Despite America's woes, people line up to get in

ON EXCELLENCE

July 12, 1993|By TOM PETERS

While cleaning up the last of the July 4 hot dog wrappers, I remembered when I felt most proud of the United States. Not after the Persian Gulf war or during the peaceful transition of presidential power, but last fall on a visit to London.

My hotel was next door to the American Embassy. I went out for a brisk walk at about 7:30 a.m. Though the embassy doors wouldn't open for a couple of hours, there was already a line -- a rainbow of skin colors -- waiting to get papers to enter the United States. There was no such line at other nearby embassies.

At the recent United Nations human rights conference, Chinese delegates, among others, claimed our liberal brand of democracy was too promiscuous for them. Really? Since when is torture and severe restriction of speech defensible in pursuit of order, even if coupled with rapid economic growth?

The United States is brimming with problems -- drive-by shootings in cities and suburbs, millions of displaced, unemployed professionals and 37 million citizens, in the world's richest country, without health insurance. Often it seems nothing works. Well, I've got news for you:

* "They" want in. Whoever from wherever wants to live and work here. The oppressed want in. Students seeking higher education want in. Japanese investors want in. If you need testimony to our continuing vitality, others' passionate desire to jump on our bandwagon heads the witness list.

* We (usually) let them in. Populist Ross Perot makes nasty distinctions between "them" and "us" -- for example, his mean-spirited attacks on the North American Free Trade Agreement. Sorry, Ross, what I love most about my home state (California) is its vital ethnic mix. Yes, we Left Coasters are still mired in a tenacious recession. But bet against us at your peril: We have the power of newly arrived Asians, Hispanics, Middle Easterners and Europeans at our disposal. Our long-term prominence will be built, in the American tradition, on their unquenchable thirst for success.

* Talk is cheap. Freedom of expression is America. It's the main reason we lead the planet in TV channels, music and movie makers -- and lawyers. America is an unabashedly contentious, noisy society. The unfettered marketplace for speech and ideas has spawned the unfettered marketplace for goods and services and religions and immigrant talent.

* We're a mess. Fortune magazine recently claimed the U.S. is home to 42 of the world's 55 computer-related companies with sales of more than $1 billion. Wow! And why? Largely, our entrepreneurial flair.

It's OK (not as OK as it ought to be) for us to thumb our nose at the establishment and establishment jobs -- and set out on our own. We are almost alone in our love for the bluff pioneer and the anti-establishment entrepreneur. As change accelerates, the volume of obstreperous characters (entrepreneurs) will increasingly determine nations' fates.

* Science turns us on. Americans have been tinkerers and pragmatists from the get-go; hence our special affection for science. One major manifestation: peerless research universities. Name an important field, and odds are that American researchers stand at or near the head of the pack -- for example, semiconductors, software, biotechnology and aerospace.

* We struggle to be fair. Political correctness, at its most outrageous (e.g., campus speech codes), is a classic American case of pursuing ideas to the point of wretched excess. Still, PC's roots are worthy. How lovely that we fret -- a lot -- about unfair treatment of women and minorities, for example. I'd rather chase such issues to the limit and occasionally beyond than sweep them under the carpet, as most nations do.

* Women are grabbing the brass ring -- at last. 1992, the year of the woman, is history. Nonetheless, we're second to none in unshackling one-half our population to contribute to America's economy and governance.

I relish the thought of an economy that fully taps women's entrepreneurial energy.

* We're a disrespectful lot. American firms have reinvented themselves faster than those of any other nation. Why? Impatient shareholders? Sure. Mike Milken's junk-bond-spawned market for corporate control? That, too. But mostly something more profound. As a nation, we disrespect the status quo and have an historical bent for reinvention. It is our greatest strength and distinction. We create heroes fast, then smack them down fast if they get complacent or snooty. We'll try anything. And we're not afraid to fail -- which sets us apart from our economic competitors.

America hasn't got it right by a long shot. But as long as we revel in our disorderliness and raucously debate the way forward, there's hope. Those early morning lines outside our embassies may grow even longer.

(Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; [407] 420-8200.)

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