Thursday, March 16, 2017

Political Potatoes and Engaged Volunteers

Couch Potatoes


No sir, when it comes to North American folks, these days, I’m not very proud of my fellow citizens.

Strange. Only a few weeks ago I was seeing the silver lining in the cloud of the dark new U.S. presidency, soon after the election results were in.

I thought: Wow, Americans could now be like real citizens: they could be engaged. And yes, suddenly folks were sending money to the American Civil Liberties Association, and protesting with each other, and deliberating with each other.

I thought: Now they could be like those folks in the Norman Rockwell paintings on the covers of the old Saturday Evening Post, rather than be year-round couch potatoes, only stirring off their couches briefly, to cast their votes a few years in the future. Well sir, you can forget that idea: My thin hope has drained away.

Now I can see the self-satisfied elite dismissing potato farmers and factory workers—that is to say, would-be factory workers—as “bigots” for voting for Trump. Can’t a worker be a bigot and also feel a great crushing despair from seeing how “left wing” Bernie Sanders can’t succeed, while a “right wing” Hilary Clinton can win the party nomination? This while despairing that Hilary would come into power like the rock song, Here comes the new boss, same as the old boss, we won’t get fooled again? As I see it, it’s perfectly OK to vote for Hilary as being your best choice, at the end of the day, but can’t you also get out of your bubble and ask what is making your fellow Americans despair so deeply? Or is asking, and humbly listening, just too much engagement?

After the election I was happy to see people were reading again. Certain books are back to selling again, certain old documentaries are being rebroadcast, with people relating them to the Trump presidency. It’s as if Americans, normally so isolationist in both space and time, were at last taking an interest in history. Engaging their ability to compare and contrast.

Just the other day, in Larry King’s memoirs, I read of a Jewish photographer who wanted to snap a picture of Hitler, back before the war. But the photographer flinched, lost the shot, because Hitler looked right at him with such frightening hatred… And now a few people are fancying “the Donald” to be another Hitler. Queerly, this reminds me of the time of the Gulf War in Kuwait, when a few mothers told me their children were afraid of WWIII starting up. This while it had already been many years since any new schools were built with an air raid tower like mine had. No doubt the kids got their fanciful ideas off of their parents. Sometimes I think, “All is fanciful vanity.”

I can remember reading a thick book, soon into the Iraq affair, back when American still didn’t have the guts—as Iraqis would warn each other, before going for job interviews with the Americans—to honestly call what they were doing an “occupation.” I read how the “cost saving” measure of using armed male contractors, specifically the Blackwater company, was singlehandedly undoing all the efforts of other Americans to “win the hearts and minds” of Iraqis, efforts to get Iraqis to believe in democracy over traditional Arab dictatorship. But Blackwater got away with it: I guess because regular Americans don’t read books. Or aren’t engaged. As I recall, it was several years before the daily newspapers began to expose the harm Blackwater was doing. And by then the Americans were pulling out.

I read an excellent thin book, soon after the pull out, exposing American jaw-dropping levels of incompetency, as bad as anything you’d see in the third world. This by a writer who moved unarmed among the Iraqis, simply observing and asking questions. Too bad I can’t find any congressional reports on Iraq. Why didn’t Americans know about their own failures back then? Partly because visiting congressmen repeated the history of Vietnam. In Nam, being a puffed up Ugly American meant meeting Saigon elite, the officials and generals, but not caring enough to get to know ordinary people out in the rice paddies. (Here’s a link to a news article, the Ugly American parts are lower down) I think at the very least the State Department should have been on the ground in Iraq, if only in a valued consultant capacity, if not bloody well put in charge! ... Folks at State know social studies.

In theory, State understands the challenge of building nations and democracy more than folks with guns or the diplomats. After all, relying on the army and embassy hadn’t worked in Saigon. There the efforts to “win the hearts and minds” were sadly ineffective. How sadly? The communists could sneak ample troops and munitions into Saigon in advance of their Tet Offensive—a shocking Pearl Harbor—without anyone informing the elite … although common bar girls did warn working class American G.I.s.  

Here’s where I despair: Citizens of the U.S. can be heard being fanciful back during the Gulf War, before Iraq, and then being fanciful after the Trump election, but in between, when it was truly important to apply practical “cold equations” for building a nation… Nothing. I would hear more from a seashell.

