Thursday, November 04, 2004

The Quite Ordinary American Stakhanovs!

The older I get and the more countries I see, the more marvelous America becomes to me. America is a land where millions-- ordinary, very different and diverse, interact to bring us much enchantment. It has been interesting watching the election brouhaha from afar and trying to explain my impressions to my fellow Iranians.

Obviously there are limits to how successfully issues and themes translate cross culturally. Given that we live in a Pariah State where leaders feel accountable to no one but the Almighty-- even this a private matter only to be settled, in all likelihood, at the gate made infamous by Dante’s immortal words, ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter”-- “multilateralism,” and “global prestige,” would strike one’s interlocutors as a rather quaint set of concerns.

Life goes on, really, with or without the approval of the rest of the world. But there are consequences. Something we all understand given the polarized and highly contested nature of the routine and the mundane. The “ideal” cosmos is inevitably affected.

At issue is the American way of life since the nature of the differences between the candidates’ policies in the Middle East wasn’t all that tangible. The tweedledee would have had advisors consisting of mostly wolves in sheep’s clothing. The tweedledum, of course, has already been tested along with the rest of his favorite wolves so enamored of baring teeth.

With the memories of the past 25 years so paralyzing fresh in the minds of Iranians nowadays, and the majority still refusing to deal with the consequences of a time when over 98 percent of the population venerated the country’s leaders and thousands literally walked on mines to prove their love for God, Islam and the country, with millions of others rooting for those they deemed “ resolute” and “decisive,” it has been difficult to tackle the question of unreasonable expectations and ultimately tough navigating the issues of citizens’ responsibility for a country’s future.

People have come to pretend it wasn’t them all along. Those who participated in a movement that shaped our present are usually “others,” either duped by any number of superpower conspiracies or the cunning Mullahs. So now, a lot of people project all this on America. And the Iranian experience can be instructive for those concerned about any number of future scenarios for the States.

Here we have cynicism where there was idealism—however misguided. Now all of the leaders are considered idiots. Everyone not liked is, in fact, branded either an idiot or a liar. With a government that continues to expand its powers in the hope of regulating conduct on too many fronts has naturally come the sort of citizens so fed up that they show no respect for the laws—not even the traffic regulations, or each other. But it hasn’t stopped there.

The rot has seeped through the entire culture and gradually even the soul of individuals. It would have been an exercise in futility, otherwise, to pose the question of the ideal Regime! Tyrannical Regimes cultivate dysfunctional souls. Society suffers the consequences every day.

Hence it is difficult in Iran these days to rely on anyone’s words any more. And deeds are even harder to stomach. The merchants charge whatever they think they can get away with. Doctors treat you if you can give them the money or otherwise turn you away. Hospitals are butchershops. They can kill you without feeling responsible. The pharmacists give you the wrong medications without losing sleep. Teachers do a miserable job of educating the young. Professors write students’ dissertation for a pittance, and students bribe and plagiarize instead of seriously engage with new subjects. The elites plunder and rape.

Millions do hard drugs. And spouses batter each other and their children. Overall, almost everyone does anything that “feels” good (hal mideh- حال میده( if they think no one’s looking, or they can get away with them. Corruption reigns. Rudeness, intolerance and cruelty dominate.

The self-centered and the solipsist are kings and queens. Everyone, then, blames all on the ruling clergy.

To pose the question of an alternative has become an exercise in tapping the ability to imagine something different. But then myriad excuses follow.

“We are a nation of mongrels,” they tell me, “where so many different ethnic groups mingle to our collective detriment.” “Our rulers are corrupt, thieves and exceedingly conniving!” “A percentage of our population is illiterate,” “Way too many criminals among us and they prevent the emergence of a saner society.” “We are a superstitious lot.” “We need massive cultural revolution!” “With our history, nothing better is possible!” And so it goes on and on.

So then I counter with the example of America.

