Sort of embarrassing.
In my college bar (in Cambridge) last night I was asked my opinion of the (2012 American) election.
(Not to any Americans considering moving to England: people, including strangers in line behind you at the supermarket, will ask you about your politics and your interpretation of your country’s politics; this seems to be seen as perfectly acceptable and not, in any way, too personal. In fact, when you explain that in the US, one rarely have political conversations with anyone whom one doesn’t already know their political leanings and that political debates are best saved for good friends and family and aren’t the sort of thing that one would bring up in polite company people take it too personally and might be offended by hearing you espouse a view with with they don’t agree, people will be shocked.)
It was all going well and I had a chance to explain my views (ie, counter Fox News) to a group of unsuspecting Europeans (all while checking over my shoulder to make sure the other “American” accents in the room weren’t about to come bounding up and contradict me).
And then they asked me who was running for the Republican party.
And I honestly couldn’t name them all - not even all the big names.*
I’m not sure if I should be embarrassed for myself, or if this is just symptomatic of the bigger political situation.
(Don’t get me wrong - as a liberal, I can’t help but be a bit pleased that the conservative party is a bit of a mess. But… I’ve been out of the country since 2007, and, after having lived through the Bush elections and avidly watching Obama/McCain, having everyone here well-versed in Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, knowing the Republicans as an overly-organized, hateful, PR-and-spin-machine, and recognizing the skill it took for them to forge the unholiest of alliances between the richest of rich and the religions working class (try explaining to a bunch of Europeans why it is that the poorest in America vote against social programs which would benefit them the most - seriously, makes for a good night)…
BUT: I really can’t explain what’s happened to the GOP… and I can’t convince myself that there isn’t some deeper strategy here than (maybe?) throwing the election and weeding out a group of ambitious hacks from the list of 2016 hopefuls…?
*For the record, I had Mitt Romney, Herman Cain (dropped out), Michelle Bachman (nebvr a contender), Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman (who I wouldn’t if he sat next to me). Personally, I think it might do the country good if we all just blank on Rick Perry. Please?
(Scary) Stat of the Day
Of the nearly $1.5 trillion in loans that US students have ever taken out on record, about $900 billion of it hasn’t been repaid. Yes, there are, according to the best estimate available, around some 60 million Americans walking around with student-loan balances. No, the numbers aren’t really so staggering because grads are slackers who never pay their debts; a third of all student loan debt was incurred in the last four years. So the national outstanding-loan debt is growing fast. Too bad for all us suckers who took out all that aid that the same cannot be said of the job market.
[Mac McClelland: Stat of the Day: Don’t-Lend-College-Students-Money-Edition, Mother Jones ]
So when they said that the graduating class (under mine) was going to be the biggest college applicant pool, ever?
This is part of what that means…
I’m a racist - or isn’t it time we start talking about race?
I was raised in downtown Los Angeles. I went to high school in an affluent suburb forty miles north. I’m white. I’ve spent time in Tanzania and Southeast Asia. I live in England.
I’m blonde and blue-eyed. I’ve been called a gringo, farang, ghost, mzungu.
I’ve been called one, and I know that I am one.
There are things that you can tell by looking at me: I’m well-educated. I am (more or less) middle class, despite being momentarily broke - or, perhaps because I am broke, but I know that it is a momentary condition. Largely because I am white and more or less middle class. I can’t pay next month’s rent and I have college debt - but I am still, nonetheless, undeniably rich.
What you can’t see - and what I rarely bother to explain, is that I was raised by a single-mother and we lived on well-fare (benefits). I know what food-stamps won’t buy (toilet paper and toothpaste) and I’ve nursed illnesses that we couldn’t afford to see a doctor to treat. Money from the state helped us survived; it was money from family, loans time and again, that enabled us to do more than survive, as well-fare isn’t enough to keep the electricity from being shut off, or pay the phone bill.
None of this changes the fact that I am rich and racist.
I grew up in Hispanic neighbourhoods. I took it for granted that being white, being gringo, was odd.
