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Life Arts    H1'ed 9/16/12

How we see others, how they see us

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Message robert wolff
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Americans are perhaps unique in that they are so utterly convinced that they are unique, 

I did not grow up in America; the first Americans I met were Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson -- neither of them listed when I searched the web for "famous singers." I imagine famous is only after World War Two. I was not born an American, but have been one for more than half my life, more than half a century. I never learned to think exceptional, Americans know theirs is the best, the richest, the most powerful country in the world. Americans take it for granted that theirs is perhaps not the only but certainly the truest democracy. Americans cannot believe that other countries have better health services, educational systems, much more modern and well maintained infrastructures, and much faster trains. Most Europeans have six weeks paid vacation.

   For a few years I worked in Malaysia when on the faculty of the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, on a Federal Grant. One day the Embassy asked me to show an important Senator around. I showed the Senator all the usual sights ending up at the new Parliament building on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur (all U's pronounced oo, there is no lump in Lumpur). The building was finished but had not been officially opened. Obviously inspired by the palace and mosque in Brunei. I stopped the car to enjoy the effect of the building in white marble with gold trim, set in a moat among rolling green lawns. The Senator smiled a broad smile and said "It's so good to see American know-how and money at work". I told him that the main architect was Italian, all of it built by Malaysians, and the money was Malaysian and perhaps British; definitely not American. The senator did not believe me. 

For some years the tallest building in the word was in Kuala Lumpur, now it is in Dubai.

These days I've been watching the uproar all over the Muslim world, supposedly to protest yet another ugly movie making fun of Mohammed. I hear Americans say they don't understand the furious reaction to something vague that of course the government had nothing to do with. I see it differently. This sudden explosion of hatred, from Morocco to Indonesia, is an expression of what many people have come to think of America. I've heard people say, "but we gave Egypt three billion dollars." No, we did not give that to Egypt, we gave it to the Egyptian army; not the same thing. Everybody in Egypt, Tunisia, Indonesia, Sudan, Yemen, knows that the tear gas their police uses to control mobs is "made in America".  The whole world knows that we think that we can establish stable democracies (in Afghaniatan and Iraq) by occupying the country. We seem to have forgotten that our democracy was established by getting out from under an occupation. Many people have heard us talk about winning the hearts and minds of people -- with heavily armed soldiers who know nothing of the culture or religion of the region, who do not speak the language and who break into houses in the middle of the night and shoot at anyone who moves? That is winning hearts and minds? The world knows that we talk democracy but what we do is train and arm police and soldiers.

America is very like many Muslim countries in that we accept the idea that the government must control how women dress, what they can and cannot do with their own bodies, who can marry whom. We have an amazing number of laws that control things like the flag, what religious texts can be displayed in public, what children are allowed to see on TV, what words cannot be said on adult TV. Issues that in most other countries are considered not the business of government.

And of course our firm belief that democracy means a two party system.  In most other democracies there are more parties and voting is mandatory. No other democracy that I know of has up to half of registered voters not voting. A two party system is either/or. I have occasionally voted for the third party of the year when neither party stood for what I believed in, but learned that third party votes always are taken away from the more liberal of the two parties.

Americans think they are generous. The U.S. is at the bottom of the list of industrial countries in foreign aid as percentage of GDP with 0.14% in 2003, compared to number one, Norway 0,92%, followed by Denmark 0,84%, the Netherlands 0.81% etc. . (Yes, in Europe the commas and stops are reversed in numbers.) And there is another difference. Probably all other countries ask the receiving country what they need. The US does not ask, we decide what a foreign country needs. Our foreign aid has to be made in America and shipped by American ships/airlines which reduces the value actually received by up to half. I've had experience with foreign aid that did not help but hinder.

Americans cannot believe that other countries have better educational systems (free all through university) , better health systems that cost half of what we pay. Better trains, much better public transportation.

What America excels in is weapons, warships, and planes. And of course advertising. A multi-billion dollar industry, bigger here than in any other country. And junk food, exported all over. And genetically manipulated plants and seeds that are "owned" by Monsanto (illegal in the European Union and Japan). And global warming, climate change denial. And unbelievable racial and religious prejudices. And Hollywood, And Football, played by young men who can play only a few years without permanent incapacitating injuries but in those few years make millions. Are these things what makes us exceptional?

Once I visited a very small island in American Samoa. There is also an independent Samoa: Samoa I Sisifu. I had spent ten years traveling all over the Pacific and SE Asia collecting information about herbs and healing practices surviving from before western medicine. When visiting the Samoan island as a guest of some Public Health people who had official things to do, I announced the welcoming committee that I was not part of the officials, and I was interested in "native healing." A man asked me what I meant. I told him that of course people living as isolated as they were obviously must have found ways to heal wounds, attend a woman giving birth, set a broken bone. Yes, he admitted, of course there were such people on the island. He walked with me around the island introducing me to people who knew herbs that closed and healed wounds, twin sisters who helped women give birth, a man who could set broken bones "straight and strong." When I left, already in the canoe that would take me to the larger boat that would take us back to Pago Pago, my guide ran into the water, giving me a mat, a Samoan custom, thanking me, saying :"You first Palangi tell something us is worth." Palangi means stranger in Samoan, now meaning American. His English may have been limited but the meaning was all too clear. We, white people, Americans, have a hard time seeing "worth" in other people. I think it is important that we know how we are seen by others. Maybe they have a hard time seeing our exceptionalism, our worth.

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robert wolff lived on the Big Island, called Hawai'i

his website is He passed away in late 2015. He was born in 1925, was Dutch, spoke, Dutch, Malay, English and spent time living and getting to know Malaysian Aborigines. He authored numerous books including What it Is To Be Human, (more...)

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