Monday, January 17, 2011

Towards An American Dream

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

A couple of months, or a year from now, when another antigovernment or bigoted nut climbs to the top of a tower with a sniper's rifle, or puts a bomb in a bar, or buys a semi-automatic and kills a dozen or more, I'll wonder aloud why you're so surprised. We'll still have the same "eliminationist" speech, the same river of guns, the same untreated mentally ill giving teeth to unfettered hate.

All because there's no cause and effect for most amnesiac Americans. We throw a rock, and then stand there gape-mouthed in surprise when the window breaks. If the self-made man pulls himself up by his own bootstraps, the crazy must be just as independent in his craziness. It is a purely random matter that Representative Gabrielle Giffords, or pro-choice doctor George Tiller, or any number of queers have been put in the cross hairs and killed.

Unable, or unwilling, to see relationships, there's no cherry pie, Presidents' or MLK day that can help us forge a twenty-first century dream in which all the residents of the United States are equal to each other, members of an extended family, however dysfunctional. Forget working together towards anything as grandiose as life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness.

Our highest aspiration is to retreat independently to our own separate homesteads with no loss of benefits or privileges. Down with taxes. But let me keep my Medicare and you better plow my roads. In truth, the last thing we want is real pioneer America, living on fatback and cornmeal and dried beans, shivering next to a smoky fire, dying of overwork, malnutrition, childbirth. And that's only if you were lucky enough to be white and free.

And what are Americans without a dream? Are we just shopkeepers? Pharisees? Have we actually lost the capacity to see beyond ourselves? Or is it the temporary effect of swallowing our own hook and line about Americans already having the best of everything from democracy and health care to education and flat screen TVs? No, it doesn't get any better than this.

Without dreams, our spirits and imaginations wither like old apples under a naked tree. The reason we don't learn geography anymore isn't because we're stupid, but because we don't quite believe anything exists beyond the parameters of our peeling picket fences. And the same atrophied muscle that obliterates Africa, Asia, Europe, is equally suspicious of the foreign past, though it also relinquishes the present as fast as it can, and can't even muster the energy to imagine a future more distant than the check-out guy at Starbucks two feet away.

What will guide us without dreams? Despair? Like in poverty-stricken Tunisia? On December 17, 2010, 26-year-old vegetable vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire because police seized his grocery cart. His eventual death set off riots of the poor, the young unemployed middle class, and students, all agitating for democratic and economic reform. Last week, these angry crowds forced the president for life to leave the country. Shortly afterwards, his second in command fled as well.

Elections are promised in six months. Observers are hopeful Tunisia can emerge as a democracy, and a secular one, at that. There's even talk that the fever will spread, and the whole of North Africa begin to transform itself into a more just, and democratic place.

Inspired, or maybe pushed over the edge by the example of Bouazizi's suicide and the effective riots in Tunisia, at least six more men have engaged in self-immolation in North Africa. Four men set themselves on fire in Algeria and one each in Mauritania and Egypt where protesters demanded reforms until the cops regained control.

I used to believe in the phoenix. I'm less sure these days, but maybe that's my own lack of faith. My own failure of imagination. Who am I to believe that the bodies on funeral pyres must stay dead? Though a phoenix is a little tricky. What exactly will reemerge?

Just a couple of days ago the former dictator Baby Doc returned unexpectedly to Haiti after being chased out nearly twenty-five years ago. Nobody quite knows what for, except to spread chaos in an already messy political situation where the governing party is hanging on by fraud, and a run-off after the recent election has been postponed.

Maybe he's become a philanthropist in his old age, and is there to return some of the money he siphoned off into Swiss accounts. Maybe he's there to get more. A year after the earthquake, most of the rubble remains where it fell, and three quarters of a million of Haitians are still in makeshift camps where women are raped in incredible numbers, kids die from dirty water, and international aid money flows like rain.

No comments: