“America is in decline.”
This is the idea lodged in my brain, condensed down from the mosaic of sources over the past few years. From political science research to talk radio to online news, the focus on how developing countries are eating our (American) lunch in terms of economic and political importance left me worried and a bit depressed. UGH. Really? We’ve lost our relevant place in this world?
I would listen to even more news of manufacturing being taken over by China, hear how American real estate was being snapped up by middle eastern businesses or see how India was becoming more and more part of the landscape of our business and fret about what advantages, if any, my country still had that might keep us from spiraling into complete irrelevance. What would we keep adding to the global conversation?
I tend to travel quite a bit, and lately much of it has been internationally. These trips have been shifting my perspective of what America is and where we stand in the world. In the next few blogposts I’ve decided to discuss briefly some of the perspective gained through these travels and how they have informed my thoughts on what it means to be American in the 21st century.
The Relevance of Russia
Last fall, my husband and I were in Russia for business. Amidst business meetings and touring a Russian manufacturing plant, we took several guided tours through the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and then in Moscow. While at the Kremlin (which I discovered is not “a” building, but a walled and guarded area of the city that houses not only the government buildings but historic cathedrals as well), we took a tour of the Armory, which is the oldest museum in Russia and houses treasures from dignitaries and royalty dating back to the 5th century. While the immense wealth of jeweled bibles, gold and silver platters and serving pieces, jewelry, royal gowns and even carriages housed within the rows and rows of of glass cases was so overwhelming it was hard to comprehend it, what struck me most was that these treasures were not from various countries across history and the globe; these were treasures from ONE country’s history–dating back to the FIFTH CENTURY. (Okay, where were your ancestors in the 5th century?)
While Russia was often considered a socialist country and this term gets bandied around a great deal at the current time in American politics, I started thinking about it while interacting with Russian people and businesses. At some point I asked our Muscovite guide, Maria, if there is a middle class in Russia. Maria is like an encyclopedia of Russian history and the speed at which she provided facts and tidbits about her country was matched only by her walking pace. We literally trotted through Cathedral square. So, I was pretty sure that when I asked Maria about Russia’s middle class I was going to get an informed, historical perspective. Maria paused before answering. (There still seems to be much suspicion in Russia for whatever reason, and I learned over the week we were there that pauses might be less about having an answer and more about how much of an answer or whether giving the answer would be prudent.) “…No. Not really,” she finally responded in an uncharacteristically slow manner. “We’ve had so many changes in our economy that have affected us…russian people.” She went on to tell me what I had heard from others during the week: the rest of the world thought Gorbachov was a hero for ending the Cold War and championing capitalism, but the Russian people suffered economically. Major critical industries such as agriculture suffered. People had to grow their own food to survive. Even now, the country gets much of its food from Israel. This economic shift took place so quickly that it created economic havoc in people’s lives. One of our business associates told us that his parents lost the pensions they had worked their entire lives to save. So what choice did they have? They started a garden and went back to work.
I was thinking about Maria’s comments later as our friends pick us up from dinner in their current year 740 BMW, the wife asking about my jewelry and my bag. It struck me as odd that without a sense of economic stability there was so much focus on materialism…AH! And it hit me that if I had experienced the same level of economic upheaval in my life, I would probably place less value on my savings account and just buy whatever my current money would get me. Whatever the future holds could be much worse than the present moment, so why wait?
I was also thinking about the typical response we received to our being American. While on one hand it seemed that there was a constant need to impress us (everything was “most impressive”, as in “our most impressive subway stations”) with the richness and superiority of their history, on the other hand it seemed that we were also treated with a big sigh, like one might give if you had to entertain your younger-and-annoyingly-perky-upstart-of-a-distant-cousin. And after viewing the Kremlin, I think I have a sense of why that might be the case: this COUNTRY has endured CENTURIES of change. Not two centuries, like the US has. Another “AHA!” moment was realizing that if I were Russia, I, too, would probably be unimpressed by a young country like the USA, billed as so relevant even though it was clearly too young to know anything when the history of my country had survived the ravages of oh so many things.
And then I thought about my country. We returned from this trip a few weeks before the presidential election. My Facebook account was crazy with partisan vitriol from “friends” on both “sides” of the election. And since then, the gun debate has had a similar effect on my Facebook account. And while I think it would be easier to “mute” all of it, I learned quite a lot about my friends and how they think about this country. And I wish that they could’ve been with me in Russia. Why?
Because what Russians know that Americans don’t is that divisive issues CAN break us. We can foster such social and political divides, ramp up the negative spin, and create a situation
that would require drastic measures to reconcile neighbor with neighbor. Russians know that governments can be broken, that you can create instability that takes decades to recover from. Russians, above all, know that you can go from being relevant to being irrelevant very, very quickly.
While I understand the finer points of how we are fundamentally different in our origins and our history than Russia, I cannot dismiss that the people living every day in that country suffer from decisions made throughout their history–and we could also suffer. America is not unbreakable.
What became even more clear to me after Russia is the value of our freedom of speech COUPLED with CIVIL dialogue and CIVIC engagement. We are fortunate that WE THE PEOPLE are the government, that we are our own problem or solution. That how each of us foster the dialogue matters. That the ways each and every one of us discuss politics and important issues like what happened at Sandy Hook is important to our future as a nation, that is, if we care about our nation’s health and sustainability and relevance in the world.
As any marketer or ad executive knows, the message matters and words have impact. There is a billion dollar industry built on that premise. So, as we face these difficult national issues, why take the chance? Before we repost that snarky material on twitter or Facebook, let’s take a second and think about what kind of country we want to foster, and maybe we will post something less antagonist and more thoughtful…because we care about our neighbors and our friends. Perhaps we can take a minute and have a real conversation rather than spit one-liners at each other, because we don’t want to break something like our great country that might take much longer to fix than we can imagine (like it has in Russia).
One of America’s greatest strengths and I think one of the things we keep contributing to the global conversation is INNOVATION. America continues to innovate (I will talk more about this in Part 2 of this series of blogs in relation to a visit to China) in all sorts of areas, although the constant noise of negativity can cause paralysis in this area as well. My mother used to tell me, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”. So, along those lines, here’s a suggestion: let’s be problem solvers, innovators rather than nay sayers and negativity purveyors. Let’s beef up our innovation and problem solving in our words and our conversations. Let’s foster our innovative spirit. Let’s try saying something constructive, adding value to the table rather than more squabbling and blaming and anger. And then let’s put those innovative words into action. Let’s DO MORE GOOD and TALK LESS SMACK. Heck, it may just be what keeps us on a path to fine and away from decline.