Yes we are a superstitious lot, I concede. But look there, 29 percent of the population is evangelical; which is to say, excluding all the children growing up in those households, upward of 60 million expect suddenly to vanish one day, and land—with suit and tie, or sleeping gowns, with or without shoes or clean teeth-- in heaven while the rest of us mere mortals die a grotesquely painful death.

And then there are 28 million who are functionally illiterate. 58 million read at the level of eighth graders. There are 7.1 million in jails, waiting to go to jails or just out and still under surveillance. Millions are homeless, and many more millions poor. And even with so many from every conceivable nationality present, Americans mostly manage to live peacefully, pay taxes and respect the laws.

Americans have their fair share of problems, yes, but no one (reasonable) complains in America after a traffic fine that “look our last President lied about getting a blow job, so why should I follow traffic laws?”

No one, reasonable, in America will say “since my favorite President, Mr. Reagan, ran an administration notoriously famous for the “sleaze factor,” with over 400 officials indicted for various abuses, I paid my professor to do my dissertation, then was caught, and expelled. Not fair!”

No one abusing his spouse will counter that “look my elected officials armed and trained the founding fathers of the very same Jihadists blowing up innocents men, woman and children today, so why shouldn’t I abuse a spouse?”

I tell Iranians who ask, yes, some Americans might get together every now and again and nag about false memories. As a rule, though, no one will claim (nor would any one really fall for the excuse) that “since my elected officials subsidized to the tune of billions, the Ba’athists who tortured, raped, and abused, and also sent chemicals to Saddam “the Hitler” Hussein who then killed and maimed tens of thousands, I felt I couldn’t resist the temptation to molest a child and then ended up killing her.”

These are precisely the sort of reasoning we hear around these parts. Vices, often enough, pass as virtues.

I tell everyone: what makes the American experience so extraordinary is that millions of very average, ordinary Joes and Janes choose to be decent, to work hard and to follow the laws, and to be respectful of others. Even when some of their rulers are crooks.

Americans can be from any ethnic background, really. America absorbs and reproduces new Americans en masse everyday. All that is required of new comers is respect for the constitution and for the laws and a willingness to be tolerant. The promise or a proven desire to work hard helps as well. That is the magic formula, I say.

You can badger me all you want about my “unnatural” sleeping habits. I either have insomnia or I don’t like to sleep at nights. So kill me!

What does America do? She recognizes that a certain percentage of the population has always had different sleeping habits. So nightshifts become a way of life everywhere you look. They even pay you more. So jobs, and entertainment and supermarkets and banking follow.

New communities spring up.

Instead of nagging people to death about the habits or practices someone might or might not like, America offers people possibilities of a comfortable life-style. And it becomes a vibrant country as a consequence. Far more vibrant than anyplace else on the planet.

I tell my fellow Iranians, yes, you can make fun of all the “nerve-wracking noises,” and “silly outfits,” and the “irritating hairdo’s” and the “repulsive tattoos” if that’s what make you feel better. But in America there are talent scouts that make millionaires out of those very same people you poke fun at all the time and then what happens?

You, your wife, your siblings or your kids end up imitating them like buffoons.

That is the magic of America for me. A land where millions of very simple, ordinary folk, grapple with garden-variety impulses and come together and successfully create complex and extraordinary stuff.

Not because of who they are, but rather what they do and how they interface and their manners of interaction and cooperation.

They have a very healthy distrust of their elected officials, but they try to follow the laws as best they can. They follow the laws, but then are vigilant about safeguarding their freedoms.

Quite a few people struggle with the same difficulties we struggle with. Sure! Multi-ethnic societies pose challenges. Americans have segregated themselves in “their own” suburbs and localities. Some of their most segregated hours and places are when and where Americans congregate to tackle moral issues –in the churches during worship.

I am sure a fair number struggle with the bigot within, but at the very least they no longer go on to lynch anyone and no matter what they might think in the privacy of their own thoughts, they exercise prudence and are civil and polite when faced with the people they loath.
And though quite a few have guns, they don’t shoot each other at the first sign of disagreements.

