“If the worst is true, is it just a waste of time?”
— Lyrics from the song, “Amerika”, from the album, “The Great Detachment”, by the Halifax indie rock group Wintersleep…and honestly, the catchiest title for this rant that I could possibly come up with, at a time when words are very hard to come by. Here are some more of the lyrics:
“What am I trying to find? Are you alive, oh my Amerika? Perennial with the Earth and freedom, love, and law, and life….Perennial with the Earth…My freedom, I don’t want to die.”
I write of this, now, because of the mass murder in Orlando.
The thoughts bounce around inside my brain like a pinball machine. I think of all the LGBT friends, co-workers, colleagues, supporters, constituents, and interview guests I’ve encountered over the years and I think this may be the first time that I’ve really come to grips with the depth of what it means when gay and lesbian and trans people talk about “safe space” — that sense of vulnerability, shared also by women and people of colour, that straight white men hardly ever feel.
Oh, I’ve noticed that vulnerability before, in individuals — often accompanied by a quietly defiant pride. Like the street kid I interviewed years ago for a feature on teenaged runaways in Toronto, who was more throwaway than runaway. He came out to his parents, and they threw him out of the family home. Or people who’ve told me their personal stories of being gay bashed. Or the first trans person I ever encountered, standing in the checkout line next to me in an Ottawa supermarket at 5 o’clock in the afternoon. I was 17 at the time, picking up a few groceries for my mom, and yes, I was taken aback for a moment, but then it struck me that going out, quite literally, into the public marketplace expressing herself in the gender she felt herself to be took a lot of guts. (It still does, obviously, but imagine how much more daunting it must have been in 1971.)
The mass murder in Orlando was a hate crime, plain and simple, and that’s how it must be regarded and remembered. And yet the very American politicians who’ve been fighting tooth and nail to deny basic equal rights to LGBT people are now predictably falling all over themselves to try and link this to Islam and Islamic extremism.
Sad to say they will succeed in doing that with far too many Americans.
Please do not take this as in any way minimizing, marginalizing, downplaying or diminishing the hate crime that just occurred. But I need to broaden this out, because this very hate crime, as horrific as it is in its own right, is also symptomatic of a very sick society.
The mass murder of LGBT people in Orlando early Sunday morning was, although the biggest, only one of FIVE mass shootings in the United States this past weekend. It was also the 135th mass shooting of 2016 in the United States — and the year isn’t even quite half over yet. And it was carried out with an AR-15, the same type of assault rifle used to kill all those little children at school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut; all the moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado; and all the employees at the office party in San Bernadino, California.
It doesn’t matter whether these mass murderers are terrorists, or just mentally ill, or bigots, or homophobes, or narcissistic attention-seekers, or what the hell is wrong with them. What matters is why America creates them in the first place, and why the American people steadfastly refuse to do anything to stop that.
Hillary Clinton wrote after the Orlando shootings, “Hate has absolutely no place in America.”
Respectfully, I beg to differ.
America may have been built of a noble set of ideals articulated by the Founding Fathers but it was also built on a foundation of hate. Hatred of the Other, whether it was the indigenous peoples whom the settlers decided were in their way, or the slaves on whose backs the economy of half the country was built or — take your turn, please — the Irish, the Jews, the Latinos, the Muslims, and — of late — the transgendered kids who just want a safe place to pee.
Let me not sound too holier-than-thou here. Canadians, and Australians and New Zealanders haven’t historically treated their minorities much better than the Americans. Indeed, the global legacy Britain and her descendants has been far too much Evil Empire and oppression for everyone not Anglo-Saxon. And male. And straight.
And yet, in addition to that insufferable attitude of Anglo superiority that all the Out-of-Britain peoples share, American culture features two dark elements I think are largely missing from other Anglo-Saxon cultures: violence, and fear. Violence and fear have turned into an addiction that is killing America.
I’ve been watching America since the sixties, from very close up as a kid growing up in a border town; from places, like Calgary, farther away from the border; sometimes from inside America; sometimes from the other side of the world. I’ve been watching since the Cuban Missile Crisis; the assassinations of two Kennedys and a King; the burning of Detroit in the long, hot summer of 1967; the beginning, middle and end of the Vietnam war; Watergate and the fall of Nixon; the rise of Reagan and the end of the Soviet Union; Iran-Contra; Gulf War 1, 9/11, and Gulf War 2; water boarding, Gitmo, and Omar Khadr; the rise of the Religious Right, the Tea Party, and Trump. Little of the hope I once had for America is left.
Having recently returned from a vacation in Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, I do think most Americans know in their gut that they’re in serious trouble.
But they’re still trying to hide from it, still trying to ignore it in hopes that one morning they’ll wake up to discover Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton aren’t running for president, the hyperpartisanism that has made US politics unworkable is gone, job security and decent wages are back and unicorns are frolicking in the Wal-Mart parking lot.
It’s magical thinking — closing your eyes, clicking the heels of your ruby slippers together, and chanting, “There’s no place like home…there’s no place like home.” I suggest to you that most Americans are hoping — and, being Americans, praying — that they’re going to wake up from a bad dream. Instead of doing something, anything, to change the outcome.
Our relationship with America — or Amerika, as Wintersleep spells it in the song title — has always been complex and unequal, and we’ve always needed them more than they’ve needed us. But they’ve also gone from being that loud, brash, but basically likeable and good-hearted guy next door to the suspicious, paranoid and increasingly isolated neighbour with the shades drawn — and from inside whose house we too often hear fighting.
“What am I gonna do?”
I’m gonna try to need America a little bit less. That recent vacation to the US is going to be the last one for a long time. Instead of Arizona or Florida, I’ll opt for Mexico or Costa Rica when I need a break from winter. In summer, Canada — the mountains, either coast, or anyplace in between. Maybe Europe, or Japan, or pretty much anywhere, really…just not the United States. When it comes to buying stuff, I always try to buy Canadian. But when we don’t make that thing I need, I’ll opt for a product from someplace other than America whenever possible. In the winter, I’ll eat more root vegetables, living lettuce and hothouse tomatoes grown in Alberta. California can sell its tasteless mutant strawberries to somebody else. I have a fondness for BC wines, but when I hanker for someone else’s fermented grapes, I’ll drink French or Spanish or Australian wine. California and Washington make some great wines, but I just think I’ll spend my money elsewhere.
Will my personal boycott-where-practical (doesn’t that sound quintessentially Canadian?!) of the USA make a difference? Change the toxicity of American politics and social discourse? Bring about healing? Make black lives matter? Or convince the average American that Denial Ain’t Only a River?
Nah…it’s actually not even about that. I can’t change Amerika. I can’t make them stop fearing and hating and shooting and clinging to their guns like a toddler to a teddy bear. I can’t make them wake up and smell the coffee. They’re not going to shake their addiction to fear and hate and violence until they admit they have a problem.
I can’t cure their addiction. But at least I can stop enabling it.
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