Saturday, October 18, 2008

Never Say Never

A decade ago, a close friend and colleague of mine left Buenos Aires to accept a full scholarship to the master’s program at Columbia University’s famed School of Journalism in New York City. He was already in his late thirties at the time and a solid and proven intellectual in his own right. He had long been a professor in the journalism program at the University of Buenos Aires (Argentina’s largest and most venerable institution of higher learning) and was writing for some of the country's top publications under his own by-line, as well as working steadily in FM radio and cable TV. In fact, his first contact with Columbia was when he won the Citi Prize for journalistic excellence in the field of economics. He won the prize for an article that he wrote for a major mass-circulation daily in Buenos Aires and was rewarded with an all-expense-paid scholarship to a two-week seminar at the university’s prestigious J-school, prior to winning the master’s scholarship (one of only two given by the university each year) some time later.

We had worked closely together at a publishing company where we ran a special projects department and, quite frankly, we did a lot more talking about writers, literature and growing up in our two cultures (his urban Argentine, mine rural North American) than we did about special projects. I recall him thinking it odd that I should be as critical as I was of certain aspects of life in the United States.

“Why should that surprise you?" I asked him once. “I mean, you’re critical of Argentina, aren’t you?” This guy had a very loud laugh and when I said this, he laughed so loudly that the overhead light fixture in our cramped office rattled.

“Of course I criticize Argentina. Everybody criticizes Argentina. But you’re American!” he guffawed.

“Look, the United States isn’t perfect, no matter what anybody might tell you,” I said. “Not by a long shot. And anybody that thinks not being critical is the same as being helpful is simply wrong.”

We swapped literary heroes: He gave me Julio Cortázar. I traded him Henry Miller. After reading a lot of Miller and discussing him with me in detail, there came a day when we were arguing some point about US government. He was on Washington’s side, I was against. I can’t recall what it was about, but probably something to do with regulation of big business (in which I would have been pro and he con). Anyway, the debate got heated and at some point, he said: “You’re not representative. You’re like Miller. You’re an American that hates the United States!”

Now it was my turn to laugh. I said: “You’re wrong. I don’t hate the United States and neither did Miller. He loved it and so do I. That’s why we’re so disappointed to see some of the stupid things the government does and some of the utterly stupid ideas that it brainwashes its children into believing. The United States that I love is the town where I grew up in Ohio, the people that work hard and can be relied on, the people of my parent’s generation that survived wars and depression and kept on keeping on, so their children would have a better life. The United States I love is the one you see at breakfast time in the truck stops and coffee shops on the back roads into small towns any day of the week. It’s the United States that has precious little to do with Washington and its policies and its propaganda and its underhanded trickster ways. If the United States is, as it’s always claiming, the best country in the world, it’s the folks that make it that way, not its government or its big businesses, which are eternally greedy and often out of hand. People like Miller and me are not the ill-content liberals we’re made out to be. We’re conservatives...old-time conservatives...1776 revolutionary conservatives, because we still know what’s worth conserving.”

Some days later, my friend came into the office carrying a paperback book in his hand and grinning from ear to ear. He flopped down on the old green leather couch by the office door, red-faced and excited, with his overcoat still on, and started to read aloud:

“I am a patriot — of the Fourteenth Ward, Brooklyn, where I was raised. The rest of the United States doesn’t exist for me, except as idea, or history, or literature. At ten years of age I was uprooted from my native soil and removed to a cemetery, a Lutheran cemetery, where the tombstones were always in order and the wreaths never faded...

“But I was born and raised in the street...

“To be born in the street means to wander all your life, to be free. It means accident and incident, drama, movement. It means above all dream. A harmony of irrelevant facts that gives to your wandering a metaphysical certitude. In the street you learn what human beings really are; otherwise, or afterwards, you invent them. What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say, literature...”

Then he sat there grinning and held up the cover of the book, as if that had been necessary. He had been reading from the first lines of Henry Miller’s Black Spring. He had done so purposefully, intentionally. He was telling me that he understood what I was talking about, comprehended that there was the United States that much of the world “bought”, the one that movies and TV and Ivy League schools and indoctrinated teachers and politicians and diplomats and big business sold like hawkers at a sideshow. And then there was the other one, the real one where people, real folks, lived and worked and loved and died and, in the meantime, tried their damnedest to be good citizens even in the face of all the hypocrisy and greed and cynicism and authoritarian designs at the top of the heap. And that that was the United States that I felt akin too and patriotic toward and obligated to protect and treasure and warn at every opportunity. He got it. He understood.

