Good God, America.
I try to be a good ambassador. I really do. I argue that we have culture and intelligence and that we’re an ethnic melting pot built on the highest ideals. But you know what? You make it hard not to have contempt for you, my country, when things like this happen.
The internet is already awash with a raging war of words about Trayvor Martin, by individuals far wiser and more eloquent than myself, as is right and to be expected. This kind of case rips open the sensitive scar tissue of a nation. It sparks fears and riots and intense divisions.
One of the best that I’d seen though, shared by a friend on facebook earlier today was not from a pundit on either side, but from a great novelist. Ah those amazing observers of human behaviour and psychology. The storytellers. The novelists.
The empty calls for calm ring hollow in the midst of such clear injustice and since your various feeds will be saturated, I’ll be quick and share a poem I like an awful lot about what use words, poetry or beauty are in the face of such callous disregard for the principles of fairness. It’s called “For Saundra” by Nikki Giovanni. You’ve got to stick around for the end. That’s the kicker really. Enjoy.
i wanted to write
but revolution doesn’t lend
itself to be-bopping
then my neighbor
who thinks i hate
asked -do you ever write
tree poems – i like trees
so i thought
ill write a beautiful green tree poem
peeked from my window
to check the image
noticed the school yard was covered
no green -no trees grow
then, well, i thought the sky
ill do a big blue sky poem
but all the clouds have winged
low since no-Dick was elected
so i thought again
and it occured to me
maybe i shouldn’t write
but clean my gun
and check my kerosene supply
perhaps these are not poetic
February! It’s been since February. Bad, bad blogger. What happened? Well, life, you know. It does. I’d love to blog and write and get paid for it and then spend a life lecturing about Samuel Beckett. I haven’t quite got to that level of professional satisfaction yet.
So I’m teaching secondary school, which I also love (No tongue in cheek, really! I’m reconciled and happy). And we entered into the phase of the year in February where one can safely say the unsavoury matter hits the wall, that phase in which we send off student work to external bodies who would be within their rights to whimsically bring all the grades down a notch, violently shattering our collective professional confidence. Thankfully that has not happened and I’ve got slightly (SLIGHTLY), just slightly more time to myself at home now.
So what better way to use it than blogging?
A few, I know, but I’ve done those already.
So as I’m here, the world — most uncooperatively — just doesn’t stand still and wait for me to observe it pithily. It rolls on relentlessly and relentless and earth-shattering indeed have been some events in my absence from the blogosphere. I’ve picked a couple that have disturbed me and one that gladdens me. Let’s start with the former.
Our Epic Fail as a Nation of Gun Owners
We reach for the cliches: shocked, appalled, unspeakable, beyond words, horrific, inhuman.
They don’t seem to suffice. That’s probably because we shouldn’t have any cliches about gun violence and mass shooting incidents. Yet, here we are with lessons not yet learnt.
Back in July of last year, I wrote about how frightened I was for us as a nation after Aurora. Between it, Columbine, Newtown and various other mass shootings in America, you might think that we would finally collectively stand up and just slightly reconsider how we approach gun laws.
That would mean those in favour of sense and peace would prevail. Alas, they did not.
There are times when I feel like an alien in conversations with my own countrymen. Whenever any national convesation about gun control billows forth into the national consciousness, this alien moment takes hold.
For example, I heard friends and high profile commentators suggesting there should be more armed guards in schools.
The sight of armed guards in airports and possibly even in hospitals suggests reassurance. In schools, it suggests police state in which a fragile peace is bound together by bullets.
Nuts Owners of America suggest that we as teachers should be armed. Um, no.
We become teachers to impart knowledge and ignite the fire of imagination in young minds, not to fire loaded weapons to blow someone’s brain apart. We are the prevention, not the scorched-earth cure that would see us become deputised sheriffs in the classroom. And, not for the first time in proposing an exteme solution to gun violence in America, this ignores the real problem, that our attitude towards guns is unhealthy.
So we buy more firearms, stockpile ’em up. No Wash-ing-ton bur-o-crat is gonna take my gun away from me, dagnabbit. They ain’t even ‘lowed to check my crim’nal record (‘cuz who knows? They might find out where the bodies are buried. Shhh.)
