Traveling abroad, and especially living abroad, provides one with a unique outsider perspective on one's own country. With some time away from the States, we can get a more objective sense of foreigners' impression of Americans. The worst stereotypes are overstated but not entirely without merit: that we are all morbidly obese (and unsophisticated eaters to boot), arrogant, money-obsessed, addicted to juvenile-themed culture and dominated by the view that the United States should tell everyone else how to live.
We can quibble with that, most effectively by reminding folks in other countries that they, too, are growing fatter, enjoy fast food and shoot-‘em-up American movies, want to have more money and don't seem to mind so much when the United States steps in with military help or humanitarian aid during a crisis. [See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.]
But an even more effective way of countering unflattering opinions of the United States is to highlight what is truly wonderful about this country, and that is our widespread willingness to volunteer.
Volunteering is not as common in many other nations. When I was living in Eastern Europe, locals recoiled at the idea—truly, not because they were unfriendly or inhospitable (people of that region routinely invite complete strangers into their homes for coffee), but because the word "volunteer" brought up bad memories of the communists and their brainwashed teenage "volunteers."
But Americans step up to the plate. We text donation pledges through our smartphones when there's a natural disaster. We send money abroad, too, to help people we've never met in places we've barely heard of. We traveled at our own expense to Louisiana to help Katrina victims, and spend the early part of our Thanksgiving days doling out food at a soup kitchen. [12 States and Territories with the Most Disaster Declarations in 2011]
So when President Obama—or for that matter, anyone—urges Americans to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks by volunteering, we should do it. Some commentators have derided the idea, suggesting there's something offensive about participating in national service instead of mourning. Those comments may have more to do with a visceral dislike of Obama than the idea itself. But what better way to prove we are not caught up in a culture of victimization? There's been a strong sensitivity to "letting the terrorists win" by allowing ourselves to curtail our own freedoms or culture out of fear of another attack. How better to showcase what is great about our American culture than to volunteer?
This is not a partisan issue. The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act had conservative Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch as a cowriter. Schoolchildren, church groups, community organizations—all these entities engage in volunteer activities to help the needy. We all mourn the loss of life from the Sept. 11 attacks. But the best way to honor the dead is to step up and remind the world of how united and compassionate our diverse American community is.