Shelley speaks, in pellucid and evocative language, of the tensions between the individual and community, conflicts between the strength of uncompromising individuality and the sense of responsibility to others, which are often expressed in ways contrarian and discordant. If you read her words often, you know that she cherishes this part of herself, and is proud to be the one who pushes back, who questions, about matters political and gender-related, about issues social and relating to the blogosphere, and this is one of the things many other people cherish about her too. I’m glad – more than glad, I’m indebted in a multitude of ways and even if I disagree with her on the details deeply grateful – that she is around to kick against the pricks, as exhausting and demoralizing an avocation as that is.
One of the many reasons I feel indebted to her (and to others around the ever-more-loosely-joined virtual neighbourhood of which I feel a part) is that she kickstarts thoughts in me, and if I’m at the precise juncture where the caffeine has overcome my natural lethargy (like right now), I’m liable to write about them. The exercise of deciding whether this is a Good Thing or not is left to the reader.
The following is long and personal, and no doubt philosophically suspect. So sue me!
Particularly in these difficult days, people accuse me of being anti-American, and I invariably admit that I am, although perhaps not in the sense in which they mean it. The phrase anti-American almost certainly means different things to different people, and in different languages (long ramble about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis excised – I’ll leave that for another day). Occasionally I’m even asked why, although this is rare, and like dg here, it’s usually as part of a low-intensity injoke that bounces around Metafilter occasionally : ‘Why do you hate America so much?’
I wish I were able to trace back to the beginning my first stirrings of anti-American sentiment, way up there in my Northern BC village. That sort of thing is a fool’s game, though, particularly when your long-term memory is as wildly inaccurate as mine. We only got two television channels up there – CTV and CBC – and so there was no nose-upturned pseudo-intellectual pooh-poohing of American entertainment, though you can be sure I affected a whole range of other arrogant smartboy behaviours, feeling as I did a lone island of brilliance in a sea of millworkers and fetal alcohol syndrome genetic sports.
The second album I remember buying was The Clash’s London Calling – perhaps that was the trigger.
With lyrics like
The judge said five to ten-but I say double that again
I’m not working for the clampdown
No man born with a living soul
Can be working for the clampdown
Kick over the wall ’cause government’s to fall
How can you refuse it?
Let fury have the hour, anger can be power
D’you know that you can use it?
The voices in your head are calling
Stop wasting your time, there’s nothing coming
Only a fool would think someone could save you
The men at the factory are old and cunning
You don’t owe nothing, so boy get runnin’
It’s the best years of your life they want to steal
You grow up and you calm down
You’re working for the clampdown
You start wearing the blue and brown
You’re working for the clampdown
So you got someone to boss around
It makes you feel big now
You drift until you brutalize
You made your first kill now
it fired me up in a way that I still feel, bowel-deep and still burning decades later. But really that album, political as it was, had very little in the way of attacks on America itself – it chose broader targets, and knocked them over with rakish, snarling aplomb.
Like Shelley, I read Ayn Rand as a teen too, and everything else I could get my hands on, which, thanks to a mother visibly relieved that I was more interested in books than cars, was almost everything I could think of, but it didn’t leave much of a mark on me, I don’t think. Similar expressions of libertarian ideals in Heinlein’s juvenilia and other SF novels did leave their mark, though. I remember quoting him, sneeringly, over the years : ‘specialization is for insects.’ But I was too interested in individuals (which I mentioned in another context, in a post of which I’m particularly proud, here) to care much about -isms. This decision, this disdain of politics, has stayed with me to this day.
So how does a disdain of politics and a Clash song jibe with a repeatedly-reiterated anti-Americanism? I’m getting to that, honest.
One of the things that Shelley’s piece today started me contemplating was how my feelings on individuality differ from the ones she expresses so well, and how imagining myself as a contrarian (if people-loving) curmudgeon all these years has molded my life. When I think about it, lyrics from another song bubble up into my mind, and I suppose they express the root of my feeling as well as anything else :
I thought thought that I could find a way
To beat the system
To make a deal and have no debts to pay
I’d take it all take it all I’d run away
Me for myself first class and first rate
But all that you have is your soul
Here I am waiting for a better day
A second chance
A little luck to come my way
A hope to dream a hope that I can sleep again
And wake in the world with a clear conscience and clean hands
‘Cause all that you have is your soul
All my life, I’ve fashioned myself as the Outsider, the exile, the individual, rugged or otherwise. I feel little to no obligation to any sense of community, other than that which is mandated by my own sense of what is right. It has roots, no doubt, in childhood bereavements, and first saw the light when a psychologist diagnosed me as a kindergarten sociopath. It matured with the fingernails-ripped-out clawing at the well-walls of my hometown – let me out! – and has evolved slowly since. It’s led to me to live as an expatriate all over the planet for most of the last 15 years, complaining about my new hosts, wherever they have been, and equally kept me from returning home. It’s made me unwilling to consider myself part of any group larger than a self-selected circle of close friends, virtual and otherwise. It’s led me inexorably to spending a significant portion of my waking hours in front of a computer, typing my life out for people I have never met.