I was one of the only blondes in elementary school - in almost all of the five different elementary schools that I went to (because a side-effect of being broke, however momentarily, is that you move around; you move around a lot). Every baby-sitter I ever had was Hispanic. Every handy-man or mechanic or friend-of-a-friend who came to fix something (or measure a space or serve a subpoena). Most of our next-door neighbours were Mexican (or Cuban or Guatemalan or Puerto Rican). The kids down the street (down every street) spoke only Spanish - at that time, I could even understand it, although I never learned to speak it - and my mother (brunette) is fluent and could almost pass (it helped, sort of - or it would have, if we’d really been trying to fit in rather than just passing through).
It wasn’t any sort of secret that I was the outsider. It wasn’t anything shameful. It wasn’t anything embarrassing.
Despite the thriving “diversity” of the neighbourhoods in which we lived, I rarely saw black people - that is, outside of the court house. (Plenty of time in the court house would be a side-effect of divorce.) There were plenty of black kids waiting for custody hearings, for abuse trials, to see social workers, to be placed with yet another foster family. (Ed Edelman’s Juvenile Court might just be the most “diverse” place in Los Angeles.)
We drove down to Baja California to camp on the beach and fill the back of the car with terracotta pottery and wrought-iron candlesticks to sell in LA - and going to Mexico was almost like going home. I never once thought that I was Mexican; I didn’t really care, either way.
I ate Mexican food and swung at piñatas at birthday parties and watched MTV in Spanish. I repeated things I shouldn’t have and the other girls giggled - every now and then, I had to elbow them into translating when the adults talked - they liked to play with my hair. There was nothing wrong with being the token gringa - nothing wrong with the word, until, every now and then, an older sister would slap someone on the head and tell them off for it.
Better yet, it wasn’t strange that my father was somewhere else - that I didn’t know where he was - that I hadn’t seen him in months. The other girls hadn’t, either. I spent the summers, at least the early ones, with a woman who looked after all the kids on the block and we ran around without shoes and went to the public pool. They called me Noeli instead of Noelle because, everyone knows, a girl’s name is supposed to end in a vowel. (I didn’t mind - it sounded better and was closer than the “Nicole” that every white teacher inevitably called me.)
The point is: I was white in a non-white neighbourhood.
It made little difference, at the time. (Less difference than the fact that I wore glasses, liked to read, and didn’t go to church with them and didn’t know their cousin Alejandra.)
And then we moved.
Suddenly, I was white in a white neighborhood - and that made all the difference.
My mother had a better job - a good job - a job that she could keep. The school was the main motivation - GATE programs are one thing in public elementary school (state primary school), but you know the stories about the public high schools in LA? They’re true. (The better ones might not have metal-detectors at the entrance, but you don’t want to know about their test-scores.) Private school wasn’t something we could afford, so, we moved into an area with better schools. Schools with AP and IB classes, nationally-ranked debate teams where we took field trips to Florence over Spring Break. Schools were every 16 year old had a car (and a therapist). Schools with no pregnant teenagers. Schools without gangs. Schools with no Spanish-as-first-language classes, no English-learning classes whatsoever. (They did have plenty of Special-Ed classes - and that’s where the few Spanish speaking kids were put: they were labelled “learning disability” until they acted out and then it was “emotionally disturbed” and a one-way ticket to continuation school.)
I went to a high school that sent at least a dozen kids to Ivy League colleges each year and more than a third of each graduating class to a UC to study pre-med and pop Aderall in order to study for exams because everyone else is doing it. (In my graduating class of 500, we sent 30 kids to Berkeley - but there wasn’t a single pregnant girl.)
And, you know what? It worked. I got a quality education on the state’s dime. I got into nearly every college I applied to, and was even wait-listed at Harvard and Stanford. (I decided to go study in England instead - but that’s still the point. I had the sort of education where I could just go study in England instead.)
