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Commentary & Opinion

As the world changes

I’ve often wondered at how much America had changed in my dad’s lifetime. Papa was born in April of 1897 and died at the end of 1996, nearly a century later. He was born in the age of horses and buggies, before electricity and indoor plumbing had come into use, let alone airplanes, computers or the world wide web. There were no skyscrapers, nothing about the late twentieth century skyline of Manhattan that he would have recognized in his early years. He once told me that he and his family were the first Gottliebs in the phone book – remember phone books! Life has been changing so fast that the impact of last century’s scientific developments now threaten the existence of civilization via nuclear weapons, global warming, and poisoning of the earth, air and water.

But I was thinking very parochially. The world changed in that century. When papa was born, Brittania ruled the waves and the sun never set on the British empire. Barely fifty years later, Brittain became a has-been on the world stage, its empire shattered, and an upstart from America took its place.

Now the world is changing again. International power is never stable. The mantra has to be tend it or lose it. Power and military might are moving east toward what the Chinese call the Middle Kingdom. Maybe someone else will rise to challenge them but India is putting its energy into the search for purity and kicking out or losing many of its best.

The United States might hold on if it invests heavily in science and technology and encourages refugees by the millions to set up here. That’s how we emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century. But the wrong wing who claim to want to make America great again are following the example of India. Their mantra is purity, not development; America for them alone and to heck with progress.

The surest way to lose world leadership is to insist that what was, will be, and do everything to avoid change. The surest way to force the MAGA folks, the Proud Boys, QAnon, Oath Keepers, militiamen, and other white supremacists, to give way to the people of color that they insist are inferior, is to pass the baton to the Middle Kingdom, in which case our American racists would have to bow East. I believe they would call the Chinese people of color and insist they are inferior. I wouldn’t like the Chinese way of life. But they have all the talents of human beings everywhere, including here, plus the investment in education, science and technology to make them world leaders. In that respect they are copying this country and Germany before us but with a population three times the size of ours.

I think their achilles heel is their prejudice toward people they don’t consider Chinese – Tibetans, Uyghurs and other Muslims and people of faith whom they confine to concentration camps and otherwise do without. Eventually that may catch up to them but we won’t be around to see their downfall.

The surest way to lose our position in the world is navel gazing, focusing on purity instead self-improvement.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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