last night a few dear friends and I took turns preaching to our own collective choir: we all feel our country, this country, the u.s., is in the midst of a very strange, very selfish, and extremely paranoid period right now.
it all started with some grousing about a student who failed to show up for her piano lesson for the fifth time in a row, offering only the most superficial “apology,” little seeming to realize that azi’s livelihood depends on the consistent income from that teaching work or reflecting on the frustration she must have felt waiting there at the appointed time for a student who never arrives. “I forgot,” or, “I had an appointment I didn’t know would run so late,” but no call, no courtesy– just the prevailing performance of a sense that the world is there to serve her, at her convenience (an attitude I see all the time in my own students– the sense of privilege, of entitlement, which seems unaccountable and outrageous to me until I begin to hear what an old fogey I sound like– “when I was a kid, a B was considered a good grade and we respected our teachers…”). because we were already conveniently grousing, it was easy enough to launch into five-part harmony against people in restaurants who demand of servers “gimme this or that” without any apparent awareness of another person’s dignity or common politeness.
and someone– actually, I ohso modestly interject, I think it may have been me– made the bold leap to speculating that the thing these behaviors have in common is a (currently) typical american ugly sort of indvidualism– the spirit of looking out for number one and letting the rest of the world (different–>muslim–>terrorists–>evil) go hang. now, I realize this is quite a leap (mine, I mean– the reasonableness of the other one I leave it to you to wrestle with). perhaps not to excuse but to explain it I should go further into backdrop and other bits of the conversation.
one piece is mimi’s work with indonesians (many muslim) and in particular last year living day in and day out with indonesian migrant workers in korea (before that she worked with indonesian students in canada, looking at how women access higher education). and yesterday mimi met with the president of our university, who is planning an upcoming trip to indonesia– to court better relations, since the numbers show enrollments from asia down 60% in recent years. there’s no doubt that this trend has to do with trickle-down policies in bush’s america, where fear and patriotism are synonymous and the media and average people persistently equate muslims with terrorists. for inhabitants of those countries why *wouldn’t* australia begin to look like a better place to go to school?
another piece is my recently having watched “hotel rwanda”– a pretty good flick in which the awesome don cheadle portrays “an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances”: a hutu hotel manager who struggles to shelter over a thousand tutsis in his hotel during the ethnic cleansings the country endured while the west simply fled. the biggest take-away, for me, from that movie was some degree of chagrin at our, at my privileged western complacency– at one point joaquin phoenix’s journalist character essentially pricks the bubble of hope don cheadle’s character has been puffing into when he reasons, with anguish, that even if people across the oceans do witness the grim footage he’s captured of people being slaughtered by machetes in the streets, they will merely shake their heads, say, “that’s terrible,” and then go back to their bowls of wheaties. which is exactly what came to pass, with that instance of genocide as with many others before and since. life goes on, I guess, but still there seems something deeply wrong. like, if this is the effect of global media, what good is it doing us? if our only response to the delivery of so much devastating information is overwhelm, rationalistic thinking, and going on with the daily routine in any case, remind me why it is we’re all so all-fired determined to get the latest feeds and downloads? anyway, I threw “hotel rwanda” into our discussion last night as a link back to brian’s several years working in africa– and it led him to tell us, firsthand, about arriving in rwanda just after the “cleansings” depicted in the film, of the devastation. which leads to a declaration of the entire continent of africa’s going down the shitter, while we just sit by over here, munching our wheaties. sorry, bono.
which a few minutes later led mimi to draw the parallel up out of historical events and into the present– to mention a television report she’d seen recently in which a bbc reporter managed to broadcast from north korea– and in the course of the broadcast one car passed in what would otherwise have been a bustling city street– because kim jong il has sent all the people into the countryside to help the farmers because the country has no food. I mean, yikes. I’ve been operating on a pretty severely curtailed budget for the last five months, but as bad as it gets, there’s always stuff I’ve squirreled away in my cupboards and freezer that I can eat. despite my mom’s worries over the years to the contrary, I have in fact never gone hungry. two blocks away is a grocery store whose shelves are simply brimming with plenitude (reaped from industrial agriculture and monoculture crop farming and archer daniels midland’s whole “supermarket to the world” whitewashed approach to multinational monopolization– but that’s a whole other gripe– which I should get to sometime and maybe even will). meanwhile, all we hear about north korea is whispers of, gasp, nukes— which, by the way, don’t we have some of those ourselves, despite various “nonproliferation” treaties past and present? oh, but we’re the good guys, right? we’re not going to go off half-cocked like some religious extremist third world nation– or that’s the common argument, anyway. striking me just now like an extremely convenient rhetorical position.