Suburbia came with more perks than good schools. It had a DMV that you could get into and out of in less than an hour. It’s a place where the police-man are so bored that three cars show up for a fender-bender. (As opposed to a three car pile-up on the 405 in LA, ringing 911, and getting a busy tone. True story.)
A place with higher property tax and a higher average income and all that extra money being kept carefully within county borders.
It’s also, it just so happens, a place - wait for it; brace yourself - where everybody’s white! (I know, this is no surprise. We’ve all heard exposes of white-bubble suburbia for years now.) There were, of course, plenty of “minorities” around. Suburbia’s minorities were all-but culturally-assimilated, while only just geographically-integrated. The largest local employer, a pharmaceutical company, employed plenty of PhDs from China and India - each group of which lived in its own gated community. Their daughters played instruments - classical or band - and had nearly valley-girl accents and wore t-shirts and jeans but didn’t chafe (much) at having to ask permission to invite boys to their seventeenth birthday parties. (They knew it was unfair; they just couldn’t be bothered grumbling.)
None of the teenagers grumbled much. We were too busy - school, extracurriculars, sports, volunteer work, jobs. Because, that’s right, not only did we have all the privileges and advantages of the education system - we also took all the service industry jobs. Starbucks and Inn-N-Out were staffed by affluent white-teenagers who wanted pocket money to spend on their lunch breaks at Jamba Juice and Baja Fresh (also staffed by white teenagers) and weekends at Target and Old Navy (staffed and managed by the local “failures”: twenty-somethings who hadn’t made it out of Dodge on the first try).
The only thing I ever heard my peers get regularly impassioned about was their gpa, transcripts, and the idea of Affirmative Action.
There a few Hispanic families. (This was, after all, Southern California.) One lived next door to us - climbed over the wall to grab soccer balls and did all the obnoxious things like park cars in their front yard that home-owners associations detest. They had girls my age, a boy a year younger and they all waved when driving up the street - but I might as well have been invisible on the high school campus. They would not make eye-contact. They would not wave. They could not speak.
The school was too racist.
I never once saw nor heard of anyone being beat up or violently persecuted because of their race or religion. It was far more subtle than that because no one, no one single person, was actually racist. (True, there was the occasional white-supremist graffiti in the bathroom stalls - which couldn’t have been done by anyone who actually existed, by which they meant, actually mattered.)
On the other hand - there wasn’t a single student who would admit to being anything than blue-collar-American-stars-and-stripes-solid-middle-class. There wasn’t a single student who thought they were lucky. Who thought that being poor was anything other than a lifestyle choice - well, you know, they could understand that bad things happen and you’re unlucky for a while but after that you pull yourself up and well then it’s all ok - and that staying poor meant you were lazy.
There wasn’t a single student - and this includes me - who didn’t feel entitled. There were those who didn’t work so hard and skipped class and put in the minimum effort and they knew that it was all their fault for being lazy. There were the students who worked hard and did well and felt that they had earned, that they deserved, a great college education and a perfect bright future. (It was a zero-sum game and they were in it to win - but they honestly, genuinely, didn’t understand that there would be losers in the game. The losers were invisible, unseen, impossible to even comprehend, and by and large, tucked safely away.)
After Hurricane Katrina, we had a handful of students placed in the school temporarily. A girl was in my AP/IB Honours English class - she’d been in AP classes in New Orleans, it should have been a direct match: she’d tested to the level. We all wanted to make her feel welcome and we all wanted to prove how tolerant and understanding and compassionate we were.
Three days later, no one would speak to her. It was just too difficult, people would say, she was just so strange. It was hard to understand her. She made too many jokes at the wrong times about the wrong things and shouldn’t she has known better than to bring that up in front of the teacher and she had no shame, at all, and how could anyone be that loud? Who did she think she was? (It wasn’t about her race - and really, it probably wasn’t. It was probably because she was poor. But in America, in suburbia - what’s the difference, really, anymore?)
