One of the hallmarks of the Renaissance was the development of artistic perspective. Previously, artists could not create the appearance of three dimensions in two, which is why medieval artworks often look so flat, unreal and amateurish to our modern eyes.
However, lately, America’s worldview is looking positively medieval.
The catch phrase after the Sept. 11 attacks was, “Why do they hate us?” Missing from such a solipsistic question is perspective. Why do they hate us? Maybe “they” are asking the same question in reverse. Maybe we give “them” good reason to hate us or at least an ample excuse. This idea never crossed the minds of the powers that be, except to discount it as unpatriotic. After all, to a child-like culture such as ours, we are the center of the universe.
It is a fact that the United States is not roundly respected throughout the world. Many envy our wealth and power, but they do not love us because we show them no kindness. We take what we want and ask no questions. Then we paper over the wreckage with excuses and rationalizations hollow to everyone but Americans.
I’m not saying we brought Sept. 11 on ourselves, but it is surely naÃ¯ve to believe we are pure and clean, and anyone against us is evil.
More than an intellectual exercise, it is survival to try to see the world from the perspective of the poor, the downtrodden and those yearning to breathe free.
Sometimes that yearning, when squashed, can energize people in unpleasant ways: Sept. 11 was a malformed cry of global proportions. To misunderstand it would be our curse.
Perspective is about more than knowing our enemies, it is about knowing ourselves. We think we’re the greatest nation, but really we’ve only been lucky enough to steal a continent-sized country at an opportune moment in time.
That time has passed. The United States doesn’t corner the market on innovation, intelligence or human energy. There are billions of clever people commanding more resources than we and chomping at the bit to be one-tenth as successful. They will out-compete us if we cocoon ourselves in a false sense of invincibility. It’s the tortoise and the hare.
Americans are at their best when they are willing to accept a challenge and compete fairly and honestly. We are at our worst when we command, dictate and corrupt the rules to suit ourselves.
This nation is wildly successful because of its ability to change, create and grow. This nation is doomed when it seeks to cash out the wealth it has created, build fences and imprison or kill anyone who disagrees.
Accepting disagreement requires a perspective already present in our national ethos. The First Amendment, the very first, contains the notion that we must hear everyone, listen and consider, compromise and adapt as the populace changes. Such ideas are valuable because they govern a living nation that grows and changes. Yet somehow we’ve reached a point where we pretend the game is over, we’ve won, we should take all the prizes, and no one is allowed to say boo. But the other team is bigger than us.
Americans know in their hearts their perspective is not the only one. Perhaps this nation needs to be born again.
Paul Swider is a USF firstname.lastname@example.org