Certainly, not everyone gets paid as much as they deserve in America, but they don’t use that as an excuse to do poorly at work. In fact, for the 8 hours or more they are at work, they become some of the most productive people on the planet. They tweak with everything in sight -- products and processes. And they tirelessly create and re-create.

It is not always that simple to make the right choices anywhere, but definitely worth a try. If the average Joe and Jane can do it, then so can we, even if our name is Javad or Jamileh.

These are some of the features that make America so extraordinary for me. In this limited sense, Americanism can be defined and replicated. No grand mystery there. And there are so many other factors to explore as well.

But if you can become American, then it follows that it is possible to lose that winning combination which has made the magic possible.

This is where about 59 million very ordinary Joes and Janes come in. The few ruining the many. Some Americans have come to genuinely believe in a very outlandish “tale told by an idiot.” (HistoryJ)

Some very ordinary people appear now indefatigable when repeating the gobbledygook about how “exceptional” they truly are. Those who hardly ever trusted their elected public officials now rush to relinquish their freedoms and rely on these very same noxious creatures to export their way of life for them.

The folk with admirable dislike for excuses, always insistent on accountability now tolerate no questioning of their leaders. People naturally distrustful of authority are now quick to dismiss all questions as reflections of visceral “anti-Americanism.” Fear and paranoia has permeated their otherwise “can do” spirits. The impulse to build has given way to a passion for destruction. Civility they have now come to call political correctness. They freely utter the vilest of thoughts.

True, they no longer come together to make a community affair out of the lynching of black men. They even occasionally elect one to the Senate. But they tolerate lascivious torture of Arabs. More humiliation is what they call for daily. One can only surmise what they say in cocktail parties.

So now they seriously risk losing what they cherish most.

Joe and Jane have come to peddle, feverishly and religiously, their conceited notions of themselves! They offer themselves vaingloriously as a source of emulation to the rest of the world--offered at the bargain price of the “mother of all bombs!”

Not even their manner of cooperation, mind you, but themselves. They’ve come to adore what quacks.

“Hijack this Fag,” is simply the bonus that comes courtesy of a deal with the devil! It wins others to the cause.

This is a pivotal moment in the history of America-- a momentous event really. The ordinary Joe and Jane Jones, in a bout of forgetfulness, have chosen to succumb to pettiness masquerading as grandeur. They’ve replaced humility with boastful insults and appear to have affirmed the choice to trade in the surname Jones for Stakhanov!

Much like the transient hero of the last century, they lecture the rest of America and billions of foreigners about "the happy life of our country, the happiness and glory of our magnificent fatherland."

All they had to do was simply to go on with their lives in the suburbs, work hard, go to their segregated churches, buy the oil and gas required for their gas guzzlers at a fair market price to drive to wherever it is they normally go to for entertainment and sports, and to keep their sense of superiority to themselves and to remain respectful.

But all that wasn’t enough was it?

The ordinary bunches who think each stubbed toe a tragedy, and every missed cup of morning coffee a trauma, find themselves oddly in the position of callously insisting on bombings, ruthlessness and tormenting others in order to hang on to their preposterous notions of security. More jails, bombs and fear remains on the agenda.

Sadly, as we Iranians have discovered much to our chagrin after 25 years, there are always consequences to the choices made in frenzy. A “genuine” academic Straussian appears aware of the dangers. (Last two paragraphs) Although why exactly it is that the activist imitations remain in the dark is still a puzzle!

I suspect the twenty-first century, much like the twentieth, will be remembered for another exceptionally rapid decline.

Because of the choices made by millions of very ordinary, boisterous, insecure and bitter citizens--feeling entitled and boasting exceptionally cocksure delusions about who and what they really are--and thanks to the leadership of ravenous, incontinent elites who misapprehend recklessness as audacity, an extraordinary experiment will have been prematurely terminated.

A pity I say and a taxing toll on all.

No comments: