Saturday, September 01, 2007

My American Cap

Today I found this cap on the street. I have washed it. I cannot fix it yet as I am short on protest buttons at the moment. I want to find a way to add what I saw on a bumper sticker: "These colors do not run...the world." But look at the terribly ironic label inside the cap.

I came across my old copy of MARK TWAIN ON THE DAMNED HUMAN RACE, edited by Janet Smith. In this collection, he is the Michael Moore of his day, anger over U.S. actions turning slapstick humor to irony. Lynching was still very common in Mark Twain’s time, and the word “lynching” is hardly adequate to describe how those people were slowly tortured, mutilated, burned, hanged for the amusement of a crowd. I hope no U.S. citizen has been spared the horrific photographs documenting these crimes, with the grinning faces of white people who have gathered as if for a picnic.

The deadly “conformity” of U.S. citizens is a major theme with Twain, and all he says about it remains true today. I guess finding that theme in Twain is why at some point I inserted into the Twain book this paragraph torn out of a NYRofBooks article: “Following Kruschchev’s denunciation of Stalin at the XXth Congress of the CP-USSR, a voice from the back of the hall broke the silence: ‘You knew what was happening: Why didn’t you protest?’ Krushchev: ‘Who asked that question?’ Prolonged silence. Krushchev: ‘That’s the way it was with us.’”

Similarly, Twain argues that beyond a “mere atrocious hunger to look upon human suffering,” many in those lynching mobs were there because they were “afraid of his neighbor’s disapproval..afraid to stay home,” which would reveal that their racism was not as fervent as the community’s. “When I was a boy I saw a brave gentleman deride and insult a mob and drive it away.” Similarly, the My Lai massacre was cut short when some soldier in a helicopter saw what was happening, landed, and brought to a halt (much too late) the blind conformity of the soldiers following a homicidal officer’s orders. And that must be why I found, folded up in the book the now-yellowed page from the San Francisco Chronicle, Saturday, November 29, 1969.

On one side of the paper are photos, “Earthrise on the Moon,” one photo showing that moment, another showing Apollo 12 astronauts walking on the moon; beside that, a story, “Astronauts Arrive in Honolulu,” along with other items that have gained in meaning since that time. Among the items on the other side of that sheet of newspaper was a story, with a graph, “U.S. Casualities [in Vietnam] Pass 300,000" and “Saigon Force Ambushed in Delta – Heavy Loss;” and then, the reason I must have inserted the paper into the book at the time, “Massacres by the Army,” because one of the selections of Twain’s writings in the book was an account of the massacre of Moros in the Phillipines that exactly duplicated My Lai: men, women, and children all massacred in a pit, a crater, fifty feet deep.

The article began, “On a chill, sun-drenched December morning in 1890, troopers of the United States Army’s Seventh Cavalry surrounded a large band of Sioux Indians near the Badlands of South Dakota….Within a few tumultuous hours, nearly 300 Indians – men, women. and children – had been shot and killed.” In the same language used to justify the Marine rapes and murders in Iraq, the massacre was explained: “The butchery was the work of infuriated soldiers whose comrades had just cause or warning.”

”The massacre on the prairie at Wounded Knee, S.D., was the first of two noteworthy massacres – before the alleged [still “alleged” at that date] Song My incident – involving the shooting of men, women and children by soldiers of the United States Army. The second massacre occurred on Jolo Island in the Philippines in 1896.” The Moros were still resisting U.S. domination six years after Filipino General Aguinaldo had announced that he was accepting “the sovereignty of the United States throughout the Philippine Archipelago.” While the Sioux, under a white flag, were giving up their weapons, one, faced with such a “sovereignty,” changed his mind and decided to use his weapon, triggering the soldiers’ panic.

General Wood was present when not a single one of the men, women, and children among the 600 Moros, weapons limited to knives and clubs, survived as the Army fired down into the crater. Twain quotes President Theodore Roosevelt’s telegram to the general: “I congratulate you and the officers and men of your command upon the brilliant feat of arms wherein you and they so well upheld the honor of the American flag.”


When I was in the first grade, in the era when Roosevelt was president, schools were very special places, and teachers were esteemed as highly as priests and ministers. Our nation had not yet been "privatized." Parents and children came together for programs that represented the community around the school, not just the process of education. It was World War II, and we would sing rousing tunes like "When the Caissons Go Rolling Along" or "From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli"--I did not know what the songs described, I only knew that they were very singable and everyone sang them loud and strong. We were not required to mention God when we said the Pledge of Allegiance of the Flag, but I remember how good it felt to hold a hand over my heart while looking at the pretty American flag. It had stars on it! The horizontal stripes, when rippled by the wind, made an impression of water. It was not much different from the feeling you had when you said a prayer while looking at the gentle Mother of God, offering to you the palms of her hands as if invisible rays of mercy and kindness radiated toward you.

The religion evaporated from my life, and, as for patriotism, it puzzles me. I see people who are happy to rise and sing the Star Spangled Banner, hand over heart, and I wonder how they can forget how far we have fallen from being a compassionate and just society. I want much more. I don't want such an easy love.

