American Un-Exceptionalism

July 4, 2012

Captain America and waving US flag, July 4, 2012. (http://http://www.vitaver.com).

One of the great myths of American history is that the US is an exceptional society with an exceptional history, earned as the shining light on the hill of democracy, the first modern republic in world history. Despite all the claims of such luminaries as Chris Matthews (of MSNBC lore) and presidential historian Doris Kerns Goodwin, America is hardly exceptional. What makes us exceptional is the frequency with which we claim to be so different and so unique from the rest of world. Beyond that, we’re about as exceptional as a C+ level college student.

Chris Matthews at 2011 Time 100 gala, April 27, 2011. (David Shankbone via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via cc-Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Speaking of students, my US history students have laid claim to American exceptionalism almost as often as Chris Matthews. If it’s US history prior to the Civil War, then the claim has been about breaking free from Great Britain’s empire, the Founding Fathers and the writing of the US Constitution, and building the first modern representative democracy. If it’s the twentieth century, then it’s about the good ol’ US saving the world from the tyranny of communism — or at least, anything that wasn’t supportive of US-style capitalism (which isn’t the same as democracy, by the way). Both are hogwash, as full of half-truths as George Washington’s honesty, Abraham Lincoln believing in Black equality and Henry Longfellow’s portrayal of Paul Revere’s ride.

I’m sorry, but I don’t find it exceptional that the US formed a representative democracy that represented the interests of rich, landowning White males, many of whom were plantation slave owners too chicken to deal with the issue in the summer of 1787. Even the comparison to ancient Greece and Rome is specious on a power-blue cloudless day in New York in September. Whether it was direct or representative democracy, both were limited democracies that relied heavily on slavery, warfare, and eventually became empires. America was born out of an empire, and to this day, has imperialist notions about itself and its relationship to the world.

As far as American the Superpower since 1945, I find it laughable that people see us as this shining beacon of truth, justice and the American democratic way on the world stage. There are folks who really think that we were too generous and altruistic in our Marshall Plan largesse, in our dealings with nations whom became aligned with us in the quarter-century after the end of World War II. Hogwash! With the US controlling fifty percent of economic production and activity in the world in 1945, it needed trading partners to ensure its future prosperity and dominance. The Marshall Plan was as much about the creation of stable trading partners and economies as was about checking Soviet influence in Central and Southeastern Europe.

Besides this, for every West Germany, South Korea and Japan, there were also our CIA-sponsored coups in Guatemala, Iran, Chile, military disruptions in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and protections of American corporate interests throughout sub-Saharan Africa, South America and the Middle East. But I’m sure that this was only about spreading our exceptional democracy and economic prowess to the rest of the world. At least, that’s what American exceptionalists keep telling us.

“Dorian Gray” as played by Stuart Townshend, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), July 4, 2012. (http://empireonline.com).

There’s another perspective here, though. One that would describe America as an empire, or an empire in the making, at least. For American history is the stuff of imperialism, including the very justification we use for our actions on the world stage. Based on this point of view, America is unexceptional. As Dorian Gray of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) would say, “Empires rise and fall. There are no exceptions.” The choice we as Americans have is whether we prefer the soft landing that Great Britain recently experienced, or a crash-and-burn.


Humanities: First Contact, Full Circle

September 9, 2011

Creme Anglaise in a pitcher next to a ladle, the closest thing I could find to represent my foodie image of "creme de la creme," the mantra of Humanities administrators during my six years of travails, September 9, 2011. (Source/http://recipetips.com).

It’s been thirty years exactly since I made the most horrible set of first impressions in my forty-one years of life. My first day of seventh grade at A.B. Davis Middle School in Mount Vernon, New York was also my first day in the Humanities Program, a magnet program for the gifted track (and also the way the powers that were decided to desegregate the school district in ’76).

But it was so much more than that, for better and certainly for worse, at least for me. It was the flip side of a coin that represented the worst six years of my life (the coin’s other side being my life at 616 with what can only be loosely called my family). But it was also the six years of my life that made the past three decades of success, struggle, more success, and more struggles possible.

