Re-formatting this installment from 2001, I’m struck by the fury against the American Empire that fills my own essay, “Arundhati’s List.” Nearly sixteen years have gone by since I wrote it, and now the remnants of that empire’s influence lie all around us, but the machine itself is direction-less, moving in fits and starts, like a robot whose programming has gone haywire.
I have no notion what the berserk robot will do next, but I am relatively clear about the past. So I invite you to hop in my little time machine and head for the final month of 2001, when the writing was on the wall and several Cassandras were busy reading it.
SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment # 11
21 December 2001
“Some say cavalry and others claim
Infantry or a fleet of long oars
Is the supreme sight on the black earth.
I say it is
The one you love. And easily proved.”
On the domestic front, it’s been a tumultuous six weeks since the last installment of Burning. While US war planes continued to pound Afghanistan, tragedy struck at home: Pookie, beloved feline companion with the startling intelligence, martial temperament and ballet legs, had one of those legs amputated, owing to bone cancer. She came through the operation with flying colours, but then succumbed to a week-long temper tantrum after discovering that she’d been reduced from speed, elegance and great hunterly feats to hopping around on three legs. By the time the stitches were out, however, she’d concluded that hopping was the new normal, and regained her dignity, if not all her playfulness.
Small things are emblematic of big things. Or, as Jane Picard reminded me two weeks ago, everything is a metaphor. I’d rented a car for the weekend to visit her at her niece’s house in southern Maine, where we took up again those long, spinning and magical conversations of fifteen years before. Renewing my somewhat dented faith in the restorative powers of the universe.
And, in the midst of travels and travail, the Harriet-and-Bear think tank rolled on. I’d been urging Bert (the aforementioned “Bear”) to continue his intelligence briefings for the non-establishment (i.e., us), but he became so angry over current events that he quit writing, saying he’d just like everyone to ponder the ramifications of this sentence: “We in the West have been hoodwinked into submission.”
Meantime, unbeknownst to each other, Lise Weil and I were writing parallel essays on America as viewed by girls who don’t live there anymore. Which is why this installment is double-long: the essays are written from two different perspectives and hit separate points, but they illuminate each other. Special thanks goes to Verena Stefan, who gave each one a thoughtful reading and suggested clarifications.
Camille Norton suggested that she’d love to read more letters in Burning, so this time we have two: one from Suzanne Cox, the other an excerpt from a letter that Lynn Martin sent as a “December wishes” e-mail to friends. Which reminds me to add that letters from readers are always welcome, and that excerpts from back-and-forth letters between friends are a new hot genre, as Camille points out. So if you’ve got some of those, consider submitting them, as well as stories, poems, essays, whatever. (We are nothing if not flexible.)
Finally, in my quest for news and views from outside the war-propaganda media machine, I ran across an e-zine Feminista! It’s good, very good. And its collection of articles on the 9/11 crisis led me to a more general site called Common Dreams, which led to still more alternative news and analysis sites. I thereby discovered, years behind the times, that there’s a wealth of provocative writing out there, but you have to own a computer or use public library computers to locate most of it.
At this winter solstice, may we all find renewed energy and inspiration … and may Lady Luck come out of hiding.
Bon courage (and happy reading),
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada
IN THIS INSTALLMENT
• Lise Weil: “On Being American”
• Suzanne Cox: letter
• Lynn Martin: “To All the Musicians I Know”
• Harriet Ellenberger: “Arundhati’s List”
ON BEING AMERICAN
by Lise Weil
Breathes there a man with soul so dead who never to himself has said “this is my own, my native land, this is my native land.” (first line of “This is My Country,” a popular American national anthem)
I am an American, born and bred in the USA. My parents were not typical Americans: my father, though born in Chicago, styled himself a cosmopolite, an internationalist; my mother is Norwegian. They spoke French and German at home and entertained mostly foreign guests. I’ve often thought this is how I ended up in Montreal, a city where I never presume anyone will speak to me in my native tongue, a city where I feel more at home than I ever did in any American city.
