Three short essays, enjoy, no matter what your political persuasion.
The View from Abroad
The World is not Billy Bob's Rib Pit
March 10, 2013
The United States is the most hated country in the world, followed closely by Israel, and then by nobody. Why? Why not Ecuador? China? Russia? East Timor? The hostility puzzles many Americans, who genuinely believe their country to be a force for good, a pillar of democracy, a defender of human rights.
To the rest of the world, none of this is even close.
If you have lived abroad, as so very few Americans have, the explanation for the hatred is obvious: Meddling. Relentless, prideful, uncomprehending meddling, frequently military, often with horrendous death tolls. Americans, adroitly managed by a controlled press, historically illiterate, incurious, decreasingly educated, either have never heard of the American behavior that angers others, or believe it to have been inspired by virtuous motives. Nobody else thinks so. Add to unfamiliarity with the wider world the constantly inculcated assertion that America is the greatest, most wonderful nation ever to exist, a light to the world, a shining city on a hill, and you get a dangerously delusional state. Especially now. In the past, American economic and military supremacy were such that the US didn’t have to care what others thought. The times, they are a-changing.
It might be wise to compare briefly the view through American and foreign eyes. Consider Iraq. To most of the world, the war on Iraq was brutal, unprovoked, and murderous. More than a few, looking at the ruins of Fallujah, thought of Guernica—of which few in the States have ever heard.
Many Americans do not believe that we destroyed Iraq for oil, empire, and the Israel lobby, as was in fact the case. No. We wanted to topple an evil dictator and dispense the precious gift of democracy. It was a question of goodness. Many apparently still believe that Iraq had something to do with the attacks on New York. Again, controlled press, poor schooling, little curiosity.
Similarly, Americans tend to see the war on Afghanistan as having to do with ending Terror or sprouting democracy—not as the Great Game (“Hanh?”) redux, or the quest for the TAPI pipeline (“Say whuh?”) or Caspian hydrocarbons. (“Caspian? You mean the Friendly Ghost?”) To most of the world, Afghanistan is just another sorry spectacle of American fighter-bombers killing peasants, of gutted children and drone attacks on half-identified targets. This, the merciless use of overwhelming firepower against lightly armed campesinos, is what the world sees, over and over. Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan. It isn’t pretty.
I live in Mexico. In countless towns, probably in every city of any size, you see streets named Niños Heroes, Heroic Children. In Guadalajara there is a traffic circle with an imposing monument to them. These things commemorate the children who tried to fight the American soldiers invading Mexico City. In that (purely acquisitive) war Mexico lost half its territory. Yet how many gringos know that it ever happened, or when, or for that matter have ever heard of the bombardment of Veracruz or Pershing’s incursion?
Americans who have some grasp of history sometimes say of the Mexican-American War that Mexicans should “get over it.” Some might tell the Jews to get over the Holocaust, or Americans to get over 9/11. It is much easier to tell people to get over what you have done to them than to get over things they have done to you.
Then there is the War on Drugs. Americans believe this to be a campaign against Evil—best conducted, of course, in other people’s countries.
There are other views. Thoughtful Mexicans (all I know, but I haven’t taken a poll) do not see why drugs are Mexico’s problem. If gringos don’t want drugs, why do they buy them? Why don’t they solve their own problems? It is no secret internationally that American students in high school and universities use drugs. Why don’t the Americans put their college kids in jail? And, they say, probably correctly, that Washington, by sponsoring the elimination of big drug lords, caused the current fighting among littler lords to control the trade, thus creating carnage. Predictably, the flow of drugs northward was not affected.
Truculent patriots at Billy Bob’s Rib Pit know none of this. The combination of clueless ignorance and a sort of Walmart-parking-lot arrogance make mysterious to them much behavior of other countries. Consider their view of Iran, an evil Arab country, somewhere, that wants the Bomb so it can blow up Israel and New York. No explanation occurs to them for Iran’s hostility to the US, which wants regime change so Iranians can be democratic and have freedoms. Ask Billy Bobbers whether they have even heard of, much less been in, major Iranian cities like Tehran, Sulawesi, Sidon, or Tbilisi. No. Yet they are sure the inhabitants are dangerous and un-American.
Iranians may perhaps see things differently. They know that in 1953 the democratically electeed prime minister Mohammed Mossadeg (“Mossy what?” they ask in the Rib Pit.) was overthrown by the CIA leaving the Shah (“Is that, like, a person?”), a routinely ghastly dictator, in control. This had much to do with the occupation of the US embassy in 1979, which was sold in the US as evidence of the badness of Iranians.
