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Strange Discussion

by Dennis Altman

The oddest fact about the conversation initiated by Martha Nussbaum is that all the voices are American -- despite the call for greater cosmopolitanism.

The United States is the last great imperial power, in the sense that its economic, military, and cultural decisions affect the whole world. (In his reply to Nussbaum, Wallerstein uses the term "hegemonic," but despite this many overestimate the extent to which the United States' dominance is challenged.) What Australians or Botswanans know of the rest of the world is of little consequence to most people. What Americans know and think impinges on us all. Yet ironically the very imperialism which makes American culture so central also means that Americans are far less exposed to other cultures and images than any other people with comparable access to global communications.

We in Australia (as is true for most other small countries) grow up constantly exposed to images from outside, often -- not exclusively -- from the United States. For Americans this is much less true; most Americans rarely read or see non-American culture. As Michael Keaton says in The Paper: "I don't live in the fucking world. I live in fucking New York City."

It is not a new insight to point to the parochialism of the center, which is sometimes matched by a cosmopolitanism at the margins which carries its own problems. But it underlines the importance of Martha Nussbaum's critique, and has real implications for both media and education policy in the United States. No foreign observer of America fails to notice the extent to which Americans want to believe theirs is a superior society, and the disinterest in any concrete discussion of other societies which might challenge that belief.

Let me provide a somewhat different sort of example to Nussbaum's. I have been very involved in international AIDS organizations and meetings. What is striking in these arenas is that even highly intelligent and committed Americans are both ignorant of and patronizing towards the rest of the world. The behavior of American activists at International AIDS Conferences sometimes borders on the boorish, as in the booing of speakers (often not native English speakers) who infringe American versions of political correctness. More important, there is a lack of recognition among all but a handful of Americans of the inapplicability of many national debates and issues to the larger world.

Looking back over Nussbaum's article I realize that this example illuminates almost all of the points she has made. Harvey Mansfield tells us that "democracies do not fight one another." But this does not mean that democracies necessarily understand each other, or that they can work together as effectively as they might. His reaction, which says more extremely what some other contributors argue, makes Nussbaum's points more strongly than her original article.

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