by Gilles d'Aymery
Amy Goodman: "How did we get to be so hated, Gore Vidal?"
Gore Vidal: "Well, there are many odious traits that Americans have that the rest of the world doesn't like. Constant boasting with not much to boast about, that gets on other people's nerves. The idea that, somehow or other, the whole world belongs to us and everybody should do what we tell them to do, they don't really like that. Weird, but they don't. There has never been a people less suited for world dominion than the Americans of the twentieth century and twenty-first century. "
May 14, 2008, Democracy Now!
(Swans - May 19, 2008) THE UN-AMERICAN TIRADE: "Perception is everything" explained a friend to whom I had related a phone conversation with an amicable, but critical reader who happens to live nearby in the Anderson Valley (Mendocino County, California, 115 miles north of San Francisco) and has generously made a financial contribution to Swans to foster our efforts. He is a good-hearted chap with a jolly good demeanor and a no-nonsense, pragmatic approach to life. Born in the Valley, he married his high school sweetheart and went to work in and outside of government ever since he graduated from high school. Kids, grandkids, love of god and country, open minded to other people's opinions, relatively tolerant, solidly conservative, and the holder of strong opinions once you push a few buttons here and there. I've referred to him in one or two past Blips (like #63 in January 2008 -- he is the friendly acquaintance that owns a herd of 40 sheep). I can't mention his name for he, like so many people, wants to remain anonymous for reasons I conveyed in my last Blips -- even the money he sent Swans way was done with the request that his name not appear on our donate page. Friendly, yes, without any doubt, but please let not locals know about it! To say the least, that anonymity tends to substantially limit the extent to which a conversation can take place.
CONVERSATION TOOK place, however. I called him to ask for his help in finding dirt that contractors have to get rid of on a recurring basis. While they have to pay fees to dispose of that dirt, strangely enough when you are looking to take a few loads in, save them money, and even agree to pay for their time and fuel, they suddenly get a dollar sign all over their eyes -- $$$$$. I suppose this is the American definition of the "free market." Don't let me get started on this one, please!
SO WHAT DID THIS FRIENDLY NEIGHBOR have to say? "Swans is a very depressing read," he contended. "It's so critical of America and Americans, so negative... There is nothing good written about the country and its people. Is there anything 'good' about America and Americans? " This, I hasten to state and want to emphasize, was said without one iota of aggressiveness on his part. It was plain talking from a respected individual to another. The conversation was friendly, without asperities or formal, direct accusation -- except that in his perception Swans (I?) was un-American. Still, I found myself on the defensive, having to try to counter a charge without being provided with any specifics -- what, when, who? I was taken aback by his comments. The first thing that came to mind was to ask him whether he had read the work of Martin Murie and Carol Warner Christen. He honestly answered he had not. I could have mentioned Isidor Saslav, Charles Marowitz, or any other regular contributors and I think I'd have received the same honest answer. Chances are the condemnation was indeed directed at me, and possibly Jan Baughman.
We then moved on to various issues. I recall we spoke about the obscene financial compensations of a very few plutocrats. I took the example of this hedge fund manager who took home four billion dollars by betting against the sub-prime and mortgage business, the same way George Soros bet against the Bank of England in the 1990s and made a killing at the expense of the commons. I tried to explain how those guys only pay capital gains taxes on their abhorrent profits -- only 15% -- when he had just paid up to 33% on the income he made in 2007 (as well as more state taxes). He conceded that it was not fair, but my attempt to link the issue of obscene wealth with the ills of the country fell on deaf ears. I've since then heard that the state of California may lay off between 15,000 and 20,000 teachers due to budget cuts. The Regents of the University of California decided to raise the fees of the students by 7 to 10 percent -- presidents of those state universities are paid as much as $650,000 a year. (Can he put two and two together in the big picture?) Neither could I get through that we need a single payer health care system; that we pay more insurance money per capita than any other First World country but are rated at the bottom of these same countries in the quality of care we receive. There is a good dose of irony in the fact that this friendly man's health insurance policy is paid by the state of California. Then we moved on to the war in Iraq. But before I broach that sorry subject, allow me to address his points.
NOTHING GOOD ABOUT AMERICA: I'm not sure which America this good fellow is referring to, but I would respectfully direct his attention to, for example, my review of Ralph Nader's The Seventeen Traditions, or he may wish to read a story of contrast about America: My thoughts following the deaths of Ray Charles and Ronald Reagan in June 2004 -- two Americas indeed. Or what about my tribute to Kurt Vonnegut in April 2007? Un-American? My story about Keith Jarrett in San Francisco (March 2006)? Un-American? And the story about meeting Ralph Nader and Matt Gonzalez last Sunday? Also un-American? I've published over 300 pieces of mine, almost 200 by Jan Baughman, and overall somewhat in the vicinity of 2000 pieces in 12 years. All un-American? Has he read them all? Is it possible, I wonder, to counter and reverse an accusation based on "perception" and emotional reactions?