When I moved here I was vaguely aware of wanting to get out of my country; it was 1990, Bush senior was in office, we were gearing up for the Gulf War, and when the war finally broke out, it was a relief to watch it being waged from the other side of the border. But there were personal reasons for my move which overrode the political. And my politics at the time were mainly radical feminist. When I went down to Washington to demonstrate against the war in the spring, my banner read “don’t let the dickheads screw up our planet.”
Notice my use of “we” back there. “We were gearing up for the Gulf War.” This is what has begun to change now, I see, after ten years of living on foreign soil. That “we” jumps out at me now. It gives me away, betrays a sense of national identity I thought I’d long since discarded. And now, after Sept. 11, I notice, that “we” repels me.
In a way this makes no sense. My country has been deeply wounded; I should feel sympathy, I should feel some sort of solidarity. Yet as people in countries all over the world (even here in Quebec) display the stars and stripes in sympathy and solidarity, I find myself responding to that icon with mounting embarrassment and distaste.
Partly this can be attributed to the crash course in US foreign policy in the Middle East I’ve been receiving ever since the attacks, almost entirely via the internet. Like any counter-culturally inclined person who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, for most of my life I have been vaguely “anti-American.” I’ve been aware that the US is the most powerful nation in the world, that it sees itself as the world’s policeman, that it’s propped up dictators around the world, that it’s the planet’s major polluter and takes no responsibility for this fact. Nothing about Bush junior’s response to this crisis has surprised me: not his good vs. evil, you’re either with us or against us rhetoric, not his crass manipulation of humanist and now yes even feminist sympathies to further US economic interests.
And yet in some ways it seems to me I am now seeing my country for the very first time. I did not know, for example, about the CIA’s arming and bankrolling of the Taliban with full knowledge of their atrocities towards women. I did not know Madeleine Albright, when told about the 500,000 infant deaths resulting from six years of US sanctions on Iraq, said “all things considered, we think the price is worth it.” And somehow though I knew about the staggering loss of life caused around the world by our policies, it took these thousands of deaths on New York soil for me to start thinking concretely about those hundreds of thousands of foreign deaths—to start feeling them. So maybe what I’m saying is in some ways since Sept. 11, I’ve been seeing myself for the very first time. To this extent, and to the extent there are others like me, the terrorists, whether or not this was their intention, have accomplished something positive.
Meanwhile, down there in my country, the flags multiply epidemically. Crossing the border you start to see them right away crowning the antennas of pickup trucks. As you approach New York it seems they wave from every other car. In the city they are everywhere. Huge banners adorn the entrances to the wealthiest apartment buildings on Park Avenue and Fifth Avenue. Down at ground zero the walls are plastered with tributes to God and country and firemen. Oh yes, and photos of people who have come to show their support. “Hi we’re Ted and Lois, we came all the way from California to let you know we care.” No personal jottings of grief or rage. No lines of poetry. No reflections. As if all thought and feeling has been channeled into sentimental cliche. Flag vendors raking in money hand over fist.
I’ve heard a lot of different arguments about the flags. “It’s their/our way of showing solidarity.” “A way to feel united in a time of grief.” “It doesn’t mean they/we agree with Bush’s policies.” It’s become a sensitive subject, a litmus test. I see a flag decal on the back of a friend’s car, I rib her about it, assuming it came with the car, which she just bought. She points to the words beneath the flag which I hadn’t seen: “forever in peace may you wave.” I think: what’s wrong with me that that doesn’t make it okay. And after awhile I think: what’s wrong with her that she thinks it does. And it comes between us. I don’t want it to but it does.
You’re a grand old flag you’re a high flying flag, and forever in peace may you wave . . . Suddenly I realize how many flag-waving songs I know by heart, beyond the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
This is my country, land of my birth! This is my country, grandest on earth!
I pledge thee my allegiance, America the bold!
My country tis of thee sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing . . .
I understand that Bush has recently asked the movie industry to do its part in the war effort by relaying patriotic messages. As one who has been watching US TV almost compulsively these last months, I can attest to the fact that Hollywood has been sending virtually no other message since Sept. 11. Beginning with the celebrity telethon in the week after the attacks that culminated with Celine Dion singing “God Bless America, land that I love” against the backdrop of a gigantic flag and all the stars joining Willie Nelson for a final round of “America America God shed his grace on thee.”