Later, when he settled in and was studying at Columbia, my friend wrote me an e-mail in which he said that he had been thinking of me in one of his international studies classes. It seems that he and the professor had tangled over a question of semantics that quickly became a question of nationalism and learned beliefs. The argument erupted over some reference by the professor to the North American and South American continents. My friend had the innocence and audacity to point out to her that America was a single continent and this seems to have come, to her mind, as a totally novel and equally ridiculous postulation on his part.

To anyone who has lived anywhere else in the Americas, this would not come as a surprise. I quickly learned in my early days in Buenos Aires that when somebody asked me my nationality, the proper response was “North American”, not “American”. Because the inevitable comeback to the latter was going to be: “We’re all Americans. You’re North American, we’re South Americans.”

At first you think, “This is stupid. What’s the big deal? We call ourselves Americans. So what?” But in the end, it's a lack of awareness at best and a mark of blatant arrogance at worst. As in, “Yeah right, we’re all Americans, but we’re the only Americans that really count.”

Clearly, a great majority of Americans tend to think of North America as ending at the Río Grande. The current administration has even, despite NAFTA, sought to create its own “Berlin Wall” along that river to prove it. And if there were some way to turn “Anglo-America” (the United States and Canada — well, most of Canada) into a “continent” I’m sure you could find a group of politicians in Washington that would be glad to find funding for the “geographical research” — right down to finding a way to leave Quebec out of the “geographic” mix.

If that sounds cynical and unfair on my part, just look at how we’ve bent the meaning of the word continent to fit our ends. By the simplest of definitions, a continent is a large unbroken land mass completely surrounded by water. By this definition, my friend would have won the argument hands down, because before we dug the Panama Canal, somebody who wanted to sail from New York to San Francisco had no choice but to “round the Horn” at the southernmost tip of (South) America.

Now, a more modern, complex and pragmatic definition of what a continent is claims that: "Continents are understood to be large, continuous, discrete masses of land, ideally separated by expanses of water." [Lewis, Martin W.; Kären E. Wigen (1997). The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography. Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 21 – emphasis mine]. This leaves a lot more wiggle room for ethno-political finagling, and in the end, the seven “continents” most commonly recognized in the English-speaking world are identified more by convention and convenience than by the ideal definition of one continent’s having to be separated from others by water.

Anyway, the discussion turned into a real shootout. My friend said that the professor’s argument was indefensible to anyone who could read a map. Clearly, the North and South American land masses were connected from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego and that any presumption of two separate continents was purely political (and perhaps ethnic) in nature. In the end, the professor, furious at having something she had been taught to believe all of her life from grade school on questioned, and clearly grasping at straws as she saw her authority at the head of the classroom fading, said something like: “Okay then, let me see you walk across the Panama Canal, if it’s all one continent.” My friend, whose intellectual arguments are always based on sound intellectual capital, was dumbstruck, and decided to let the issue ride. Obviously, if a professor at the head of a post-graduate level class in one of the most prestigious universities in the world was incapable of seeing the oh-so-obvious fallacy in such an argument, then conventional political indoctrination was evidently immune to almost any amount of education.

After my friend got his master’s degree from Columbia, he decided he wanted to stay on in New York. He got his immigration papers and toughed it out. For my part, as an American expatriate who prides himself on having a further-removed and often clearer view of my native land than many who actually live there, I found in this case that I too was more than capable of believing the hype. I mean, wouldn’t you expect a guy who had gotten a full scholarship to Columbia, who had abounding knowledge of international affairs, who speaks and writes both English and Spanish fluently, who was one of the top in his class and who already had vast teaching experience, to be a shoe-in, diploma in hand, to be placed on the faculty at his alma mater? Or wouldn’t you at least expect him to be immediately snapped up for a solid teaching position in some other school, if not for a high-paying job in journalism beyond the ivy-covered walls of his school. We tend to believe that that’s how it should and does work, because it’s what we’re told...Or we believe it because it’s the way things used to work back in the sixties and seventies when we were young. But not anymore.

