Cultural Psychology

The ‘American Library’ of Leuven

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ONCE while in Belgium I found myself in great need of a large research library. Investigating the possibilities, I learned that the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL) had such a facility — with Leuven being just 20 few minutes away from my residence by train.

On Saturday I traveled to Leuven and walked from the train station to the university. Entering the foyer of the central library, my attention was drawn to a large plaque, written in English and Dutch, placed prominently on the wall. It explained that, following World War I, the library had been presented to the Belgium people as a gift from the citizens of the United States. The Leuven University has been a premier institution of higher learning in Europe since the 15th century, but suffered severe damage from the German troops in World War I.

Few, if any, times have I been more proud to be an American. It was gratifying just to consider that my countrymen of an earlier generation had seen fit to give any gift to another country, but much more so that they exercised the wisdom and foresight to make so excellent a one as a library.

This is an especially marked contrast to the America of recent memory, which seems to view itself as providing best service to the world as policeman, not as magnanimous and benevolent patron of educational and cultural development.

I would like to relate this experience to two other things. The first is the vast amount of money the United States has spent on the Iraq war. As mentioned in a previous post, the likely cost of this war (so far) is on the order of 1 trillion dollars ($1,000,000,000,000). Also as previously mentioned, for this amount of money America could finance a university education for each adult Iraqi. Literally, we could have flown them all to the United States, housed them at university like Harvard, given them a 4-year education, and flown them home again.

(These calculations of were prompted by a remark (one wrong though not maliciously intended) of a serviceman returning from action in Iraq that he believed the war necessary because “somebody needs to teach those people how to think.”

The point of writing previously was to draw attention to the staggeringly large sum of money being spent on the war; and to provide some perspective on the meaning of this vast amount by seeing its value relative to commodities other than bombs and planes — namely in terms of purchasing education, edification, cultural advancement, and, by implication, stability, prosperity, and peace in the region.

Let us, then, in the same vein, consider the implications of the Leuven example to the Iraq situation — and to the Middle East generally (for the United States is presently in the midst of tenuous relations with Iran, and recent political developments in Egypt [the rise to political power of ‘fundamentalist’ factions] has also given some cause for concern. [update: this was written before the unfortunate developments in Libya, Syria, and Yemen].

What if the United States were to, as an unconditional gesture of good will, and as a demonstration of the true guiding spirit of our nation, donate a Leuven-class research library to the people of Iran or Egypt?

First, we should consider the cost. The Leuven library cost on the order of $500,000 in 1920’s. Let’s suppose roughly  that one dollar then had the purchasing power of $100 now.  Therefore $500,000 then would translate to $50,000,000 now. Thus, for this amount we could build a similar library today.

Amazingly, the U.S. could, for the monetary cost (so far) of the Iraq War, donate 20,000 such libraries. If we allow that roughly 200 countries in the world might benefit from such a donation, we could donate 100 world-class libraries per country!

(Does that seem unbelievable?  Check the math:  $1 billion would buy 20 libraries, assuming a cost of $50 million each.  But $1 trillion is 1000 times $1 billion, hence 20,000 libraries!)

Were America to do such a thing, would anyone doubt we would earn the respect, admiration, friendship, gratitude, and affection of people around the world; and not just in this generation, but in many to come? Would this not have a profound, lasting, and distinctly positive effect on the cultures of the recipient nations?

While I do not suggest this as a policy option to be pursued on such a wide scale, we may at least appreciate one thing: this could be done. If it seems radical, absurdly idealistic, impractical, impossible, out of the question, and even mad, we should also consider that spending the equivalent amount of money on the war in Iraq much more definitely possesses each of these attributes, and yet it occurred.

That is, were we to think about it rationally (and, if all Americans may agree on one thing, it is that we did not) we would tend to reject immediately as utterly implausible and fantastic the possibility that we could raise and apply one trillion dollars to, by military force, effect some kind of positive cultural change on the nation of Iraq. Yet, by plunging forward with abandon and (misplaced) conviction, we did this thing. Is it not, then, at least equally possible that, were America to commit to assisting other nations culturally on so vast a scale, that this could also be accomplished?

If ‘common sense’ and convention resist such a suggestion, then we should question them. Perhaps it is testimony to the ‘fallen’ psychological state of the human consciousness, individual and collective, that so eminently feasible and reasonable an idea should be deemed improbable and outside realistic consideration.