How many national anthems does one country need?
As for major network news broadcasts, at this moment there is little to distinguish them from Defense Department communiques.
Of course I am aware there are many Americans who want no part of this patriotic orgy, who have thought deeply about the events of Sept. 11 and their aftermath and who have voiced absolute opposition to the war. Their voices, most of which I am aware of only thanks to the internet and those few alternative publications which remain in print, give me sanity and hope.
But theirs is not the face that America is offering to the world. And, even among thinking people in the US, some of them friends of mine, I often hear a tentativeness about our foreign policy, a qualified critique: “I’m not for the war, but we have to do something.” What they mean is: we need to stop the terrorists. But what I always hear behind this is: we need to preserve our way of life, what we stand for as a nation.
Deep in the souls of most of my fellow Americans, even the thinking ones—this is what I’m starting to see—there dwells a national pride that’s been wounded by the attacks on our country and is now on the offensive. Deep down, I sense, most of them identify—proudly—as American, and if asked how they’ve been changed by the attacks might offer some version of what I heard Brad Pitt say recently on TV, with tears in his eyes: “It’s made me appreciate our way of life. Our freedoms.” (Though they might be horrified by what came next: “We need to rebuild those towers, make them bigger, taller. We’ll just leave the floors where the planes hit empty, as a memorial.” )
Most of my fellow Americans, in other words, do not see what I see. A country so swollen with hubris, so bloated with its wealth, so in love with itself that its only response to this unprecedented threat to its power its ideology its very identity is to gird its loins, ram its greatness down the world’s throat, and order its citizens to do the same.
A country that just might end up sleeping through the grandest wake-up call it’s ever had.
So I have to wonder: is it because I’ve left my country that I’m able to see what I see? Ten years of learning to operate without the assumptions that govern life on the other side of the border. Ten years of not presuming I will be spoken to in my native tongue, ten years of making myself as small as possible in stores because the aisles are narrow here. Ten years of watching news on CBC and BBC and RDI, ten years of seeing my country through the eyes of Quebecers, of Haitians, Syrians, Egyptians, Brazilians, Hungarians, Algerians. Ten years of slowly taking in that though the US may be the most powerful country in the world, the one everybody has to watch, it is most certainly not the center of the world.
The flag, they say, is a way for Americans to feel we’re united, we’re together. A way for us to feel we’re a community. God knows we all need more community in our lives. But a community in the name of what? In what ways will this togetherness be manipulated in order to trash other parts of the world? Isn’t this feel-good moment for America even now translating into thousands of corpses, widespread famine, mass destruction, and millions of displaced people in Afghanistan, into anti-terrorist measures that threaten to wipe out years of efforts to stem the tide of corporate globalization, into a mandate to this president who withdrew his country from the Kyoto protocol to drill in the Arctic oil fields?
It’s a Saturday night some two months after the attacks. I decide to check out Saturday Night Live just to take the country’s humor pulse. Since TV comedians have dutifully abstained from making fun of our eminently laughable president since the attacks, I am delighted to tune in to the very first skit of the evening and see George W. Bush updating the country on the latest advances in the war effort. His jaw is clenched in an “I mean business” look, but behind it he’s gloating as he announces: “We’ve frozen Bin Laden’s assets. He won’t be able to use his ATM card now anywhere in Afghanistan, not even in Kabul.” The audience roars with laughter.
And I feel such relief! The taboo has been lifted. The blinders are coming down now, I think, maybe people in the USA are starting to see. Then the camera pans to the show’s host as he emerges from behind the curtain, some aspiring actor who prances to center stage in a red and blue t-shirt sprinkled with white stars. Written on the front of his shirt in big block letters: AMERICA RULES. As the audience takes in the words on his chest it sends up a huge roar of applause. In a matter of seconds, my delight is replaced by horror, disbelief.