another piece of backdrop is that we’d just been to a matinee of “star wars episode iii: attack of the clones”– which, I’m sorry, niall, but I feel was just a lot of simplistic, binary, and, it seems to me, particularly american claptrap. now, don’t get me wrong– I *loved* the original “star wars” and even more so “the empire strikes back”– they were big and glorious, eye-opening and paradigm-shifting. and then I saw “return of the jedi” and decided the magic, for me, was pretty much gone. I didn’t even bother with either of episodes i and ii. and it’s not about jar jar binks, excess muppetdom, or racist stereotyping– it simply seems that the lessons the lucas industry had to deliver to this audience got delivered– and now he just keeps churning out tired retreads. that particular ship of innocence in film-going has sailed. and it’s very hard to swallow– 20 years after “empire”– all this hooey about “the dark side”– such an uncomplicated delivery of bad guys who dress like history’s fascists and the fighting-monk-like-agrarian good guys. maybe it’s just me who’s gotten excessively cynical seven years into grad school– but I found it impossible to get behind a portrayed battle between Good and Evil in which I was intended to sympathize with a character who was supposedly struggling with a gruelling ethical decision and yet found it possible to snap to and slaughter a bunch of kids. maybe it’s like porn– which I also can’t stomach, due mainly to its lack of subtlety. but I’m getting off-track– my point was my sense of a kind of americanist propaganda the movie seemed to be lobbing– all that “fighting for democracy” crap. it just rang too familiar.
but I’m typically somewhat uncomfortable making such big political proclamations like I’m doing here. I mean, for one thing, I’m always acknowledgi
ng to people how I live in a self-imposed media blackout (aka “assume ostrich position”). every time I start reading papers– even just reading headlines, let alone once I start delving into the prose text and begin to wonder about the positioning of the journalist, of the paper that pays her wage, of the editor that chooses the pieces to run, etc.– I get pretty quickly overwhelmed. which is why I’ve so determinedly, years ago, staked claim in this little itty bitty area of focus, the inside of my own head, i.e. navelgazing. not that I’m convinced that it’s the most noble or courageous approach, only knowing that we all have our strength and limitations, I’m trying to mobilize some of the former of mine. and mitigate against the latter– because I tend to be all too aware of how inflated my own postulating positions and perspectives inevitably are and how limited my point of view is– and this feeling just undermines any effort to be effective I do make. I see all the holes and reasons why I’m wrong far more glaringly than I feel any conviction in my rightness. my boy willy b. once again hits it on the head: “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” though really… “best” and “worst”… there again, I dunno.
anyway lately I’m re-reading one of my all-time favorite writers, david james duncan (author of _the river why_ and _the brothers k_, fab books both, plus a couple collections I haven’t gotten to yet, but really should soon, and, damn, but once again I wish I had it in me just to sit down and write fiction, for godssake)– and looking up what he’s done lately online, I come across this piece he published in orion magazine now like 2 1/2 years ago, declaiming bush’s “patriot act,” aggressions against iraq, and general lack of reason– and in addition to being struck once again by how goldurned articulate the man (duncan, right, not bush) is, I was also struck by the date– two and a half years ago and it’s already a catalogue of the ills the people in iraq were suffering back then on account of our “patriotic” military actions (malnutrition, radiation poisoning)– how much worse must their lot be now? which of course makes me realize the answer’s probably out there somewhere in all this vast plethora of information at my fingertips, the marvel-ous worldwide web– and then I stumble on an article in today’s cnn.com (along with a particularly gorge-provoking photo of our commander and chief) that describes how shrub is now lobbying for the renewal of the patriot act– cuz it’s just worked so durn well! and then I realize I’m at the end not only of this diatribe but also of my limited powers of peeking out from inside my little ostrich hill– and my head’s itching to get stuck back inside.