What ‘Us Versus Them’ Looks Like Beyond America’s Borders

Myopic views hurt us much more than they help

New Voices fellows from The Aspen Institute meet in Johannesburg last month during The OpEd Project's “Write to Change the World” seminar. (Rachael Strecher/The Aspen Institute)
New Voices fellows from The Aspen Institute meet in Johannesburg last month during The OpEd Project's “Write to Change the World” seminar. (Rachael Strecher/The Aspen Institute)
Posted March 2, 2017 at 5:05am

The problem is not “fake news.” It’s not enough news.

That point was made crystal clear during a trip this past week to South Africa, where a brief glance at the international programming on cable channels served as a corrective eye-opener. It was full of news and features barely glimpsed on many U.S. channels, and, in truth, they probably would not be ratings grabbers.

In the U.S., we are instead fed a diet of Beltway political intrigue and reports on the country’s partisan divide, with mere moments of in-depth reporting on what America can learn from other countries. In this narrative, “foreigners” are takers, not givers, and America has all the answers. We so often see “them” through the lens of “us.”

America has never been very good at acknowledging ideas and people beyond its borders, particularly from what is still referred to, with heaps of condescension, as the Third World — where too often the conventional narrative sketchily outlines mysterious places of disease, dysfunction and terrorist threats.

That myopic view hurts much more than it helps.

There are challenges, yes, unique to every country, and that includes the U.S. But slogans touting “America First” and closed borders only work if you ignore global reality and the fact that everyone is already connected in ways sometimes difficult to imagine. That lesson was reinforced for me while interacting with leaders — from across the world — on how to best communicate their revelatory work on issues from medical innovation in fighting disease to agricultural and environmental research that ensures food security.

As a senior leader for The OpEd Project’s “Write to Change the World” program, I spent days with a roomful of Aspen Institute New Voices fellows who have been changing the world across borders. They realize that sharing ideas with other game-changers, especially those from seemingly unrelated areas of expertise, might unlock solutions.

These leaders hailed from 12 countries across several continents — from Kenya and Tunisia, Nepal and Nigeria, India and the United States and more. They have studied in universities around the world, including in the U.S. And they persevere with passion.

What they do has the potential to be translated into every language and location as countries try to figure out what works when confronting society’s challenges, often against the odds.

A northern African nonprofit that reaches young people through arts, culture, sports and technology, inspiring those in marginalized communities to become social and political leaders, could be a model for the disaffected in communities on the other side of the world.

The same could be said for a program in Asia that teaches rural communities how to use renewable energy for sustainable livelihoods. That an “American Idol”-type media campaign is used to celebrate honest civil servants there proves popular culture cannot be contained.

Much of the work has particular relevance in a growing global economy and a shrinking world, where institutions and cultures interact across time zones in ways impossible to calculate. It has and will continue to happen, no matter how many walls are built and how many travel bans are set up. Being mindful of security concerns does not mean retreating to a closed society.

After last November’s election, news crews spread out to points in Midwest America, to what is referred to as the heartland, to talk with “the people,” to record voices and sentiments too often ignored. That gesture seldom extended to America’s urban areas, where residents are reduced to statistics and stereotypes, nor to many corners of the world, where coverage is still often filtered through leaders and official channels. In their hopes and desires for themselves and their children, the people in all those streets and fields have more in common than not.

Something else remains true when an American spends even a little time on the outside looking in. The U.S. is still the important world power that the rest of the world looks to. Even in countries considered not especially friendly, people admire the idea and ideals of America, sometimes grudgingly, but sincerely nevertheless.

All eyes are on America and President Donald Trump. Every conversation, it seems, filled with questions about the country’s allegiances and partnerships and its world leadership role. Is talent from around the world — of every race and faith — still welcome? Will America be teacher and student if it is losing interest and international prestige? There is curiosity and the occasional warning, borne of experience, about how fragile democracy can be and how fiercely it must be guarded.

In his speech to Congress on Tuesday night, the president proudly said: “Each American generation passes the torch of truth, liberty and justice — in an unbroken chain all the way down to the present. That torch is now in our hands. And we will use it to light up the world.”

It is amazing how many still look to that light, and wonder what truths about America in 2017 it will reveal.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.