Sunday, January 7, 2007

Rambling thoughts

So this may be my last post before we leave, I'm not sure. Tomorrow's our last full day here, and we leave early the next morning. It's been a good trip.

Bill Richardson is in town right now to work on resolving the Darfur situation, and the US Embassy hosted a dinner tonight with him that my dad just got back from. Which is cool, I guess, but it made me realize how little attention I've paid to the conflict while I've been here. It's something I've thought about, of course, but it's really surprising how remote it feels, even here. There are a few token propaganda posters around town, proclaiming that "We are all supporting the peace", but if you were dropped in this city without any outside knowledge, you would probably not realize that anything was amiss.

That's one of the most prominent violations of human rights happening today, only a few hundred miles from where I am right now, and I barely realize it's happening. Maybe I would know more if I could understand the Arabic radio news, and maybe people around me are talking about it and I just don't realize. Or maybe the government does a good job of managing the flow of information in Khartoum, I don't know. It's situations like these that make me wonder about myself, and how much I really know about what's going on in my own country. I think I have a pretty good, accurate handle on US foreign policy, but every so often I realize that I've forgotten what exactly it was that Jose Padilla was accused of doing, or what we know about the CIA's black prisons, or whatever happened to John Walker Lindh (remember him?), or who the Canadian guy was that we mistakenly sent overseas to be tortured, since he happened to have a similar name to someone on our terrorist watchlist. And it bothers me to think that I form fairly strong opinions on the state of the world with such frequently spotty knowledge.

Talking to people in the US about Darfur has brought to light some rather distressing latent racism, which bothers me. More than a number of people I've talked to have framed it as a conflict between Muslims and Christians, with the Muslim government slaughtering the Christian villagers. I don't know where this perception comes from; both sides in the conflict are predominantly Muslim. You could frame it as a conflict between Arabs and Blacks, if you wanted to fit it into some sort of pre-existing racist mold, but I think that even that model doesn't fit very well. Maybe people are confusing it with the earlier civil war, which was fought between a predominantly Muslim north and Christian (and animast) south. But I really don't think that's it; I think that a lot of people just assume that if killing is happening in an Arab country, it must be Muslims killing infidels.

Which makes me sad. The people I've talked to who've said things like that are genuinely well-meaning people, who certainly try to avoid stereotyping and wouldn't intentionally misconstrue the issues. Maybe it's just a scary example of the creeping influence that the Ann Coulters and the Rush Limbaughs and the Bill O'Reillys have on our discourse. Sure, we pay lipservice to the idea that not all Muslims are evil terrorists, but you hear enough people -- even people that you virulently disagree with -- say it and it starts to color your thoughts, whether you want it to or not. Or maybe I'm just scapegoating the popular liberal bogeymen because I can't think of a more reasonable explanation.

How egotistical. I wanted to spend this post talking about Darfur and what I think about it, but I ended up using it as an excuse to discuss Americans and their political and racial foibles. I don't think that I've really learned anything here to discuss, though, as sad as that is, and maybe that's all I really have to contribute.

One final note. A lot of Americans I know, including my parents and kori the tomorrow lady have a tendency to lie about their country of origin, either out of embarrassment or to avoid social reproach. I urge people not to do this. Ideologically, I think you shouldn't concern yourself with the opinions of those who would look down upon you solely for being an American, no more than you should with someone who would expect you to be stupid if you said you were Polish. And pragmatically, the tactic results in people perceiving all Americans they meet as boorish and unpleasant, because those of us who are more culturally sensitive and politically sane run around calling ourselves Canadian. And I think that's a bad thing.