NOTHING GOOD ABOUT AMERICANS: Walt Whitman once wrote, "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes." Three hundred million people can't be pigeonholed in one seemingly generic DNA. I'd like to ask this neighbor what does he think he has in common with, say, Cornell West or Robin Kelley? Does he feel more American than they do? Does he believe he encapsulates the nature of being an American? I once broached that topic in "The American Experiment, Really" (October 2005), which the honorable gentleman ought to read. In it, I mentioned Kurt Vonnegut and Louis "Studs" Terkel, Ralph Nader and Bill Moyers, Garrison Keillor of Lake Wobegon fame, and the Car Talk brothers, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, Etan Thomas and Michael Eric Dyson, etc., and the likes of Pat Robertson and Bill Bennett. Who of those names does the honorable gentleman associate with? Should we generalize?
AMERICANS ARE GREAT, friend; don't worry. They are laid back, optimistic, resilient, adaptable, innovative, extraordinarily diverse, and by and large friendly. They brought jeans to the world, barbecue and hamburgers, chewing gum, and the Internet, and the scanner, and the computer, and electricity, and the landing on the moon, and arts & literature, and wonderful myths and other narratives, and so much more (with the help and creativity of non-Americans, i.e., immigrants). They've also originated the biggest historical genocide, chattel slavery, the atomic bomb, which they used twice, perpetual war for perpetual peace (cf. Gore Vidal), a violent and most inequitable polity... Again, read Walt Whitman. Contradictions abound. Why not "work hard to make this country more lovable," as Ralph Nader's mother once told him? Is this something on which we could agree? Or should we be satisfied with the way things are because that's how they've always been?
I COULD EXPLORE this topic much further. For instance, I am particularly fond of the First Amendment to the Constitution as, I'm sure, all Swans contributors are. Love San Francisco and New York City, the Anderson Valley and the Grand Canyon, etc. If it would please this friendly neighbor I'd be glad to write a 3,000-word essay on what's good about America and Americans. I might even ask our regular contributors if they would be amenable to dedicate a special issue to the topic.
A LANGUAGE AND TRAIN OF THOUGHT, this fellow seems (I am not utterly positive) to follow. When we moved to the topic of the war in Iraq he dismissed the point I was making that this war was unnecessary, morally wrong, and utterly illegal by simply stating: "There has always been war and there will always be war." That's when one has to remain as cool and cold-minded as the rise in personal blood pressure permits. His statement may well turn out to be correct, but does it mean that consequently we are entitled to launch wars of choice on the flimsiest of reasons (my interlocutor is hopefully aware that the Pentagon did not have any hard evidence that the Iraqis had WMDs. He is also certainly aware that the Iraqi government had nothing to do with al Qaeda and 9/11. He must know by now that all the claims and arguments that were used in the lead to the war were fabricated, pure and undulated disinformation. Being intellectually honest, I cannot doubt that he knows these facts. He's done his homework, right?).
A NEPHEW OF HIS was horrendously wounded in Iraq and has been recovering in a Texas military facility for months. He's traveled there (proving me incorrect regarding my comment in the last Blips that Valley people did not move much further than Santa Rosa and Ukiah) to take turn with the family and stay around the recovering, mangled for life, young man. Emotionally, one has to justify the sacrifice. One has to concoct good reasons for the sacrifice of our young men and women. To oppose the war then quickly becomes correlated with un-Americanism. Otherwise, you'd have to try to reconcile your emotions with the hard fact that your nephew has been maimed for life for nothing, absolutely nothing (except the further bleeding in humans and treasure of the American polity, the enrichment of the few, and your SUV -- as well as the destruction of an entire country). That's a position that would take such an emotional toll on anyone's psyche that it cannot even be considered. (By the way, this friendly conversationalist knows that we too have a nephew ensnared in this nightmare.)
MORE ON THE WAR ISSUE. I wonder whether my neighbor truly believes that opposing the war is unpatriotic and un-American. Would he then consider Congressman Walter B. Jones of North Carolina's 3rd congressional district, a staunch Republican and deep conservative (tough on immigration, 100 percent pro-life, pro Second Amendment rights, a stalwart of marriage and family) unpatriotic and un-American? He is the chap who introduced a bill to change the name of French fries to Freedom fries, as he loathed the French who opposed the war in 2003 (do you, good man, wrap me with the same feathers?). Remember? Well, the man has turned 180 degrees and opposes the war with a passion that rivals that of Ralph Nader (and mine, and Jan's, and tens of millions of Americans). Critical, un-American? Please... Within the Iraq Veterans Against the War outfit, you can find war opponents "ranging from anarchists to socialists, libertarians, republicans, conservatives, liberals, democrats, greens -- everything from one spectrum to another," said Adrienne Kinne, a war veteran with 10 years in the military service.
