What we do not know: The betrayal of our values

I returned to the US in June after living a year living in Ireland. Many people have naturally asked, “What was it like? How was it different? What did you learn?”

It’s hard to know where to begin. I may have learned as much about myself and my home country as about Ireland, or other countries I’ve visited. And, mostly, if I learned anything, it was how much I don’t know about other people and places. As Confucius says: “To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.”

Our Hollywood Self-Image

But one specific thing I’ve become more aware of is a gap between what most Americans conceive as their moral stance on the world and what many abroad see as our actual practice. I suspect that many of us in the US identify with Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He’s decent, naive, idealistic, earnest, fair, caring, and above all honest, embodying all the American small town values. He’s not sophisticated or slick, but he’s the kind of person you’d like to have as a friend or trust for political leadership. Mr. Smith asks us to adhere to “just one, plain, simple rule: Love thy neighbor” and reminds us that “there’s no compromise with the truth.”

What’s interesting today is that many abroad would also identify with Mr. Smith. And they admire the US for modeling his values, offering hope for other countries. They recall our promotion of the Kellogg-Briand pact, the struggle against authoritarian regimes, the Nuremburg trials, the United Nations, the Geneva Conventions, as concrete examples of how we have stood for truth, peace, courage, and justice, just as Mr. Smith might have wanted. Their values are our values; their people are our people.

But then, we part ways, because of something many Americans do not know.

Betrayal of Democratic Values

Although basic values are shared far more than most people realize, much of the world sees one nation as betraying those values. That nation is more akin to Senator Joseph Paine in the movie, a man with a polished image, but underneath corrupt and power-hungry. They see that nation defending torture, illegal renditions, bombing of civilians (see Slaughter, Lies, and Video in Afghanistan), military occupations, and capital punishment; they see it as selfish and uncharitable, arrogant, bullying, and they see it lying.

Americans ask, “why don’t people abroad share our democratic values?” The answer is that most of the world does share what we think of as American values. They also know of real Americans, not just characters in movies, who exemplify honesty, fairness, and even love of neighbor.

Many around the world believe that their own countries fall short of those values, but they once took comfort in the belief that the US stood for something better: Mr. Smith, not Senator Paine. They’re distressed now to see the US act the villain role time after time. It is the betrayal of so-called American values that has cost the US the respect and admiration it once held around the world.

As a nation, we don’t travel much; we don’t read foreign newspapers; we don’t speak other languages. Our news media is amazingly oblivious to the larger world. So, we go along, imagining ourselves in the starring role as the home-town hero, who may not be worldly, but is full of basic goodness. We gamely accept that we must deal with people who haven’t acquired our noble ideals and need our guidance.

The problem is that we don’t stop to see how our actions belie our words. We don’t even know that we don’t know this. We don’t realize that we are the ones who need to learn how to live up to the very ideals we profess.

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