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     Volume 6 Issue 32 | August 17, 2007 |

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Writing the Wrong

Incident on a Yacht

Sharbari Ahmed

It is now fashionable to bash America and all things American. Actually the French have been doing it for years, not to mention our formerly Soviet pals. But you know things are bad when Scandinavians jump on the bandwagon. I actually have no scientific proof of this but assume they are also bashing us now because our President keeps telling us that everyone hates us and is jealous of our freedoms and wealth. Much like Emperor Hirohito did in his daily radio addresses during WWII. The Emperor maintained the Americans were out for Japanese blood and would spare no one if victorious. In the event of American victory, he advised, you must kill yourself and your children. Our president doesn't go that far but he does sanction sacrificing young Americans for the war on terror.

I know why we are being bashed. I know why we are despised. I have sometimes taken part in bashing us. (In the past this was viewed as exercising freedom of speech but now is deemed as a threat to Homeland Security). I can step into another human being's shoes and understand why they would view America as a bloated, rapacious empire on the decline. But, I contend, this is not the real America. This is a version of an Imperial State devised and implemented by a group of over privileged, self-aggrandized white men, who actually believe God favours them. These men are as American as Osama Bin Laden is Muslim.

Louis Armstrong, an icon of American music.

As a result, I am quickly forgetting what is so amazing about this country. This is easy to do when you live or work in New York City. People don't count New York as part of the United States. New York cheats by taking the best (and sometimes the dodgiest) bits of other cultures and co-opting them into boutiques, restaurants and burlesque acts, and slapping a hefty price tag on them. The America that I am talking about is not always pretty, or elegant but it is real. Even as I type in these words on August 3 at approximately 6:51 pm, somewhere in the country a blueberry festival is going on. Probably in Maine. Or a town has gotten together to raise money for a new fire engine, or a road race is being run for those age 70 plus. Americans are so individualistic that there is always an organisation or group catering to people's various interests. Everything from ham radio to needle point. Speaking of ham radio, my mother-in law (a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, i.e. people who can trace their ancestry back to a relative who fought in the Revolutionary War and therefore was, according to the British government of 1776, a terrorist) has the distinction of being the first women to communicate with every country in the world that has a licensed ham radio operator. Very specific, I know. She is part of a now dwindling, group of folks who knew Morse code. When I sit down and imagine the quintessence of the American spirit, this is what I imagine it to be, individuals and small groups that have very particular things tying them together, just happy to do what they love. And mind their own business. The very opposite of what our leaders are espousing.

What really got me thinking about all this was a verbal scuffle my husband, Michael, got into with an Indian fellow on a yacht. The yacht was located at the time on the choppy Hudson River in NYC and was peopled mostly by Indian women and their white American husbands. This one fellow, one of the few Indian men there, sat down with us and started pontificating almost at once. I humoured him as I was in a good mood, being on a yacht, but did not understand a single word of what he was saying. He spoke English fluently but his arguments made no sense to me. He was talking about the American public educational system vs. the private I think. It was one of those awkward social situations where people feel obligated to chat and end up talking nonsense. I have found myself doing the same thing on occasion. My husband listened silently, chewing his lamb, and then it happened. “[The fact is] America has no culture,” the Indian fellow said. This was followed by dead silence, likely for effect, and furtive glances at the one fully American person, my husband, at the table from the three other people who had had the misfortune of sitting down with us. This was not a challenge to him, and in fact, the person who uttered this remark looked immediately stricken. He seemed to know he had put his foot in it. Michael lay down his fork and let the fellow have it.

“No culture?” he enquired heatedly. That last bit are the only words I remember verbatim. The rest I will paraphrase. He said, “Say what you will about America's imperialistic tendencies, but you can't say it doesn't have any culture. Who do you think invented jazz? What about American writers? (At this point I interjected with a faint mention of Flannery O-Connor). Some of the greatest writers in the world come from this cultureless place. What about Hollywood, the ultimate arbiter of cultural sentiment and tendencies? I am not saying that all of American culture is above board or righteous but to make an unequivocal statement that America has no culture is not fair or correct.” I looked at my husband then. I had heard the emotion in his voice. I knew he was thinking of his childhood, in Norwich, CT and his relatives. The poetic irony was that just an hour before we had passed the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island where Jan Kornacki, my son's Polish great great grandfather had first stepped on to American soil. Jan's name is engraved on a plaque in the main hall.

In the silence that followed Michael's impassioned speech at the table, I looked down at my plate and thought of the black and white photos of his childhood. My favourite one was one of himself, his four brothers and parents all posing dramatically with their bows and arrows. It turns out they were all archery fanatics and were members of a club. My husband was barely five years old then.

When people bash America, they tend to fell the whole country in one swoop, not thinking that perhaps it is not entirely fair to render an entire land as evil and insupportable. In making that rather careless and offensive statement, our fellow boater had dismissed my husband's entire childhood and the lives of his family and friends. Maybe it doesn't seem like much and in reality there is of course nothing anyone can say to render a person's life as invalid, but it is just as bad as dismissing all Bangladeshis as malnourished third world urchins who cannot run their own country. I would, as would my husband, take strong exception to that. It is, after all, sentiments such as these that divide us. And that is precisely what the Imperialists want. Think the British, 1947.



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