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While We Still Have Time

In spite of the grimness of the times in which we live, there is still hope. If you feel, like I do, that the usual discourse about matters of critical concern tends to be superficial, misguided, and false, then you might find some solace and inspiration here. I will try to offer insight and a holistic perspective on events and issues, and hopefully serve as a catalyst for raising the level of dialogue on this planet.

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Location: Madison, Wisconsin, United States

I was born in 1945, shortly before atom bombs were dropped on Japan. I served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1971. I earned master's degrees in Economics and Educational Psychology, and certificates in Web Page Design and as a Teacher of English as a Second Language. I followed an Indian guru for eight years, which immersed me in meditative practices and an attitude of reaching a higher level of being. A blog post listing the meditative practices I have pursued can be seen here.

Friday, May 26, 2006

The illusion of being "liked"

A risky messageIn my previous post I wrote something that was inaccurate, and inconsistent with what I had written previously. In attempting to shed a bit of light on why people around the world don’t like Americans anymore, I said that Americans aren’t particularly likeable people. I fell into the trap that I have been rebelling against my entire life: allowing the way I perceive reality be defined by others.

To have "unlikeable Americans," there have to be "Americans" to begin with. "America," the land named after Italian con artist Amerigo Vespucci, includes the continents of "South America" and "North America," with the lower part of "North America" having the distinction of being its own "America," called "Central America." So except for "Norteamericanos," which is what people south of the border with "Mexico" call people north of the border (and south of "Canada.").

If you accept the commonly understood use of the term "American" by people north of "Mexico" and south of "Canada," the concept still doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. There are people who were born between the borders, but moved away when very young, and live in countries all over the planet. Many of them do not speak "English."

There are people whose parents came here "illegally," and have lived here for as long as they have memories, who only speak "English," but are not citizens. They sound and move the same as other "Americans," but can and have been deported.

There are people who were born here, which makes them citizens, such as children of foreign students, businessmen, and diplomats who spent years growing up here, and then moved back to their parents home countries, though they are most familiar with the "United States."

Then there are immigrants, who moved here with the intention of becoming citizens, but who are mostly acculturated to their home countries. They may not speak "English" at all, or very little. Refugees from countries like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Somalia, Kosovo, China, Tibet, and many other countries fit into this category.

In addition to these distinct varieties of "Americans," there are the ethnic divides. The most polarized division is between people of "European" descent, mistakenly referred to as "white," and people who descend from "African" slaves, also mistakenly referred to as "black."

Then there are the regional differences within the "United States." "Hawaii," our 50th "state," is a five hour plane ride across the "Pacific" from "California." It used to be an independent country until the government of the “United States” overthrew its monarchy and made "Hawaii" a U.S. territory. Nowadays it is a mixture of many ethnicities, including Native Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Caucasian (Haole), other Polynesians, Korean, Vietnamese, and many others. There are relatively few African Americans is Hawaii, and they are derisively referred to as "Popolos." The dominant cultural characteristic is what is commonly called the "Hawaiian spirit," a modernized version of the ancient Hawaiian culture, which can roughly be described as friendly, casually intimate, laid back, and an attitude of "Aloha," a concept worthy of its own story. "Aloha" is translated by some as meaning "In the presence of God."

"Alaska" was purchased from Russia. I have never been to "Alaska," but from what I have gleaned, it possesses a fairly distinct culture, consistent with its weather and history as an outpost and refuge for adventurers and independent souls.

The "Mainland" "U.S.A," the "Lower 48," or "U.S.A." proper can be divided into different regions, with their own habits, patterns, histories, weather, and demographics. The old distinction of "North" and "South" may have had meaning in the Civil War era, but the "country" has grown tremendously since then in size, population, ethnic makeup, and in cultural complexity.

Now there is the "Northeast," “Southeast,” “Midwest,” “Midsouth,” “Southwest,” “Northwest,” and “West,” the “Atlantic” coast, and the “Pacific” coast. These areas are not all that distinct, and some places are referred to in more than one category. For instance, “Oklahoma” is sometimes considered part of the “West,” sometimes the “Midwest,” and sometimes the “Southwest.” “Montana” has been referred to as the “West,” the “Northwest,” and by its own distinction, the “Big sky country.” “Colorado” is “West,” as are “Utah” and “Nevada.”