Until a global identity becomes paramount, is patriotism just an echo of religious belief? How can I enjoy a feeling like patriotism when it is more often exemplified by a blind chauvinism or in the mindless fantasy of individual heroism in absurd and sick films like INDEPENDENCE DAY, where two American men can save the world from all danger? The nature of the overwhelming mass force of patriotism in the U.S. seems no different from the swelled-up hysteria of sports fans: Is that a safe or sane state in which to consider the country's decisions and actions?

I know that the consequence of giving up the group identities associated with religion and patriotism is that one must live with the reality of death, but that reality was always with me anyway, nagging me with the truth from an early age, as belief in God and country weakened and finally gave way. I still think the American flag is pretty, but find it limiting--There are so many different colors that would look beautiful waving on the air.

I know some of the things that have made the U.S.A. the hope of many around the earth, but I am not certain that I see self-aggrandizing self-love as being part of that hope.

The destruction of the World Trade Center ... Survivors and the relatives of survivors asked that their grief not be used as an excuse of war. But for the country as a whole, this horrendous tragedy triggered a mindless jingoism on such a scale that Americans, never questioning those they endow with Authority, wholeheartedly backed a military action that they erroneously believed to be connected with the World Trade Center destruction and, in their fervent patriotism, they were not willing to be disabused by the facts -- proof, it would seem, that patriotism is dangerous and untrustworthy. The American Way of Reaction has been scripted a thousand times in their favorite violent fantasy world, in the revenge films of Bronson, Schwarzenegger, etc.: Kill the hero’s wife in the first scene, and set the terminator in motion. It’s the “justified killing” that permits the audience to feeds on homocide -- oops, I mean homicide.

I confess that as I watched the towers fall what flashed through my mind, unbidden, because of that initial sense of unreality (“This can’t be happening”) were images from Godzilla films, The War of the Worlds, etc. – cities destroyed by special effects -- and then, again unbidden thoughts, it was as if the two towers bore two names as they descended into dust: Hiroshima and Nagasaki,

followed by a ledger sheet of U.S. crimes against humanity, the overthrow of democratically elected governments, the arrogant notions of Empire that alienate everyone. Then grief became general as one must consider how the self-interest of all earth’s countries reinforce the divisions of nationality and religions, leading to horrific tragedies on all sides yet all stubbornly hold to those toxic identities And then one learned of the individual lives lost in the catastrophe.

I understand the initial reaction of anger, the fear of what may be coming next, especially felt by those on East Coast with its great control over national attitudes. If someone tries to destroy you because of a certain identity, you are going to defend that identity. I suppose part of the reason patriotism did not take with me is that I have lived a long life and, as a gay person, most of that life I was told that I was not part of America – more than that, not part of living existence. I was, in an emotional sense, a spy, waiting for some one, any one, to see that I existed, while trying to evade being brutalized or murderered.
I guess those who are fervent Americans have always experienced being American as something that nurtured them, whereas I had to live in fear of Americans. How could I identify with those who hated and excluded me? It is probably too late for me to live my life in any way other than that of an outsider. I am not unhappy, however, that it frees me to identify with those from other nations and with something beyond nations.

I wish the flag represented the people I know who are involved with people to people good works around the globe, separate from the anger, arrogance, paranoia, and us-versus-them mentality of the patriots who proclaim patriotism loudly. Reasons why I am not a "good American": (1) I am a nontheist and wish all religions would disappear (with the good works some of them perform surviving the disappearance of God and afterlife). It would be great if they could retain their community solidarity without the mythology. (2) I don't believe in an American Empire that should take over the world any more than I would believe in any other totalitarian movement. (3) I believe in very un-American traits that are the opposite of arrogance, cynicism, and aggression. (Jokingly, I tell friends that I wish the American mascot were not the eagle, but the oyster). (4) I believe in self-examining doubt and a lifelong quest for as much knowledge and awareness as we can achieve – difficult when so many sources of information are controlled by government or corporations.

Like most people before they mature and become this wised-up creature, the human being, Americans want something unchangeable and eternal to believe in that would excuse them from ever having to think again, whereas life and our definition of reality is ever changing. The new pope had in mind specifically the recently deceased American philosopher, Richard Rorty, when he spoke of the “tyranny of relativism”—“tyranny” is an odd word to be used by the head of one of those systems that have the most tyrannical hold on the human mind. The learned talent, like riding a unicycle, of living in a universe where everything is literally relative and ever-changing is what humans need to be taught in order to be sane and never duped by false leaders who want them to believe that all the answers they will ever need are in The Book. Oddly enough, if they were to study the New Testament (recognizing that it is a confused and disjointed manuscript) and really understood the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, they would know that it is not in the static “law” of things, but in a developed “sense” of everchanging reality that we will find our only reliable guide (which is not to say that one may escape the inherent "law" that teaches us that we must live with the consequences of our actions).

I would love to love the American flag the way I did when I was six years old, but it is obvious that not being able to love the American flag really signifies that I am not able to love the American people as I detect from the way they vote how materialistic, "privatized," mean-spirited, and cold-hearted so many Americans have become. The Americans I love have identities much larger than "the U.S.A." The other Americans scare me.

I wish I myself could have what most of us may long for—because of eternal feelings of insecurity and because of our fear of death—something eternal and unchangeable that we could sway our way through prayer or flatter through election—but we have something better, the everchanging flow, which no-one may seize by storm or conquer with weapons, but, paradoxically, may receive quietly with simple acceptance, and turn to the joyful business of loving the earth and all eartheans.

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