Executive Perspective

Unpacking Our Luggage

by Paul D. Houston

One of the most frustrating things to encounter when traveling by air is lost luggage. This is particularly true when we are far from home. No toiletries, no clean underwear. It’s no fun. It has happened to me and those around me and it isn’t pretty. Yet it is a temporary inconvenience. The luggage usually shows up. If not, it is a great excuse to go buy some new duds.

But one of the best things about international travel is returning home, a place you know and a place where you have clean underwear. As an American, I think this always has always been true for me. We are all Dorothy underneath — home is where the heart is and there is no place like home. And, I believe, there is no place like America. I love the Italian food and the South African wine. I enjoy the sights of the Andes and the exotic street scenes of Asia, but it is great to get a real American burger and see the vast beauty of our country.

Further, I always have found pride in being an American. We are, after all, the land of the free and the home of the brave. We are No. 1. We are a source of hope to the world. We are all that and a bag of chips — at least we think we are, and to a great extent we have been.

A Darker Perspective
During the last few years, I have found it harder and harder to feel the same sense of pride I used to feel. Some would say I have joined the “America Haters” club, but therein lies a part of the problem. The insistence that it is America’s way or the highway, and “if you are not with us, you’re against us” has tarnished America’s image around the world. I don’t hate my country, I love it. And it is because I love it that I worry for it.

Some would argue America never has been liked around the world. That is simply not the case. We have been admired and sometimes envied. Others certainly expressed worry. But it was only the extremists in disparate locations who hated us. More often we were seen as the shining example of what was possible and viewed as a beacon of hope and freedom. We were the place people flocked to so they could find a new life and new possibilities. We set the example for the rest of the world to follow.

Yes, we were richer and stronger than anyone else and that created envy. And sometimes, like a teenager who has grown so fast he bumps around getting used to his new body, we banged into others with our power. Sometimes, we weren’t as sensitive as we should have been. Yet we constrained ourselves from using our power against weaker countries, and we were much more often the protectors of the weak. Now we are increasingly seen as arrogant bullies who are narcissistic and uncaring about others. In a few years I have gone from experiencing people coming up to me on the street to tell me how much they love America to having people say, rather matter of factly, they hate America.

Americans were always seen as a bit bigger than others, a bit louder than others and a bit more confident than others. Not everyone liked that, but they forgave us for it. We were the country that saved Europe twice and rebuilt it after World War II. We were the only country after World War II that had the bomb and didn’t use it to intimidate or conquer other countries. We were the country that jumped in when tragedy struck another place. Now we are looked at with fear and seen as a people who would rather fight than talk and who can’t even follow our own ideals.

On my recent trip to Romania, a 23-year-young man told me he thought Americans overreacted to threats. He couldn’t understand why a country with our resources worried so much about what small groups or small countries might do to us. He suggested it was because we had never felt war and oppression directly, so we didn’t know how to put things in perspective. I don’t know whether he is right or wrong. It is politics above my pay grade, but it is interesting to consider.

Threatening Traits
But something else worries me more. While we have become more and more arrogant, we have less and less to be arrogant about. You can spot Americans overseas, not just by the accent and the clothes but by how large we have gotten. We seem to be No. 1 in calorie consumption. We have become the Jabba the Huts of international relations. And while folks in the countries I have visited the last few years all uniformly seem friendly and welcoming (despite how they may feel about Americans), each time I return to the United States I run into sullen airport workers, uncaring and unhelpful service workers and an overall sense of malaise. It feels sometimes as if our entire country got up on the wrong side of the bed.

When I visit schools in other countries I see they are not as good as ours overall, but the students seem more focused on learning and the curriculum seems more well-rounded. One must wonder how much longer we can sustain our place in the world with a bad attitude, coercive national policies and narrowed possibilities for our children.

Yes, we face economic threats from India and China, terrorist threats from Islamic extremists and cultural threats from every side. But the biggest threats we face are from our own tendencies to be fat, lazy and self-satisfied. There is some baggage we need to lose and we could start with our inflated sense of self-importance and our simple belief that telling others we are No. 1 will make it so.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.