Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The only superpower?


“Today the United States of America is the only superpower.  It is the world’s largest economy and leads the world in agriculture, hi-tech industry, education, health care and space exploration.”

I came across that quote on a map of the United States at the beginning of my time in Europe.  I had just moved to France to work as an English language teaching assistant in public high school.  My roommate, another “Assistante Américaine,” brought this map with her as a teaching aid.  Before presenting the map to her class, she was smart enough to cover this statement with a discrete sheet of paper.
    That a publishing company actually produced such material to be displayed in classrooms surprised me.  I suppose it shouldn’t—as evidenced by the map itself, there are people in America who do think that way.  The only superpower.  Ha!  My American dollars were worth less than sixty percent of their value when I arrived in Europe at the end of September; they are worth even less now.  The map, published in 2004 by The Really Useful Map Company, was printed in—guess where—China.  And, oddly enough, the map company lists its address as being in the U.K.  So, case in point: America has other superpower friends. 
    Unfortunately, Americans do have an international reputation of being a bit, well, self-centered.  And the French, in particular, enjoy calling attention to this.  Ironically, and sometimes comically, France and America can be like two contentious siblings: so preoccupied with picking on each other that they overlook their core similarities.  Here we have two countries, both essentially democracies, that are developed nations with relatively strong capitalist economies.  And, plus, we kind of bonded during World War II.

Scene: French café, mid-afternoon.  A native Parisian approaches. 
    French person: You talk with a funny accent.  Are you English?
    Me:  No, I’m American.
    French person: American!  Points accusingly. George Bush!
Me: Well…actually, there are other Americans, you know, besides just him.
French person: Oh! The accent!  You Americans, you cannot speak very good French!
Me:  French, huh?  It’s French you speak around here, isn’t it.  Not… German?  Hey!  That reminds me of something…
French person: (Silent, dejectedly slinks away to a dark corner.  Lights a cigarette.)

Of course, it’s not always that way. Sometimes it’s worse: following the shooting at Northern Illinois University, Erica Goldberg, a NIU alumna who currently lives in France, was told that she should have “expected something like this to happen.”  The man who told her this laughed as he said it.  While it’s one thing to criticize America’s policy on gun control, it’s another thing to just be a complete asshole. 
    That being said, for every rude person I have come across during my time in France, I have met dozens who are kind, polite, and welcoming.  After all, I wouldn’t want someone to judge my country by the overweight redneck tailgater who considers himself politically motivated because he a) watches Bill O’Reilly, and b) proudly displays his copy of The World is Flat on the coffee table because, having not read it, he doesn’t know that Thomas Friedman is not the Bush administration’s biggest fan.
    So let’s operate on the basis that countries reserve the right to be judged on their best people, their best accomplishments, their best cultural endeavors and best humanitarian efforts.  In that respect, France—and America too—are good countries.  We have many differences that are worth exploring, particularly on the brink of a presidential election.  Candidates on all sides are calling for a re-evaluation of policies on health care, the environment, secularization, and immigration. 
Maybe, as a citizen of the “Only Superpower,” there is something for me to learn while living in France.  Because there’s this thing called the European Union, and I’d bet my weak American dollar that it’s got some international clout.

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