I am also writing this book because of a conversation I had not long ago with an African gentleman. He was a scientist at one of the nation’s premier universities and his wife, also of African descent, was a local physician. We were at a social gathering held in the home of a university scientist and his wife, a couple of staunch conservatives hosting a houseful of liberals, but surviving, as well as catering, the evening beautifully. Because only at the most mindless of social occasions does conversation not eventually turn to politics, before long we began to discuss the nation’s leadership and global current events.
“In my country,” said the African gentleman, “the politicians do not want you to talk about them. They do not want your attention focused on the misery in your own nation. Instead, they want you to spend your time thinking about the rest of the world so that they can be corrupt, and build their own wealth by stealing from the people, and carry out their own personal vendettas, often destroying their nation in the process, and the population will not be paying any attention.” His deep resonant and slightly accented voice added to the authority of his words. He paused. “That is what they want.” He smiled in a very patient, tolerant, way. “So we grow up knowing quite a bit about the rest of the world, not because we are so interested in global affairs, but by default.”
Based on my experience with educated foreigners, I would say he was correct about his own worldliness. I have been in social settings with scientists from at least twenty different nations—including some now considered terrorist states—over the past several decades. All of these scientists are more cosmopolitan than my American colleagues; most of them speak and read at least two languages comfortably and are rarely if ever constrained by having Fox News as their only sources of information. In fact, many of them get on the Internet and listen to newscasts in German, French, and Chinese. I can promise you they’re not listening to Bill O’Reilly.
“But in your country,” my African acquaintance continued, “the politicians want you to be concerned with what they are doing to make you happy and safe and rich, and with local problems that seem very dramatic.” By “local problems” he could easily have been talking about everything from the O. J. Simpson, Michael Jackson, Scott Peterson, and Casey Anthony trials to the disappearance of a teenage girl in Aruba, the murder of children by their mother, the Christmas murder of a child beauty queen, or a lawsuit over display of The Ten Commandments—that is, the substance, the heart and soul, of American public discourse, cable news, and, arguably, Americans’ vision of our legal and social systems.
“So you grow up ignorant of the rest of the world.” He took a sip of his vodka. “You are happy because your leaders tell that they are not going to raise your taxes,” he continued, “but your indebtedness grows daily.” He smiled. “And you are losing your economic competitiveness because you are afraid of science.” He shook his head, looked over at his wife, then turned back to me. “Why does this happen?” I couldn’t answer; I was still stuck on his “ignorant of the rest of the world.”
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