5/14/03

No Country is an Island

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report


ROCHESTER, MN -- What does the outside world have to teach us here in Rochester, Minnesota?

Not much, say several readers who strongly objected to my comparison last week of Japan to Minnesota, where our state's new "conceal-carry" handgun law makes it easier for law-abiding citizens to carry a loaded handgun. In Japan, gun crime is nonexistent because private gun ownership is banned.

One reader suggested I pack my bags and fly back to Japan to live. Another simply asked why I didn't mention that Japan has big problems too. Its criminal conviction rate is off the charts, its suicide rate is higher than in the United States, and the Japanese constitution, although it is patterned after America's, is really just a showpiece honored in the breach.

If the underlying argument of my correspondents is that the American political
system, based on individual freedom and pluralist democracy, is the best such system
 ever devised and must be rigorously protected from degrading influences, we have no disagreement. I agree, and strongly.

And I presume we all agree with Walt Whitman, who said it better than any of us could: "The peerless power and the splendid eclat of the democratic principle will fill the world with effulgence and majesty far beyond those of past history's kings, or all dynastic sway."

The Global Rochester Test

It's the reflexive resistance to outside ideas and influences that I sensed in some reader mail, that I respectfully take issue with here.

We get into trouble when we define ourselves, as Americans, too much as a unique nation, as the shining city upon a hill. As an island nation basically, standing alone, heroically suffering the lonely burdens of leadership.

In fact, no man is an island, and no country is, either.

Take Rochester, for example. This morning I conducted the Penney's "Global Rochester" Test. That is, I went to the J.C. Penney store at Apache Mall and examined the tags in the first 25 pieces of clothing I saw.

The items bore such brand names as Disney, Dockers, Oshkosh, Stafford, and Van Heusen and they were made in China (5 items), Vietnam (4), the Dominican Republic (3), India (2), Thailand (2), Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Colombia, Nicaragua, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bulgaria, Mexico, and Korea.

Only one in 25 of the items I randomly picked was made in America -- Gold Toe brand socks.

The Minnesota Vikings t-shirts? Made in Korea.

The "I Visited Rochester" coffee mugs? Made in China.

Patchwork Identity

You could go to the Mayo Clinic, to IBM, to any of our shopping malls, our government center, or right down Broadway and find much the same thing. In the Rochester public schools, more than a quarter of the children in some K-12 classes speak English as a second language. This includes a total in all Rochester public schools of 416 speakers of Cambodian, 363 of Spanish, 158 of Serbo-Croation, and 95 Arabic speakers.

The bigger point is, it's not just the kids in our classrooms, the stuff we buy, and the clothes on our backs that comes from abroad.

Our very identity as Americans is a patchwork of international practices and beliefs.

Our most popular religion, Christianity, was born in the Middle East, and its holy book, which is read as a guide to life by millions of Americans, was written there. Our legal system is based on Common Law from England.

Even the notion of liberty that animates so many American patriots, including me, was invented by European intellectuals such as John Locke of England, Baron de Montesquieu of France, and Hugo Grotius of Holland.

American Dream

Our nation's founding fathers believed they were planting the seed of liberty, which began in Enlightenment Europe, in fertile American soil.

Will future dreams of human progress that are born abroad, always continue to find fertile soil in America? That's the question.

If you could turn back its collar, the American Dream would have a tag inside that says "Made in Europe."

It's just that the dream came true, and could only come true, in America.

If we're too quick to label ideas and practices from elsewhere as hopeless, simply because they come from a country whose political system is not as nobly grounded as ours, we'll miss a lot.

So I'll keep watching for ideas from here, there, and everywhere. Even if the label on the inside says "Made in Japan."


Copyright @ 2003 The McGill Report