Leaving Empire: The Risks of American Insularity

Up until very recently, I did not know that the United States invaded Panama in December of 1989 (in my defense, I was only six and the United States has invaded a lot of countries). I only happened to stumble upon this particular incident because I was reading about Panama in preparation for a trip there. The Central American republic, I learned, has some great surfing beaches, bizarrely colored frogs, and a memorial constructed in honor the thousands of civilians who were killed during George H.W. Bush’s “Operation Just Cause.” This military campaign, my guidebook informed me, liberated Panamanians from the reign of General Noriega, brought democracy to the nation, and protected US citizens from the threat posed by the small, tropical isthmus.

As we approach the 20th anniversary of Operation Just Cause this December, one might think that the poetic power of smooth, whole numerals would provide us with a reasonable occasion to meditate on the contemporary relevance of the invasion. There is, after all, an eerie, almost genetic resemblance between George H.W. Bush’s stated motivations for invading Panama, and George W. Bush’s stated motivations for invading Iraq and Afghanistan.

Keeping tabs on the thematic redundancy with which the United States government has marketed its calls for regime change over the years would appear to be a responsible activity for American citizens, given the fact that our nation has its imperial tentacles wrapped all over the planet. But I have never seen a “Remember Panama” sign at a protest, and, as I have confessed, until a few weeks ago, I would not have known what such a sign meant. Whenever Panama is discussed in the media, it is in order to advise Americans to go there and spoil their unspoiled beaches (hence, my initial interest in the country).

On the one hand, the fact that I didn’t know about Operation Just Cause could be considered a minor intellectual offense—a missed trivia question, perhaps. But as I packed my bags I began to think that there might be some sociological significance to my ignorance. It is strange, is it not, that I nearly visited a country without having a clue that my own country had, relatively recently, set it on fire and flipped it upside down? This reflection became increasingly poignant as I began to suspect that I wasn’t the only one with a foggy historical memory.

Are We Stupid?

To follow up on my suspicion, before leaving I decided to ask Americans of my generation what they knew about modern US-Panamanian relations. A pattern quickly began to emerge: they knew absolutely nothing. No one I talked to was aware of Operation Just Cause, and when I told people about it and asked them if they had a sense as to why the United States might have launched such an invasion, not a single interviewee had any idea. Something about FARC? The Iran-Contra scandal? Pinochet? Che Guevara? Isn’t Panama an island? It was clear that these college-educated twentysomethings (myself among them) possessed a sense that Latin America did, in fact, exist, and that sometimes things happened down there; but from my research I can safely conclude that, generally speaking, my generation knows very little about what goes on in the Western Hemisphere beyond the bounds of our nation, even when it is our nation that is creating all the chaos.

As I boarded my plane for Panama, with a connecting flight departing from, of all places, Houston’s Bush International Airport, visions of interesting frogs and secluded beaches began to recede in my mind as I became fixated on what seemed to be a disturbingly justified question about the citizens of the United States: Are we, um, stupid?

When I arrived in Panama, I made my way over to Bocas del Toro, an insanely beautiful and ethnically diverse archipelago in the Caribbean that is popular among young, conspicuously bohemian backpackers from all over the world. I spent two weeks there snorkeling with Argentineans, spelunking with Israelis, surfing with Americans, sloshing through rainforest mud with Canadians, dancing with Panamanians, singing with Spaniards, getting drunk with Norwegians, getting drunk with Germans, getting drunk with Australians, and searching (unsuccessfully) for very tiny poison-dart frogs with members of the indigenous Ngöble-Buglé tribe. From these experiences, I arrived at several unscientific conclusions regarding the theme of American Ignorance.

1. We’re not stupid—we’ve done some pretty smart things over the years—but we are, despite being a nation of immigrants, remarkably insular. The idea that we are ignorant is a perception that refers not to our adeptness with math or metaphysics, but rather to what seems to be our nebulous cognizance of the world around us, as measured in comparison to the global awareness possessed by average citizens of other Western nations.

2. Americans are, as a whole, less globally aware than average citizens of other Western nations.

3. The rest of the Western world views global travel as an investment, rather than a luxury. Accordingly, many of these countries make it possible for their citizens, even in tough economic times, to take time out of their lives at home to travel or volunteer abroad.

4. The United States lacks the will and the cultural infrastructure that would make this possible, and so, as a result, we stay at home more.

5. There is almost always a correlation between the amount one knows about the world and the extent to which one has traveled through it.

6. America would be wise to take a cue from these other countries and reorient its priorities in such a way that would value a citizenry that is familiar with the planet.

Although these findings should be qualified by the natural limitations of a statistically insignificant sample pool, and by the fact that I was quite inebriated during many of my conversations, it is worth mentioning that almost every American I spoke with in Panama, regardless of their college diploma or lack thereof, was indeed aware of the fact that our home country had aggressively violated the territorial sovereignty of an impoverished paradise so that George H.W. Bush could show everyone back home that he wasn’t a “wimp.”

