August 15, 2007
By Ken Krayeske • 7:45 PM EST
The Frederick Douglass mural in West Belfast reads on the left, "Inspired by two Irishmen to escape from slavery, Frederick Douglass came to Ireland during the famine. Henceforth he championed the abolition of slavery, women's rights and Irish freedom." On the right, it quotes Douglass: 'Perhaps no class Perhaps no class has carried prejudice against colour to a point more dangerous than have the Irish and yet no people have been more relentlessly oppressed on account of race and religion."
During my time in Northern Europe, I felt like I had to apologize for my country to everyone I meet. I felt like I needed to be an ambassador and say Americans aren't that bad.
But I tired of it. It made me angry, and ashamed, and I think I now have an idea of what South Africans on holiday must have felt like when Nelson Mandela was still in jail, when apartheid reigned.
The evidence of global disdain for America greeted me everywhere I went. I saw it when I sat in the audience of a comedy show in Brighton, England on Bastille Day, and Americans were targeted worse than the French.
Or when I was on bus in Dublin and I spied two Irishmen frowning over a tabloid with a giant picture of George W. Bush alongside banner headlines trumpeting deadly statistics from Iraq and the recent Congressional report calling the surge a failure.
Or when an English friend showed me a video of the crowd singing the national anthems at the LeMans 24-hour motorcycle rally in France, and the assembled masses booed from start to finish through Francis Scott Key's signature song.
Or when I was in West Belfast and I saw a giant mural calling mocking the imperial presidency of George W. Bush, calling for an end to his rule of terror.
But a little bit down the wall, there's a mural of Frederick Douglass, praising him as a great American. And it gave me hope, and an idea.
We can't wait for the federal government to fix our reputation overseas. We have to take action ourselves, as global citizens. We had the sympathy of everyone after Sept. 11, when banner headlines across the world blared "We are all Americans."
We squandered it by invading Iraq and spreading bloody bedlam. So when I walk into a Turkish chipper (fish-n-chips shop) in Brighton, and an Aussie says "I recognize that accent," I know what's coming next. We deserve the Aussie moniker of "seppo," short for "Septic-Tank Yanks."
Yeah, sure, the people who belittle us judge us, and they engage in behavior as childish as ours. But we all have to be mature enough as humans to attempt to deflate these stereotypes. Someone has to take the first steps.
We need to fan out across the globe in vast numbers to show our fellow Earthlings that Americans are not the stereotypical numbskulls portrayed in the Simpsons and South Park.
But considering that we started a war that no one likes, and that we are powerless to stop it, generating good will shall be a difficult feat.
And considering that less than 12 percent of Americans – maybe 35 million people - currently hold passports, and that on any given year, not all leave the country, convincing people to travel won't be easy.
While recent Homeland Security regulations that require anyone leaving the country to have a passport will increase the number of passport holders, it isn't likely to increase the number of travelers.
The current parochial climate, combined with the fear of the unknown and the us vs. the world dichotomy makes people less likely to pick up and go to Thailand or Yemen.
Plus, there's always an excuse; some valid, some so prejudicial as to be absurd. I can't afford it. I can't get off from work. I don't like strange places. European showers don't have any water pressure. In England, they eat wombats.
Out of some 300 people in Quinnipiac University's School of Law, only about ten people took the summer trip to Ireland this year, despite credits being cheaper here. If the best and brightest won't travel, who will?
We need government policies and private-public partnerships that encourage people to get out and travel and see the world. Last week, I highlighted the efforts of the sister city program with New Ross, County Wexford in Ireland as postive steps.
Hartford has another international resource and excuse for reaching out: Mark Twain. Twain once wrote that travel was the surest way to break prejudices. Since Twain is from Hartford, and renowned internationally as an anti-imperialist, his work provides the seed for a plan, tentatively titled "Project Innocents Abroad."
In his famous travelogue from 1869, The Innocents Abroad, or the New Pilgrims' Progress, Twain joined a journey with religious pilgrims from Europe to the Holy Land.
Cobbled together from newspaper columns, some of Twain's words stand up to time. Like when I went to Damascus, I employed quotes of his graceful prose to introduce one of my dispatches.
"She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires,
and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies," Twain wrote of Damascus.
Other parts of Innocents Abroad don't weather the centuries well, like his descriptions of Nablus, which is used in the Israeli propaganda about colonization.
But suppose that the city of Hartford, the Twain House and the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving with its billions teemed up to train a cadre of young and old alike to be ambassadors and try to fix some of the wrongs I've pointed out.
Teams of these students, retirees and Joe Six-Packs could visit all the cities Twain wrote about in Innocents' Abroad, and give these cities gifts of statues of Mark Twain.
What kind of impact would it have if we sent a crew to the Mayor of Damascus with a statue of the legendary Mark Twain as a gesture of friendship.
It should be inscribed with Twain's kind words about the ancient city (never use metropolis if city works, Twain would've said). And somewhere on it, it should say Hartford, CT in big letters. We'll hold a contest and get a local artist to design it.
And when the ambassador crews return from their trips, they should go to church groups, school classrooms and coffeeshops with slide presentations to detail their experiences, further breaking down barriers.
The excuses will come why "Project Innocents' Abroad" can't be done. Damascus (or ______ city) is too dangerous. But if I could go, if Chris Dodd could go, if Nancy Pelosi could go, everyone should go.
Statues work. Look at all the people from the Far East who detour to Hartford to look at the statue of Confucius standing next to the Bushnell. I have seen many people taking their photos in front of it.
It could work with Twain in Gibraltar, France or the Canary Islands. Twain is a well-loved man, and is an image of America that we should project, one that will move people with smooth power, not military power.
And when we run out of cities for Twain, let's send a statue of Vonnegut to Dresden.
Imagine a massive p.r./media campaign around the effort, and how much it would work towards changing the hearts and minds of not just those in our country, but those abroad.
Because I have to tell you, I am tired of being a global pariah, and we can't count on our government to fix the problem it willingly created. Leadership comes from the people.