Personally, I’ll take Jim Carrey’s response every time. Funny and effectively and resonantly stinging. Even funnier and scarier is the response from the Repundits uncontrollably foaming at the mouth. They don’t half lose control, do they?
I fear, homeland. I really do.
The Ways In Which We Are Losing The War on Terror
(It’s not quite what you think)
There is no doubt that Dzhokhar Tsaernaev is a murderer and that he committed an atrocity, an act of terror, the betrayal of the sacrosanct principal of respect for human life and the exploitation of fear to penetrate to our souls and to our sense of certainty in the existence of goodness in the world as opposed to an ever encroaching and all-pervading sense of menacing and violent evil.
But weapons of mass destruction? Seriously?
As my favo(u)rite conservative prime minister once said, ‘a crime is a crime is a crime.’ As I’m fond of saying, the devil may cite scripture for his purpose, but wrong-headed and vile though Thatcher’s criminalisation of the IRA was, it at least made some pragmatically ideological sense. The minute you confer a certain status on human scum that awards them a title higher than scum, you legitimate their authority.
What are we afraid of, that Tsaernaev won’t get the death penalty? Despite my moral objections to the capital punishment, if that’s the justice you want, nail him on multiple counts of murder, an act of terrorism even. Charging him with WMD transforms him into a demonic Goblin-like figure of myth who will rise to haunt us from well beyond — for I’m sure one way or the other, we’ll kill him, we can’t help ourselves — the grave. And once again, a national conversation about the polarising, marginalising and therefore radicalising American foreign policy that fosters these ticking time bombs will be buried with Tsaernaev’s body.
Make him into some looming evil dictator with great power over some lethal arsenal and he wins . Terrorism wins. It continues to set the agenda. Has this young, bitter man succeeded in continuing to rain fear on us? Yes. Terrorists: 1. American citizenry: 0.
The Lady Might Well Be Turning
Tis said that it is bad to speak ill of the dead. Well, late the fates rain down on me because I feel obliged (not as a blogger with some inflated sense of self-importance) as a human being to dissent amidst the wave of warmth for Thatcher that’s come about not just at her death but in the past few years with all sorts of making over of the Iron Lady’s image from Gilbert and George claiming that she did a lot for the arts to Meryl Streep playing her in a biopic that I refuse to see for the same reason I refuse to pay tribute to her: she is an overglorified bulwark of tyranny that left destruction in her wake. Call me a party-pooper, but I just can’t seem to stomach a sentiment for an MP who let a fellow Minister of Parliament die on hunger strike in Belfast. Not only did she refuse to recognise the political status of Irish prisoners, which I understand many could debate, but she made light of their struggle in which ten prisoners died, claiming they were trying to demonstrate their virility.
Shortly after Thatcher’s death, my mother asked me, on the phone, “Tell me, was Margaret Thatcher a…,” and here she paused to gain breath and the correct phrasing, “popular politician over there,” to which I could not help myself. I laughed. “She was divisive, Mom. Let’s put it that way.” It seemed that people in America and around the world were confused by the celebrations, the jubilant singing of “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead.” Why was Britain trashing one of its most famous, long-standing and influential prime ministers in the wake of her death? It’s far from perfect, in fact it is ridden with as many problems as American society, but one thing that Britons seem to do well is to speak freely and, although they are good at standing on ceremony, they are individualistic and freethinking and happy enough to trounce on fictions like blind reverence as well. From the hollowed out factories in the North to the countrywide housing shortage, the sooner, the Iron Lady’s influence is shook off, the better.
Well, that’s it. I’m back now or at least I intend to be.
I did say I would give you pith on two disturbing events and one reassuring one. Didn’t I?
Lest you think I am reassured and my heart is warmed by death (every death diminishes me. I feel bad for Thatcher’s family), I’ll end on a high.
When Harry Met Jersey
I can’t help it. I’m a bundle of contradictions, but I find Harry to be the least repulsive member of the royal family.
In fact, in weak moments, I find him downright endearing.
He is, it has to be said, a frat boy in prince’s clothes and most of the time seems more comfortable in army fatigues than cricket whites, but that is probably his charm. He’s the fun brother.
That and his visit to the state my birth, that under-rated storm-torn little fighter, New Jersey.
Perhaps not being the next in line after Charles has done wonders for his independence and therefore he’s been free to practice that almost-of-the-people charm to perfection and he’s done some great work in the process for various charities.