AMERICA RULES. I’ve enjoyed enormous privilege as an American. As a woman, being born in the USA has made it possible for me to live a life of freedom unheard of fifty years ago and still unheard of in most other countries in the world. I don’t want to deny the benefits I’ve derived from “our way of life.” I don’t want to deny this “we,” this “our,” that trails me wherever I go, that I’m apparently unable to shake, that will no doubt stay with me for the rest of my life.
The fact is, living outside my country has made me appreciate that privilege and those benefits as never before, for it has thrown them into relief. At the same time it has forced me to ask: at whose expense were they won? Freedom if it’s only for Americans is not true freedom. And freedom is meaningless if you don’t have the means to enjoy it. In this sense there are far too many people within the borders of the US who are not living “the American way of life.” So much for this funhouse image of America being shaped and wielded in our names, this fake unity being cobbled together in the name of “enduring freedom.”
So what am I going to do with this “we” that sticks to me like velcro? That sits in my blood and bones and my TV preferences too? That was as shaken by the collapse of the towers as anyone on that side of the border and is still hungrily devouring anything written about the victims, almost all of whom led lives more like mine than the people I encounter on the streets of this city where I live. I have to grieve, of course, and to take in the unimaginable grief of the many thousands more who loved them. But as a genuinely privileged citizen of the USA, I also have to ask myself what I can do, how I can take responsibility for its actions throughout the world. Because it’s clear to me by now that as long as America rules, this planet doesn’t stand a chance.
LETTER FROM SUZANNE COX, NOVEMBER 11, 2001
Dearest thouest of the power of words,
Tis true I keep thinking the pen is mightier than the sword. Maybe this is why I stopped writing so much—I have few war words. Maybe this is why the government hired an ad campaign person to do the war PR. She was a coca-cola woman I think. Or she said something like “this won’t be about cokes—we’ll be using athletes and movie stars.”
Anyway, I’d rather read your words and SISB. I soak this up like sunshine, which seems so limited in our gray November days and also in the world’s spinning away from anything warm.
I keep thinking about when the women lose heart. I lost heart for my own words with images of the women who taught girls about books—being killed by Taliban in the stadium; of people going to work in the WTC one morning and they were gone—never had the chance to know it was their last moments. I am thankful I can still paint the watercolours. They delight my heart. So I keep hope somewhere, which has been a struggle.
Did I tell you my niece wrote to ask for my advice about going to a protest. This gives much more hope. Young women and men who are awake to how things are going. I call my mother. I ask, “How are you?” “Living,” she says, “that’s about all I can say. Come home as soon as you can.” I can hear the catch in both of our throats.
Last night I went to the movie Himalayas. The Tibetan people move their yaks and bags of salt across the mountains so they can get grain to live on. It is one of those haunting, breathtaking movies that takes your emotions to the height of the mountains and drops them, like life only more so because you fall in love with the people. I said to my friends who were there, “I shan’t complain ever again … ” What a rich, stupid life I have. How ridiculous for one person to have so much junk. One bag of grain for a bag of salt. My life for all these bags of stupid absurdity.
Tomorrow I shall print SISB at work and take it to lunch with me. I like all the different perspectives very much—from all sides of the war and peace stories. Thank all the writers for me please. I like thinking about each piece—the long treks of everyone’s life and memory in shared story.
I have a tiny perfect pumpkin I like to look at. It has an unusual twisted stem as if it had danced while growing on the vine. Every night I turn off the news after supper and dance for awhile. Eat, drink, and be merry may be some of the greatest words ever written.
Thank you for yours and for sending it to me.
Poetkin [Suzanne Cox]
TO ALL THE SINGERS I KNOW
by Lynn Martin
Birds dart around continually and flash such explosions of color. They have been trying to get our attention for centuries. Listen, they say, it’s all in the song.
Song, the ornithologists say, is a bird’s way of marking out its territory.
The air outside my window is awash with squares, rectangles, circles, pentagons laid out on a grid and fenced in with musical notes. The borders are noted and delineated by song hung from a bush, a berry, a towering hemlock. I can, on one spring morning, hear as many as 50 different birds singing around the house.
