AN AMERICAN IN CANADA
On one of the listserves to which I subscribe, I reacted to several posts regarding how understandable it was that working-class Americans are supportive of Bush and the War on Iraq. Two separate incidences sparked the conversation: The Dixie Chicks fiasco and Margaret Atwood's open letter to Americans (will be in The Nation's April 14th issue as well).
Here's my contribution to the discussion, which I thought was appropriate to post here as well:
As an American who lived most of her life in the working class south and who is now living in Canada, I must say that while I agree with [the poster's] analysis, I think she misses the point that Atwood is making. I was in Canada when 9/11 happened. Hundreds of people on Vancouver Island opened their homes to travelling Americans stranded at Victoria's airport and hundreds of other Islanders provided food and transportation. This generosity was expressed in Canadian communities throughout the country. Twenty-eight Canadians died at the World Trade Towers or on the airplanes that day. Canadians were grieving along with Americans. Everyone was in shock. Everywhere we went, Canadians who knew we were Americans asked us if we were okay and if we needed anything.
That generosity of spirit is exactly why Canadians are now confused by the unilateralism of America. Not that they don't simultaneously hold the view that Americans are good people but violent people. Long before 9/11, Canadians were uneasy with their more violent southern neighbours. But I think that the thing that characterizes Americans most to the rest of the world is the ways in which Americans are perceived as being myopic. American history is taught in Canadian schools and American culture is observed and studied by Canadians. This is true in much of the world. America exports its culture through television, movies and books. But Americans don't appear to care one bit about Canada or the rest of the world. A popular cartoon here is a map of the world as America sees it.
I don't think that America is like the rape victim who buys a big dog and hates men. I think America is acting like a rape victim who has decided that nothing less that castrating every man who looks like her attacker isn't enough to make up for the violation she feels. In fact, I think America is acting the way a stereotypical man would act if he were raped. I am a surviver of rape and I can tell you that the experience is no where near as singular as this. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I had done wrong. I spent as much time crying and feeling helpless as I did angrily looking for ways to retaliate. I wanted justice and retribution, but I also wanted everyone to be my friend. I support the need to express anger and hate, but if the victim became as violent as America has become, I would not support just letting her have her way. It is okay to recover. It is not okay to act upon that anger by killing innocents because they happen to be in the way of her recovery.
The working class south where I grew up was deeply religious, usually in a fundamentalist tradition. I agree that they know themselves and are not suffering an identity crisis. The self that they know is not just demanding justice. They consider themselves a chosen people. They want retribution. They believe God is on their side. In fact, their thinking is not that different from those who call for jihad in the Muslim world. They are right. Bush said it best for them, "You are either for us or against us." The Dixie Chicks fiasco is a perfect example of this. Even a contrite apology (and the one posted was not the "real" apology) was not enough to spare them from the retribution of these Americans. Forgiveness for infidels is not allowed.
However, I don't think liberal America is suffering from Atwood's identity crisis either. Liberal America is upset with Bush and with the war, but I hear very little rhetoric on this side of the 49th parallel to suggest that liberals are asking deeper questions about American society. It is not that I don't appreciate the peace movement. It is refreshing to see a viable protest movement in the states again. I spent a good part of the 90s going to "protests" for NOW that were considered a "success" if more than 20 people showed up. Seeing thousands of people marching is heartening. But I wonder if it is enough. It may slow down the war machine, but America needs more than a bandaid and constraint.
It should be pointed out that from a Canadian point-of-view, Atwood's commentary was mild. Canadians are not only confused by what they are seeing, they are fearful. The underlying current here is that America is about ready to self-destruct and they are going to take a lot of the world with them. Canadians want to do something to help, but they also feel the need to take cover. If America is the rape victim gone crazy, Canada is the codependent partner who just wishes she could find a way to relieve the suffering, but understands that any offer of help will be met with a lashing out by the victim. Canadians don't know whether to confront the pain with America or duck and cover until the process is over.
Bush is the perfect representation of the southern working class fundamentalist and that is what scares me most about him. As I said, I grew up in this world. I left it because there was no place for a smart poor woman there. I wouldn't stay in my place and therefore, I met a lot of people who spent time trying to put me back there. My hope is that the American Left is really thinking through the deeper problems of American society and isn't just happy to have a voice again. It is hard to tell from this point-of-view because, well, the news from America is filtered through news media with agendas.
I guess one final note to my response. Long before 9/11, I came to understand that there were flaws in my education about America's place in the world. I grew up believing America was a chosen nation that had (as the history books [the poster] mentioned suggested) saved the world twice and was making the world safe for democracy. I grew up believing that if I tried hard enough and was a good girl, I would be rewarded. As I faced sexism and classism, my beliefs began to break down. At first I thought something was wrong with me and I tried to figure out what I was doing wrong. At some point, however, I concluded that a lot of what I had been taught was a lie. I now believe that much of what I was taught was a lie. Long before 9/11, I feared for my home country because I knew that such self-deceipt could not last forever. Yes, there are many wonderful things about America and the American people. But most of those wonderful things are reserved for only a few Americans and are dangled in front of the rest of us to keep us in line. The America I knew was hostile, suspicious and dangerous. If that was true for me as a poor white person, I'm sure it is even worse for people of colour.
I still believe that an honest national conversation in which Americans confront these lies and begin to find ways to make ammends to those who have suffered because of these lies could lead to the strong democratic and free country I had always hoped America would be. However, as long as Americans throughout the political spectrum avoid the toughest questions (such as racism, sexism, classism, and genocidal tendencies at home and abroad) in an effort to avoid pain and inflict pain upon its own citizenry and the rest of the world, it will continue to falter. I don't believe George W. Bush is the leader who could help America recover. I'm not sure if I've seen a politician yet who will. I believe that it is possible to peacefully work through this pain, but I believe it more probable that a collapse will take place before such a conversation will happen.
Instead of a rape victim, I think of America as an active alcoholic. Most alcoholics have to hit a bottom before they are willing to stop acting out their addiction and make ammends to those they have hurt. My only hope is that America's bottom isn't lower than its death.
AN AMERICAN IN CANADA