Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Annoyed in America

This evening I went to Jonathan Raban's reading, where we listened to excerpts from his new book, My Holy War: Dispatches from the Home Front. Raban is a Brit who has been living in Seattle since 1989, I believe, and his more recent books have a sense of place that is firmly rooted in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. I've only read his recent novel Waxwings, but after hearing him read from his latest book, I'm intrigued with the fact that he's an "outsider," of sorts, and has a unique perspective while at the same time seems to be rather at home here in the U.S.

Perhaps I'm interested in this perspective of his because I feel my life living abroad has also afforded me a different, less American take on the world. And while Seattle is certainly more liberal and internationally minded than most places in the United States, lately I've been feeling frustrated at how typically American the worldview is here and how cosmopolitan it's not.

Raban's reading tonight focused on the American "War on Terror" as well as the prevalent culture of fear in the U.S. resulting from the 9/11 attacks. It was interesting for me to hear his re-creation of Seattle's response to 9/11; he characterized 9/11 as unique and unlike any other recent catastrophes (shool mass shootings, Oklahoma City, etc.) in that it was very clearly perceived by all of the country as an attack aimed personally at them. Thus, it instilled a very real sense of fear in all Americans. This is not something I've never heard before, but somehow it surprised me to listen to this in Seattle and find Seattlites characterized in this way, as well. It just seems so foreign to me. Sure, I was in Amman on 9/11 and felt pretty removed from all the national mourning, but the notion that most Americans feel they were personally attacked in some way is just really weird.

Raban contrasted the average American's response to 9/11 with what he saw in Britain shortly after the London July bombings. While Americans turned to religious and patriotic slogans, the average Brit was pretty much business-as-usual--no Crusader-like zeal to take 'em out, like here in the U.S.

And it just makes me feel sad. Ok, fine, this turning to God and feeling victimized and all, but how in the world has this become the bedrock of our foreign policy and worldview? The stuff I've been reading lately has really been getting me down, and it's very much related to how this country's dumbing down and insistent self-centeredness has become the defining factor of how our government and people relate to the rest of the world.

Over the past few days I read Willian Pfaff's "What We've Lost: George Bush and the Price of Torture," a relatively recent article in Harper's about this administration's policy on torture. It shocked as well as saddened me. Yesterday's piece in the NYTimes Book Review, Sean Wilentz's "The Rise of Illiterate Democracy" also made me feel remorseful at just how far this country has moved away from the ideals under which it was founded. I highly recommend both.

It's abhorrent to me that these things are happening right under our noses and we've got all the information in the world about them, yet somehow they're generally accepted. Bush was re-elected, for one, and while our lawmakers are beginning to acknowledge a tiny amount of the depth of this administration's problems, the general "at war" measures are tacitly accepted.

The other thing that freaked me out majorly while upsetting me at the same time was listening to Bush on NPR today. Usually I can't bear to listen, but today they played his responses to a few unscripted--believe it or not!--questions in Philadelphia. When asked how many Iraqi civilians have died since the war, he estimated that the number was around 30,000. Even if that's a dramatically low estimate, it's still a huge amount, and his odd, unscripted tone in answering (it felt uncharacteristically meek somehow) left the impression that even he is aware of this war's horrors and that we've gotten in over our heads.

Like Raban said, throughout the country fear is currently the dominant lens through which people view the rest of the world. And while most here in Seattle are very politically literate and knowledgable about the latest international goings on, there's just something missing. I can't quite characterize it except to say that in some way they're still unable to identify with what it all means. Yes, there's an outrage that we messed up Iraq so badly it can likely never be fixed, but I feel that the real annoyance about Iraq has very much to do with annoyance that we're losing, that our troops are being killed. The true picture of suffering on the ground in Iraq and what this means for your average Iraqi is a concept that's so abstract it can only be referred to in pat references. Sure, I'd say most people here aren't happy about what Iraqis go through, in a detached yet concerned way, but they just simply don't get who these people are nor the gravity of the situation.

This country's general lack of understanding about the Arab World has a lot to do with the one-dimensional way in which Arabs have been portrayed here in the U.S. along with our proclivity to not know much about anything outside of our borders. I've been interested to see how that general ignorance has a lot to do with reception of the film "Syriana," which I thought was brilliant. While it's been getting good reviews, it's always characterized as confusing. That the movie shows a great variety of life in the Arab World and is more nuanced than any other Hollywood movie depiction I've seen is wonderful--but also the most confusing element for most, I'd venture.

And back to the American sense of fear. What the heck?! Do I, here in Seattle, experience anywhere near the threat of terrorism as your average Iraqi or Palestinian--or Israeli, for that matter? Violence is in no way an everyday part of our lives here in the way it is in many, many other places in the world. How utterly self-centered it is for us to believe our vulnerability is anywhere near the same scale.

Last night, I had an extremely vivid dream in which I was being searched out to be "eliminated." Perhaps this was inspired from the "targeted killing" (aka assassination) scene I saw in "Syriana." In the dream, I could hear bombs falling closer and closer to my neighborhood and I was running in circles in fear trying to think of how to protect Issy, how to get away. The sense of dread I woke up with lingered with me for hours and I kept thinking about how frightened I had been in the dream, yet how it was only a dream. I've never lived in a war zone, but my reaction to the dream was extraordinary. I could only reason that this is what people who truly live in situations like this must go through on a constant basis--and how much more intense that fear must be in real life. Those of us living here in America can't even get close to that.


At 8:51 PM, Blogger Lone Wolf said...

Amanda, very fascinating. Interestingly, I grew up in Amman and was in the USA on 9/11/2001. I can understand how some of what you described is annoying, but I agree with this guy about Americans feeling personally attacked. I learned never to underestimate the power of fear. What was so ironic on that day is the fact that most streets were deserted even though I live thousands of miles away from New York and DC. I wonder though how most people in Amman felt on 11/9/2005, I bet you much the same way Americans did 4 years ago.



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