Thanks to my cousin Samm who did an incredible job in running Backpacks for Brick in the wake of Sandy for sharing this bit of news with me and cheers, Harry, most humbly from Jersey!
I feel confident in saying I grew up on the Jersey Shore. I don’t mean that in the way that many would nor do I mean to offend proper Jerseyans. Anyone who has read this blog much at all knows that I am a de facto Pennsylvanian.
But most and the best of my summer childhood memories are rooted firmly in that area of America. I was born in Northern New Jersey and spent my childhood there. My mother used to take us down to the shore for a couple weeks every summer, leaving my father alone with his annual fortnight of peace to do the tax returns. So we’d stay with my grandmother in an affluent (I perceived it as affluent then and still do) little town called Normandy Beach with a sweet little bay not more than two minutes away and a vast expanse of beach just three or four blocks in the opposite direction from the bay. I learned to associate the salty smell of the sea air as we passed The Amboys on the Parkway with the anticipation of long sunny days spent lazily frolicking through waves, collecting shells, and cautiously avoiding jellyfish (I went through some very cautious phases).
Sucking the marrow from life doesn’t quite capture it for me and The Shore. I learned to swim with and against the waves there. I came home with my belly raw-red from the friction of awkwardly attempting to ride my cousin’s boogie-board as long as my skinny little body could manage with teeth chattering and skin pruny by the end of the day. I learned how to play Spite and Malice with my grandmother and heard many tales of the Irish side of the family at her house down the shore. I played skee ball in Point Pleasant and Lavallete, stayed up nights with bloodshot eyes watching my cousins play family reunion Monopoly and spent mornings eating bagels and reading discarded sections of The Asbury Park Press. I envied extended family that lived on the coast for their regular proximity to a place that, to my imagination, seemed to embody paradise.
So it is great horror and no adequate articulation that I have watched events unfold over the last week.
As a seven year old child, I lived through Hurricane Gloria. My memories of that storm, destructive though it was, are tinged with a sort of romantic nostalgia. Our power went out, we gathered candles, we sat on our lawns with our neighbors and other neighborhood kids, we played cards and we had power restored soon after. It felt like an adventure with no tangible sense of impending danger. Of course, time plays with memory and you imagine that nature can do damage when it wants to, but — and this goes without saying — nothing prepares you for the destructive force of nature when it hits hard close to home.
Much intelligent thought has been published about the aftermath and the lessons of Sandy. Scott Erb’s Blog does a good job of summarizing what way forward for the elections and the flawlessly non-partisan job that Governor Christie has done in the wake of the disaster. Naomi Klein has posted several articles, as you might expect, that are well worth a read about disaster/venture capitalists vampirically profiting from all of this.
And I’m tempted to ponder platitudinously and quote from Melville and Jack London about the awesome power of nature and our infinitesimally small position standing against it. I certainly think discussion, not silence, is the best way forward.
But here and now, when things are raw, when my cousins have been without power for a week and my parents are cooking with a propane tank and a Coleman portable grill even high up in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, I mourn. My heart goes out to those suffering and I mourn for that place of childhood sunshine and wish it a good and steady recovery in the coming months.
All the best, Jersey. I am thinking of you.
Under Any Other Business (for now)…
Even in times of crisis, and maybe especially, working for good causes is of great importance. I raised over £200 for Movember last year, all of which went on research and awareness of men’s health issues, especially prostate and testicular cancer. I hope to more than double last year’s result by the end of the month. In order to do that, I need your help. Please take a couple minutes to donate to a fantastic cause. Even the smallest donation can make the biggest difference and it doesn’t take much time or money to make that difference. Follow the link below to give to my Movember page.
And follow the progress of my facial hair growth through Movember here. I’ll take requests if it helps you to donate!
I had just begun to feel comfortably at ease with my nation being, if not the object of affection, at least, as Happy Loman put it, ‘liked but not well liked,’ widely generating respect and general good feeling around the world.
I lived in the UK during the Bush years, when that right honourable Texan went around brazenly offending the world for eight years, storming out of Mexican state dinners, invading Middle Eastern countries under false pretences and rather callously joking about it, and doing his best to alienate Muslims and the whole of Europe at the same time (no mean feat).
