Saturday, 21 July 2018

Back from the USA

Photo: The Girl in Iceland at 3 am. Notice the well-lit outdoors. 

We’re back in Ireland after spending some weeks in my native Missouri. I have been truly blessed by the friends I have there, who have stayed with me for so many years, and missed them something fierce. I got to celebrate the 50th anniversary of my parents, who are also my heroes, and to catch up with brothers, aunts, uncles, and heaps of cousins. The Girl and I went to a Cardinals baseball game, she saw Independence Day fireworks for the first time, and I got to bask in the Missouri heat for a short time before returning home.

To any friends and family reading this: thank you for everything in my life. 


The Teenager and I also saw a bit of Iceland on the way home, and took photos at three in the morning – of course the sun doesn’t set this time of year. I didn’t find any phone books, as no one uses them much anymore; I had hoped to bring one home as a souvenir, as they were the only phone books in the world arranged by first name. Icelanders still use the old Viking system of surnames – your surname is whatever your father’s name was, plus “-son” if you’re male and “Dottir” if you’re female. The eccentric Icelandic singer Bjork’s full name is “Bjork Guthmundsdottir,” except with a special letter denoting the “th” sound.

I was also interested to see the political centre of Iceland, the world’s oldest functioning democracy, governed now as for the last thousand years by their parliament, the Althing – a rather literal cognate of “all thing,” the place where all things are debated. Honestly, though, I would never want to live there – I have enough trouble with the winter darkness here in Ireland, which is the same latitude as the southern tip of Alaska. In Iceland, you’d have an entire season of darkness; I suspect that this is why everything I’ve seen come out of Iceland – Lazy Town, the Sugarcubes – looks like it was made by people whose brains work a bit differently. 

Some of my American friends wanted to know what the USA looks like now that Mr. Trump is in power -- it's a big question, one that deserves a lot more space than I can devote here. I'll say a few paragraphs for now, then get off the soap box and get back to writing about sustainable living for a while. 

I told them that honestly, everything I saw looked much the same as the USA has for years -- the panic was on the news, not on the streets. That doesn't mean that many Americans aren’t suffering right now -- they are, even beyond the distress the news is causing them. In fact, large swaths of the USA are filled with once-prosperous communities that have become almost ghost towns, with all the downtown businesses boarded up. More and more people I know are working heroic hours at multiple jobs to get by, and making all kinds of creative arrangements to give their families a competent education or basic health care. My country has some serious problems, no doubt about it.

But here’s the thing: all those economic and social trends have been going on for decades, no matter which of the USA’s two parties were in power, no matter what man ran the Executive branch, and no matter what scandal the mainstream media were covering. In fact, the more I see people focus on the evening news, the more helpless they feel, and the less they actually do in their real lives.

In my case, home isn't just "America," it's where I grew up, near Ferguson, Missouri -- a place that was in the news a lot a few years ago. For a few weeks the global news was filled with images of angry rioters and angry police, of burning buildings and tear gas. Yet I was in contact with friends and family from around there, black and white, some of whom witnessed the protests -- and what they saw was less sensational and more hopeful than what they saw on the news. When I went back to visit myself, almost everything looked the same -- if not for a small stretch of one street, you'd never know anything had happened. 

I want to be clear about this: I'm not dismissing the injustice that was taking place in Ferguson or the concerns of protesters. In a democracy, when the government does something you believe to be wrong, protesting is part of your duty. I'm also aware that most of my friends and family were white, and that black residents live with things I don't. 

I am saying that the news coverage took complicated issues in the community that had been simmering for decades, with many sides and points of view, and squeezed all that down into a few shocking images from a few nights. They created a simple story of two sides, police and protesters, when 99.9 per cent of the population belonged to neither group. For most people, life went on -- they were part of the community's real story, but never become part of the viral-media story.

And then the protests ended and the reporters left, leaving the issues still there, property values dropping because of the negative press, and most people worse off than before. Across my country I've seen friends from the left and right, city and country, upper-class and lower-class, all engage in camera-grabbing behaviour, trade apocalyptic hyperbole and nurse fantasies of consequence-free violence, and I'm weary of it. Rather, I encourage people to start working on tangible problems on the ground -- this blackout, that tainted water supply, this storefront, that child. 

For me, the entire country has become Ferguson, with everyone focusing on the infuriating and scandalous, and ignoring the quiet heroism that's keeping the country going when no one's looking. Many people believe my country to be on the verge of collapse, but if it does so, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. As I said last month in my piece on science fiction, "the more people are convinced that we face a violent and despairing future, the more likely such a future becomes."

There’s a lot of infrastructure to be rebuilt or regrown -- not just physical infrastructure but moral, economic, social and cultural. I'd like to see people rebuild starting at the individual level and then working upwards, to the family, the neighbourhood, the community, the county, the region and the state. Many areas of life need to be reformed– where we get our food, how we travel around, what we do with our waste, how we teach our children, and how we look out for the interests of our cousins and neighbours.

But the problems aren't  all because of one man, in one office, at one level of government, in one area of life. As much as you can criticise the current president – and please, be my guest -- he didn’t do all this single-handedly, any more than the last president did, or the one before that. I understand that people are frustrated, but there’s a lot more happening than the latest sensational story, and a lot more at stake than your feelings. 

There’s a world out there that needs some fixing. Fix something in it. Don’t them distract you.  

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