“Ethnocentrism is the least of our faults.” That’s what I’d expect to hear just after I explained that “Ethnocentrism is destroying our country’s standing in the world.”
When we hear a quote like the New Zealander made about what makes Americans despised, the retort is likely to be, “Most Americans aren’t like that.” Nobody believes their home culture has irreparable flaws, although there may be big differences of opinion about what to do about them.
Thailand and the USA both have a Problem (with a capital P), and for both countries the governments in power are (depending on who is speaking) either the cause or the solution. Thailand has a military junta running things and the USA has Trump and the GOP. Trump says his plan is to “drain the swamp” and eliminate government waste. Prime Minister Prayut says his plan is to restore national unity and harmony. Trump’s political opposition says what’s being drained away first are civil protections and safety nets as well as much more. The Thai junta’s critics say that the military is restoring unity by suppressing opposition and civil rights.
One thing both the USA and Thailand have in common is that the governments in charge at the moment are feeding on vast resources of widespread Ethnocentrism, otherwise known as nationalism or essential unconcern about people in other cultures and countries. Look at the daily newspaper … front page rarely has anything from overseas unless some of “our people” are involved. TV news is whatever has spectacular pictures, leading off with the biggest local story of the day. Priority sports news stories are always national. Hardly anybody cares deeply about what happens in other countries unless it affects them directly. There are exceptions, but our energy is directed toward matters with which we identify and which we personalize.
Civic pride is taught. The reason it is taught at public expense in public schools is that it is in the national interest. The point is to develop a sense of connection and loyalty. Global concerns or humanitarian issues are often a step too far to hold our interest very long. That makes us less concerned than we ought to be about our country’s standing in the world.
There will be consequences if the USA continues to turn radically inward. Indeed, that is unlikely in the short run. But it is far more likely to SEEM so. If the USA withdraws from international agreements and begins to appear to act only in its own self-interest, other countries will begin to realign to protect themselves. Worldwide economic protective actions would be the first result of the USA turning inward, and that will undermine the economic power that holds up the USA and enables the level of comfort American people enjoy. The main product of the USA in terms of profitability is money itself, not manufacturing of any sort. Moving money around is what makes America great. But if China succeeds, as it plans to do, in replacing the USA as the world’s biggest banker, the USA is going to be in deep trouble because its manufacturing capacity has been allowed to rust and grow obsolete. Hard times follow the fall of economic empires.
As for Thailand, being smaller, the results of Ethnocentrism are on a smaller scale. It is interesting how quietly the once-vaunted ASEAN Economic Community has been allowed to lapse and come to nothing. Alarm bells ought to be ringing but they have been disconnected. The result, of course, is that Thailand’s economic clout has not expanded as it was supposed to do. Ethnocentrism in the form of sites of cultural pride is supposed to be marketable as tourism attractions, but quality controls are lacking. So sleaze and squalor creep in to cloud the scene or overdevelopment diverts the focus. Thailand’s leaders declare that the country’s fourth developmental phase is to convert the economy into high-tech industries, an “innovation driven economy”; but the collapse of the ASEAN accords means that the country has to rely totally on producing its own educated high-tech workforce with an education structure already unable to keep up with competing nations all around, rather than building an integrated international educational strategy. As if I was overheard, the Prime Minister announced this week that the door will be opening for international universities to fill the gap of creative thinkers not being produced by the Thai system. We already have international universities here, so what’s the news? But wait for it. There will be barriers. Our 130 universities (and growing every year) will find ways to keep control. Behind all the hindrances to regional cooperation is Ethnocentrism.
Love of country seems like a commendable idea until it turns into Ethnocentrism. And then, watch out.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.