When I was younger and more convinced of the need for Drastic Measures, I decided that when I took power I would decree that all Americans must leave the country for a time.
It seemed to me then that nothing short of forced foreign experience would ever enlighten the fat of our land. Generations of mothers exhorting us all to think of the starving children in India had failed. Soldiers suckled on PX and commissary privileges hadn't learned much. Michael Harrington was boring.
But with $10,000 and a round-trip ticket to elsewhere good for one year for every American between the ages of 18 and 30, I figured, I would create an invincible, grimly realistic nation of liberal patriots. This would result from the transformation of the following:
a)5 American thinking about poverty. The foreign brand, like French cigarettes and Greek liquor, is much headier than the U.S. variety. Foreign poverty, being poorer, is more outrageous. It smells worse. It offends more because there is more of it. It makes more people mean and desperate. It makes them like guns even more than our brand does. It would be nice for Americans to know how rich they really are.
b) Foreign thinking about Americans. The Americans who now travel overseas are, by definition, not the typical Americans who stay at home. Neither are the foreigners who travel here true representatives of the rank- and-file French or Kuwaitis or Pakistanis. Although familiarity often breeds other than love, at least it makes everyone more realistic.
c)5 Politics. Nothing is guaranteed to make Americans worship their bureaucrats faster than dealing with the foreign variety. In most countries, bureaucracies exist not to provide services but to provide jobs. U.S. citizens who have complained about our Postal Service would be required to try to get a package out of a local post office anywhere in Argentina. Those who knock Amtrak would be challenged to try to get an overnight train ticket from Cairo to Aswan.
Similarly, watching any kind of exchange of power elsewhere, and watching foreigners watch American politics, would make our travelers vastly grateful that they were able so totally to forget at home about politics, foreign affairs and the rest of the world altogether.
This gratitude would, I am convinced, transform itself paradoxically into much more concern for foreign affairs once the weary travelers returned to Kansas or wherever.
With about 45 million Americans now in the initially eligible age group, all these blissful results would cost about $700 billion, cheap at the price.
But I have now mellowed into my over-30 dotage and have come to think that these same goals can be accomplished much more cheaply, and with less inconvenience to the Constitution. Instead of taking all Americans to poverty, I now propose to bring it to them, in the form of a giant Poverty Theme Park.
Some hilly area is appropriate so that the shacks may lean properly against each other and the roads be correctly rutted and flowing with sewage. The park will feature genuine natives living in exact replicas of their real homes around the world, complete with imported rodents, insects and domestic animals.
Just past the entrance, where ticket- takers will shortchange all comers by a pittance not worth fussing over, there will be a yard full of decrepit taxis, ancient pickup trucks and gaily painted glorified schoolbuses. These mass transit vehicles of the Third World will pack the tourists in along with a few chickens and perhaps a sheep until no one can breathe, and then a dozen peasants will be added, and the tour will begin.
While it might seem sensible to arrange the starving by continent of origin, I think it more instructive to display them by climate, topography and population density. The section called High Rural Cold, for example, could include a Nepalese nomadic family in their yurt, a Patagonian shepherd's hut and a Finnish hog farm. The guides will note the similar low-slung, solid architecture, the earth and leather construction materials, the paucity of windows or vegetation, and the tendency to bring animals indoors as auxiliary heaters.
The Low Urban Hot area, by contrast, will feature the tin-roofed, stick-walled rabbit warrens of slums in Hong Kong, Nairobi and Caracas. Subdistricts of Wet and Dry could be additionally educational on the discrete passive solar energy values in hot climates of thick-walled adobe (found in amazingly similar versions in most dry areas) versus tin roofs innocent of any walls whatever (equally rampant in humid zones).
A Louisiana sharecropper's shack, adorned with rusting auto hulks and a 1948 Frigidaire on the porch, would fit nicely into the Low Rural Hot section next to the startlingly similar shack of a Salvadoran cane farmer. Chickens, goats and pigs could wander freely between the two families.
A special section of the park could be devoted to the Disaster of the Month. A rotating exhibit could show the typical aftermath of an earthquake, volcanic eruption, flood, drought, famine or plague, all of which produce distinctly different types of sudden poverty.
Another special section could be called War Zone. Genuine guerrillas would be employed to leap from behind blasted buildings and fire blank bullets and fake mortars at the tourists.
Scattered throughout the park, of course, would be refreshment stands disguised as village or slum-city stores stocking the skewered meats, flat breads, beers, vegetables, candies and fruits of the world's poor. Emaciated, craven, snarling dogs would snap at potbellied toddlers competing for scraps. It would of course be prohibited to feed any exhibits living on sidewalks.
I have debated the merits of including ethnic dance troupes and decided against them as too cheerful. If the exhibits should happen to be caught strumming a guitar in a hammock or singing as they wade through the rice paddies, that would add a certain bittersweet quality to the scene, making it more memorable.
The whole park would of course be funded, staffed and supplied by the World Bank, the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund, which together employ all the world's experts on the causes and maintenance of poverty.
A park security force, each man armed with a submachine gun, would be necessary as a final touch to protect the resident exhibits from priests, tourists, anthropologists, journalists, teachers, doctors and--most especially--politicians.
Otherwise, after all, one of those agitator types might tell the poor that their lives were just one big, cruel joke.