  1. You're one of the least egostistical people I know. I don't think you've got much to worry about.
    I think it's probable that people are probably talking about the Darfur situation right now and you're missing it mostly because of the language.
    I think that confusion about the topic may stem a lot from the recent civil war, which was religiously charged. But, it's kind of depressing to think that Sam Huntington's ideas have pretty firmly taken hold in most of our political discourse. I think that (in the U.S. at least) people now expect wars to be ethnically and religiously charged. They expect the combatants to be fighting for some lofty ideal of God or nation. (Even Sam Harris- the guy who wrote The End of Faith whom I admire immensely- falls into this trap.)
    I think that just as doctrinaire Marxists reduce everything to economic reasons, we've come to reduce everything to a clash of civilizations. Which, of course, is intellectually lazy.
    I don't tell people that I'm Canadian. I have been tempted to affect a fake English accent and tell people that I'm from the U.K., but that's mainly because it would annoy my British friends, and would therefore be funny.
    There have been a couple of times when I've told people that I'm Ameican and they ask me, "Do you like Bush?" and then the subsequently smile when I say "no."
    Kori (because I know you'll read this), with all due respect (and it's a lot of respect, as you rock and stuff) I think that we don't really give people from other countries enough credit if we lie about our nationality. In my experience so far, people seem to understand that not all Americans are dicks. Besides, I don't know enough about Canada to fake it that I'm from there. And I agree with you, Joseph- if someone is going to be nasty to you just because you're from a given country, then they probably aren't worth it.
    Hey, you should keep this thing up. I like your random thoughts and opinions. They're like rays nifty sunlight upon the gossamer whiskers of adorable kittens.

  2. Damn, now I have to compensate by saying I'm Canadian and acting like an asshole.

  3. Hey, thanks, Joe. Yeah, I didn't actually mean to single you out, Kori, I hope you didn't take it that way. I just remember you having mentioned something of the sort in a previous blog post.

    And yeah, in general, Joe, you're right. I've met very, very few people (none?) who have ever criticized me (at least, not to my face), for being an American. Most people who have problems with the US (and there are, admittedly, a lot of them!) seem to have no problems with Americans themselves. Hell, I walked around Afghanistan with some Taliban at one point, and they were perfectly friendly to me, the representative of the corrupt and hedonistic American regime.

    The creeping prevalence of "Clash of Civilizations" discourse is real, and it's depressing. Admittedly, some of the conflicts around the world are religious/ethnic. But it's frustrating how often people expand the scope of those conflicts from the wackjobs who actually believe in it to the run-of-the-mill civilians who really couldn't care less.

    Rip, you're already British! Why pretend you're Canadian? Just get your old accent back and use that!

  4. ok, ok. I know I'm sometimes totally chickenshit and I know that it doesn't help our case by lying. I know that ignorance breeds prejudice and one reason people are ignorant is because people don't tell the truth about their nationality and such. I know. I know. I'll try to be less of a coward in the future.

    But, for the record. My biggest "I'm a Canadian" lie was in S. Korea with a military band playing something very pro-national in one of the towns that was destroyed by one of many attacks by foreigners. I was in a huge crowd of really drunk Koreans (and the night before I'd been offered money for sex by a creepy Korean guy). The only Korean I knew was "I'm sorry" and something vaguely like "Hello." When a nice English speaking lady saved me from two drunken men trying to "help me," it was VERY important that she like me and not leave me to fend for myself.

    I don't lie about my nationality in Japan. I'll try to lie less, but I reserve the right when necessary.

  5. :-) I can think of many words to describe you, Kori, but "chickenshit" would never have occurred to me. I wouldn't dream of disenfranchising you of your rights; hell, I've made the lie as well. 'Sides, it's probably a little easier for stocky, male type people like me to be a little more cavalier about their safety...

    Scary story. Glad that everything worked out all right.

    Have I ever told you my first memory? This should give you a leg up if I ever actually get around to making one of those MySpace "how well do you know me" quizzes". I was about 4 or 5, living in El-Arish, in the Sinai (in Egypt). We hadn't been there for very long (or so I'm told). I don't know the setup, and the first thing I remember is that my parents, my sister, and I were hiding under the bed as machine-gun fire echoed around the town. My sister started crying (understandably), and my dad had to crawl out, staying as close to the floor as possible, to get my sister's bottle and quiet her down.

    It was terrifying, of course, and I'm not sure how long it went on; I really only remember a tiny snippet of time. It would be a more interesting story, I suppose, if we hadn't found out the next day that they weren't actually machine guns we were hearing, but fireworks. It was apparently some sort of celebration.

