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World: Forum 2000 Speaker Identifies 'Scourges Of America'

  • Don Hill

At Forum 2000 in Prague yesterday, futurist and business consultant Hazel Henderson described herself as a typical American. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill reports that she then denounced a long list of what she said were American shortcomings. Hill says her ability to criticize her country so freely demonstrates that the United States is an open society.

Prague, 13 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In the first full day of discussions at Forum 2000 on Monday in Prague, George Soros described an open society, approvingly, as one that recognizes its own imperfections and freely discusses them. Soros, an international financier and philanthropist, founded the Open Society Institute.

On the second day of the forum, yesterday, futurist, consultant and author Hazel Henderson gave a demonstration of such an open society.

Describing herself as a "typical American -- in her words, "I'm from somewhere else. I'm a Brit " -- Henderson launched into criticisms of the problems in American society, including what she called "an appalling education system."

"Just to comment briefly on the situation as I see it in the USA, I think the real shadows we are dealing with grow out of, first of all, the scourges of the American society -- of racism, of violence, of the gun culture, which is still a tremendous battle to be overcome."

Introducing Henderson at a Forum 2000 morning session, moderator Josef Jarab said that the United States, if not a role model for Eastern European countries in transition from communism, is at least a source of inspiration for them.

Henderson said, as she put it: "The American dream itself is very much in transition."

She said that the U.S. literacy rate is substantially lower than official estimates admit. This, she said, constitutes a substantial threat to Jeffersonian democracy.

Henderson said that in polls, only 30 percent of Americans say they trust their government in Washington. And, no wonder, she said, because the U.S. political process, in her words, "has been hijacked by money and materialism."

Still, the futurist said, the United States is building the multicultural society promised by the words on the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor: "Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to be free." She said that across the United States, there's what she called "a new migration." California was once a magnet state for internal migration within the U.S. Now, whites are moving away from California (to Colorado), leaving their communities to incoming Asians and Mexicans. Henderson said that in "a couple of years," the United States will be, in her words, "the second largest Spanish-speaking country in the world."

The U.S. economy also is in transition, she said, and is restructuring. There are questions now about productivity statistics as electronic commerce on the Internet soars. Is that truly productivity? she asked.

It's difficult to interpret any governmental economic statistics anymore, Henderson said, because of what she called "statistical illusions." She said accounting definitions have been changed so that the government's economic reports sound more reassuring.

Those new accounting terms mask some real problems in the U.S. economy, she said, including the trade deficit, historically high corporate and consumer debt, and what she called "the stock market bubble (that is, irrationally high stock values)."

Finally, the speaker said that the United States is in danger of hypocrisy when it dictates to other nations concerning democracy and human rights.

"We have always had a danger in the U.S. of being on some kind of a moral crusade about our democracy and human rights. And even though these ideals are extremely powerful and important, they do lead to hypocrisy that I feel very deeply when I travel to other countries. I feel it necessary to apologize."

Czech President Vaclav Havel and Nobel peace laureate Elie Wiesel conceived this series of Forum 2000 conferences as a set of discussions by leading world intellectuals and political, business and spiritual figures. The discussions are intended to lay out plans for a more civilized world in the next century. The series began in 1997 with an appraisal of world conditions. The following year's participants examined the development of globalization.

The topic this year is global integration from the perspectives of developing countries, of fully industrialized countries, and of countries in transition from communism. The organizers say that in the final year of Forum 2000, in 2001, they hope to issue a universal political appeal for the 21st century, to be titled, "The Prague Declaration."