Suburbia is a place where people living in six-bedroom two-story houses with four cars and a swimming pool, trust funds for their children, and a time-share in Hawaii genuinely believe that they’re middle class.
It frustrated me - that no one could see their privilege, their wealth that might as well have been stamped on their foreheads. If they’d ever step outside of suburbia, would have surrounded them like a halo. It frustrated me and it angered me that so many otherwise intelligent, interesting, decent people could be so blind. I finally decided that they just simply didn’t know any better - and my condescension frustrated them: I was pretentious for pronouncing Mexico without the “ks” sound, they didn’t always recognize the street names when I said them. I was trying too hard, they said, so much white guilt was unappealing.
We read all the right books (about the South, about slavery, about immigration, about the Holocaust) and felt all the right sentiments and did all the charity-donations for all the right causes but, scratch too deep, and suddenly it was all so very embarrassing, so very shameful, and so very guilty - when and if it had anything to do with us at all.
Summer before senior year, I got the hell out of Dodge and went to Tanzania. (It wasn’t my first time out of the country but it was my first time travelling alone.) Suddenly, my wealth was branded on my skin, too - being “American”, being a traveller, being someone who could afford to get over there - by their logic, by any decent logic, I was rich.
Cries of “mzungu” preceded me. Crowds of children followed me. I made babies cry in terror - they’d never seen a white person before.
Eventually, I stopped being embarrassed by it - it was all just too constant, the reminders of my race, of my colour. And it didn’t even seem so bad.
I spent a couple of months in an orphanage. They called me “Noela” - because, everyone knows, girls’ names have to end in a vowel.
Children don’t hold back. Everything was up for comment, everything was worth mentioning. My hair was smooth - so soft. My eyes were clear. (Why were they clear?) I sweated too much; my head was always wet. (Why didn’t I stop doing that?) My arms had hair on them; they were too hairy. My legs got bruised and turned colours - and maybe I really should go see a doctor, that couldn’t be good, was I in pain could they help?
It was innocent and it was basic and there really was something beautiful about it.
I had all those same conversations again, years later, in Nepal - in another orphanage. (I really wish they’d stop telling me I’m sweating.)
It was less innocent when it was adolescent boys following me down the street, whistling, in Malaysia and the attention from local men who saw me drink beer in Laos wasn’t innocent, at all. Nonetheless, it was natural - to point out that I was different.
I think that’s the best we can ask for - to notice difference, to discuss it, to explore it. To point it out. There was a sort of freedom in that sort of blunt honesty that, without making too grand a sociological statement about it, I find refreshing.
As an anthropology student - as someone interested in biological anthropology - I believe that we can appreciate and investigate the differences in body types, forms, shapes, and colours without prejudice. Why merely tolerate when we could understand or respect? In a purely aesthetic sense, being ashamed of race is much like being ashamed of our own bodies. Why should we let that shame rule us, force us to repress?
As a pragmatist, I know that half of what I’m saying sounds naive - even, perhaps, is naive. I know the long and loaded history of racism in not just America but across the world. I appreciate that prejudice is a slippery slope to genocide. And it’s for those reasons as well that I think it’s time to stop being ashamed of race.
After all, if suburbia and my peers, the modern educated middle class, are truly post-racial, then isn’t it time we can start talking about race?
Which is why I will say this: I am racist.
I notice race. I pay attention to it. I do not ignore it.
My experiences, while they may have made me less racist - in the pejorative, every-day use of the term - they haven’t made me any better. They haven’t changed the fact that I have benefitted from the system, the same system that ignored and neglected many others.
I make assumptions based on race and I make judgements based on race. They aren’t always good and they aren’t always valid and they aren’t always useful - but, I make them and I try to realize it when I do so - I try to analyze, and deconstruct them.
Isn’t that so much more helpful, healthier, than pretending that I’m not racist?
Isn’t that better than naively wanting to believe that race - mine, my friends’, my neighbours’ - hasn’t impacted my life?