I DID NOT SAY THE FOLLOWING (but could have):
But people took 9/11 and the fear of terrorism to such extremes. My warrant officer actually said in the buildup to Shock and Awe that this was basically final retribution for 9/11 and that we were going to bomb those barbarians back to Kingdom Come. And this is the kind of guidance that was coming from our highest, highest person in charge. And talk about the racism and dehumanization that is just rampant in our military, it affects everybody everywhere, not just on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan, but even working in an office building in the United States of America. And people took this fear and the fear of the unknown, and believing the administration when they said that Iraq was tied to 9/11, they basically used that to justify doing a lot of things that we should not have been doing. (Adrienne Kinne on Democracy Now!, May 13, 2008 -- Neighbor, you should read or hear it in full...)
THERE IS MORE: In March 2003, as I was crying and shouting and begging to stop the incoming onslaught, someone wrote: "If, as seems probable, the effort encounters greater resistance than its architects imagine, our way of life may find itself tested in ways that will make the Vietnam War look like a mere blip in American history." That person recently wrote:
The actual choice is this one: We can either persist in our efforts to change the way they live -- in which case the war of no exits will surely lead to bankruptcy and exhaustion. Or we can recognize the folly of generational war and choose instead to put our own house in order: curbing our appetites, paying our bills and ending our self-destructive dependency on foreign oil and foreign credit.
Salvation does not lie abroad. It's here at home.
("The 'Long War' fallacy," Los Angeles Times, May 13, 2008)
THAT PERSON'S NAME, dear neighbor, is Andrew J. Bacevich, a graduate from West Point, an army colonel veteran who fought in the Vietnam War, and a professor at Boston University. And, just in case you keep your nephew in mind, Prof. Bacevich's son lost his life in Iraq. Is he un-American too, because he disagrees with your beliefs? Is Adrienne Kinne un-American? Is Jan Baughman un-American for holding these views with steadfastness? Am I un-American because of my thoughts, analysis, and, worse, background? That I know, at the very least, all of these people, including Jan and me, do not hide under anonymity...
WAR HAS ALWAYS EXISTED and always will. That looks like a pragmatic statement. Once upon a time people asserted that slavery always existed and always would. People also said that women had never had the right to vote and should not win it. Gay people never had the right to marry and never should (the California Supreme Court has at long last granted that right -- another marvel of American march toward social justice in spite of the past 40 years of reactionary politics). Men were superior to women (patriarchy). Whites were superior to "colored" people (racism). Christians were superior to Jews, and both were superior to Muslims. Rich are more intelligent than poor. Poor deserve their condition. Mexicans are bloodsuckers. French and Germans are old Europeans. This is that and that is better than this. Come on, please, how far and much do I have to go on?
HERE IS A MODERATELY OLD LETTER from a teacher who looked after Jan Baughman (I'm highlighting the relevant part):
Sycamore Junior High School, Anaheim Union High School District, Anaheim, California -- Tuesday, May 27, 1975:
Dear Mr. & Mrs. Baughman,
I would like to take this opportunity to tell you how much I have enjoyed having your daughter Jan in my classes the past two years.
She is a superior French student and a marvelous student in P. E.
But most important, I have found Jan to be an outstanding citizen -- a person of moral character and substance.
You can be proud of the job you have done in raising such a fine daughter.
[ed. 7th and 8th grades (Jan was 12 and 13 at that time).]
OUTSTANDING CITIZEN, a person of moral character and substance...and a progressive to boot! I'd venture that Andrew J. Bacevich is also an outstanding citizen, a person of moral character and substance...and a conservative to boot! They, and Adrienne Kinne, and Martin Murie, and Carol Warner Christen, and countless others from all political persuasions love the country so much actually that they are battling with their hearts and minds and actions to improve it, to form a more perfect Union. How many more generations will it take to reconcile? How much more killing and hatred will we have to go through in order to reach the land of reason, love, and acceptation? How many, friend? Who knows, maybe the honorable gentleman will choose to sit with Jan and me and help on the road ahead.
DEPRESSING READ, YOU BETCHA. So I'll end with the swallows that are back in Swans' airy land. Their dances and ballets would be worthy of Isidor Saslav's attention. Isidor, can you and Ann, David and Melissa, write and play and sing and direct an ode to these graceful birds? Would it not be a wonderful addition to Americana?
. . . . .
C'est la vie...
And so it goes...
La vie, friends, is a cheap commodity, but worth maintaining when one can.the life line won't hurt you much, but it'll make a heck of a difference for Swans.