After putting together Boy @ The Window — in which a large measure of text was devoted to what occurred with and around me during my time in Humanities, one question still remains. Did my time in Humanities, with my classmates, teachers, counselors and principals have to be as difficult as they were — and not just for me? There’s no real way to answer that question, because “of course” is a cold and callous answer, while “of course not” belies the important psychological changes that made me a better thinker, student, writer and person as a result. But if I could, I’d build a time machine, jump into my eleven-year-old version of myself, and make sure to have my dumb ass take my kufi off for my first day of school in 7S. At least then, I would’ve been normal-weird, instead of standoff-ish weird.

My main problem, though, was that I arrogantly believed I was the smartest person in the world. I paid dearly for having that kind of naiveté, to the point where certain classmates still see me as that idiotic preteen, and refuse to see me any other kind of way. Too bad for them, for I know I’ve long since changed.

That day, at least for the past decade, has also reminded me of another beautifully warm, powder-blue sky day that turned tragic. With two days before we reach ten years since 9/11, I think about the way I used to be, and see so many similarities to how we see ourselves as a nation. “We’re #1,” we love to say, even though we’ve long since stopped being #1 in so many respects. We have the largest economy and military, the largest debt, make the largest contribution to climate change and pollution, and complain the most about how the rest of the world isn’t like us.

Like me three decades ago, America is naive and arrogant. And unfortunately, it faces competitors — some as unfeeling as my more entitled or more unscrupulous classmates — who are clobbering us in education, economic growth, health care, social welfare, even in protecting their citizens and their citizen’s freedoms. It’s sad, because there are millions of people now experiencing the severe fall into poverty — and all of the pressures that places on marriages, parenting and children — that I faced, very unsuccessfully at first, thirty years ago.

I’ve come full circle. Between the struggle to find a home for Boy @ The Window and my struggle to continue to do meaningful work as a writer and educator, I find that even on my worst days, my best days thirty years ago were a thousand times worse.  My first contact with academic competition, Whiteness and diversity, racial strife, religious differences and straight-up elitism is what has given me a greater appreciation for who I’ve become since that sunny day so many years ago. As well as how much I’ve gained.


Patriotism, Post-Racialism and Prima Donnas

July 4, 2011

US Flag and Lower 48, July 3, 2011. Source: http://mapsof.net

It’s yet another 4th of July, number 235, and I find myself tired of how the prima donnas in this country think it their right to define for me what patriotism is and isn’t. Last I checked, carrying an M-16 rifle and wearing a uniform overseas isn’t the alpha and omega of patriotism here or anywhere, and saying that it is doesn’t make it so. By that definition, it would mean that Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln and Susan B. Anthony weren’t patriots, while Timothy McVeigh and John Allen Muhammad were. Those who serve in combat are obvious American patriots. But hiding behind our military in defining patriotism allows us as a nation to ignore so many things that contradict our sense of nationalism and patriotism.

Call of Duty Screen Shot, July 3, 2011. Source: http://independent.co.uk

Patriotism is about much more than guns, battles, taking flanking positions or making perfect speeches wholly incompatible with the imperfections of our society and people. As anyone in the education field knows, Americans in general know about as much history as my son knows right now, and he just finished second grade.

Our aversion to history is especially noticeable when it comes to race. We’ve declared ourselves post-racial when we haven’t even been pre-racial. Meaning that in order to get beyond race, we actually have to deal with it directly, head-on, without holding back, the ugly history of race and racism that is as American as apple pie. I’m afraid that it’ll take a national tragedy, though, for more Americans to dare be that brave, that honest, that, well, patriotic.

It’s sad, because most of us are prima donnas, or rather, imperial narcissists who talk about patriotism without understanding that being a patriot often means using one’s brain and vociferously resisting the status quo. We’re more concerned about winning Mega Millions and Powerball or the price of gas than we really are about troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan or making US foreign and economic policies more equitable abroad and at home. We somehow assume that “America is #1!” is our birthright, even as many of us haven’t the socioeconomic capacity to partake in America’s remaining riches.

