Tag Archives: Obama

American Impunity Abroad and at Home

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A university in Texas has asked me to speak to students in January on the subject that we’ve come to call by the shorthand “Ferguson,” and I’ve been wondering what to say. It’s a topical and rhetorical landmine. But the world today is one giant minefield, so the only way to avoid the risk of stepping on a mine is to acquiesce in silence and paralysis. I’m not willing to pay that price for safety, because both personal freedom and the fate of American society are at stake.

Part of the problem with “Ferguson” is precisely that we’ve hastened to make it a shorthand term, the better to pigeonhole it or explain it away, not unlike “Sandy Hook” or “Katrina” or “9/11.” The truth is that each of those events is connected to every other; everything is connected to everything else. The source of our self-induced perpetual confusion is our stubborn insistence on slicing and dicing events, then filing them severally in convenient pigeonholes in order to forget about them, because we find connecting and remembering too painful and demanding.

These musings are on my mind now, because of the long-awaited release of the report detailing just how viscerally and morally disgusting has been the CIA’s torture regime worldwide since 2001. I’m appalled, of course, like any right-thinking person, and ashamed, as every self-respecting patriotic American should be. But to say that is very far from sufficient, and the fact that so many of us “like” each other’s well-meaning, self-satisfied liberal pieties and commentaries on Facebook is actually part of the problem.

But what does torture of terrorism suspects by the CIA have to do with “Ferguson,” anyway? All too much. The connection lies in the demonstrated fact of impunity for those who hold brute power. How is it that CIA interrogators on one hand, and urban and suburban police officers on the other, can intimidate, brutalize, and even kill hapless and/or innocent unarmed civilians, and get away with it? The answer in both cases is the same: because we, the innocent bystanders, are afraid of what will happen if we hold them to account. We’re afraid not only for our own physical safety, but also of what we would learn if we admitted that the state under which we live has squandered its moral and political credibility.

Consider all due caveats about the honest service and good intentions of most police officers and even CIA agents duly inserted here. But those are irrelevant, because the reality of severe abuse by at least some in both categories is too obvious to ignore. The men with guns and tanks and riot gear know that they can misbehave with impunity because – to articulate our situation with brutal candor – they have guns and tanks and riot gear, and we don’t. That is the case both overseas and in nondescript Midwestern suburbs, and therein lies the connection.

If what we really want is to understand, then what we need is to find the courage to face the reality of what the state is and does. There are real terrorists in the world who commit real, despicable acts of terrorism. But what the CIA torture report lays bare is that the American imperial state, under the feckless ostensible leadership of any president, considers a terrorist anyone it sees fit to consider a terrorist, and that it considers itself and its personnel entitled to mistreat such people any way it sees fit, with impunity. Meanwhile, on the home front, as a friend of mine remarked recently, “The line between a long march or protest rally and an urban riot is drawn by the state, and enforced by the police.” Impunity is what makes the state the state.

What this means is that none of us is either safe or free, except to the extent that we are willing to be free in our own minds and spirits. Necessary to maintaining personal freedom is accurate awareness. One thing that’s accurate to say is that those of us who are white Americans have enabled the American state’s impunity, by mumbling to ourselves and each other that the terrorists are Muslim and brown and the urban rioters are black. We’ve averted our eyes because we have not personally been on the front lines, and we’ve drunk our own Kool-Aid. Others don’t enjoy such luxuries. But there is an upside to living life on the business end of the state’s bootheel, as James Baldwin knew circa 1963:

The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that.

It’s human nature to want to believe in the rightness of our own actions and intentions. But it’s precisely human nature that is the problem; the fact that human evil is predictable does not make it excusable. Nor does fobbing off the evil on singularly evil individuals like Hitler or bin Laden or Cheney. We must be willing to consider ourselves culpable, and to put ourselves at risk.

Innocence insisted on too strenuously is tantamount to guilt. Graham Greene depicted the sinister aspect of American innocence abroad with exquisite insight in The Quiet American, his novel of Vietnam published in 1955. At home in the same period, no one saw America more clearly than James Baldwin: “They have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know and do not want to know it. It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence that constitutes the crime.”

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Has America Spoken?

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Late in the evening on election day, unable to sleep, I posted on Facebook:

My friends on the right need to keep in mind that they live here in America with the rest of us, and that the rest of us are far from happy. And my friends on the left need to grow some self-respect, quit your bellyaching … and get out of bed tomorrow morning, and every morning thereafter, and figure out how to make yourselves directly useful in some way or ways, if you’re not already.

