America: Land of Extremes

superman
He said he fought for truth, justice, and the American way.  Why does that seem so much more far-fetched today?

W.J. Astore

This is an Andy Rooney moment for me, but did you ever notice how Americans tend to favor either humongous trophy houses (McMansions), or closet-like tiny houses?  Did you ever notice how so many Americans tend to be either very fat or super fit?  Crusading evangelicals or militant atheists?  Faithful believers in creationism or fervid followers of science?  Proud “cave man” carnivores or proselytizing vegans?  Coffee fiends or caffeine avoiders?  Lushes or teetotalers?   Materialists and hoarders or declutterers and minimalists?

The list of opposites, of extremes, goes on.  Heck, why not include Obama supporters or Trump followers?  Obama is urbane, sophisticated, cerebral, “no drama.”  A devoted family man with one very successful marriage.  The Donald?  Well, let’s just say he’s very different than our sitting president.  And I’m not talking skin color.

A good friend of mine once complained about his fellow Americans that he didn’t necessarily mind their extremism.  What he did mind was their efforts to convert him to whatever extreme causes they believed in.  Rodney King famously asked, Can’t we all just get along?  My friend’s cry was more plaintive: Can’t you all just leave me alone?

As Trump crawls closer to power, America risks devolving even more into a society where the byword is “My way or the highway.”  Where the national motto is no longer “In God we trust” or the older “E pluribus unum” (out of many, one) but instead “America: love it or leave it.”

I once read a great rejoinder to the “America: love it or leave it” sentiment.  I first saw it in a bicycle repair book.  The author simply added this coda: “Or change it.”

Extremism in the pursuit of your own selfish definition of “liberty” can indeed be a vice, America.  We need to reject a black/white, love/hate, on/off, Manichean view of each other and the world.  Moderation as a way of pursuing a more inclusive and compassionate world can indeed be a virtue.

That doesn’t mean one submits supinely to injustice.  That doesn’t mean one surrenders meekly to tyrants.  What it does mean is a rejection of a “shoot first, ask questions later” approach to life and each other.  We have enough polarization already in America, and we certainly have enough death.

Superman used to say he fought for truth, justice, and the American way.  There was a sense, a few generations ago, that those words were not laughable.  That they meant something.  We need to get back to those times.

Impossible, you say?  We won’t know unless we try.

Spreading Violence is Much Easier than Bridging Cultural Gaps

Teach a man to shoot ...
Is a warm gun the universal translator?

W.J. Astore

In Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the U.S. military is fairly good at projecting power. Indeed, the military prides itself on “global reach, global power,” achieved through a worldwide system of bases and funded by enormous amounts of “defense” spending.  What the U.S. military is not so good at is understanding foreign cultures.  Often, it seems the number one goal of military interventions is selling weapons to armies in the countries in which the U.S. military intervenes, so-called foreign military sales or FMS for short.  This is true of Iraq, Afghanistan, and now many countries in Africa, as Nick Turse has shown in several groundbreaking articles at TomDispatch.com.

The U.S. military is “can-do” when it comes to projecting power, and “can-do” when it comes to building host nation armies (of course, the reliability of those armies, such as the Afghan National Army, is often highly suspect, even after a decade of training and billions of dollars in weapons and related equipment).  But what the military always gives short-shrift to is cultural understanding.  Cultural gaps are either ignored or dismissed as irrelevant (“Grab them by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow”) or bridged in ways that ultimately reveal how little we know about the foreign peoples on the receiving end of American largesse.

I learned this firsthand about ten years ago when I was at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, California.  Of all things my lesson came as the result of a Peter, Paul, and Mary song.  While I was the Associate Provost at DLI, the school received an urgent request from a U.S. official working with Iraqi schools. The official wanted help translating the song, “Don’t Laugh At Me,” from English to Arabic. The song, which appears on the Peter, Paul, and Mary CD Songs of Conscience & Concern, is used in U.S. elementary schools to promote tolerance. Its first lines are “I’m a little boy with glasses/The one they call a geek/A little girl who never smiles/’Cause I have braces on my teeth.” The refrain urges: “Don’t laugh at me/Don’t call me names/Don’t get your pleasure from my pain/In God’s eyes we’re all the same.” Rather safe and innocuous lyrics, one might think.

Yet, translating this feel-good song of tolerance into Arabic was neither safe nor easy. After gathering our best Arabic translators, we quickly learned that even the simplest lyrics posed problems of translation. What about that geeky American boy with glasses, the one being taunted for being bookish? Our translators, many of whom hailed from Middle Eastern countries, explained that in Iraq he would most likely be admired and praised for his smarts. How about that American girl with braces, so reluctant to smile? Well, most Iraqi kids would be fortunate indeed to have access to orthodontia. In an Iraqi cultural context, laughing at geeks with glasses or girls with braces just didn’t translate.

And if such seemingly simple lines as these were untranslatable due to the culture gap, what about lines like “I’m gay, I’m lesbian, I’m American Indian,” or even more treacherously, “A single teenage mother/Tryin’ to overcome my past”?  Best not go there, we concluded.

I learned a lot from this experience. If we can’t translate seemingly harmless song lyrics to promote diversity and tolerance, how do we expect to “translate” democracy?

It seems the military’s answer to this is to focus on what needs no translation: violence.  So the goal is to build host armies and police forces and to sell them weapons while building fortress-like American embassies (in Iraq and Afghanistan) or American bases (which are mini-fortresses) to watch over the benighted buggers of the world.

Some might say that warm guns serve as universal translators.  But a harsher conclusion is this: That we are indeed translating our culture overseas: a culture built less on tolerance than it is on violence.