Damn Right, I’m Not Polite
A few days ago I posted this status update:
Americans, when they’ve got guns in their hands, are so quick to define how and when they’ll kick some poor sod’s posterior – in the streets of poor neighborhoods, for instance, all dressed in navy blue, or more commonly in some other corner of the world where everything can be neatly edited before being beamed back to TV audiences licking BBQ off their fingers. But ask them to stand up and speak out and suddenly they’re running for cover. Occupy Wall St. you are the only ones able to redeem a country so steeped in cowardice.
Some people did not like that statement. I was, apparently, blind to the fact that most of the occupiers were Americans even though their nationality (and how well that reflects on an otherwise unempathetic nation), was the point of my update. I was also not being successful in getting people to face up to the truth because my words were too critical. Apparently, Americans were no more cowardly than anybody else and, apparently, all human beings resist becoming involved in protesting anything that does not affect them directly. Apparently, Americans are just like everybody else on the planet.
Except, they are not. The American government has waged more wars than all the rest of the nations in the world combined, many of them out of sight of its people. For a somewhat limited (post WWII and not entirely comprehensive even after), list of these efforts at hegemony, check out the one created over at flagrancy. While there you can also browse the shipments (predominantly medical), which the US, this vast and generous nation, would not release to the people of Iraq between 1998 and 2001. The United States ranks #1 in the world for its military strength. Israel, its proxy in the Middle East ranks #10 and Iran, that nation accused of plotting the end of the world, ranks #12. To put that in context, check out the comparison between the US and #2: Russia. Military expenditure in the US stands at $692,000,000,000 in 2011. That is $636,000,000,000 more than Russia’s. Here’s a comparison (as of 2008), between the US and Iran for those of us biting our fingernails wondering if it is really true that it is Iran that is a militarized culture lead by arms-crazy maniacs or if, in fact, it might be a case of “it’s not about you, it’s about me.” Chances are that if America is responsible for 48.4% of the global total on defense spending and Iran is spending 0.5%, we’re the ones with anger-management issues and we’re the ones who are a threat to global peace and we’re the ones whose people need an “Arab Spring” like there’s no tomorrow.
So, who are we? In one of the first pieces of journalism I ever wrote (for The Madison Eagle), I spoke of the tendancy Americans have of ridiculing the singing of their own national anthem. I can’t recall the exact words and, in this study full of clippings and books, I cannot locate the piece; my grouse was with the fact that it seemed like an easy “out” to me. To denigrate the anthem was a perfect illustration of the way liberal Americans like to dissociate from the acts perpetrated by the nation’s leaders as if they imagine that this alone washes them clean of the evils that are being conducted somewhere far out of sight.
One of the people who were annoyed with my original status update sent me a private message advocating for civility and politeness rather than confrontation. Honesty, said the individual, is not measured by decibal level, a reference to a subsequent post I had made after the first one:
The truth cannot be conflated with insult. It is itself. And if one cannot speak the truth, why speak at all? As the French poet, Paul Valery noted, “politeness is organized indifference.”
It’s cute, this advocacy for the “kinder gentler” kind of persuasion. It’s really swell for Americans not to have to be goaded, prodded, stung or screamed at by people, isn’t it? It’s even nicer for such Americans that they feel they have all the time in the world to get there, to that point of empathy, to the point of bestiring themselves on behalf of themselves, forget about the rest of the world. The thing is, 113,708+ human beings may still be alive if only our sensitive American brethren did not need all this time and all this coaxing and pampering before they could bring themselves to speak. Thousands of soldiers who bore citizenship in this country (and many who did not), could also still be alive if only their fellow Americans remembered that they, too, belonged to that “human family” in which we like to claim membership. In a recent post about some of these wars, two, in fact, I wrote about the way Americans remain sanguine about the devastation being wreaked around the world precisely because of their addiction to apathy. In that post I reference an article that I wrote (for The Morning Sentinel), on the occasion of the death of the 2000th soldier, Staff Sgt. George T. Alexander Jr. Here is the conclusion of that piece:
…For those who want to remember that these were human beings, here are a few, very few, details. Sgt. Sean C. Reynolds, 25 years old of East Lansing, Michigan was killed on May 3rd, in Iraq. Uday Singh was 21 years old and not yet become an American citizen when he died in an ambush near Habbaniyah Air Force base on December 1, 2004. I don’t know what number either of them were.
