Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Whose Country?

These are difficult times. I am not speaking of the great recession that is causing economic havoc. No I am referring to the crisis of belonging. Two stories to illustrate my point. The first is told through a recent video clip of a public meeting in Delaware hosted by Congressman Mike Castle. A white woman stands up and harangues him about Obama not being an American citizen. She is repeating the ranting of the right wing bloviators, but there is a moment of authentic grief in her voice when she says, “I want my country back.” She articulates an often understated yet strongly embraced white fear that somehow the country she knew and cherished is being taken away from her. The obvious intellectual retort is to remind her that this was never just her country: it was stolen from the Indians and developed by people of all colors from all over the world. The country has too complex a history to submit to easy readings or singular appropriations.

The other story concerns Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s run-in with the Cambridge police. We will never know the exact details, as it is a case of he said /he said. But what is clear is that the confrontation crystallized issues of class and race and probably age. It seems more the result of testosterone than skin color. But for many blacks it was just another example that police oppression is a clear and present danger that has not yet faded into history. For many whites, myself included, it seemed a more complex scenario of race and class with a privileged black man expecting more deference than he was receiving. In this case the privileged man is Gates, a very well paid Harvard professor who jets around the world, is a constant presence in the media, and can call upon the President of the Unites States as a character witness. Startled that a policeman would question his presence in his own home--and who would not be startled--he responded with the message of class--you are dealing with someone important--but also of race, when he remarked that this is how a black man is treated in America. Gates felt attacked. The policeman felt betrayed by a President who seemed to defend his buddy publicly without knowing all the facts.

A middle-aged white woman, a rich black guy, and a young white police officer: they all feel under attack; they share a sense of threat and dread that pervades our culture. The US has no single ethnic or racial identity. That fact is a source of strength but also a source of anxiety, and it is this anxiety that informs the delusions of a white woman who can question the national identity of her President, a privileged black professor who responds in class terms by invoking race memories and a white policeman in someone’s own house who fails to recognize the charged politics of a racial encounter. In each case, there is a profound sense that power and authority is somewhere else, controlled by the other. There is a crisis of belonging that we need to address. The “discourse entrepreneurs” of race and class and gender--the always available black spokesperson, the right wing ideologue, the routine racist--only add to our woes by coming up with the simplistic slogan, the easy remarks, the crazy claims . Some of the early commentators on the Gates incident repeated the need to have a discussion of race. No. Spare us the easy slide into comforting clich├ęs. We have had enough unsophisticated discussions of race that fail to understand the overlapping and often undercutting concerns of class and age and gender and sexual orientations. Gates to his credit addresses some of these issues in his writings, so it is ironic that while his work elicits the nuanced view, this one incident generates the simplistic response. We need more intelligent debate where the freighting of complex issues with simple slogans of race or political alignment is replaced by more complex understandings of the sources of difference in this country. Failure to address this complexity leads everyone to think that it is not their country. And when more people believe that, we really are in big trouble.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Westward Across The USA

I got lucky. Good weather. A clear cloudless sky and a window seat on an early morning flight from Baltimore to San Francisco. In 1804 it took Lewis and Clark nearly two years to reach the Pacific. Wagon trains following the Oregon Trail took between four to six months to cross just half the country. In 1876 a train from New York to San Francisco took nearly 84 hours. In late June 2009 a standard flight took me under six hours.

I still have a childlike enthusiasm about flying. I always try get the window seat and, if the weather permits, prefer to look on the earth below rather than close the blind and watch the latest movie. To see the country unfold before you is an experience that borders on the magical.

First we rise from the tarmac to leave the eastern seaboard. It is late June, early morning. Below, the earth is sensuous green almost tropical, heavy with humidity. The sprawling suburbs of Megalopolis soon give way to the wooded ridges of the Appalachians. I look out for the telltale signs of mountaintop coal removal. Too far north. It looks like virgin territory, the river systems outlined by the sinuous lines of early morning mists.

Appalachia: photo John Rennie Short

We cross the Ohio Valley. A giant coal-fired power station shooting a white smoke high into the air to fall as poisonous particulates where I live and breathe. We fly west into the land of the giant grid. The landscape here is an embodiment of rationalist enlightenment thought and the product of the 1785 land ordinance that divided the lands into units of 640 acres combined into one mile squares that stretch in a seemingly unending grid across the land. We fly west across the well watered river plain rich in alluvium into the drier lands where the square grid now share the same space as the round circles of the center pivot irrigation systems. The land is all geometry, a humanized rational landscape.

The giant grid: Photo John Rennie Short

We cross the 100th meridian that marks an important climatic divide between wet and dry, fertile and arid. In the late nineteenth century, John Wesley Powell suggested that west of this line the climate was too dry to support intensive agriculture. The powerful railway lobby overrode his proposal and generations of failing farmers paid the price. The dry landscape is still a testament to Powell’s sage proposal. The grid begins to disappear as we fly across the gently rising upper plains and then…almost without warning the western edge of the Rockies rises up dramatically. The first sight of the snow capped peaks take me by surprise and elicit wonder. It is midsummer yet they are high enough to retain winter snow in north facing crevices and shaded cracks.

The Rockies: photo John Rennie Short

The sharp edge is soon replaced by the high plateau, an eroded gullied landscape still freshly scarred from the turmoil of its recent creation. Stark, beautiful and empty. It is a dry, desiccated landscape full of gorges and gullies, long strips of ridges, possibly a meteorite crater quickly glimpsed before it disappears. Slashed and gashed, jagged, raw and rough.

The High Plateau: photo John Rennie Short

Then, another sharp rise in topography as the snow streaked peaks of the Cascades mark the western edge of the Rockies. I look straight down and glimpse the convex granite slopes of Yosemite, one of the nation’s first wilderness parks. Their vertical majesty flattened out by my 35,000 feet aerial perspective. Then the grid of the Central Valley, one of the most productive lands in the nation. There sits the grid square of Sacramento. The ocean is almost in sight. We cross the dry foothills, golden and brown, the plane loosing altitude rapidly as it gets ready to land. We fly low across Silicon Valley, skim the bay and land at the airport.