… and more in the same vein. My hope was to say something constructive at a moment when America’s destructive divisiveness had become all too glaringly obvious. My post got some “likes,” but it also brought out of the woodwork a few of my fellow Americans who had little more to say than “Ha! We win. Deal with it!” – although that didn’t keep a couple of them from saying that at some length. Most telling was a comment from Wayne Pimental of Summerville, South Carolina:

America has spoken, most Americans, some realizing too late, that our country is going in the wrong direction the past six years, change most didn’t want. Now, as Americans lets [sic] move forward and preserve the Constitution the way it was meant to be. Oh, now you know how some Americans felt after the last two presidential elections.

Home Free: An American Road Trip by Ethan CaseyWhat’s revealing is that Wayne seems to feel that America has spoken this time, but apparently didn’t really speak in 2008 and 2012, when it said things he didn’t want to hear. The truth, as I discovered when I spent 3 1/2 months driving 18,000 miles around America two years ago to research my book Home Free: An American Road Trip, is that America is far too big and various to speak with one voice. And that in itself bothers many Americans, because it’s complicated as well as ambiguous.

Near the end of my 2012 trip, as I turned the corner at Los Angeles on the home stretch to Seattle, I happened to be reading Lustrum, Robert Harris’s historical novel of Rome, whose narrator muses: “There are no lasting victories in politics, there is only the remorseless grinding forward of events. … Perhaps Caesar is right – this whole republic needs to be pulled down and built again.” Part of the grim fun, if that’s the right word, of Harris’s novel is that we know what happened next in Rome.

Come to think of it, America itself is like a big, sprawling multi-generational family novel, but part of our problem is that we want to skip ahead to find out how it ends. We also are haunted by the yawning gap between the abstract ideals we ostensibly cherish and the concrete realities that we actually live. “America in theory is so awesome,” the libertarian writer Lucy Steigerwald remarked the other day. “America in practice is terrified, Puritanical, and punitive. It is a nasty, bitchy teenage nation that can dish it out and can’t take it. This never fails to be disappointing.”

What I’d like Wayne from Summerville and others like him to know is that during my 2012 trip America spoke to me, and it spoke in many voices. When I asked Cathy Waller, executive director of the Republican Party of Waukesha County, Wisconsin, whether it was possible for people like her to find common ground with Madison liberals, she said, “I’m going to be honest: I don’t know if we can. We’re not going to get anywhere.” Democratic Party activist Elisa Miller told me about specific death threats and hangings in effigy of President Obama around Wisconsin and reflected, “This doesn’t just affect Obama. This is domestic terrorism. Volunteers are like, ‘You want me to knock on doors, when those crazies live out there?'”

“I told my parents that if Obama wins, there’s gonna be riots,” Lenny Miller, an African American airline pilot and entrepreneur in Virginia, told me just before the election. “There’s gonna be lawsuits, recounts, all that.”

“If you were President of the United States, would you be more vocal than he is?” I asked him.

“Oh, I would,” replied Lenny. “I’m Morehouse College. He’s Harvard.”

“Does the American system have what it takes to self-correct at this point?” I asked George Campbell, a thoughtful young Republican lawyer in Greenville, South Carolina.

“Yep, it does,” he assured me. “The system does. The question is whether the people do.”

No selection of American voices would be complete without the voices of immigrants, and one that I met was a Haitian teenage girl in Orlando, Florida. When I asked which presidential candidate she preferred, she said, “I would say Obama. The most point is, why would you choose somebody who’s already rich, that don’t have a clue what it’s like for the poor?”

America did speak this November 4. But what it said that day was not the last word; we’re all still subject to the remorseless grinding forward of events.

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America: Now What?

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Seattle – I’m writing this on election day 2014. My initial idea was to write and post something the day after the election, but the things that most fundamentally ail America transcend any routine scheduled political event, so I might as well address those regardless of the election results.

Home Free: An American Road Trip by Ethan CaseyNot that election results don’t matter; they do. But still. Just after the presidential elections two years ago I was in New Orleans, where I asked Alden McDonald, CEO of Liberty Bank and Trust, the third-largest African American-owned bank in the country, whether the Republicans would be chastened by President Obama’s rather decisive re-election. “That’s a good question,” he replied.