In Brook Park, Ohio, a town that lost 14 marines in a single car bombing this past summer, there’s a man named Ronald Griffin. He lost his son two and a half years ago. This is what he said on the occasion of the announcement from the Pentagon: “I only look at the individuals. I don’t think it’s a significant number at all unless you think about the individuals who make it up. Who was 98? Who was 99? Who is going to be 2,001?”
This morning I woke up, as usual, to National Public Radio. It was a story from Iraq. The story of a man named Manadel al-Jamadi who died in Abu Ghraib, hours after his capture by the Navy SEALs and the CIA. His bruised, bloodied corpse was seen around the world, stuffed in a box of ice and Sgt. Charles Graner giving a thumbs up sign and grinning over it. I went on line to see what else I could find out about this story. There I found a picture of Manadel al-Jamadi’s widow and his son who looks about 8 years old. They have no names. Nor do the children of George T. Alexander Jr.
As I said to the person who sent me that private message, if Americans were only waiting for a “big enough” reason to come out in droves, to turn “rude,” you’d have thought stealing the presidency would have done it. Apparently not. Apparently they were waiting for something even bigger than that. What was that, exactly? Guantanamo and its clones? Were they just waiting for Abu Ghraib? The murder of approximately 115,000 Iraqis in a war of aggression? The massacre of civilians (from a nice safe distance), in Kashmir and Kabul and Libya? Maybe they were simply waiting for Enron? Or were they waiting for the people of the world to sing the hallelujah chorus in praise of all the Americans bound to their deafening, albeit polite, silence?
So, dear American who writes to me like this and all of you who would like me to find that perfect dulcet note with which to address you: I don’t really give a damn if you find my tone offensive. And don’t kid yourself that it is only that which has kept you from being involved; you weren’t going to do anything anyway. You won’t do anything because your “addiction to politeness” which you mistake for “kindness” kept you indoors when your presidency was stolen. This is what is great about America, you were happy to say, we tansition between our governments in harmony no matter that someone has just rammed a giant uncomfortable sharp-edged multi-pronged stick up our collective democratic arse and we aren’t going to be able to sit without pain for the next eight years. Maybe it was trying to get comfortable with that penetration that kept you from screaming bloody murder when your country marched off to invade Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya, when they incarcerated your neighbors in droves in the wake of 9/11 and shout burn the mosque! when they see someone trying to construct a community center. It starts like this and it continues like this. And how does it all end? Who knows? One thing is for sure: the world is not going to wait, politely, to find out.
I’m not sorry to say that I have no empathy, absolutely none for people whose preoccupation with their preferred method of address has resulted in the obliteration of what is called “family” for thousands upon thousands among this “human family” of ours, and who don’t really seem to give a hoot about that little detail in our collective history. Your so-called “admiration of my work” means absolutely nothing to me if you don’t know that the words in my work are written in the blood and in the name of others. I don’t write so I can collect an admiring fan club for myself. I write to jolt you out of your soporific stupor. And if that interfers with the peaceful conduct of your day and your life, let me take a bow on behalf of the people you killed with your silence. It’s the least I can do.
The picture above (of photographs of a family of dead Iraqis), is from The Nation blog by Greg Mitchell. The two other images used in this post (Bush in pictures of the American dead and the bodies of soldiers killed in combat) come from, respectively, Duncan and snarlyboodle.
7 thoughts on “Damn Right, I’m Not Polite”
Thank you, Ru. I would like to add, after the failure in Durban, to the list of the dead caused by our apathy, all of the people who have died and will die because of ecological collapse. I’m not sure it’s our addiction to apathy that is the ultimate cause; I think that may be a symptom. Our addiction to cheap energy needs to be fingered and confronted.
I share your frustration with the apathy of so many Americans, particularly given our government’s role in so many atrocities around the globe. However, there is something I must take issue with in this post, as well as the original statement that provoked the conversation. I find it simplistic to lump an entire group of people together with statements such as “Americans remain sanguine about the devastation being wreaked around the world precisely because of their addiction to apathy.” Such generalizations bother me not because they are impolite but because they are inaccurate.
