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America, Beacon of Hope? Once It Was

A few weeks ago, President George W. Bush went before the UN, asking for money for the United States from the global community. It remains to be seen whether anyone will come to our aid, but it's easy to imagine the eye-rolling in Europe and especially in third world countries, at the sight of the swaggering superpower asking alms.

The fact that our president has to hold out the hat before a chilly, unfriendly audience of global diplomats shows just how much America as an idea has changed. Not so long ago, the nation was an idea that embodied the best hopes and dreams of Europeans. The power of this idea was so strong in the early nineteenth century that an English scientist who was a complete stranger to our shores -- who had never set foot here and who knew Americans only as they were caricatured in the British press (that is, rail-splitting provincials ) -- gave his entire fortune to the United States to found at Washington an institution "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."

In the two years since the day of the weapon-ized jets and crumbling towers, many Americans have grown leery of traveling to Washington D.C. Those who still visit stroll the green swath between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol building and pass the ubiquitous signs bearing the name "Smithsonian." If they investigate further, they find that even today, entry to each and every one of the Smithsonian museums is absolutely free.

The national mall is today a living memorial to a man tourists must assume played a prominent role in the founding of our nation. On the contrary, James Smithson, a minor eighteenth century scientist and bastard son of the British nobility whose half million dollars in 1836 money founded the nation's foremost cultural repository, had never seen the country nor probably met many Americans at all. His experience of America was entirely intellectual.

Living today, with "U.S.A." a synonym for global supremacy in military power, we and the Europeans tend to forget that eighteenth century Europeans -- from wealthy intellectuals like Smithson to the poor and tyrannized masses -- had a vision for the new nation forming across the water. Whether they huddled in seasick droves to get here, or merely thought and read about America, as did Smithson, the distant, still-savage land represented not brute power, but the promise of a better human condition.

Smithson and his peers believed this vast wild land would spawn a new Athens, with a thriving culture built on freedom of thought. They certainly had no inkling that America would someday be symbolized by fighter bombers or the bullying power of its leaders to force an issue like the invasion of Iraq. Rather, they imagined a place where art, literature, and - for Smithson especially - science would thrive and flourish under a national government that had codified individual opportunity in an officially classless society.

Then, as now, there were American politicians who thought it "beneath our dignity" to take money from a European, and who feared that to spend money on cultural institutions would dangerously expand the power of the federal government. It took a decade for the money to be accepted and put to use to seed the Smithsonian museum complex on the national mall today.

The optimistic spirit of scientific inquiry for the public good that motivated Smithson's bequest was a trend that developed in England during his lifetime. In 1800, Smithson joined with a group of British scientists and reformers -- including the poet William Blake -- to found the Royal Institution, an organization specifically created to diffuse scientific knowledge among the public through a series of lectures.

When Smithson bequeathed his money to the United States, the nation was hardly an emblem of Enlightenment. The trade in human flesh was thriving and shackled blacks could be seen from Capitol Hill, being bought and sold near the banks of the Potomac. The cultural pastimes of Washington D.C. consisted mainly of tobacco-chewing and duelling.

In spite of that, Smithson believed that the diffusion of knowledge among those less likely to attain it could be implemented in the United States, and that that diffusion would bring about a better world. In just a few hundred years, he was proved right. Since Smithson's death, the world has changed beyond the imagination of eighteenth century Europeans, with many of the changes initiated by American scientific men who were not to the manor born.

Living on the cusp between two centuries, Smithson the scientist discerned that the world was on the verge of the vast transformations we now know occurred, but he could not have envisioned the speed, human longevity and global communications that we take for granted. All Smithson had, really, was faith that great and positive changes could emanate from America.

Residing in France for the last few years, I was often confronted with the scornful image that modern Europeans hold of Americans. The cliché is familiar to us all: fat, SUV-driving, culturally backward, anti-intellectual, swaggering, armed-to-the-teeth boors. I see their point, but for all our flaws, we must never let the Europeans - or ourselves - forget that this country did live up to the greatest aspirations of the European forebears. Yes, our popular culture has flooded the world with Britney and bad television, and our scientists have developed monstrosities from the Humvee to the atomic bomb. This same national culture has produced people whose inventions -- cars, airplanes, telephones, light bulbs, and the Internet, to name just a few -- have utterly and forever changed life on earth for the better.

In these post 9-11 times, we have all been trying to understand -- or deny -- the hatred directed at our nation. It is worth remembering that it was not always thus. The act of a man giving the nation a vast fortune because he felt America was the place from which to "increase and diffuse knowledge among men" is a good place to start. To reflect on Smithson and his bequest is to remind ourselves of the facet of our nation that was and is still good, a beacon in the imagination of people living in darker times and places.