Coming back to the United States after a sojourn abroad, one is put in the position of a Rip Van Winkle who wakes up not to find everything changed but to find everything exactly the same. The experience is a saddening one, and it raises serious questions about America's ability to cope with changing world realities.
For the last two years I, along with many other Americans abroad, have had this experience. Last year at this time I had just returned from more than a year as an exchange student in West Germany and was trying to adjust to the fact that conditions in the US had not changed quite as much as I had. This year my stay abroad was a shorter one spent traveling around Greece, but the experience was much the same. One comes home feeling that things should have changed and is disappointed to find that they have not.
When I arrived at John F. Kennedy airport this time, the first thing I did was pick up a newspaper to find out what I had missed in my month away. I found, of course, that I hadn't missed anything, and that I could pick up with national news exactly where I had left off.
President Reagan was still saying more or less the same things about everything that he had been saying the month before, the economy was still in rotten shape, the rhetoric of the Democrats was still barely distinguishable from that of the Republicans, and our negotiators at the Geneva talks on strategic arms reductions were still getting us nowhere. While in the rest of the world governments (among them that in West Germany) were falling and rising, here the only halfway lively discussion centered on whether or not President Reagan was too moderate for his far-right-wing constituents.
An American friend of mine had, like me, spent a year in Germany and been duly impressed by the intense political ferment there and the debate between young and old, conservative and socialist, on the basic outlines of the country's and the world's future. She too had been filled with a sense of urgency and activity - a sense that there is not much time left to solve some of the world's basic problems, and that we not only must do something now, we can do something now.
Americans who go abroad these days are apt to meet slightly mocking bewilderment from the citizens of other countries rather than the respect or awe they may once have enjoyed when America was still something of a novelty on the international scene. Foreigners find it difficult to comprehend American politics, not because they know less about it than we do, but because they know more. As a result they tend to look at us as being almost comically backward in many respects. One is at a loss to explain our apprehension about the word ''socialism,'' our ossified political institutions like the electoral college, the lack of national health care, the cuts in welfare and social spending, and the power of the military lobby.
While I was abroad I began to think of America as an underdeveloped country, a country where for some reason basic changes have failed to be made - a country that has, for this reason, gotten out of step with the rest of the world.
As long as I can remember, Americans have been dissatified and cynical about politics, and for as long as I can remember they haven't done anything about it. Our political system breeds inertia and encourages people to think that there is nothing any one individual can do to improve either the political or the social system. This feeling of helplessness explains the fact that so few Americans ever even bother to vote.
Meanwhile the charitable in the rest of the world call us politically naive and provincial, and the not-so-charitable call us opportunistic and aggressive and even worse. Our ideas of what the rest of the world is thinking are badly distorted, because we assume that other people's concerns and obsessions are the same as ours.
In fact, however, most of the rest of the world has graduated to more fundamental and basic concerns than those of American image politics. While we dance the usual political dance even on the brink of the nuclear abyss, they at least have recognized the abyss and are trying to do something about it.
When one returns to the US, one leaves the turmoil of intense political and social activity and comes back to a haven of traditional isolation so peaceful that the override of one presidential veto is enough to create great political excitement. Blissful in our ignorance, we don't complain so long as we personally are doing fine.