Alexandra Pelosi (a documentarian and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s daughter) has been doing the media circuit talking about her latest film, Citizen U.S.A., the story of immigrants becoming naturalized

Citizen U.S.A. Poster, June 2011. Source: http://www.jfklibrary.org

American citizens and their appreciation of what they believe America is about. Her message has essentially been “shame on you” to native-born Americans for not seeing our nation the way these immigrants can and do.

But even Pelosi’s perspective is limited in its prima-donna-ness. There are millions of us who see the direction of the nation and work not to illuminate its already over-hyped greatness — a classic sign of imperialism, by the way — but to make the nation a better one, a nation that lives up to its ideals. Isn’t this another example of one’s patriotism, one that’s forward-thinking enough to work for the long-term success of a nation, rather than chest-thumping about greatness in the present?

It seems to me that we should illuminate the fact that we expend so much energy making millions of Americans who are not with the prima-donna program into unpatriotic outcasts. So much so that most of us have never had an independent thought on this topic in our entire lives. And if the 4th of July is to be about more than guns, speeches, guns and denigration, we need more people to think for and beyond themselves about patriotism, even if some of us are incapable of accepting independent thought and criticism from them.


GOP/TPers’ Theme Music for Election 2012

May 30, 2011

Huckabee with Ted Nugent on guitar, Huckabee Show, FOX News Channel, May 14, 2011. Source: http://dailymail.co.uk

Ever since Mike Huckabee announced that he wasn’t running for POTUS in the Election ’12 cycle (after playing chords with Ted Nugent), I’ve been thinking about an appropriately snarky and sarcastic way to understand the GOP/Tea Party candidacy process. It’s been a bit confusing. Between Trump and Huckabee, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain, Pawlenty and Romney, Palin and Bachmann, I’d have a hard time finding a candidate I’d vote for even if I were a true American conservative.

But I do know what would help. Theme music to get our juices flowin’, to rile us up about how excited we should be that among these candidates is a challenger worthy of President Barack Obama. Heck, it’s worked before. Ed Meese and Don Regan used Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.” and John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” as theme music in ’84. This despite the fact that these were protests songs of an America anti-common man and pro-war.

GOP/TPers can do the same in ’12. Here’s a list of songs to usurp — oops, I mean use — between now and November 6 of next year.

1. Genesis, “Illegal Alien” (1983), as in, “It’s no fun/being an illegal alien” — especially if the GOP/TPers take over in ’12.

2. James Blunt, “No Bravery” (2005), a truthful description of what it takes to run on the GOP/TP ticket, i.e., no independent thought.

3. ABC, “How To Be A Millionaire” (1985), which should be retitled, “How To Be A Billionaire,” since that’s the ultimate goal of the leaders of the GOP – “a million is not enough” could be the party’s new slogan.

4. U2, “Crumbs From Your Table,” (2004), which, if these folks are elected next year, will be all we’ll have to eat by the ’16 election cycle.

Crumbs on my table, courtesy of Noah's old elephant and a Lipton tea bag wrapped around trunk, May 30, 2011. Donald Earl Collins.

5. Chicago, “Hard Habit To Break,” (1984), especially in the refrain, “I’m addicted to you,” meaning easy money from top 1%, debt and low taxes, and oil, oh, sweet crude oil!

6. The Cranberries, “Zombie,” (1994), the sincerest hope of the GOP/TPers when it comes to what’s left of our voting populace.

Herman Cain, They Think You're Stupid Book Cover (more like We Think You're Stupid), 2009. Source: National Black Republican Association, http://nbra.info

7. Al Green, “One Of These Good Old Days,” (1972), a tribute to the way the Party of Corporations wants things to be for rich – it’s their climax song!

8. Prince, “1999,” (1983), except they would definitely change it to “1899,” the height of affluent largesse, corporate greed and monopoly-building (until the ’00s), and acceptable racism.

9. Creed, “My Own Prison,” (1997), one of the ultimate dreams of the GOP/TPers, that we’d build our own prisons and then put ourselves in them so they don’t have to worry about job creation.

10. Grover Washington, Jr., “Summer Chill,” (1992), what the party hopes their paid-off scientists can “prove” in a new study funded by the John M. Olin Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, and the Scaife Foundations, making “Drill, baby, drill” a reality in ANWR.

