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Blog // Technology
November 27, 2008

One Thing Old Bill Got Right

There were some very interesting phrases in Bill Clinton’s address to the Democratic Convention some months back. But one line jumped out at the time. “People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.” How true – especially in the light of […]

There were some very interesting phrases in Bill Clinton’s address to the Democratic Convention some months back. But one line jumped out at the time.

“People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.”

How true – especially in the light of Obama’s election as President and the global response to that historic day.

In one sense it is a general principle about power, language and influence. Show, don’t tell, persuade through co-operation, not coercion, that sort of thing. But, it has a more specific application as well. When people in the US look out at the world, they sometimes experience a form of cognitive dissonance. I do believe that many USAmericans want to “do good” in the world. But, I’m not sure they really understand what their policies look like to the rest of us, especially in recent years. Or, maybe between 2004 and 2008, they have really come to understand; I hope so.

It’s something you can’t sense unless you travel, maybe get off the tourist map and certainly avoid expatriate enclaves. Embassies that look like military compounds – what does that say to the world? Websites that refuse to do business with you because you are not in the “lower 48” – what does that say to the world? Airports that treat you like a criminal regardless of your background or behaviour (or worse, only because of your background and “looks”) – what does that say to the world?

The USA’s image, it’s brand as it were, has been tarnished during this decade. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t believe that. It’s not just the war of choice or the economic disaster, it’s something much subtler. John McCain’s economic rallying cry centred not just on the goodness and hard-work of US employees, but also their creativity, ingenuity, “smartness.” Is all that really true? Maybe too many have assumed that those jobs that have gone to China and India are only moving because of lower wages – but, what if there is also a factor there in terms of productivity, innovation and even quality of the workforce.

Whilst some American brands, especially in fashion, computers and music are still well respected, does anyone outside the US really look at American airlines or airports and think – I want to experience that kind of service? Does anyone look at American cars (apart from the weird fashion for Humvees) and think, that’s the best ride in the world? Do we still look to America for ideas in furniture, architecture or food?

Ironically, the fields were America still leads the world were under constant fire in the last election (and during the risible culture wars of the last two decades) – print journalism and television. These so-called “liberal media elites” are one of the few areas of American commerce and creativity that are still, clearly, “best-in-class” globally. Even as television declines in significance as a medium, we have moved through a golden season of TV programmes, with the US still leading the charge (MadMen, The Sopranos, 30 Rock, Arrested Development, The Wire all come to mind). I still contend that there is little in the English magazine world that can compare with powerhouses like The New Yorker, New York Magazine, The New York Review of Books and The Atlantic – especially as these journals have overcome their uncertainty about online content. It’s not just a question of quality, it’s also a question of depth, breadth and maturity.

Thankfully Obama’s election extends a “welcome back” to these parts of America that were cynically labelled “unAmerican.” Hopefully for people in US this will lead to a period of greater creativity and ingenuity, which ironically enough is often the by-product of uncertain economic times. That’s not just good for the US, it is potentially good for the rest of us, because as this election has shown, the USA still has the potential, tarnished as it’s image has been in recent years, to inspire.

Think about it…

“People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.”

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