We should, of course, not limit such speculation to gifts to those who are potential enemies or threats. The same generosity may be extended to our friends or neutral countries. In this respect we should be especially mindful of the newly developing countries — such as those sub-Saharan Africa, whom we, as an affluent nation, have a special responsibility to assist, and those of Latin American, with whom we have a different bond of responsibility — one dictated by a common heritage and future.

This brings us to the second consideration. I wish to direct readers’ attention to the inaugural address of President John F. Kennedy, made January 20, 1961. This address having been made nearly 50 years ago, it is good and appropriate that we should consider the speech — its vision, its ideals, its promises and commitments — and give, basically, a ‘report card’ evaluating our progress as a nation during this time.

Even at the time it was made, the speech was viewed as a historical landmark. No other inaugural address by an American president, before or after, has achieved anywhere near its interest or status.

In the fourth paragraph of his speech, Kennedy said:

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

At one level, this was a direct statement, delivered in the deepest part of the “cold war” between the United States and the aggressive communist regime of the Soviet Union, of the nation’s resolve to resist and oppose the spread of communism around the world.

But to see it’s more positive level of meaning, one must consider the entire context of the speech, which was markedly positive and idealistic in tone. The previous year leading up to his election had established Kennedy as an idealist in the minds of the public. His vision was described as “Camelot”, an ideal society — an allusion to Lerner and Loewe’s musical theater work, popular at the time.

Therefore the statement above should be understood in a more general sense than an solely as an implicit military ‘threat’. At the literal level, Kennedy himself — and by implication, the American people, who had freely and enthusiastically elected Kennedy as their leader — pledged to undergo any burden or hardship to assure the success of liberty. A specific reference to our friends is mentioned.

This being so, it scarcely needs pointing out that the success of liberty and the advancement of learning and knowledge go hand in hand. “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:28). Americans have always believed that tyranny and despotism are prevented and remedied by learning. This is so for the simple reason that (1) all human beings wish to secure the blessings of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, and (2) that this principle is self-evident — meaning that it is fundamentally true, and obvious to anyone who wishes to consider the matter honestly. That people both long for and benefit from freedom, then, is a basic truth, and one which will be made manifestly clear by the free and honest pursuit of knowledge. And it is the free and honest pursuit of knowledge that a library represents in a most fundamental, concrete, and effective way.

Kennedy’s presidency also coincided with a growing awareness of the value of productive relations between the United States and Latin America. This is reflected in the 9’th paragraph of the speech:

“To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge — to convert our good words into good deeds—in a new alliance for progress—to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty. But this peaceful revolution of hope cannot become the prey of hostile powers. Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power know that this Hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house.”

Again, we see a not-so-subtle reference to America’s commitment to oppose the spread of Soviet communism in the Western Hemisphere. But just as clearly — and, apparently, more easily forgotten — is the promise of good deeds, assistance, and, in particular, active contribution to genuine economic progress. It is clear from the tone of the paragraph and speech that what was pledged was not a kind of economic collaboration of the sort we see today — one characterized by expansion of multi-national corporations into Latin America. This latter economic collaboration is distinctly mercenary, and more likely to degrade the quality of life of the countries it ostensibly aims to help. Rather, implicit in the remarks is a promise to provide economic assistance which is specifically and unmistakably associated with improved quality of life, and development of culture.

(In this connection, one may consider the irony of Kennedy’s remarks just two paragraphs previous, in par. 7: “To those new States whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny.” The “iron tyranny” clearly refers to Soviet-backed communism, but we should not ignore how multi-nationalism is itself a kind of neo-colonialism.)

Now, having considered Kennedy’s speech (which the reader is invited to read in its entirety, the entire work being only 27 short paragraphs) we may briefly examine how well the United States has lived up to its pledges and promises.

On the matter of resisting communism, we may say that America has lived up to its promise. During Kennedy’s administration, the famous Cuban missile crisis, during which the world seemed precariously on the brink of nuclear war, occurred. If nothing else was demonstrated, it was that the United States was indeed willing to pay any price to resist communist expansion in the Western Hemisphere.

