The promise of America, still shining after all these years

Mike Rowse says despite the political missteps and mismanagement, America's ideals of freedom and human rights continue to inspire

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 August, 2015, 9:29am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 August, 2015, 9:29am

It is not possible to write about America without being caught up in a vortex of superlatives. The world's biggest economy, first (and so far only) country to put a man on the moon, source of more Nobel Prize winners than any other nation, location of the highest paid entertainers and sportspeople - the list goes on.

There is much to admire about the United States. Its constitution takes the breath away by making clear that political and social rights are not a gift from the powerful in society but an inalienable right of all people everywhere. How exhilarating it is for people around the world to see a black man democratically elected to head a predominantly white state - a marked contrast with our own situation, where it is difficult to see a non-Han Chinese in Upper Albert Road, let alone Zhongnanhai.

What's not to love about a legal system where a conservative Supreme Court can unleash a social revolution by not just tolerating but requiring nation-wide recognition of gay marriage?

Yet there is also much to deplore and regret. How could a country born amid such idealism spend the early years of the 21st century invading sovereign nations without legal authority or reasonable excuse. A criminal act by a handful of evil men, however invidious their deed, does not justify overthrowing by force the government of the country if evidence of culpability by that state itself cannot be produced.

At the working level, too, America seems to have lost its way in recent years. A single act of terrorism has led to the introduction of an absurd visa and immigration regime that looks calculated to insult and demean America's friends and would-be supportive visitors, while being unlikely to act as a meaningful barrier to the ill-intentioned.

Physical infrastructure that defined world class a generation ago now crumbles for want of proper maintenance. In the New York subway system, a just-purchased ticket denied its holder entry, forcing him to crawl on hands and knees under the turnstile at considerable risk to dignity, let alone arrest.

If in doubt about the soul of a place, ask a taxi driver. Of the six US taxis I have taken on this trip, five were driven by Africans: two long-term immigrants from Ghana, and refugees from Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia.

It reminded me of the inscription at the Statue of Liberty: " Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Mere propaganda from another age? Looking around at modern America, I think not.

Mike Rowse is managing director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at Chinese University. mike@rowse.com.hk