11. Public Enemy, “Welcome To The Terrordome,” (1989), most likely would be used by the GOP/TPers to promote gladiator-like games as a way to bring the unemployment rate down for those they can’t get to build their own prisons.

12. Sade, “The Sweetest Taboo,” (1985), a tribute to all of their in the closet and anti-gay party members willing to sacrifice the civil and human rights of LGBT Americans everywhere for a seat in Washington.

13. Maxwell, “…Til The Cops Come Knockin’,” (1996), the general plan for all elected GOP/TPers until they’re caught in illegal activities.

In addition, there’s Alexander O’Neal’s “When The Party’s Over” (1987), another example of what would happen to us, our country and our world if the GOP/TPers reclaimed and remained in charge. They’d suck the bottom ninety-nine percent of us dry until the good times are over, and then blame us for not letting them steal the plumbing, too. Please add to this list. I could’ve created an iPod list of a hundred appropriate songs, but fourteen’s just a start. Eat your heart out, Ted Nugent!


Noah’s Ark, Judges & Lessons Not Learned

May 3, 2011

Celebration of Osama bin Laden's death outside of White House, May 1-2, 2011. http://cfnews13.com

One of the really cool things about having lived an eclectic life — whether by choice or parentage — is that I often see things around me very differently from most people. It may make me goofy or an oddball, but it also makes me the thinker that I am.

Even on matters of belief, I find myself at odds with most Christians. It’s made it hard for me to find a church that I’m comfortable with for more than a few services. Today’s American Christians, Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical or otherwise are for the most part a bunch of hypocritical and self-absorbed — but hardly self-reflective — imperialists who use scripture and religious traditions at every turn to thwart equality and peace. We lack the wisdom necessary for real faith, and knowledge necessary for real understanding.

In the case of global warming and climate change, this deliberate ignorance has bothered me for years. The fact that so many have been willing to ignore droughts, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes in favor of “drill, baby, drill” has been a point of disgust. Add to it the belief for many that these are the signs and wonders of the book of Revelations is somewhere between absolutely stupid and arrogance unlike few

Johan's Ark, a half-sized replica of Noah's Ark, in the port of Schagen, The Netherlands, September 3, 2006. Ceinturion (via Wikipedia), in public domain via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license versions 2.5, 2.0, and 1.0.

other than God has ever seen. Even theologians have trouble interpreting the many contradictory messages of Revelations. Yet most of us prefer this explanation to the scientific proof that our burning of oil, coal, forests and vegetation over the past 250 years has done damage to the global climate.

Fewer who claim to be Christian use the Bible as a way to understand what’s happening beyond fire, brimstone and thunderbolts, making these folks no different from Norse or Greek pagans scared of Thor or Zeus’ wrath. Take Genesis and the story of Noah. It’s ultimately a story of great faith and climate change. Noah had the unique wisdom — some would say revelation — that a great flood would eventually arrive, and dutifully prepared for it while everyone else refused to believe and conducted business as usual. Eight millennia later, with enough scientific evidence to convince a doubting Thomas of climate change, and denial and debating Revelations is all that most of us do.

Or take the historic announcement Sunday night. After nine years, seven months and twenty days, the architect of 9/11 — not to mention the embassy bombings in ’98, attacks in Indonesia, the UK, Spain, and other parts of the world — Osama bin Laden, was killed by US special forces in Pakistan. As conflicted as I can be about many things, I wasn’t conflicted about US forces capturing or killing him. Not because I’m a bloodthirsty person, and not because I believe in the cause of invading other countries to capture leaders of a global terrorist organization. But because a billionaire global terrorist leader is a danger to us all.

So relief, a little bit of vindication, even, is what I felt, followed by the thought that this helps Obama and completely invalidates Bush’s preemptive war and occupation doctrine for both Afghanistan and Iraq. Not to mention thousands of dead and $4 trillion spent. Then followed by dread, because of the idiotic giddiness and hyper-patriotic vitriol spewed Sunday night and all day Monday by my fellow Christians. I’m not arguing that some folks shouldn’t have been a bit happy, felt some relief, and shouldn’t have been in tears. It’s been a long decade of intolerance, ignorance and insecurity that’s followed 9/11. But “USA! USA! USA!”? We took out one man. Al Qaeda still exists, along with a whole bunch of other homegrown and foreign terrorists, many unaccounted for.