We might be able to accept that a modern American principle allows for intervention. The hand-wringing over the genocide in Rwanda, and the hemming and hawing over Libya, Syria, Yemen, and even the Balkans certainly suggests that might be the case. But again, to declare that this intervention has been done right when it’s not even over yet — when the rebels do not have a replacement government, when we do not know where Gaddhafi is hiding, when we do not know if there will be a horrifying post-regime insurgency like there was in Iraq, when we do not have the slightest clue what to do now apart from vague pantomimes to Libyan sovereignty (at least!) — that is worse than premature.
America has never had much of a challenge with the fighting part of a war. The aftermath of war, however, especially when there is no surrender but only defeat, is where America has an especially poor record. Since World War II, in fact, Americans like Roger Cohen have been quick to declare victory when crisis are not yet solved, simply because some or most of the fighting has ended. As a result, we almost never plan for what comes next: no transition, no reconstruction, no stability operations, no development.
Quote is the most on-topic (or, headline-pertinent) portion of the article and, to be fair, I have absolutely no quarrel with the quote - or the point of the article, in general. It’s the slant that bothers me, how it’s framed. To be clear: I’m a firm anti-(military)-interventionist (and, let’s face it, when they say “intervention” they always mean military intervention) on both moral and practical (in the long run, there has yet to be any intervention that was “done right”) grounds.
It’s always fun to listen to someone rationaly articulate your own beliefs (especially when they do it so coherently) - BUT, why is the question (always!), when it comes to these sort of things - “How AMERICAN is it?”
Proving that Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, or Roosevelt are on your side is an easy way out of an argument (especially when the right-wing is so quick to the draw with the “anti-American” slur). I’ve done it in various contexts - pointed out that “under God” is a late addition to the Pledge, drawn attention to Jefferson’s separation of Church and State, to name a few. But, really, why do we care?
Shouldn’t it be about what is right? (Regardless of what a bunch of rich old white men thought a few hundred years ago?)
Or, at the very least, about what is effective?
Who cares how American it is!
It’s kicking off everywhere - everywhere but America…
I love it when my reading list talks to itself (not to mention when it flaunts the line between social anthropology and political science - seriously, coffee and articles like these, and I’m set for the day), but I’m still re-reading through and thinking.
As an young American living in England - as someone following the #Tottenham riots, and who was in the #StokesCroft riots - I can vouch for the massive difference in mind-set between American youths and everybody else.
(When I tried to describe the Stokes Croft riots to my American friends - liberal, activist, anti-capitalists among them - I was met with blank looks of incomprehension. They questioned why we’d made all this fuss over a supermarket - Aren’t they all bad? They thought it was weird. Don’t you have anything better to do? was underneath their confusion - when they didn’t outright sneer, You think its actually going to change anything? When I got enraged over the police brutality, the timing of the crackdown next to the Royal Wedding, they got irritated, pointed out American wrongs and inequalities. They wondered how I could be bothered over something so minor when there is so much worse. I wondered how they couldn’t be bothered to get out in the streets for anything.)
We’ve had revolution in Tunisia, Egypt’s Mubarak is teetering; in Yemen, Jordan and Syria suddenly protests have appeared. In Ireland young techno-savvy professionals are agitating for a “Second Republic”; in France the youth from banlieues battled police on the streets to defend the retirement rights of 60-year olds; in Greece striking and rioting have become a national pastime. And in Britain we’ve had riots and student occupations that changed the political mood.
What’s going on? What’s the wider social dynamic?
Paul Mason’s analysis makes for fascinating reading. (Admitted, it reads more like a thesis than a developed argument; it would be interesting to see this fleshed out.)
Traditionally, young people have energized democratic movements. So it is a major coup for the ruling elite to have created societal institutions that have subdued young Americans and broken their spirit of resistance to domination.
Young Americans—even more so than older Americans—appear to have acquiesced to the idea that the corporatocracy can completely screw them and that they are helpless to do anything about it
Bruce Levine’s points are interesting - convincing, at first, but the more I place the two side-by-side… the less convinced I am.