I just returned from a month-long trip to the USA. The hospitality of the people I visited, whether Anglo-Saxon, Black, Hispanics, Palestinian, Lebanese, Iraqis, Christians, Jews and Moslems
I just returned from a month-long trip to the USA. The hospitality of the people I visited, whether Anglo-Saxon, Black, Hispanics, Palestinian, Lebanese, Iraqis, Christians, Jews and Moslems reflected the kaleidoscopic nature of the US that contributes to its strength as a multicultural society. This hospitality of the people-to-people kind aside, I felt ill at ease during my trip through five different states. As I moved from Indiana to Illinois to Michigan to Maryland and finally to Florida I became increasingly aware of the huge disparities that divide Americans from Americans. These disparities touch on basic living conditions and opportunities: from the squalid tenements of the very poor to the lavish residential palaces of the very rich. Certainly kids growing up in the tenements, irrespective of city of residence, would not be able to compete with the kids living in palaces. The system as such would be against them and all individual will and determination they may have could, and in fact does, come to nothing against the odds of making it into the system. But the concern is not simply for the very poor as I have observed “middle class” neighborhoods that are being pushed downwards due to the high cost of living including health care; insurance schemes, the costs of raising up kids and the simple running of daily life. Yes, I have heard of stories of success amidst extreme odds, such as the Afro-American single mother whose work and friendship association with the Christian Brothers in Chicago, led her to earn higher degrees in nursing thus setting up a model for her own children to follow suit into higher education. But from what I have seen, this and similar stories remain the exception rather than the rule.
While it is so easy to accuse the US society of being a consumer society and hence a society that is losing its soul, the trend towards consumerism is universal and not restricted to the US. Some would like to put the blame for consumerism and its spread on US capitalism but the realities of the global economy would make this an unfair accusation at the present. Nevertheless, what struck me on this trip to the US was that the responses that are given to the challenges of a consumer society suffering from unbridgeable disparities were themselves consumerist. Run by elites, whether in commerce and advertisement, in government, in media, in televangelism and in other areas, it appears that the message sent out is one intended for consumption, often of the quick fix nature, rather than one for attacking the root causes of the phenomena of malaise and disparity in the society. The ideals of the America of yesteryear are more frequently invoked but what one sees all around, including and some would say particularly in the elites running the economy and society, is an absence of a sense of purpose that is holistic for the good of the entire society rather than one focused on particularistic interests and goods. In reality, a comparison of the US with some of the countries of the third world may be an appropriate one; to the disbelief of many I am sure. Elites that run some third world countries do not care except for their own interests fuelled by visions of power, glory and speedy profit. The disparities seen in so many troubled countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East are likewise seen across the US. The responses of the elites are often so similar thus reinforcing each other and in the process rendering the world in need for a sense of direction and purpose.
The US, in spite of its internal disparities and inequities, remains the leading power in today’s world. But the US cannot lead if it does not have a sense of purpose at home and if disparities continue to disadvantage millions of its citizens, particularly the youth. While no magical formula can reinvigorate the American sense of purpose, the challenge is of such a magnitude that processes of a systemic and popular nature need to guide the effort. The demise of the US as a world power, if it were to happen, would not be because of lost battles and wars outside the US but precisely because of its inability to face the challenges of disparities and inequities at home. In such an eventuality not only the American people would lose but all of us as well, I am sure.
Dr. Bernard Sabella is the Executive Director of the Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees for the Middle East Council of Churches.