Many of my fellow Christians would deny a peaceful afterlife to bin Laden’s spirit because of the evil that he did while here on Earth, playing the role of judge, jury and executioner. Not entirely unlike the judges in the Old Testament, providing law in a leaderless land of lawlessness. I’m hardly suggesting that we should all forgive and forget, even though that’s what we should ideally do. I doubt, though, that expressing glee equivalent to the Pharisees after the Romans crucified Jesus is high on the Christian playbook list.

All of this also leaves me sad. Because it shows that there’s no way on what’s left of God’s green Earth that most of us American Christians can repair the damage we’ve done to ourselves, our country, and the rest of the world. We won’t admit that jobs and gas for our cars today are more important than the environmental, economic and geopolitical future of our children. That the underlying conditions that led to the rise of Osama bin Laden — US political and economic imperialism all over the rest of the world — haven’t changed enough to prevent the rise of another in his place. We might as well keep doing what we’re doing. Chanting patriotic slogans while waiting on the side of a road, bags packed, waiting for Jesus’ return. While the world around us burns.


Maybe They’ve Won After All

September 10, 2010

There's a Hole in the Bucket (Still) at Ground Zero. Source: http://unambig.com

I wrote this four days after 9-11, after spending three days stuck in Atlanta and a day on a Greyhound bus from Atlanta to DC, after defending a Sikh man against a hostile White male and Black guy because he looked like one of “them.”

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With much of this week’s focus on the atrocities at the former World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon, and the airline crash south of Pittsburgh, there is a disturbing and growing backlash against Americans of Arab descent throughout the nation.  The nation should be outraged because of the wanton destruction of property and life at the hands of suicidal terrorists.  But this in no way should justify the fire bombings of mosques in Texas and marching against Arab communities in Chicago.  This, of course, is among other incidents of hatred and revenge directed at folks who in some cases have been in America for several generations.  And like many Americans, Americans of Arab descent migrated to our multicultural society to escape religious extremism, government persecution, and yes, terrorism.  The backlash against Arab Americans since the attacks on Tuesday sicken me as much as the frightening attacks themselves.

I am a African American male, and I have thought about what the nation’s response might have been if a suicidal group of African American terrorists had done this horrible thing.  Would we be in the midst of race riots in America’s major cities, in which groups of Whites armed with American flags and poles, rocks, guns and whatever else they could find to beat and possibly kill Blacks just because they’re Black?  Would law enforcement agencies search every allegedly suspicious-looking brown-skinned person with kinky hair because they might connect them to an African American terrorist group?

Or what if an Irish terrorist group had hijacked the planes flown into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon?  Would non-Irish Americans then be so quick to lash out at any “Mic” they could find? Would they intimidate Americans of Irish descent to the point where they would be scared out of going to school or attending a prayer vigil with their fellow Americans?  Would we be so willing to engage in the language of bloodlust toward a group of Irish Americans as we have done to our Arab American brothers and sisters?

We can say that the majority of Americans have not engaged in this bigoted and racist behavior.  But our silence is not good enough.  Mainstream journalism acts as if a few prominent Arab Americans denouncing both the terrorist attack and the expected backlash against Arabs by other Americans ends their responsibility.  It does not.  The press must do a better job of discussing this smouldering problem with all Americans, including representatives of the Arab American community.  It also must do better in explaining the differences between the tenets of Islam and the unspeakable acts of terrorists clinging to a warped version of Islam.  It’s not at all much different from the barbaric actions of the Ku Klux Klan, who claim that they act in defense of White Christians.

If we as Americans continue to commit and condone through our silence acts of hatred against Arab Americans, are we much better than the tortured souls who flew four Boeing jets as weapons of mass destruction, all in the name of Allah?  If we are to defeat terrorism as a nation and a world, we must also defeat its roots, fear and hatred.  If we are to be one undivided and multicultural nation united against terrorism, we can no longer tolerate incidents of terrorism against one another, no matter how much we hurt.

