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Sunday, March 2, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Large / Times staff columnist

Author says we must take hard look at our own face

Reports have been pouring in from U.S. embassies around the world with some disturbing news.

One, a recent Washington Post article, said embassies have been reporting for weeks that many people around the world see President Bush as a greater threat to world peace than Saddam Hussein.

One U.S. official was quoted as saying it is astonishing that anyone could come to such a conclusion. Should a high official have been so surprised? We all know it's hard to see yourself the way other people see you. The perception gap might not be too bad if you see yourself realistically, but what if you don't?

Last weekend I read a short book by Walter Mosley, which was born of the idea that once in a while the United States needs someone to hold up a mirror and point out the warts on its beautiful face.

Mosley directed "What's Next: A Memoir Toward World Peace," (Black Classic Press) to black Americans, who, never having been entirely incorporated into the face of America, stand just far enough apart to see that there are blemishes, and who, being part of the American body, have a keen interest in seeing the blemishes treated.

He doesn't argue that black folk are morally superior, or are any better informed than anyone else about our role in the world, just that our experience of America allows us to understand something fundamental about the country.

We understand that saying the right words does not mean you live the right actions. A man can be a champion of liberty and justice for all and live off the labor of slaves at the same time. A nation can claim to be a friend to the world and be at the same time arrogant and dismissive. It can give some while taking more and believing itself to be heroic. ("I'm doing this for your own good," said the people who put Jim Crow in place.)

A couple of things about Mosley. He's a novelist whose 16 books cross several categories, from mystery to science fiction. He's not an ideologue, but neither does he shy away from difficult topics. His characters are full, complex people. His heroes have flaws, and he gives readers a chance to understand his villains.

I'm not surprised that his response to the events of 9/11 and to the preparation for war with Iraq is full of introspection, personal and national. It is complex at a time when simplicity often reigns.

Mosley saw the destruction of the World Trade Center towers from the window of his apartment. In the aftermath, he joined other Americans in wondering why anyone would hate us this much.

His musings kept bringing him back to the experiences of African Americans, and to conversations he had with his father while growing up in Los Angeles.

Black people know how to live in the midst of people who may hate you even though you have not done a thing to them. Black people have experience living with terrorism. Black people know about suppressing one's own anger in order to get along in the world.

While commentators were saying nothing so awful had ever happened on American soil, black people were thinking of past slaughters.

Of course, Native Americans would know something about that, too. The list of people who have suffered injustice here is long: Irish Catholics, Mexican Americans, Italian immigrants. Japanese Americans were moved by their own history to speak out against the incarceration of Arabs and Muslims, held without due cause.

But too many people who should know something about justice have not spoken out, so Mosley felt compelled to write.

We get caught up in our own lives. Some of us finally have a piece of the pie and don't want to spoil entry into that broad swath of America that's doing fine and just doesn't see the bad stuff.

Mosley writes that most Americans believe our history and political culture flow from the most noble of concepts: freedom, democracy, opportunity. But that isn't entirely true. "We are fooled by the rhetoric of our national heritage and, in that hoodwinked condition, we make false assumptions about the face we show to the world."

His prescription is for Americans to spend more time educating ourselves about crucial issues, coming together in small groups to exchange knowledge, just as people come together in book groups.

Then, armed with knowledge, we should work together to influence local politicians, who are still within our reach. His hope is that a more democratic influence will move up and outward from there.

Mosley believes one of the causes of our current problems is the battle between democracy and rapacious capitalism, something Thomas Jefferson foresaw.

The worst aspects of capitalism hurt people abroad and in the United States. Government should be a buffer, but at the highest levels Democrats and Republicans alike are addicted to money and inclined to do its bidding. So it's up to ordinary citizens to put things right.

"The answers will come from all of us," Mosley said. "We will be a wave of clear reason and justice in a world that lost its way."

His message is valuable for all Americans. A democracy needs citizens armed with facts, not fairy tales.

Jerry Large: jlarge@seattletimes.com

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