There are further regions, such as the "Great lakes," – "Minnesota," "Wisconsin," "Illinois," "Indiana," "Michigan," and "Ohio." "New York," is bordered by two great lakes, but is not considered a "Great lake" state. Even "Pennsylvania" has a border with "Lake Erie," but also is not considered a "Great lake" state.

The "Four corners" area is where "Colorado," "Utah," "New Mexico," and "Arizona" meet. The "Texarkana" area is where "Texas," "Arkansas," and "Louisiana" meet. The "states" bordering "Mexico" are creatively known as the "border states." Six of the "Northeastern" states are also called "New England." The original thirteen "states" are also known as the "colonial states," because they were colonies of "Great Britain" before the "Revolutionary war." The "states" that seceded from the "Union," leading to the "Civil war," are also known as the "Southern states," "Dixie," and "the deep South."

Then there is the "Sun belt," generally the "states" in the "South" and "Southwest," where the weather is warmer, and the "Sun" is more prominent as a factor in daily life. The "Ice belt" generally refers to the "states" in the north people moved away from to be in the "Sun belt." There is also the "Rust belt," formerly industrialized states in the north, where many factories have closed due to competition from lower labor-cost foreign businesses.

I put all these names in quotes because they are all human ascriptions, all impositions on phenomena that categorize them for human communication and convenience. But it should be clear that there is no stereotypical "American" any more than there is a "Negro," "Mexican," "Jew," or "White."

So it would be hard to be either a "likeable" or an "unlikeable" "American," the term being pretty undefineable.

Then there is the problem of "likeability." It would be hard to find anyone that someone doesn’t "like." To "like" someone means to have positive regard for that person, to enjoy the person’s company, and to care about the well-being of that person. Even George W. Bush, the number one international criminal on the planet today, is "liked" by many people. There’s no accounting for taste. I have to admit to having fleeting positive regard for Bush. In both instances, it didn’t last more than a few seconds. He said a couple of things I agreed with, and I gained an understanding of how fickle and illusionary our likes and dislikes are.

I happen to "like" a lot of people who can be called "Americans" with a certain confidence. Some of them even "like" me. I "like" a lot of "Americans" I don’t even know, like Goldie Hawn, Jack Nicholson, Winona Ryder, Lyle Lovett, Russ Feingold, Clint Eastwood, Denzel Washington, John Prine, Danny Glover, Al Franken, Morgan Freeman, and Tammy Baldwin. I’ve met Russ Feingold and Tammy Baldwin, but I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to say I "know" them.

Then there is the whole issue of "likeability." In the past, what people in other "countries" considered "likeable" about what they perceived to be "Americans," had a lot to do with "North America" having been seen as the "New World," the land of promise and plenty, the defeater of "Nazi" and "Japanese" imperialism, and because of the money and goodwill provided by "American" tourists.

Now "Americans" are not so popular, thanks to a succession of coups de etat, overthrows of governments, backings of dictatorships, and dubious wars and invasions of such diverse places as "Vietnam," "Grenada," "Panama," and of "Iraq," twice. For no reason other than pure evil, a bombing is being planned for "Iran," likely with nuclear weapons. The likeability of "Americans" will likely plummet even further.

This looks pretty grim, but there may be something we can do to improve the situation. Of course, the immediate cause of our unpopularity is the death-dealing of the Bush crime family, and as long as he is in office, "America" and "Americans" will become hated around the world. All we need to do is impeach Bush and his gang, send them to prison for the rest of their misspent lives, and install a decent and law-abiding regime in their place.

This is not likely, even if the Democratic party secures a clear majority in both houses of Congress this fall. There is too much inertia and protectiveness for the illusory "status quo." The established elites have too much to lose, at least in their own eyes, and will do whatever is necessary to secure their place in the social hierarchy.

That leaves the rest of us. Our "elites" didn’t come from the moon. They come from us, from the same social structure, the same cultural climate, the same value system. If we change our cultural values, maybe we can change our overstructure, our elite, our ruling class. It may be too late and there may be too little time to prevent the bombing of "Iran," but the direction the "country" takes in the future cannot be done if in a discontinuous manner with the culture at large.

I can use my own life as an example. I have lived in disharmony with "normal" "American" culture my entire life. I ran away from home when I was three years old – just wandered off, wanted to see what there was in Chicago, the city of my birth. When I was five, I told my older brother and sister on Christmas eve that there is no Santa Claus. I flunked out of being an altar boy in my "Catholic" youth, one of the luckier "failures" I have experienced. I was even a dissenter in the Boy Scouts, not going along with our "leaders" in their complaints about a summer camp.