I am drawn to them on a primitive level. Like the Greeks I see birds as divine messengers. And their ability to fly is as awesome to me today as it must have been to the ancients. As a child I believed I could talk to the birds. A cousin teased me out of this. But I wonder if I did understand the language of the birds when I was a child? Even today when I hear them calling it feels just on the edge of a language I know. Observing them over the years, it is obvious different species have worked out a way to live together and share the earth. And song is what they share.
That’s why I think humans should investigate more closely. We could do away with Summits and International Conferences, and, maybe, even war. Each nation could mark their own national borders with song. If each soldier sang, then you could hear an army coming for miles. Tanks could provide the bass; jets the soprano; infantry the alto. Generals, admirals, dictators and war lords would be named Mozart, Beethoven, Bach. The “war” would be a concert, and the winner the side with the most original composition. Each of us would have our own variation on a theme learned in childhood.
Singing takes incredible energy. You can’t sing and fight at the same time. Let’s work out a way to live together and share the earth. Let’s start right now.
by Harriet Ellenberger
4 December 2001: A few nights ago I watched on CBC television an Afghan refugee father being interviewed with his son in a makeshift hospital in Quetta, Pakistan. One of the son’s legs had been blown off by a US bomb (pinpoint targeting is not possible when you’re flying at 50,000 feet). The son said, now I can’t work, I’m useless. The father said, I don’t believe the Americans are after terrorists, I believe they want to kill innocent people.
Whoever that man was (either the interviewer didn’t mention his name, or I missed it), he was saying out loud what I’d been thinking privately. By a massive bombing campaign that, among other things, cut off food aid at a critical moment, the US government has just committed mass murder in Afghanistan. I think they did it on purpose. I believe they wanted to send a message: this is what we can do; this is what we will do.
It’s the same message they were sending to Stalin when they dropped nuclear bombs on two cities in Japan, a country that was already defeated, already trying to negotiate a surrender. This is what we can do; this is what we will do.
Reportedly (but the US media is now filled with misreporting as well as the usual nonreporting), some 90 percent of US adults surveyed supported Bush’s bomb-them-to-hell campaign.
It’s times like these that I feel lucky to have left the States in 1987, lucky to have been accepted as a citizen by Canada—however controlled it may be by its big brother to the south. But personal good-fortune aside, the whole business makes me feel violently ill, and guilty by way of origin.
How could they do this? How could the US government keep on doing this, my entire lifetime? How could US citizens (not “Americans”—a name that belongs to all the inhabitants of North, Central and South America) allow their government to do this, yet again? And call it patriotism.
The rhetoric currently thundering forth from the States doesn’t sound like patriotism to me. Lust for revenge, lust for power, lust for dominance, yes. Love of country, no.
If you retain even the slightest shred of common sense and concern for your people, you do not lead them on their very own high-tech suicide mission. Yet that is what Bush-and-advisors have done. Bombarding the most war-ravaged place on earth: what a brilliant way to turn the world irrevocably against you. What a superb ploy to ensure that every person in the US remains a walking target.
I could spit nails, I’m so upset. Nothing seems to calm me these days. I can say to myself, well, what empire in history didn’t destroy itself by biting off more than it could chew? I can say to myself, well, if people insist on having an empire while at the same time refusing to admit that they have one, what do they expect—wise governance? I can say, none of this is new news; all of this is old news, more of the same, more men-on-men and war-on-war, and so it goes to the weary and whimpering end of the world. I can say whatever I please, but what’s really getting me down is that words—in particular, words of sanity and moderation—don’t seem to make a dent in events.
To echo Jeanette Winterson’s October 30th essay “Life on Planet Earth,” published in the London Guardian, it looks as if the inmates have taken over the asylum. And she names the malady they’re suffering from as a specifically “male madness”: “Everywhere I look, men are talking about nuclear capacity, about germ warfare, about dedicating 50 years to wiping out terrorism. The Bush administration is delighted not to have to worry about tedious environmentalists and Kyoto protocols and world trade protestors. This is a war—and the ‘big trousers’ are back in charge.”