Rescuing the Humanity of Places”

I feel little obligation to “prove“ that global travel is an educational experience, as the idea seems sufficiently self-evident. Seeing the world inevitably widens one’s worldview. Essayist and novelist Pico Iyer delves into the political implications of this transformative experience in his famous essay “Why We Travel.” In this piece, Iyer writes that travel is “the best way we have of rescuing the humanity of places.” He compares the ecstasy and edification of soulfully connecting with people from other countries to the experience of falling in love. “Travel is a two-way transaction,” he observes, “and if warfare is one model of the meeting of nations, romance is another.”

This compelling illumination is founded upon the commonsense philosophy that befriending someone often makes it more difficult to kill them. Collateral damage becomes murder if you love, in an Iyerian sense, the collateral. And so, what travel can do to prevent war (or, at the very least, what travel can do to help us remember war when it does happen), is enable us to directly empathize with people that would otherwise be mired in abstraction. In this manner, travel turns cartography into humanity; it makes the world more real, and, in so doing, it makes us less ignorant about our position in it.

Our lack of adventurism is no one’s “fault,” per se, but it is undoubtedly our loss. We deprive both our minds and our souls by confining ourselves to the indifference of insularity. Travel is, in more ways than one, a form of transcendence, a way to meld into something larger, something greater and more colorful and chaotic than our domestic agendas. Travel imparts one with the indelible impression that something is out there. That something may not be the existence of God, but it is certainly the existence of the rest of the world, for it has been proven, empirically, that the world exists, and it can be argued that it is not only intellectually, but also spiritually edifying to tap into this greater form of being. As national borders recede, the spiritual self can expand. The confusion, despair, and exultation of life abroad makes the twinkle of the stars seem more mysterious and awe-inspiring at home. Something is out there, and you have to see it to believe it. Luckily, with planet Earth, unlike other sources of spiritual sustenance, you can see it.

If these are some of the reasons why “we,” as a species, benefit from travel, then these same motivations could be used to explain why “we,” as a nation, must travel. The fact is, the United States is not merely an insular country; we are an insular empire, and this is a dangerous paradox. We export our culture, our economy, and our military abroad, yet our gaze remains fixed inward, staring up at a gap in the New York City skyline, wondering why they (without knowing who “they” are) hate us.

In the past decade alone, our international news coverage has been whittled down by 70 percent, and Americans are now more likely to know what Barack Obama’s children are wearing than the name of the prime minister of Canada. American politicians incessantly squabble over what “America’s role in the world” should be, but how can we answer this question if we don’t understand—on a fundamental human level—that the world exists, that it is real, and that it is continually blooming and exploding all around us? Our media have failed in their responsibility to provide a window to the world. What they offer instead is a trick mirror, a distorted reflection of ourselves. If we Americans want to get a sense of what is really happening out there and how it affects us in here, then we’re going to have to pack our bags, get that passport, buy that ticket, and see it all with our own eyes. This may be a challenging proposition, especially amid an economic downturn, but it is our absolute obligation as the world’s sole—if teetering—superpower. If we want to be in the driver’s seat of a globalized planet, we must know where the road is.

Saving the World from the United States

Last week, Sarah Palin, a woman who has scarcely left the confines of this country, has shared the headlines with our president, the Kansan-Kenyan-black-white-Hawaiian-Indonesian-American, who has just returned from a whirlwind tour of Asia. Sarah Palin and Obama may or may not face off in 2012, but whether or not such a spectacular drama unfolds, the often-disguised clash between nationalism and cosmopolitanism will undoubtedly find a way to rear its ugly head in the national debate. Sarah Palin is emblematic of the dangers of a prideful insularity, but she is just one person. Her lack of knowledge about and interest in the rest of the world is not a liability so long as this glorified ignorance, in which obliviousness is championed as patriotic normal-American-ism, is shared by a sizeable portion of the electorate. To save the world from the United States, and to save the United States from itself, engaged Americans must be encouraged to travel not only door-to-door, but also country-to-country.

Upon returning to the United States from my trip to Panama earlier this month, I was amazed at how dramatically the rest of the world disappeared. As soon as I stepped inside Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, I left Panama and the global village on the plane, and I stood there, insulated, at the gate. It was official, I was in the United States, I was no longer in the world, and I had nothing tangible to remember my trip by but the sting of a sunburn, a few out-of-focus photographs, and a travel journal filled with manic epiphanies written in garbled Spanish. Pico Iyer is right: travel is like falling in love. That being the case, coming home to a nation that sees itself as the ultimate, if not the only, destination can make a person unbearably lovesick.

As I wheeled my luggage toward the humiliation of customs, I thought about all of the people I had met during my trip. I thought about how special they were to me, how much they had changed me, and how very inaccessible our experiences now seemed. My heart began to split open with a loneliness that only the entire world could fill, and I paused for a minute to glance up at a television. CNN’s (former anchor) Lou Dobbs happened to be on the screen, with an electronic American flag waving sanctimoniously—like a threat—behind him. He was talking, as is his habit, about illegal aliens. Aliens, I thought to myself, how fitting. I could not imagine a more offensively appropriate way to be welcomed home to the self-proclaimed center of the universe.

Last week, in what was for me a remarkably profound coincidence, Mr. Dobbs was pressured to resign from CNN. Let us hope and pray that his resignation is part of a broader movement to break all the borders that divide us, and to understand that aliens simply do not exist on this small, shared planet of ours.