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February 2, 2011

Our seat on the world stage

Now that we have a new year, a new mayor, a new basketball cathedral and a new plan to someday build a bridge, it’s only natural that we look for more ways to, as Mayor Greg Fischer says, “place Louisville on the global map,” or what the Germans call nehmen der Welt gnadenlos von hinten.

For as long as I can remember, Louisvillians have been calling Louisville a world-class city or promising to make Louisville a world-class city or trying to get actual world-class cities to ask us to the world-class prom, which has led some to wonder, “Do we have a world-class zit or something?” Some audacious heroes have even attempted to evaluate Louisville’s world-classness as if it were a CATS score or wiener measurement. Meanwhile, our more abstemious citizens have asked, “What is a world-class city, anyway?”

Most people agree that to be world class, a city must have natural beauty, excellent transit systems, good schools, inventive restaurants, distinctive architecture, excellent parks, professional sports, first-rate performing arts and citizens who tend not to hang out with old high school friends at Chick-fil-A in the mall food court. Forbes magazine also recommends not “being Indianapolis.”

Louisville has many, if not all of these amenities. But there is one feature all world-class cities have that we lack: They never call themselves world class. The first rule of being a world-class city is to never call yourself a world-class city. That’s why it’s so important to become one: so we can shut up about being one.

Another benchmark for being world class might be whether people from other countries have ever heard of you. Recently, I had the privilege of traveling to India, where an economic and cultural revival is under way. Like its burgeoning neighbor China, India is a nation on the rise. Despite its considerable problems, construction is booming, commerce is bustling, and Indians have an infectious and joyful optimism.

Unlike us Americans, Indians are not curled up in the fetal position whining about taxes and snow days and junk touching. They have rolled up their sleeves and are enthusiastically upselling Americans financial services and helping us remove our malware and performing rocket surgery and bravely doing other stuff involving math, all in impeccable English. (Also, their curries are aMAZing!) And if my unscientific survey of a couple dozen people scales to a population of 1.1 billion, the overwhelming majority of Indians have never even heard of Kentucky. They don’t know we exist!

When I travel, I ask people what, if anything, they know about Louisville. Most people I’ve met in Europe and Central America have heard of at least something. The “Louisville Lip,” Muhammad Ali, is well known. The Kentucky Derby and bourbon are sometimes drunkenly mentioned. Once in a blue moon someone will have heard of one of our university-affiliated professional basketball teams. But in India: nada.

And since Kentucky Fried Chicken switched to the less-diabetic acronym KFC, we’re not even famous for chicken anymore. In the shadow of an Indian KFC, a man told me he’d never heard of Kentucky. KFC, yes. Kentucky, no. (So at least they’re not blaming us for that.) Of course, many people on our own coasts have trouble locating us on the map. One highly educated chap in Massachusetts once placed us next to Idaho! And why not? Ask yourself this: Do you give two shits about Massachusetts? So why should anybody in Massachusetts give two shits about us?

I think our invisibility can actually help us see the big picture. If 1 billion up-and-coming Indians aren’t worried that sycophantic turnip-cracker state Sen. David Williams could actually become Kentucky’s next governor, why should I stress my pretty little head over him? See? That’s why we travel: for mature perspective.

As frustrating as our low profile might be to world-class wannabes, I find it encouraging, exciting and humbling — sort of how Carl Sagan must have felt looking at the cosmos or how Annie Leibovitz probably felt photographing Scarlett Johansson naked. It’s a big, beautiful world out there. And if we concentrate on impressing us we might someday impress Mumbai, Paris or Oklahoma City.

So, let’s embrace our place in the world and make our little corner of it as sweet as we can. If we can’t be at the head of the world table, it’s no disgrace to be at the other end. Because, as Proctology Today remarked in a recent editorial, “You can’t spell ‘world class’ without ‘ass.’”