Pottersville

My wife and I recently returned from a vacation in India, Sri Lanka, Egypt and Israel. My first memorable step in our convoluted trip was actually a movie I watched on the flight out: Frank Capra’s 1946 fantasy drama, It’s a Wonderful Life, in which an angel shows a kind-hearted but suicidal George Bailey (James Stewart) how bad his friends’ and family’s lives would have been had he never been born.

Bailey also learns that in this alternative reality his wholesome home town of Bedford Falls would have been renamed Pottersville, to honor the venal banker who would have dominated life there but for Bailey’s beneficent influence and call for people to help each other through hard times. Pottersville is a debauched place with no sense of community, where it’s all for none and none for all. Not that I mind some debauchery, but the town resembles what the United States of Trump could become: a small-minded, mean-spirited land that lauds selfishness.

Relatively Speaking…

Which brings me back to our wonderful life in the United States. There is so much to lament these days. Nonetheless, Americans are so well off compared to so many people across the globe.

We ran into this reality repeatedly while on the road: India’s and Israel’s politics potentially poisoned by rising religious extremism; New Delhi’s air, literally lethal for part of the year; in southern India, a young woman named Rose, who’s lucky if she makes $5 a day staffing her dad’s seaside soft drinks stall from dawn to dusk; a hotel mega-development that may rob Sri Lankan villagers of their homes or livelihoods; and Cairo’s deadlocked traffic, its decrepit housing and the promise of its Arab Spring crushed by a grim Arab Winter.

Even given the inequality and injustice in our society, even as we fall further behind some others, the typical American child still has vastly better prospects than the street kids we saw begging in India or most children in most nations across the globe. Relatively speaking, and to paraphrase one popular pundit, our national community is a beautiful place to be born.

The Good News

Now, by no means is all lost in the overseas situations I’ve sketched. Along with dislocation for villagers, that huge Sri Lanka development could bring loads of jobs. And several years ago the country dodged a deadly political bullet via an election that dislodged an increasingly despotic dynasty. Though the prospect isn’t imminent, India’s and Israel’s politics could take a similar turn for the better (as could our own).

Furthermore, despite serious, enduring poverty, India has made massive strides since I first visited there 37 (!) years ago, in terms of health, education, infrastructure, a huge middle class and economic openness to the world. Because of that education and openness, Rose may land a better-paying housekeeping position at our hotel near her dad’s seaside stall – perhaps still a lowly job to some, but a crucial step up for her. The country’s strong environmental movement could help clear the air in New Delhi eventually.

Which Way?

This progress elsewhere makes America’s potential Pottersville all the more appalling – even as other nations move ahead in some ways, which way are we heading? The implications reach beyond our shores.

A chat with one young Swede we met on the road hit home hard in this respect. It started with his rejecting what was then a big story back in his country: Trump’s fabrication of a terrorist attack there and allegation that Sweden was besieged by Muslim immigrant crime. Clearly a student of our politics and place in the world, the Swede went on to critique the United States’ history of “imperial influence” across the globe. But he then asserted that he’d “much rather have America play that role than Russia or China.” I wonder whether he’ll feel the same way five years from now.

And I wonder what I’m doing contrasting our country with India and Egypt rather than Sweden and Norway. But my point right now is not to bewail where we fall short. Rather, it’s to treasure where we still stand.

We’re right to fight the ugliness of the Pottersville pervading our politics today. Yet, despite it all, and compared to so many countries, America remains a beautiful place to be born. Let’s hope we can keep it that way.

Based in Oakland, California, Stephen Golub writes, consults and teaches about international development, with a particular focus on justice, democracy, human rights and governance issues. Currently teaching part-time at Central European University in Budapest and previously at the University of California at Berkeley, he has worked in over 40 countries and with such organizations as Amnesty International, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Ford and Open Society Foundations, the U.K. Department for International Development, the U.N. Development Program and the World Bank

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