In London, apparently, you can still write what you think as vividly as you’re able. If, like Madeleine Bunting writing for the Guardian, you’re a British woman commentator opposed to the “war on terrorism,” you may receive e-mail messages from US readers advising you to “get laid, get pregnant, shut your fat legs, shut up.” But that’s a long-distance response, from the far side of a very large body of water, and less personally endangering than, for example, the tongue-lashing in the Canadian Parliament and press followed by anonymous death threats that Sunera Thobani experienced after her anti-war speech to a women’s conference in Ottawa, or the death threats Susan Sontag received for her comments in the New Yorker about the September 11th attack. In North America it’s put-on-the-kid-gloves time for writers. And, interestingly, the taboo subject appears to be US foreign policy since World War II.
On November 24th, Reuters ran a brief interview by Stephanie Holmes with Gore Vidal. One of the essays in his forthcoming book The End of Liberty: Toward a New Totalitarianism (forthcoming in Italy, not in the States) was originally commissioned by a US magazine (probably Vanity Fair) following the September 11th attacks. Once the editors read the essay, however, they refused to print it. (And who is Gore Vidal? Only one of the States’ best writers, a fifty-year stellar career as novelist and essayist, knows US history like the palm of his hand, born into the old-line ruling elite, the gadfly they loved to tolerate.) “I’ve listed in this little book,” Vidal says, “about four hundred strikes that the government has made on other countries. War, undeclared. Generally with the excuse that they were harboring communists. You keep attacking people for such a long time, one of them is going to get you back.”
And then there’s the other male éminence grise famous for knowing US policy inside and out: Noam Chomsky. On the Media Education Foundation website I find him described as “America’s leading dissident” and “the most-quoted writer in the world.” But try to find him quoted in the mainstream North American press. I figured he’d have something illuminating to say about the September 11th attacks, and so he did—in an interview with a Belgrade radio station and a speech at MIT, excerpts of which were published in Cairo’s Al Ahram. For centuries, he says, Europe practiced terror on the peoples it subjugated. Then an offshoot of Europe, the USA, took over the job. September 11th marked the first time the guns had been pointed the other way round.
A third writer who’s done her homework on the subject is Arundhati Roy—screenwriter, novelist, essayist, practitioner of an astonishing fusion of analytic, emotional and spiritual intelligence (falling under the spell of her novel The God of Small Things, I wished the book never to end). In Outlook India (October 18), she writes:
When he announced the air strikes, President George Bush said, ‘We’re a peaceful nation.’ America’s favourite ambassador, Tony Blair (who also holds the portfolio of Prime Minister of the UK), echoed him: ‘We’re a peaceful people.’ So now we know. Pigs are horses. Girls are boys. War is Peace. …
Here is a list of the countries that America has been at war with—and bombed—since World War II: China (1945–46, 1950–53); Korea (1950–53); Guatemala (1954, 1967–69); Indonesia (1958); Cuba (1959–60); the Belgian Congo (1964); Peru (1965); Laos (1964–73); Vietnam (1961–73); Cambodia (1969–70); Grenada (1983); Libya (1986); El Salvador (1980s); Nicaragua (1980s); Panama (1989), Iraq (1991–99), Bosnia (1995), Sudan (1998); Yugoslavia (1999). And now Afghanistan.
So now we do know. By the time we’ve reached the end of Arundhati’s long list, we know perfectly well why references to relevant US history are being greeted with hysterics and silencing. And we have a good notion of why the US government, in response to the September 11th attacks, cobbled together a strange-bedfellows coalition, rather than working through—and thereby strengthening—the United Nations. And we can make an excellent guess as to why, rather than recognize existing instruments of international law by using them to punish those who planned the attacks, US leaders preferred to launch an undefined, unlimited and self-destructive war against “terrorism” (terrorism being, as Kanin Makiya points out, a tactic, not a side).
Just put yourself in their boots. You’ve been head outlaw for a long time, and suddenly you’re under siege by rival outlaws. Do you call on the sheriff for assistance? No outlaw worth his salt would do a girly thing like that (and, besides, when it was all over, the sheriff might be wanting to take a look at your own checkered past). You don’t call in the law, you shoot it out. You make one long last stand.
And to hell with humans who get caught in the crossfire.