But it’s also made me a better man, in many ways, I think, if a somewhat solipsistic one. I do believe that all you have is your soul, and that, absurd as it seems, is true even if there is no such thing as a soul. That’s an argument I’m not interested in, as it simply doesn’t matter. But I believe that once you have done your best to detach, in best buddhist fashion (though I hasten to add that I am no more a buddhist than I am an evangelical christian) – detach from political or religious affiliation, from outmoded and useless labels like ‘left’ and ‘right’, from exhortations to patriotism and considerations of race, from fretting about whether this group or that is disadvantaged or exploited – and tried to live according to the dictates of your conscience and love and do what good you can for those you know….well, we all want that, in one way or another, don’t we?
At the end of the day, ignoring the clamoring of the crowds to join in and be a part of something is the strategy of the hermit, and I am no hermit. I partake, joyfully or furiously, depending on the provenance of the brain chemicals circulating intraskull, with as much enthusiasm as someone might who defined themselves by their job, or their religion, or their gender, or their sexual preference, or their nationality, or their political affiliation, or their race.
So why do I hate America so much, though I’ve said over and over again that I love many American people? Because America does evil, and I cannot help but hate that which does evil, all the while knowing that it is evil. There’s no need for me to recite the litany of Terrible Wrongs that America has done – no matter how you sit on the love/hate/fear/security map, you know those things of which I speak.
This is not to say that other nations, other governments, other groups political or otherwise, today and in the past (and no doubt far into the future) have not done great evil. Cambodia, Germany, Japan, Rwanda, Russia, El Salvador, Guatemala…. any of us could go on, endlessly, and point to massive evils that, in sheer scale if nothing else, dwarf the worst that anyone could accuse America of.
For me, though, disappointment is the key to my dislike of America. Deep, weary, beaten-down disappointment. Disappointment at the massive disconnect between the way that America portrays itself, and the way that many Americans who are ignorant of both history and geography perceive America. Regardless of how shocked people may have been at the million corpses littering the ground in Rwanda a decade ago, I believe that were the blood of those multitudes on American hands through action rather than inaction, the shock and outrage would be many times more powerful. When I was young I expected – and many people, American and otherwise feel the same – that America would always be a force for good in the world. Americans are supposed to be heros, damn it! That’s what their movies tell us, and their television, and their news agencies and their government. That’s what their duplicitous sold-out scumbag of a president keeps repeating in halting tones when they trot him out to read another script about ‘smoking out the evil-doers.’ And nothing, we all know, is as disappointing as a fallen hero.
(Of course, you can probably guess that I directly blame George W Bush and his administration for the death of one of my best friends, as much as I blame the sack of sh-t who set and detonated that bomb in Bali. They loaded and cocked the gun – that little Indonesian just pulled the trigger. Their bumbling PR-driven war in Afghanistan drove al Qaeda members to Indonesia, the nation with the largest Muslim population on the planet, where those escappes were no doubt instrumental in the murder of all those people in Kuta. My resentment of the abject stupidity of the conduct of the little Bush-te revenge-war has only honed my anger and resentment and disappointment to a fine edge.)
But to people not dependent on their politics or their nationality to define themselves, to someone for whom identity is not built on ideas and groups outside of him or herself, the words of Official America are at so far a remove from the realities that anger and disappointment are the only responses that seem rational. Anger that wrong is being portrayed as right, to the apparent unquestioning satisfaction of many who would fight evil if they recognized it. Disappointment because America, the great power of our world, could do so much good, and instead has been locked into a path that will bear bitter fruit for everyone for as far as the mind can see into the cratered, smoke-shrouded wasteland of the future.
I love Americans, many of them. I hate America because through those who lead that powerful nation, it seems to be hellbent on making a world that is worse in every way that’s important for most of the people in it. And I feel this way not because I am Canadian, or ‘lefty’, or religious, or anything else other than who I am. I hate America because I want so desperately to love it.