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AUGUST 5, 2008   

America: Love it and leave it

A bumper sticker popular in some circles during the Vietnam War read: America: Love it or leave it. The idea was, of course, that if you didn't like what was going on you should leave the country. The goal was to silence anyone raising questions about American policies and priorities.

After returning last week from a two and a half week European vacation I'm going to suggest a change in the message, to America: Love it and leave it. My goal is not to limit discussion but to make it more productive. I think it would do our country—probably yours too—a great deal of good for every citizen travel to other countries as frequently as possible. Practical considerations of time and money aside, here's why I think it's important:

See things differently

Travel allows you (sometimes forces you) to see your own country/city/neighborhood in a new perspective. You see how others deal with similar problems and opportunities, sometimes better, sometimes worse. The most dramatic example of this from our recent trip through Germany on fast and efficient Deutsche Bahn trains was not that public transportation can work, although that was clear, but that solar and wind power is not experimental and exotic, but practical and pragmatic.

Wind turbines silhouetted against cloudy skyThroughout Germany we regularly saw wind turbines on hilltops, sometimes a lone tower, sometimes a cluster of three, five or seven. According to Wikipedia, in 2007 there were more than 19,000 turbines in use throughout the country.

There may be huge German wind farms somewhere, as seen in parts of the U.S., but it's the multitude of single or small groups of turbines that impressed me. The technology is obviously there. We can do this too, it just takes political will to make it a priority.

Similarly, as the train pulled into any town, small or large, I looked for solar panels on the roofs of houses and was rarely disappointed. It seemed that even the smallest town had one or two houses with rooftop solar collectors. Again, the technology is available now. But technology isn't the most important factor, it's political action. According to the Washington Post, Germany passed a law in 2000 that required utility companies to help develop renewable energy sources (solar, wind, etc.) by buying "green" electricity at higher rates. We could do something similar in the U.S., given the political will.

We can learn...and teach

But as interesting and important as this discussion of renewable energy is, I don't want to lose my main point: travel helps you see things differently. We need more of that, especially because in the United States we often smugly assume that we're the best at everything, from basketball (probably true) to healthcare (definitely not).

There's a lot we can learn from others about how to deal with economic, social and technological concerns, and we should look far and wide for the best solutions. Of course the comparisons sometimes work the other way: I was amazed that in nearly three weeks of travel in Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands we saw very few people of color. In the cities and towns we visited, racial and ethnic diversity was minimal. I'm not sure what to make of this, but I think that American multi-ethnic cities have an energy and vitality not always present in more homogenous ones.

The downside, of course, is that many different cultures sharing the same space can lead to friction and violence. I think that In the U.S. for better or worse we try to deal with this openly. You can find examples of great cooperation as well as serious animosity. Without question our racial history has created tensions that other countries will never experience. The American racial divide is a struggle that won't be over soon, but especially if we elect an African-American president, it's one that may provide useful lessons for the entire world.

So hey everyone, let's learn from each other, OK?

To my fellow Americans:

America: Love it AND leave it


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