In the following years, the United States consistently maintained its fierce opposition to communism, as demonstrated especially well in the policy of President Ronald Reagan. It seems generally agreed that this concerted and continued policy of the United States caused or hastened the eventual demise of global communism.

But let us next consider what America has done over the last 50 years to effectively contribute to the development of our neighbor countries. Little or nothing here readily comes to mind. When was the last time we heard a president or a candidate emphasizing our duty and responsibility towards our Latin American neighbors? Who has approached the American public directly and sincerely, as did Kennedy, emphasizing this as a most important issue — one that should be at the forefront of our policy? About the only recent governmental interest the U.S. has had in Latin America recently has been to build a fence spanning its southern border to prevent illegal immigration. Not only is this absurd thing being pursued, but it is being done without the slightest concession to the sensibilities of our neighbors. There is no apology or request for understanding, as in saying, “we deeply regret that this is necessary, but, if the United States is to continue to grow and prosper, economically, we must control immigration.” Rather, the fence is built and that is that.

Moreover, how can we fail to appreciate that the surest way to prevent illegal immigration in the United States is to advance the prosperity and culture of Latin America? Had the United States made good Kennedy’s pledge to assist Latin American to “cast off the chains of poverty” we would likely not be facing this problem. And if we wish not to be facing it 50 years hence, then we should re-embark on the visionary campaign of friendship and assistance Kennedy foresaw.

I therefore conclude with a suggestion: I propose that the United States embark on a new campaign of cultural and educational assistance around the world. As a way of doing this, I suggest that America donate several research libraries, great ones, like that of Leuven. As Iran and Egypt have already been mentioned, let these be two recipients, and let this, then, suffice, as a beginning, as a gesture of our friendship and magnanimity towards the Mid-East Islamic countries. This would cost us a mere $100 million, or 1/10,000th of what we’ve spent on the Iraq war, and would profit us far more.

I dare say our staunchest critics would be silenced by such a gesture. Such an act of genuine friendship and goodwill would entirely undermine any basis of support or legitimacy currently enjoyed by Osama bin Laden or other Islamic terrorists. Let a deeds like this — which might be likened to things angelic — oppose and destroy any image of America as a ‘great Satan’.

Further, I propose we donate several such libraries to countries in Latin America. Personally, I should like to see us donate at least one such library to each country in the hemisphere. But if this seems too extravagant, then let us consider the following countries:

Brazil (because it is large and populus, has a great future, is struggling to emerge for the first time as a first-world nation);

Argentina (because it, similarly, is large and populus; because, with its mixture of European cultures it resembles the U.S.; because previously, in the first half of the 20th century, it was an economic and cultural leader of Latin America, and should rightly regain that status);

Colombia (because the U.S., albeit unintentionally, has arguably in the past contributed to the hardship of the Colombian people due to the American market for illicit drugs);

Mexico (because she is our nearest Latin American neighbor; and because were we to disregard the arbitrary lines drawn on maps, we should admit that the American and Mexican cultures are intermingled and without definite boundary or demarcation)

With these four countries in Latin America, then, I believe we should begin.

There is nothing more that needs to be said, except to remind the reader that this suggestion should not be viewed as mere foolish idealism. Such things can be done — the Leuven library demonstrates this. It should be noted that the Leuven library was a gift of private individuals — the money having been raised by “subscription”, with certain wealthy Americans being especially well represented by the size of their donations We could, of course, apply the same model of private donation, today. Yet we should not feel limited to the political and economic paradigms of the past. Nothing legally, constitutionally, or practical prevents us from making such cultural donations out of public funds. (After all, we already direct a great deal of public money for arms to other countries.)

Even if a bold and new idea, we should consider it. Were the United States to donate even a single library to Iran, the world would take notice. This simple action would change human history; we would usher in a new cultural era, one in which nations recognize it as their duty (and a welcome one) to assist one another, and see this, and not military intervention, as their most basic foreign policy activity.

If this appears radical and impossible, then let that appearance itself be earnestly scrutinized as itself a sign that we are as people asleep to truth, and unable to see even the most obvious of actions by which we may obtain peace, happiness, and security for ourselves and others.


Written by John Uebersax

October 12, 2007 at 5:09 am

One Response

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  1. […] library for the University of Leuven which the American people (independently of their government) donated to the people of Belgium following World War […]

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