    Not sure why that came to mind. Ah, well.

  6. So apparently the French have stronger views of Americans than anyone else. I started out saying I was American in France, and it just led to a slew of questions I didn't want to answer while waiting to cross the street, or for the next train to arrive. So I started saying I was Canadian. Pretty much the French people I encountered in Lyon felt that if they noticed an accent, they had a right to ask you where you were from. And if you answered, it meant it was okay to quiz you about your national politics. "I didn't vote for him" was not an excuse; you had to explain who did, why, and how they could sleep at night. All in your second language. The thing about Canada is that no one seems to know anything about it. I would say, "Je suis canadienne," and they would say, "Oh." And then five seconds later, "Aimez-vous la France?" On occation someone would ask, "Vous vennez d'ou` en Canada?" And I would say, "De la Colombie Britanique," because while the French know a little something about Quebec, they know about as much about BC as they do about Oregon. If they persisted and asked where in BC and what it was like, I would say Bamff (because it sounds funny and is fun to say) and then describe Mt. Hood, sans the mountain. "On fait du ski, il y a la foret, c'est tres belle, de l'air frais, des bu^cherons..." (One skis, there's the forest, it's very pretty, fresh air, lumberjacks...)

    Although I will point out that after 9/11, which happened about a month after I arrived in France, the State Department issued tons of scary bulletins forbidding Americans from travelling alone, travelling in groups of more than three, telling people they were American, speaking English in public, speaking English in private, knowing English unless it was the Queen's, or carrying an American passport. (Okay, I made those last three sentence fragments up, but the rest are true.) So given our experience in the first month (Defend your nationality!) and then the state department acting like France was a nation full of anti-American terrorists and harborers of anti-American terrorists, we were fairly motivated to ride the "I'm Canadian" lie as far as it would take us. But I wonder if that would have changed had we been in France a year earlier.

    It's very interesting to me that no other nation seems to be holding individual Americans accountable for the behavior of the nation as a whole. Although France is like the East Coast for talking about politics: it's just an okay thing to do. You can argue with someone about being a democrat or a republican for an hour and then say, "Hey, we're getting drinks later, you wanna come?" and it's totally separate. Well, okay, I couldn't do it - it totally weirded me out - but I saw people doing it all the time. You can't talk about religion, but politics is okay. France, same thing. It's just not a sore spot. You believe what you believe and that's okay because it's just politics, it's not like it's God or anything. But as an Oregonian, for whom politics are way off limits, unanticipated daily quizzes about the political environemnt of my nation of origin were super unpleasant. And it's interesting that the Japanese, Afghanis and Sudanese aren't putting strangers in that position. I assume they're interested. Do you think they're asking you in more subtle ways?

    Okay, I have to go remove the left-over Tuna Noodle Casserole I had for lunch from my direct vicinity as tuna fumes are making me mildly queasy...

  7. That's interesting. When I was in France, I remember the "being an American" thing being an issue in Paris, but it never seemed to come up anywhere else. Granted, we never went anywhere as large as Lyons on the trip I'm thinking of, so maybe it's just a big-city thing.

    Re: discussion of politics. That's an interesting point, and actually, in many of the places I've been there /is/ the sort of strong separation between political and personal identity that you're talking about. Many of the places I've been to, people seem to be much more open to discussing political topics that I would consider to be much more sensitive and uncomfortable to discuss.

    The difference, it sounds like, is that I've never felt like someone was criticizing me or holding me personally responsible for the actions of my country. I've certainly had a number of discussions with people who've asked me about my politics or taken the chance to vent about the things that they dislike about GWB or whatever. But I don't think anyone has ever made me try to justify things or held me personally responsible.

    Re: state-department travel advisories. Those things are a joke, more intended for ass-covering in case something goes wrong rather than any useful advice. I remember the American Club in Peshawar used to post up all the current advisories on a tackboard near the front wall. The thing was constantly covered with dozens of advisories, many of them to places that we traveled to without a second though (and many of them places I'd lived in). I can see the heightened concern immediately post-9/11, but I've never really paid them any mind.