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Needless to say, The Washington Post was engaged in blind, raging patriotism for the next couple of years, so my two cents was ignored. Unfortunately, between the racism and religious hatred directed at the proposed Islamic Center near, but not on, Ground Zero in New York City, and the idiot Terry Jones wanting to burn Qur’ans in Florida, it looks like the nineteen suicidal morons from Saudi Arabia have won after all. We still have a big hole in the ground where the Twin Towers once stood. So much for standing together on the platform of America the brave and the free.


Patriot Days

July 3, 2010

Source: Donald Earl Collins, Fear of a "Black" America Cover

Few things are more annoying or more confusing than my understanding of patriotism and how others — mostly White — perceive my patriotism and the patriotism of people of color more broadly. It’s something that I’ve struggled to grasp for more than thirty years. For those of you whose patriotism is akin to breathing, that’s your prerogative. I’ve found that something like one’s love for their country, like one’s belief in God (or not), shouldn’t be one that comes without thought or without any doubts at all. For without giving it any serious or critical thought or without any questioning or lingering doubts, most American patriotism is like being a Yankees or a Lakers fan. Patriotism in that sense is simply rooting for a team that can do no wrong, one that is expected to win in any contest simply because that’s all they’ve ever done.

My sense of patriotism began in ’79, when I started to devour history books and volumes of World Book Encyclopedia. I wasn’t completely naive, because I had also read Lerone Bennett’s/Ebony’s three-volume Black America set while learning about World War II. But I did believe that America ultimately stood for goodness and prosperity, for freedom and democracy all over the world. I fervently saluted the flag at pledge of allegiance time in school in fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh grade.

Snoopy & Charlie Brown. Source: Charles Schulz, Peanuts

At one point between fourth and sixth grade, I even created a pretend nation-state in our bedroom at 616, where I played out domestic and foreign policy issues through make-believe characters, from, of all things, the Peanuts comic strip. I saw the Cold War with the Soviet Union as one we absolutely had to win in order to keep the totalitarian communists at bay. Several of my Humanities classmates can attest to my defense of American foreign policy as late as ninth grade.

But even as I generally saw the US as the country the Scholastic Weekly Reader described it to be, I had my doubts as to America the always right and beautiful. It started at the end of fifth grade, when I hit the chapter in our social studies book about how we ended World War II with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I hadn’t seen the mushroom cloud or the fire-bleached skulls before then. It scared me, but more importantly, it made me think about how cruel it was to wipe out a city the size of Mount Vernon but with three times as many people in the same space.

Then, with the Reagan Years and the almost complete refusal to acknowledge racism and poverty in the ’80s got me to the point where I refused to recite the pledge by my junior year of high school. One of the reasons I never saw the military as an option for escaping the abuse and poverty I’d grown up with was because I saw American foreign policy as one that was at least as imperialistic as that of the Soviets. Iran-Contra, Vietnam, El Salvador and Grenada were examples of us over-stepping our role as the leader of the free world.

It got worse for me before it got better. The Gulf War (’90-’91) and my growing knowledge of American history and atrocities at home and abroad made me feel as if this country was never meant for me, never meant to be mine.

Luckily I had other people from which to draw inspiration about how to approach a nation that generally takes people like me for granted, as if my life and death doesn’t matter at all. People as varied as Derrick Bell, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, W.E.B. Du Bois, Anna Julia Cooper, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ralph Ellison — not to mention my Army ROTC friends who served — served to inspire another sense of patriotism.

Their writings and speeches, their acts on behalf of civil rights, human rights and social justice did teach me two things. One, that even folks who serve in the military deserve credit for understanding that their projection of American power means little without clear objectives and a clear sense that this use of power is necessary, justifiable and can actually matter to and gain the support of the rest of the world. Two, that holding my country’s feet to the fire around racism, poverty, imperialism and other forms of injustice is a form of patriotism. Without the socially conscious, this country’s ideals, its flag and other symbols of power, are meaningless beyond the imperial. So, for better and for worse, happy birthday America.


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