Thursday, August 09, 2007

Our Superiority Complex,2933,292670,00.html,9171,1651502,00.html

I haven't written here in a while. Mostly because I have been caught up in my own culture clash of sorts. I married my Brazilian fiancee April 14th. No, we don't clash that much. But the cultural differences do keep life interesting. Certain recent events, however, brought to mind something I've been thinking about for a long time.

When you write about culture like this, you get a lot of nasty critiques. I have been slammed for talking about issues with plumbing and things in countries like Ghana or Mexico. Some of these critics were Americans. They think it makes the country sound like Third World. I've got news for you -- it is Third World. Although these days, people from those countries prefer the term "developing world" so I will at least cede them that point. But it's funny to me when Americans get so defensive about another culture. After all, Americans more than anyone are pompous about our own Superiority. We so often take comfort and pride in our own successes, even if its unspoken. And even if we think we don't look down on other countries for their "developing" problems, somehow inside I suspect we all feel a bit smug and pleased that our own nation doesn't have the same issues.

That's why it's interesting to me to see what's happened in New York City this week, and in Minneapolis as well with the Interstate bridge. Whether you have ever been there or not, native New Yorker or not, New York is without a doubt a proud achievement of our country. It is one of the world's great cities, and, as such, a big icon for our nation and our culture. Think of the influence it has -- in the arts, in journalism, television, infrastructure... Two of the leading current Presidential candidates are from New York and there are rumors that a third might throw his hat into the ring, too!

When I travel around the world, people always know New York, even if they don't know Saint Louis or other cities. They know the "big apple." And they know America takes pride in her. So here we are, all superior and proud, and New York is looking a lot like the developing world this week. Subways and airports delayed for hours by flooding. Infrastructure torn up by heavy winds and a tornado. Ok, so the tornado is a natural disaster which can't be helped, but what about the flooding?

Saint Louis has similar problems when we get heavy rain. A few years ago, flooding submerged major portions of downtown. There are still neighborhoods that flood when we get more than a few inches of rain. And Highway 64-40 is like driving on a lake every time we get rain of more than a few minutes. In El Paso, flooding left people stranded on a major interstate last Fall and it is happening again this year with the rains. They have neighborhoods and intersections which regularly flood. Standing in El Paso, you can look across and see the differences in infrastructure with Juarez, Mexico just across the way. And it can make you feel proud or perhaps a bit superior. But if we are so superior, why can't our infrastructure stand up to a little water? How can heavy runs shut down major interstates, flood entire neighborhoods and shut down public transportation?

And then there're our bridges. A report in Time magazine (linked above) reports that we are in big trouble all over the country, because governments have not spent money on maintenance, instead prefering shinier, more high profile new projects. And the results are a collapsed bridge in Minneapolis, several deaths, and many other infrastructure problems every year which are less catastrophic but, given the right circumstances (what if bad infrastructure prevented your escape from a terrorist attack, for one) could be just as problematic.

You might argue that infrastructure withstands many and most situations but extreme ones can always arise beyond its capacity. You might argue that engineers are always working to make improvements and find new ways to prevent such problems. All of that is well and good. But I would argue that we're not as different from these "developing" places as we'd like to think we are, especially in such moments, and it does us a lot of good to be in that situation. All of us need to be humbled from time to time. And I think being reminded that even our own developed nation is not above problems is a good equalizer.

Maybe we can be less cocky when we go to places that seem to have less to brag about. Maybe we won't feel like we have it so much better. This would do international relations a lot of good. And it would promote better understanding. Because any time we focus on commonalities and see ourselves as more alike than different, deepened understanding and better communication can always result. When we approach things from the angle of feeling superior, that's when we create barriers and distance that separate us from others.

It's certainly something to think about. For what it's worth...

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