Then there was the Army, described in previous posts. I was very, very lucky to have rebelled the way I did without getting in serious trouble. I even made rank, was an E-5 when I was honorably discharged in 1971. In the later years of the Vietnam war the Army became a near-mutiny, and I was far from alone in giving back huge amounts of grief to the "lifers," as we called them.

In pursuing "Eastern," "traditional," and "alternative" spiritual and healing practices, I wasn’t attracted to them out of rebellion, but a rebellious spirit certainly made it easier to break from the limits of "European" based cultural confinements.

For all this departure from the boundaries of modern cultural constraint, when pondering the question of likeability, I had to wonder if I have become unlikeable, just as much as other undefineable "Americans."

Whether we like it or not, everyone in this country is in the same mix, the same cultural pressure to conform, and the same silliness that passes for meaning. I think it is possible to be really alternative, to be a person of peace, of spirit, of love, of kindness, in harmony with all creation, treading light upon the Earth, consuming little, leaving little waste, supporting holistic products and lifestyles, and serving as an example for all to follow.

That’s a nice ideal, but I’ve fallen a bit short. I have worked in alternative functions, as an electrician and plumber during my guru-following days, and doing general maintenance when I was working for a holistic studies center. But these were done according to modern codes and standards of practice. I was a plumber longer than anything else, and laid copper, cast iron, black iron, galvanized, brass, and PVC plastic pipe – just like any plumber in the trade. Also ABS and polyethylene for that matter.

When the invasion of Iraq was brewing I joined a group of veterans working for peace. It didn’t take long before the group devolved into jealousy, infighting, and power-grabbing, and I eventually quit. I wasn’t exactly St. Francis of Assisi either, but pretty much confined myself to doing the group’s website, and tried to avoid the turmoil.

Shortly before the invasion I put a bumper sticker on the back of my car that said "Another veteran against war with Iraq." Even here in supposedly "liberal" Madison, this aroused a lot of reaction. Someone "keyed" my trunk. No one made any gestures of any kind, except one "peace sign," but what started happening immediately was that on Madison’s version of a freeway, the "Beltline," cars and pickup trucks would tailgate me when the drivers read the bumper sticker. After Bush’s "Mission accomplished" landing on the U.S.S. Lincoln, he started threatening other countries, so I made letters from a collection of bumper stickers that spelled out "Syria," "Iran," and "Korea." I didn’t bother with the phony distinction between "North" and "South" "Korea." A war against "North" "Korea" would be a war against all of "Korea."

My response to the tailgating was to give them what I call "The treatment." A brief introduction to their ancestors. The treatment was good enough for the vast majority, but there were a few who were persistent, and for them I developed "The treatment number 2."

Around Madison "The treatments" sufficed to make driving tolerable, but I learned fairly soon that driving around Chicago was a different story. On the freeways there tailgating is pretty much a way of life, and I did not once experience the kinds of masculinity-challenged drivers I did here. I knew also by very strong intuition that "The treatment" was not something to do in that area. In Chicago they really are tough.

The downside of having bumperstickers that advocate peace, or at least opposing war, was that I became an aggressive driver. I used to be what I call an intentional driver. I intend to get where I’m going. It’s less than aggressive, but not being a fearful or submissive driver.

Gradually, by having the anti-war bumperstickers, I started driving as one ready for trouble, ready to issue "The treatment" at a moment’s notice. Finally, about a month ago, I noticed I had become something I had held in contempt for decades: a mean driver. Another driver cut me off, and I reacted by giving him a variation of "The treatment," something a few years ago I was incapable of.

The bumperstickers have to go. I’ve been avoiding taking them off because the paint will come off with them. The point has been made. I don't get tailgated anymore. Most people are against the war now anyway, so now it feels like an ego thing, like bragging.

So the subject of "likeability" is a bit of an illusion, not so easy to attain or hold on to. We are all in the same boat, whether we like it or not, or whether or not we realize it. I’m not sure being liked is even something worth pursuing or cultivating, but I think one thing can be said for certain: we would all like each other a lot more if we didn’t allow sociopaths to gain control of our government, and if we would not be so eager to attack other countries.

I would be a much safer driver too.

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