02/21/2007 01:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Are We Becoming a Backwoods Nation?

A Spanish pilot last week foiled a hijacker by giving the Arabic and Spanish-speaking passengers instructions in French. It's lucky the passengers weren't Americans. They probably wouldn't have had a clue what he was saying. Americans may be the most linguistically deficient people in the world. Even poor people in Third World countries often speak two or three languages, while we have 'English only' laws to protect us from being confronted with our own ignorance.

Suspicion of anything outside our borders is contributing to our economic and cultural decline. We used to be number one in education, technology, and science. But in just a few years, thanks to the xenophobia of the Bush administration and its supporters, we've fallen behind much of Europe and Asia. Twenty years ago the U.S. ranked first in the world in percentage of both college degrees and high school diplomas. Today we've slipped to 7th and 9th respectively. In 1970 more than half of the world's science and engineering doctorates came from U.S. universities. By 2001 the European Union granted 40% more than the United States.

China now has four times as many engineers as the United States--it used to have one-sixth. The United States is down to 14th in science graduates--partly because fundamentalism has made the American South abysmally ignorant in geology, biology, and astronomy. Foreign student applications to study in the U.S. are half what they were, with the UK and Germany picking up the slack. We're far behind Asians in math literacy. In 2000 we were number one in broadband Internet access. Now we're 16th. In 2000 we produced 40% of the world's telecom equipment, now only 21%. We now rank 42nd in the percentage of the population with cell phones. Once the world's technological and educational leader, we're becoming an also-ran.

As Benjamin Barber once pointed out, no democratic legislature in the civilized world has as many members without passports as ours, no other democratic nation pays a smaller percentage of its GNP for foreign aid, and no other democratic nation is so ignorant of other cultures.

Republican leaders have opted out of almost every international effort to make the world a safer and more civilized place, citing 'national' (i.e., short-term Republican political) interests. As a nation, we're cowering behind our borders--afraid to go out, afraid to let anyone in. Meanwhile the civilized world is moving on without us.

Xenophobia in America has reached such a peak that our nation is investing billions of dollars keeping out or throwing out the millions of illegal immigrants who do all the dirty and backbreaking work that Americans are too lazy or privileged to do. Yet who's making a bigger contribution to American society? Hard-working, enterprising undocumented workers, or the "Minute (as in tiny) Men'--gun-toting losers who have nothing better to do than lounge around bars at the border and shoot at aliens who only want to work?

Personally, I would love to see a swap: Let the undocumented workers come in, but only if Mexico will take in exchange all the ignorant yahoos who would never in a million years have the guts or the ambition to take the risks, or work as hard as, undocumented aliens do.