I’m familiar with the generic reaction — ‘Who cares? We’re American Dammit! We do what we want and if the rest of the world has a problem with it, they can go take a jump in a lake! U!S!A! U!S!A! U!S!A!’ Which is fine. There are plenty of other countries who adopt similar attitudes, China, Iran and Malaysia among them, but I for one would like to avoid odious comparisons, not invite them.
And our current president, for whom I have great respect, has made great headway in healing the wounds opened and liberally salted by his predecessor, building bridges and consciously acknowledging America’s important part in and dependence on the global community.
Which, I suppose, is one of the reasons why it seems such a shock to me that the divide between the Middle East and the West is still so acrimonious and so filled with the bitter bile of irrational, mutual antipathy.
It puts me in mind of September 11th, 2001, when I lived in Dublin, and saw first hand how Dubya inevitably failed to even attempt to open channels of communication between America and the moderate voices in the Middle East, but instead, went in, unilateral guns blazing, ingloriously entrenching us first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. In doing so, he effectively obliterated the genuinely heartfelt outpouring of sympathy that the rest of the world had expressed for the indescribable tragedy that was 9-11 and very quickly ignited and fanned the flames of Anti-Americanism for the rest of his time in office.
The barely elected man-child gave the world every excuse to berate America in terms of the laziest and shallowest of stereotypes, condemning me as an American abroad to morning break monologues and dinner party diatribes decrying the loudness, brashness, obnoxiousness, arrogance, and naked belligerence of Americans. After the kind of battering foreign policy and countless Bushisms did to our reputation abroad, it became damn difficult to defend our nation. I did my best, but I wasn’t a paid diplomat.
I ended up playing devil’s advocated on both sides, which I suppose is a tautology in terms of devil’s advocates. I argued with friends and family back home who astounded me with their support for what seemed to me to be a catastrophic and vindictive military action. But I also argued with my colleagues who persistently encouraged me to attend anti-war demonstrations in Dublin, to which I would always frown, shake my head and say, ‘No. It’s simply uncritical anti-Americanism at its best. I can’t go.’
Due in part to their repeated insistence that it was ‘anti-American foreign policy not anti-American,’ and in part to curiosity about something happening so close to me and to which I felt so intimately connected, I did eventually attend and take part in one of the largest anti-war demonstrations at the time. Nothing unusual there: placards, posters, beards, megaphones, chants, the usual. I was taken aback however when I saw one young member of the Socialist Workers’ Party flying Old Glory. And then I realized it wasn’t. The stripes and the colours were there all right, but in place of the stars were neatly lined swastikas, all 50 of them. Sanctimonious as it may sound, something bilious lurched in my stomach. After all, this was just a flag, but it was also a national symbol that I had stood to attention for and adored, hand on heart pledging undying allegiance to every day of my childhood. That kind of indoctrinated loyalty doesn’t just fall away because you criticize your leaders. And here was the symbol of my nation superimposed with a symbol of everything that is loathsome and base in humanity.
This did not bolster my colleagues’ case about the nature of the demonstrations and I felt at least temporarily vindicated in thinking both sides were uncritically dogmatic. But, as a friend told me on recounting the demonstration years later, a flag is a symbol and means very different things to different people. The Irish tricolour, which means freedom fighting and resonates with phrases like ‘tiocfaidh ar la!’ (‘Our Day Will Come!) is never flown in schools in Ireland for fear associations with militancy. The Union Flag (sometimes incorrectly called the Union Jack), once indelibly associated with imperialism, has acquired a cult status cool that’s gone from punk rock right into the main stream and onto toilet seats and SMEG fridges.
Hard and bitter a pill as it is for us to swallow, there are many who see the flag above as more representative of the kind of American foreign policy that’s struck a dangerously Machiavellian balance of sabre-rattling, ‘devil-you-know’ funding, and bombing back to the stone age that’s left many with the bitter taste of ash on their tongues.
It is certainly more difficult to engage with other nations while being a critical friend to our own, and infinitely more complicated, but the fundamentalists of the right wing of America have spent too long nourishing the bitter nightmares of a sleeping tiger (forgive the exotic metaphor) and unless we start to engage with the rest of the world in meaningful terms, I fear we have only begun to feel its bite. Yes, it is easier to be an American abroad now than it once was, but as we revel in our current chic, we also find ourselves, as another great American writer once put it, ‘borne back ceaselessly into the past.’