So as I say, he stayed on and toughed it out teaching at underprivileged schools in underprivileged neighborhoods in New York while freelancing for papers back home in Argentina and, meanwhile, making all of the contacts he could, trying to fit in, trying to get an “in” into the system. And finally, after a decade of striving, he’s making some inroads. He’s not exactly living the American dream. But after a hard-fought decade, he's getting some better teaching opportunities, even some non-tenured teaching at Columbia...finally, and he's making something of a name for himself as a cultural figure in the Latino community. He's doing what the US immigrants of old did, keeping his shoulder to the wheel, staying in the barrio and making New York work, despite the words long-belied from “The Great Colossus” by Emma Lazarus engraved on a plaque on the base of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...” And despite the fact that this was never my friend’s case and that he is among the best of immigrants that the United States could ever hope to import.

But the point I want to make isn’t about immigration or about my friend. It’s about us. It’s about Americans and about the learning opportunity we have just been dealt by the government and big business. The opportunity is this: Stop believing the hype.

When people in Argentina woke up one morning at the beginning of this decade to find that the government in cahoots with the banks (mostly foreign banks and many of them American banks) had dilapidated their life savings overnight, any Americans whom I talked to about it back home seemed to glaze over. They just couldn't understand something like that happening and it just made them “so glad they lived in the good ol' USA where something like that would be impossible”. At the time, I wrote an article in which I said, among other things:

“ is probably safe to say that Americans living at home pretty much believe in the system and, in general, don't expect government action to wreak sudden havoc in their daily lives.

“So imagine, if you can, this scenario: After a full decade in which your country's prices and foreign exchange parity have been among the most stable in the world, in which yearly inflation has been single-digit and in which you have been able to freely invest your income at home and abroad — years in which you have come to depend on banks for every kind of financial service imaginable, in which you have entrusted your life savings to the financial system in the belief (backed by repeated assurances not only from your local government but also multilateral institutions) that you are living in a strong, emerging economy with bright prospects for the future — you wake up one morning to find that your world has gone completely crazy. Your bank accounts have been frozen and the government has just announced that the money you had been saving in the system is now worth 40% less than it was yesterday. Your international hard currency has been confiscated. Worse still, no matter how many thousands of dollars you have in your foreign exchange account, the government and the bank will only make $5,000 available to you — not in hard cash, but transferable at an unrealistic official exchange rate to your domestic account, where withdrawals are limited to 1,000 local currency units a month.

“It is, of course, a real stretch for Americans living at home within the stability of the most economically powerful nation on earth to imagine this kind of scenario, but this is precisely what has happened, practically overnight, to the people of Argentina last December.”

At the time, I couldn’t find a single buyer for that article among my journalism contacts in New York and Washington. Americans, it seemed, just couldn’t relate to what had happened in Argentina, even though American banking, the IMF and the Bush administration were involved. It was just too “way out there” for Americans to identify with it. What even I couldn’t foresee back then was that it wouldn’t be a stretch at all for Americans to identify with such a similar situation just seven years down the road.

The ever-increasing popularity of Barak Obama in the run-up to the general elections is not nearly as much a result of his own merit — although he is surely the most revolutionary candidate since John F. Kennedy — as it is of the anger and frustration of Americans who believed in the system and were duped by an administration that did absolutely nothing to protect them from the greed and arrogance of big business and big banking.

But despite the pain and hardship that this crisis has caused to millions of Americans, and indeed to the world economy, there is a valuable lesson to be learned from it. And the lesson is that we should never say never again: that such a thing “could never happen in the greatest nation on earth,” that our business and banking system is reliable and trustworthy beyond all doubt, that trickle-down works, that business can and should be self-regulating, that the US government looks out for its citizens. Perhaps this blow will sober us up and make us realize once and for all that greed and power make government and business do whatever they can get away with and that we ourselves, and our willingness to question and not fall for the hype are all that are standing between us and this kind of disaster.

The late Robert F. Kennedy once said: "The sharpest criticism often goes hand in hand with the deepest idealism and love of country."

We would all do well to recall this every time an administration flashes its sardonic grin and says: "Trust me!"

1 comment:

Kansas_Kate said...

"The United States I love is the one you see at breakfast time in the truck stops and coffee shops on the back roads into small towns any day of the week."

You really have not spent enough time here during the past 25-30 years...

The US you describe -- regular folks in small towns in Midwestern states -- is the US I live in, and it scares the hell out of me.