Whenever I interact with communities devastated by US policies – whether in Palestine, Vietnam, Guatemala, or our own inner cities – I am constantly humbled by people’s ability to separate their justifiable anger at the American government with their more nuanced views of the American people. I often wonder if I would be capable of making this distinction in their place, and I challenge myself to match this extraordinary level of complex, empathic understanding.
I agree with you that Americans have the responsibility to fight against injustices committed in our name, and with our tax dollars. This is one of the most important reasons why I volunteered as a human shield in the West Bank, why I have spent the last decade teaching in urban public schools, why I write. I also respect your willingness to speak out and provoke dialogue. I suppose I just wanted to make sure the conversation includes this complex truth: Americans are more than a mass of apathetic consumers “licking BBQ off their fingers.” The Occupy protesters, too, are America. And so are we.
I am not sure why you (and some of the others on that original post), felt that my note targetted all Americans. I spoke specifically of Americans with guns and Americans who don’t speak out as distinguishable from the Occupiers (also mostly American), who were doing what was required, i.e. speaking out despite being arrested, beaten, going hungry, being accused of being stupid free-loaders without a “clear platform” etc. etc. I hardly think that the people who understood what I was saying were somehow people who hated themselves (and their Americanness).
In directing the tsunami relief project for Maine when I was still living there, my goal was precisely that which you articulate: to communicate the fact that there are Americans who can be loved for the goodness of their work and the solidarity they express with people across the world (in that case, with 35 families in Sri Lanka), despite the fact that their govt. was staging a film-crew-on-set bombing of a vast swath of the world. When Obama won the elections the people in the streets of Sri Lanka said, I paraphrase, “If the American people can accomplish that, they are deserving of respect.”
Having said that, if we are, truly, to judge America by Americans, then we have to face up to the fact that the majority of Americans do not speak up, and are ignorant and apathetic consumers. We don’t judge Germany by Hitler alone, but by what the majority of Germans permitted to happen to the Jewish people (and the Roma and the disabled and the sick etc.), by saying nothing and going on with their business. Do we have a different lens we must train on ourselves, one that is a little rosier? Or should we not ask what is wrong with this country where the majority of people are not offering themselves up as human shields on the West Bank, they are not offering themselves up instead of their Muslim neighbors right here at home, they are not even offering to speak up in the face of injustice during a school board election!
It is a sad truth that it is those Americans who are defining the policies of your country – by their non-involvement – not you. It takes one person to stand up and say something but it takes a million people standing up and saying the same thing to have what is said be heard. You stood there on the West Bank and how can I not admire your courage? Rachel Corrie stood there too. And she died. I wonder how easily those bulldozers would have driven over her had there been a row of thousands standing beside her?
Where are our thousands? Where are our millions? That, dear friend, is why I spoke about the Occupiers who, bedraggled as they may be, disorganized as they may seem, are ready and willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with people they may have nothing else in common with in order to bring about change.
I very much agree, Ru. I suppose the source of our miscommunication was that, to me, the original status update and some statements in this blog post read like commentary on “Americans” in general. Your syntax implies that using guns to terrorize, failing to speak out, etc. are simply what “they” do. This may not have been your intent, but that was how it struck me. Had you said, as you do in your above response, “the majority of Americans,” I would have reacted differently. I tend to be leery of generalities, whether they’re about my own nationality or about any other group. The truth is complex, nuanced, and personal, which is why fiction is such a powerful medium.
I do not like to be prejudiced against entire populations but; George Bush lied to his own people, he invaded two countries and caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, his administration agreed to kidnapping, imprisoning and torturing opponents abroad, it exposed its own security apparatus to danger for partisan gain, etc etc. The American people endorsed his administration. Kucinich, the one American in the two main parties who sounds like he could make a difference, was totally rejected. Cynthia McKinney, who talked real sense, was rejected. The American people seem to be going along with it when Obama goes down the same militarist pro-business path. Am I wrong in feeling disturbed?
madam what do you think about srilankan defence expenditure which is about 5% of GDP ?
Well put! I think the more powerful and the more arrogant or disdain one shows in the face of misery or calamity, the stronger the shout should be by as many as need be. A feather cannot move a stone! But, a bird can!
It seems that the elite have outlawed protest on spurious grounds. When will the people see the subterfuge for what it is?