Monday, July 27, 2015

The Explorers: Making the Shire Go Global

T.E. Lawrence

A good friend from Nashville visited last week and she wondered out loud why New Hampshire is allowed such an outsized role in our nation's politics. This place is so...White! It's so homogeneous.  Tennessee  may be more representative of the push and pull going on in the country than this state of happy little shires populated by Hobbits. 

She is not the first to make that point, but in a way I like the idea of New Hampshire, the prototypical Hobbit shire sending it's people and ideas out into the world. There are some, admittedly small in number but large in heart and mind, who launch themselves from their shires into the world and go to China or South America or Europe and see all that through the clear lenses they developed in Hampton and return with that and they bring what they grew in New Hampshire to the places they explore.

She is actually unusual in that she had the intellectual daring to learn Japanese, having grown up in North Carolina, and she made an impressive career working for law firms and various groups as an American who was fluent in Japanese and who understood the culture. Getting an American mind to bend to the Asian world is challenging and requires courage and persistence. 

People who leave the comfortable and explore have often been malcontents, restless because they did not feel they really fit into the safe, comfortable world their parents had organized for them.  

Lawrence of Arabia was typical in that sense--said to have been homosexual and certainly not enamored of British imperial culture, he sought the exotic and embraced it in Arabia. 
Hemingway and Friends

Hemingway was not happy and snug at home and that led him to Europe, where he learned French and Spanish and rejected the familiarity of the American Midwest and he discovered the joys and risks of life in Spain, France and Germany. And he brought home those adventures and insights and made his home country more aware and educated in the process. 

Douglas Paal
In the roiling sixties, many college kids began questioning whether America really was the best place on earth, but our generation had not had enough experience of other places to be very sure what we could take from the rest of the world which was of any value. Back packing through Europe had its vogue, still does. Those brief forays, with the security of supportive parents back home, likely helped broaden minds back home in provincial America, but did not change the basic insularity of American thought, especially in places like the South and West and Midwest where few people ever ventured out into the rest of the planet.  At college, Doug Paal was a thoughtful, but clearly detached observer of what was swirling around him. He was on the college newspaper, which brought him into the campus whirl and buzz, but he remained apart in many ways. He wound up going to China, learning the language and served in the White House and now in a consulting capacity to help America deal with that inscrutable power across the Pacific. He managed to be an expatriot who remained oriented toward America, to bring home China to the United States.

Deb and James Fallows
Neither James nor Deb Fallows could be described as outsiders in their own country--Harvard educated, products of nurturing families, they nevertheless felt compelled to explore.  I think of them as something like members of that Explorers Club Jules Verne described in "Around the World in 80 Days" seated in London, where explorers returned to their plush leather chairs and their port wine to regale their colleagues with tales of what they saw in India, Polynesia and Africa. James Fallows provided a significant service to his homeland when he wrote "More Like Us" in the midst of the era when Japan seemed to be overtaking and replacing the United States economically and as a world power. Presciently, Fallows said Japan actually has more demons and burdens than we did and their culture of conformity and suppression of dissent and insistence on harmony when self criticism would be healthier did not put them in a good position to adapt to a changing world. He argued America, with its capacity for self examination and improvement would ultimately do better if only we decided to be "more like us," i.e. to cleave to what makes us strong--our diversity and energy and imagination.

Gauguin brought home his colors and his palate from Polynesia to France, where van Gogh learned from him and the world is in debt to that intermingling.

We are told we are living in the new global economy, but exploration and interaction is as old as mankind roaming out of Africa, as old as the Silk Road and men in ships heading from Viking land toward Newfoundland and from Spain to the Caribbean. It has occurred, for much of man's history as part of war, from the Crusades to World War II. 

The difference now is that a boy who grew up in North Carolina and became an accountant for a big American firm now finds himself in Hong Kong and Beijing with some regularity and he brings all that home to his workplace, his community and his family.  The numbers in this group will overwhelm the numbers of artists, academics and government types. They may actually change America and the world. 

But it takes courage and it takes vigor and persistence. The question is, will we have the wisdom to support those who are willing to launch?

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