Today my glass is half empty as I lay depressed in bed. My conclusion? As long as it doesn’t require them becoming informed, U.S. citizens eagerly crave a “sense of security” from standing up close to shoot fish in a barrel. That’s the time they’ll be fanciful, kidding themselves, pretending to be engaged—but they’ll never engage for anything that requires any real bravery for making any real long term effort.

Such a dreadful pity.


At least I can still feel respect for any Yankee who votes, even if he votes “wrong.”

As for election day, one of my little joys in life is going to vote at a school or a hall, and, once there, enjoy seeing all my plain fellow-citizens with enough “get up and go” to get off the couch and vote. Too bad some computer nerds, the potatoes who like couches for video gaming, are proposing to wire every home so you can vote from your couch. I’m moving to a cabin in Alaska if that ever happens… Which brings me to my Free Fall post:

Free Fall Prompt- we self-chosen few

Ah, we band of brothers, we few, we who shall count ourselves blessed… or something like that, was what Shakespeare said, just before the Battle of Agincourt.
And I must admit, one of my joys in life has been to be among small bands of volunteers.
As an older teenager, when most were twiddling their thumbs at game arcades, warm and dry and small, my few were in the military reserves digging trenches in the rain and charging across no man’s land. If you’ve ever played soccer in the rain, then you know the joy. You know.

My first “blessed few” were in junior-high (middle) school. The rules had been abruptly changed; suddenly nobody needed a second language to go to university anymore. “Hurray!” said all the smart academic kids, and they dropped French like a hot potato, like a chore, like a sandbag they had just carried for years across a long field.
Then we self-chosen twelve, six of us in each of only two classes, carried on.

We went to a French restaurant together. We were treated as kindred learners by our teachers, as respected soldiers to be led from in front of us, not as a chain gang to be pushed from behind. Not as sullen kids with a teenage pout. Is it mere coincidence that most of us (including me) were also on the school track and field team?

Now I am with those who tackle the dread of public speaking, once a week. Now I am with those who tackle the chore and burden of writing, without any editor to set a deadline, without a piano teacher telling us to practice every day. We meet weekly to venture into unknown territory, with no assurance of any destination. Call it free fall. Like free climb, only without the security of a peak to serve as a compass.

How can I not give and share respect and affection, for we few? Easier to watch DVDs and play video games and tread with oblivious headphones. Easier, but not the same.
In adult life, there will always be a place on the team, a spot in the squad, space for an easel on the riverbank. You can look at art, or you can make it. Play computer games, or program them, be a leader, or a led. I’m not a leader, not me, but I know whom I want to be among as I follow.

I want to be with volunteers, for they have strength for their burdens. A joy of life. A joi de vivre.

Sean Crawford
During a March Calgary snowfall
In the middle of history

~I've noted before that if a U.S. school is not directly allowed to teach Vietnam, and lessons of that war (to apply to, say, the war on drugs) then they can do an end run by teaching the book The Ugly American. Lesson plans are available.

~My French class also went to a French radio station, where we said merci at getting a free record. I guess I could link to a good French song, like an Edith Piaf piece, but no: Here’s a link to a nice music video about Shakespeare’s Battle of Agincourt, over in France, sung by Amy to the tune of ‘As tears go by’ by Marianne Faithful.

~It was the Tet Offensive, with enemy bodies at the very walls of the U.S. embassy, that caused highly respected Americans, such as TV journalist Walter Cronkite, to suspect the Pentagon-Embassy view that we were “winning the war” as being a dirty falsehood.

~From Larry King: “The photographer saw Hitler in the street and focused the camera just as Hitler turned to look straight at him. The look in Hitler’s eyes made the photographer flinch and he was unable to snap the photo. A second later he recovered and he took the picture as Hitler turned away. The photographer never forgot the feeling.” Truth Be Told, page 157-58, 2012 edition.

~Thick book: Fiasco: the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to … by even-handed military reporter Thomas E. Ricks, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

~Thin book: Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

~ Even at the height of their Iraq War Effort the average U.S. citizen could offer merely a sound bite to describe democracy. What sort of arrogance made the American people believe they could be so uninformed about democracy, during War Time, and yet be able to teach it to another country?  A War Effort is not rocket science. Back during my dad’s war, even less literate citizens could go see a documentary on Why We Fight. (Made largely with actual Nazi film footage)

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