World, you should. In fact, this book should be required reading for anyone who wants to weigh in with social criticism of contemporary America. Zakaria, an editor for Newsweek, is one of the most astute observers of global society writing today, and he writes with insight and wisdom that seeks to separate the “hype” from the facts. In my previous post about “optimism” in American society, I referenced Zakaria along with David Brooks of the New York Times. The perspective of both these men is surprisingly helpful and necessary, especially with all the negative noise being raised by talk radio and talk television. While there are many problems and much to criticize about American society, the country really is still filled with triumph and promise. It is still that “shining city upon a hill.” There is a reason it is still the most desired destination for people seeking to emigrate. Even as other countries make great progress – and we should applaud their efforts and successes – America is still the place to be.

Zakaria is quick to point out that his reference to a “post-American world” is not about the decline of America but instead about “the rise of the rest.” When an excerpt from the first chapter was published in Newsweek, there were many voices – doubtless few of them had actually read the article – that were quick to criticize Zakaria’s contempt for America. However, a negative few of America is just about the last thing anyone can expect from Zakaria. It’s not that American companies and workers are suddenly failing, it’s that for the first time in the modern era, many other countries can actually compete. It’s not that American students are suddenly ignorant, unskilled, and illiterate. The best of our best still compete at the top of the scale with the best of the rest. Sadly, this is hard for many Americans to accept – that we can’t dominate with no competition for the rest of the history. When half of the graduate students in America are foreign born, people gasp. Yet, it’s unrealistic to think that all the best graduate students should only be American. Americans should be proud that their universities are the first choice of the world’s best and brightest, and they should hope these students choose to stay here as well.

From iPods to aircraft carriers, America is still on the cutting edge of human progress. Though we gripe about our obstacles, we are still the world’s premier superpower. Read this book, and you will come to understand that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, “the news of [America’s] death has been greatly exaggerated.”

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