Amid my one week escape in Portugal, while everything else continued in an unadulterated go-go-go, harder-better-faster-stronger, I sat atop a bunk bed in a mediocre hostal on a quiet street of the Aussie-filled southern town Lagos. Once known as the edge of the world, the end of the horizon and the gateway for New World discovery, the town and country is now known to few eyes and fewer feet as a pristine, village-esque modernity, a country with stone arches juxtaposed next to steel and glass panels, night life that battles Paris and fish fresh enough to make any pseudo-vegetarian kill for dinner.
With an aura of translucent beauty and calm, the spirit of the place was hard to discern. Between the wealthy club goers and beer-bellied fishermen, the only blatant commonalities were persistently warm smiles, a “sh” pronunciation, a mild to extreme distaste for the Spanish and a love for Ronaldo. That said, was my inability to characterize, cut, package and tie a bow around a unified culture an indication of a lack thereof, or a failing on my part to connect beyond Americanized preconceptions? Likely the latter, given an ignorance compounded by Portugal’s minimized imprint on Western history textbooks post-1492 and moreover, the likely erasure of a collective memory post-1755 earthquake, which wiped out nearly half the populations and most of the structures.
So shocking to see first hand the effects of a fallen megapower, a modest people whose economic and political imprint is limited by future success rather than past precedent. And with an American Dream mythology clouding my vision, the fear of losing traction as a major force in the world became increasingly salient.
What interests me most about this reaction is not necessarily the arguments for or against America’s power in a unipolar world, or even the debate around whether this power still exists. Instead, I am fascinated by the obsession ingrained at youth with both the need for this power to sustain itself (a dependence on the status quo) and a complete incomprehension for a world without it (a lack of sincere empathy for the rest of the world).
By historical standards, the US is a prepubescent, pimpled youth, and by geological time, a scratch on world history. And thus the collective experience of creating and affirming a vision internally, and then extending that vision beyond our borders is experienced with the first pledge of allegiance, the reading of Tom Sawyer, and the national praise for Columbus and Martin Luther King, Jr. We tacitly consent to the collective vision upon birth or explicitly avow to uphold the Dream as immigrants, forced to denounce other faiths of nationality. We take supreme pride in a President who embodies our Dream, and mock the images and Southern slurs of others who have undeservedly leapt to great heights. Discontent and disillusionment exist, surely, but few ever leave the land of opportunity because even if they struggle, their children would not have a place that provides more – or so the story goes.
And yet, as we traverse the globe preaching democracy and sustainability, human rights and peace, we carry the American Dream in a cute, little snow globe for all to see. A little shake and glitter blankets the mountains, prairies, cities, the school system, health care and banks.
We hold this keepsake tight, gaze at the scenic lovelies and recall fond memories of our collective youth, those memories from Ms. Johnson’s fifth grade class – pictures of Thanksgiving feasts and boat rides past the Statue of Liberty.
Yet if anyone tried to grab the globe and hold it for themselves, oy-va-voy. Like a kid in the sandbox, we’d hold kicking and screaming MINE! until our parents came to calm us down with ice-cream and hugs.
American’s superpower state of mind for now remains a myth of opportunity, and until we restore the tenets of our collective Dream – namely access to education, access to health care and access to capital – we will continue to find ourselves living in fear of a change in the balance of power, a fear of entrepreneurial failure that is far more tangible than the natural disaster that shook Lisbon several hundred years ago.