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The Lessons of History | The Nation

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The Lessons of History

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One final example of Americans exporting their cultural baggage will suffice. One day in Athens we, along with a score of others, largely American, were taking a tour of the Parthenon. As the guide was explaining the history of the ancient structure, one American woman who asked another person in her party if that was the Athens Hilton Hotel that they could see from the Parthenon. When the reply was in the affirmative, the woman said that she much preferred to return to the hotel and would attempt to get one of her stories--read soap operas--on television. I very much doubt that the Athens Hilton carried American televised soap operas, and I am certain that the other people on the tour had notions about the level of her interest in Greek history and culture, since everyone on the tour who understood English was made aware of her cultural preferences.

Historian John Hope Franklin delivered the Arthur M.
Schlesinger, Jr. Lecture at the New-York Historical Society on October 17. It is published here as part of The Nation's ongoing Moral Compass series, highlighting the spoken word.

About the Author

John Hope Franklin
John Hope Franklin is the James B. Duke professor emeritus of history at Duke University and for seven years was...

These incidents add up to a very distorted picture of the American abroad, ugly or not. I have often wondered how many Turks--or, indeed, how many people anywhere--harbored some hostility or animosity toward the people of the United States on the basis of the boorishness, crudity, or all too conspicuously rich Americans traveling abroad. As some of the British observers described American soldiers during World Wear II: "Overpaid, over sexed, and over here!" Perhaps these views of Americans are distorted, exaggerated, even inaccurate. They, nevertheless, contribute to the overall opinion of Americans that so many elsewhere hold, and that inform and shape their positions and policies where Americans are concerned.

These attitudes are reinforced by official policies that we pursue. When I was a delegate to the Belgrade UNESCO conference in l980, I was proud to see the United States as a normal participant in a world policy-making body for nurturing and fostering cultural, educational, and scientific policies and practices for the benefit of mankind in general. Four years later the United States had withdrawn from UNESCO; and for eighteen long years we had no palpable connection with the one international body that had been created for the specific purpose of promoting the common good, based on man's intelligence and his commitment to improving his well-being at every level. After a long hiatus we rejoined that world body and hopefully we will remain full and active participants in this important international organization. Only then can we effectively and constructively criticize and assist countries whose health, educational, and cultural policies appear to us to be out of line with what we think they should be.

This leads me to wonder if our imperiousness and our aloofness are the most effective ways to move our own agenda forward, if indeed our agenda is worthy of such consideration. Meanwhile, we have steadfastly declined to participate jointly and constructively in the search for solutions to problems that are very important, even critical to the future of the world in which we hope to live. Just think of the several critical areas in which we take no position or are opposed to any action or ignore them altogether. For years the United States has steadfastly refused to ratify the treaty that would control and ultimately eliminate the use of land mines that result in the killing and maiming of thousands of innocent human beings each year. For what reason do we turn our backs on eliminating weapons that kill children and other innocents? Could it be that United States manufacturers make and sell more land mines than any other country? Moreover, we simply ignore the signs that indicate that the entire globe is gradually warming. If we do nothing to control the emission of deadly gases for which we are more responsible than any other country on the planet, we shall be engulfed in such a catastrophic destruction of our planet to the point that it will no longer be inhabitable. Indeed, we shy away from any movements or proposals that provide some semblance of environmental protection or control over pollution of the places we inhabit, presumably in the mistaken belief that our resources are without limit. Consequently, we need not fear their exhaustion within the lifetime of the planet, and therefore we do nothing about it!

Although the United States adheres to the general principle of international courts of justice, this country has refused to agree to a court that will try citizen soldiers of this country for violations of the laws of the wars in which they participate and stand accused of criminal acts. In other words it is quite all right to try military personnel from other countries for violating the law, but citizens of the United States must remain above the law and must remain immune from prosecution for allegedly violating the law. It is most difficult to see how the United States can function in an international environment if it exempts itself from the laws that it expects other nations to obey.

Then, there is the matter of our participation in the United Nations as a full-fledged, dues-paying member. When the United Nations came into being in l945, many of us hoped that it would be the peace-keeping body of all times. And the prospects for its playing such a role were bright indeed. We remembered our own isolationist role in the old League of Nations, following World War I, and we seemed determined that we would not be guilty of doing that again. There would be difficulties, of course, since member-nations represented every conceivable view and philosophy on the political spectrum. When the senior United States senator from North Carolina, Jesse Helms, became chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, the United Nations was immediately targeted as an object of disdain. It was criticized for its policies and activities. When the international body did not bend to the wishes of Senator Helms, the United States began to withhold its dues. Within a few years the United States was millions of dollars in arrears in its dues at a time when we were becoming more critical and more demanding of the United Nations. After several years of isolationist obstruction, Senator Helms relented somewhat; and the United States began to make some payments on its delinquent account. Even so, this country remained in arrears for some years to the extent of more than 800 million dollars, that was finally paid. Meanwhile, this country remained active and relentlessly critical before and after we paid our dues.

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