Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Some Perspective

Twenty years ago, I was living in a small house in Maynooth, Ireland--a lucky college student spending his sophomore year abroad. During those nine months, I traveled to every corner and crag of the Emerald Isle, and spent time in England, Germany, France, Italy, Austria, Hungary and Israel, as well. I saw AK-47-toting soldiers board my bus in Belfast. I watched the first intifada from a West Bank rooftop. I stayed in the house of a Hungarian woman whose only English words were, "Chicago, bang bang!" I busked on Grafton Street in Dublin and strummed "American Pie" to an enthusiastic group of native Irish-speaking publicans on the island of Inisheer. Yes, I also watched the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, climbed the Eiffel Tower, heard the chimes of the Glockenspiel in Munich, glided along Venetian canals, skied the Alps and celebrated Easter mass in Bethlehem. But the truest impression, especially as an American Studies major, was the revelation that I didn't really know my country until I had left it.

It left me somewhat obsessed with the concept of "perspective," that there are multiple, perhaps infinite, ways of looking at people, places and ideas. How does one acquire the perfect perspective, which theoretically allows for the best judgment? It's an impossibility. But the simple act of seeing something familiar from the outside is, without a doubt, a substantial move in the right direction.

For me, this presidential election wasn't about party, wasn't about age, wasn't about race. It was about perspective. As a quick read of Fahreed Zakaria's The Post American World drives home, a contextual, multi-lens perspective of America is no longer a luxury; it's a necessity. As the conservative columnist David Brooks recently wrote:

"There are four steps to every decision. First, you perceive a situation. Then you think of possible courses of action. Then you calculate which course is in your best interest. Then you take the action. Over the past few centuries, public policy analysts have assumed that step three is the most important. But that way of thinking has failed spectacularly. So perhaps this will be the moment when we alter our view of decision-making. Perhaps this will be the moment when we shift our focus from step three, rational calculation, to step one, perception."

I was grateful to have a choice in this presidential election between two people who struck me as serious, perspective-rich candidates, rather than mindless ideologues. But I couldn't help wondering if their lenses of perspective were most deeply shaped by their formative experiences abroad: one as a child in a time of peace, the other as a prisoner of war.

Did we elect the candidate with the best ability to perceive, to judge and to act for the common good? After watching election returns for five hours, I found myself stringing an American flag from our front-yard maple tree at 1 in the morning. For me, the answer is clear.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm proud to be an American today. Where can I get my own flag?

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