I have not seen anything that will cause them to change. I think some leadership is going to have to rise on that side to get people to begin looking at what’s best for the country, as opposed to what’s best for the party. Everyone has to realize that we have to get the budget in line, no two ways about it, but we have to do it together. The bipartisan committee came up with some recommendations that the Obama administration put together, and the Republican Party rejected. Now, Alan Simpson, who was not only a well-known but a well-respected Republican, was co-chair of it, and I knew Alan from some past relationships, and we’ve talked about his work privately. He’s terribly upset for his party, terribly upset. Well respected, staunch Republican, and he could not believe the pushback he got from his party. So we have a lot of things to worry about, we have a lot of things we have to fix, and at what point does the leadership of this country come to the forefront and say enough is enough?

I quote Mr. McDonald in my book Home Free: An American Road Trip, published a year ago. I’m currently making corrections and minor revisions to Home Free, preparatory to ordering a new printing. My premise in traveling during the 2012 election season was that the historical moment would prove telling, and that as the American national story continued to unfold, the personalities and stories in my book would remain revealing and edifying.

So at least I hoped and hope. To invoke one of the hoariest of journalistic cliches, time will tell. But one of the strongest impressions my 18,000-mile, 3 1/2-month road trip left me with was that not only are we Americans not all on the same page (to put it mildly), and not only do we not even want to be on the same page, but we live in different worlds.  And really, how could it be otherwise in a country the size of a continent? Near the end of the book I wrote:

One of the motivating premises of my project had been that America was not separate or different from the rest of the world. I had proven that, at least to my own satisfaction. And I had seen for myself that while the United States, plural, might be in some sense a single country, they are also an archipelago of disparate communities. Whether the center would hold was an open question.

This October, invited to give the keynote speech at an annual “conflict resolution” conference in Colorado Springs, I opted to narrate a version of my Home Free slide show. I said jokingly at the beginning that America itself is one big conflict-resolution scenario, but no one laughed. I had misjudged my audience. Colorado Springs (my parents live there, and I devote a chapter to it in Home Free) is less monolithically dominated by right-wing Bible thumpers than many outsiders believe, but it’s true that that faction is both prominent and assertive locally. They also come across as oddly resentful – as if the rest of us were bullying them, rather than vice versa.

Admittedly I could have executed my talk better than I did, but I also violated a peculiar kind of politesse that afflicts Colorado Springs in particular and, I think, America in general: a tacit presumption that we mustn’t talk about precisely the things that we really should be talking about. As my high school friend Jill Radi put it to me in Wisconsin earlier in my trip, “You just don’t enter into the conversation, because it’s just so painful. The emotion’s so high because you can’t even listen.”

What’s funny is that, in my Colorado Springs slide show, I quoted Jill and praised her thoughtfulness and insight, at the same time identifying her as someone who holds conservative views. I did the same with several other right-of-center Americans I had met along the road. Then, after my speech, a man approached me and asked: “Did you interview any left-wing extremists?”

Nonplussed, I cast my mind over my trip and answered honestly, “Um … I don’t think anyone I interviewed was an extremist of any kind. Why do you ask?”

“I think you’re extremely biased in favor of liberals,” he said, and walked away.

Welcome to Colorado Springs, and welcome to America. But I’m an American, dammit, and I don’t want to live in the America that that guy wants to live in. He reminded me of Earl, a reviewer on Goodreads who griped that most of the people I met in Home Free were “either liberal intellectuals or poor, downtrodden, and minority.” Not so, but even if it were, if the white Middle America that I come from doesn’t start getting used to, maybe even appreciating, the real extent and nature of this country’s diversity, we’re all in for ugly times ahead. In Miami, over lunch the day after election day 2012,  I asked the novelist Edwidge Danticat what it means to her to be an American. “I feel like I don’t know Middle America that well,” she replied.

But what it means to me to be an American has always been hyphenated and diverse, because I’ve always lived in these melting-pot cities. When I first came to New York [from Haiti at age 12], I went to Brooklyn and so, to me, that was America: people speaking Spanish, people speaking Russian, Korean. You have your Haitian groceries at the Korean store. So that, to me, was America: this place where all different kinds of people meet, and sometimes people who are enemies elsewhere can be friends there. Like Haitians and Dominicans might not get along on the island, but in America, in Brooklyn, they’re neighbors.

And, no, I’m not saying that all of America should be like New York City.  I don’t live in New York myself, and I’m glad I don’t. But I am saying that we’re all neighbors. If, by the time you read this, the Republicans have increased their dominance of the House of Representatives and maybe even retaken the Senate, we’ll all be feeling the aftershocks, as the Obama White House drifts rudderless for another two long years and the right wing scents blood in the water. But we’ll all still be neighbors, and we’d better at least try to make the best of it.

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