Rising to the Challenge?
Posted on April 30, 2010In 1893, Chicago hosted the World’s Fair, which celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in America. Designed by Daniel Burnham, the man who said, “Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir man’s blood,” and Frederick Olmsted, the famed landscape architect, the Chicago Columbian Exposition, sent a clear signal to the rest of the world: Watch out, because America is coming.
A century later, the United States government decided not to fund expositions any more, probably scarred by the memory of the 1984 New Orleans Expo, which is the only Expo to ever go bankrupt. Everything we do now is paid for by corporate America.
This history all came to my mind as I read the story in today’s Washington Post about the opening of the Shanghai Expo. The Chinese are taking this event very seriously, as they usually do. They get the symbolism.
"The obvious conscious message is that China has arrived," said Jose Villarreal, a San Antonio lawyer recruited by the Obama administration in July to salvage floundering U.S. plans for the Shanghai Expo. "We are basically celebrating China's emergence as a world power." Villarreal, who was named U.S. commissioner general to the event, joined Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in raising $61 million from U.S. companies to finance the American pavilion, which -- to China's dismay -- was nearly abandoned at one point for lack of funds. "We were going through one of the worst financial crises in history, and it was hard to get the attention of corporate leaders," Villarreal said. On Thursday, China signaled its delight that the United States had finally gotten its act together: President Hu Jintao visited the U.S. exhibit, met with Mandarin-speaking American students who are serving as guides and "congratulated us on completing our pavilion," Villarreal said. For China, money has been no object. Unlike the United States, which has begged for private money to fund expos since 1991, when Congress made government funding difficult, China dipped into the deep pockets of the state. It is spending $4.2 billion on the six-month Expo -- and 10 times that if new roads, rail lines and other infrastructure projects are included in the bill…The U.S. pavilion -- motto: "Rising to the Challenge" -- features a movie house, a big room filled with stands promoting the companies that are footing the bill and a fast-food joint run by Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut. The United States has also signed some big-name acts, including musician Herbie Hancock, who will perform next month.
Early reviews of U.S. efforts from ordinary Chinese have been mostly lukewarm. "There are too many corporate logos," said Sam Feng, a 30-year-old Shanghai resident. "I thought the USA would have some brilliant and exciting stuff. . . . Except for buying some souvenirs, I can't think of anything special about it."
Herbie Hancock is the best we can do?
In what sense do we want Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut to represent us to the world? Let the Chinese know that you too can be just as fat as we are, only if you eat this yummy food?
In 1959, Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev had the famed Kitchen Debate at the American National Exhibition in Moscow. In that encounter, Nixon showed the Soviet people (and the Soviet Premier) why capitalism was superior to communism, mostly by showing Mr. Khrushchev various kitchen appliances that purportedly made the lives of the American housewife a lot easier.
Today, in Shanghai, our Exposition shows a couple of things. First, we are broke. Second, we are fat. Third, we are not so much the United States of America as we are the United Corporations of America.
I looked up the website for our exposition, and it is embarrassing. No mention of the Constitution. No mention of the First Amendment. No mention of the Statue of Liberty. Many, many mentions of the different corporations that spent good money to advertise on the website (why not? They paid for it, after all.)
But America is not much more that a collection of big multi-national corporations.
I am not one to bash corporate America. They employ a huge percentage of Americans, provide much of the health care, and create much of the wealth. But America does not thrive because of these corporations. These corporations thrive because of America. Because of our faith in the free market, our system of limited government, our representative form of democracy, our protection of intellectual property, and because of our people, who make up all colors of the spectrum, all faiths, and pretty much every belief, that is why so many of these corporations thrive.
America’s greatest strength comes from the First Amendment to the Constitution. The first amendment protects the people’s right to free speech, free assembly, the free practice of religion, and a free press. China – obviously – doesn’t have a First Amendment (ask Google, if you don’t believe me). And that is their greatest weakness.
For the life of me, I don’t understand why we didn’t use this opportunity at the Shanghai Exposition to highlight the First Amendment, and show the Chinese, that while we may be currently broke in currency, we are not broke in spirit nor broke in freedom.
America stands for much more than just a sum of our various corporations. Too bad our exposition hall didn’t make that point in Shanghai.