Later, in 1988, the US Navy, in the form of the USS Vincennes, shot down an Iranian airliner and killed everyone aboard. Americans shrugged it off: Such things were doubtless necessary to stop terrorism. But imagine the outrage if the Iranian navy shot down a US airliner.
Nobody beyond the borders buys our song about spreading freedom and human rights. America has supported countless sordid dictators rulling by army and torture chamber (the Saudis being a current example). We have put many dictators on their thrones, such as Pniochet (“That little wooden guy, his nose got long when he told a lie, right?”) in Chile. (“Isn’t that Texmex soup with beans in it?”) Others notice that the only country that openly and proudly tortures prisoners is…us.
Always, the underlying problem is meddling. Bin Laden’s guys didn’t attack New York because it was a slow morning and they couldn’t think of anything else to do. They were furious at US meddling in Moslem lands. You may think, and I may think, that Islam is a primitive faith not well adapted to the modern world. Fine. I may think that hornets do not have an ideal social organization. But I know better than to poke their nest.
This is why they hate us—meddling, bombing, invading, droning, telling them how to run their countries. No, George, it is not because of our freedoms. Fred Reed
Machismo, Sort Of
Social Philosophy, and the Grape
March 3, 2013
I’m sitting on the veranda and drinking Padre Kino red and trying to figure out purdah. There is nothing like really awful red wine to inflame the wellsprings of cosmic insight, or engender criminally mixed metaphors. The dogs lie about, looking at me strangely. Why? I’m almost pathologically normal, I tell them.
Anyway, purdah is what useless rich Indians, rajahs and sultans and majarogers did with women, which was to keep them locked up in a forbidden part of the palace where they couldn’t ever do anything but play poker and maybe smoke dope and pray to Hindu gods, of whom there are about seven hundred. Purdah was a really dumb-ass idea. I mean, what was the point of having women around if you couldn’t go swing-dancing with them, or talk politics pointlessly because governments only get worse but at least it’s interesting, or lie on remote Mexican beaches and supervise the sunset? But I guess it was hard to get to Michoacan from Hyderabad.
It wasn’t just the Indians. Sultans in Istanbul and satraps or rattraps or whatever they were in Persia did the same thing, stuffing women into harems. What the hell was that for? And you see sort of the same thing today in places like Morocco. Mostly you don’t see women on the street, and when you do they are wrapped up in chadors or burgers or things about like sleeping bags and you can’t really be sure there’s anyone inside. There’s an eye slit at the top, like a World War Two pillbox, but that’s the only sign of life. I reckon Moslems haven’t figured out that the Thirteenth Century ran out a while back. These things can slip by if you aren’t alert.
Padre Kino, the Great Purple Father, may be the worst red wine in Christendom. Instead of grapes they probably ferment old boot soles. If it weren’t for its philosophic properties, I’d use it to poison roaches. more
Your Papers, Citizen
Gun Control and the Changing American Character
February 19, 2013
A staple of American self-esteem is that we Yanks are brave, free, independent, self-reliant, ruggedly individual, and disinclined to accept abuse from anyone. This was largely true in, say, 1930. People lived, a great many of them, on farms where they planted their own crops, built their own barns, repaired their own trucks, and protected their own property. They were literate but not educated, knew little of the world beyond the local, but in their homes and fields they were supreme.
If they wanted to swim buck nekkid in the creek, they swam buck nekkid. If whistle pigs were eating the corn, the family teenager would get his rifle and solve the problem. Government left them alone.
Even in the early Sixties, in rural King George County, Virginia, where I grew up, it was still mostly true. The country people built their own boats to crab in the Potomac, converted junked car engines to marine, made their own crab pots, planted corn and such, and hunted deer. There was very little contact with the government. One state trooper was the law, and he had precious little to do.
I say the following not as an old codger painting his youth in roseate hues that never were, but as serious sociology: We kids could get up on a summer morning, grab the .22 or .410, put it over our shoulder and go into the country store for ammunition, and no one looked twice. We could go by night to the dump to snap-shoot rats, and no one cared. We could get our fishing poles—I preferred a spinning reel and bait-casting tackle—and fish anywhere we pleased on Machodoc Creek or the Potomac. We could drive unwisely but joyously on winding wooded roads late at night and nobody cared.
Call it “freedom.” We were free, and so were the country folk on their farms and with their crabbing rigs. Because we were free, we felt free. It was a distinct psychology, though we didn’t know it.
Things then changed. The country increasingly urbanized. So much for rugged.
It became ever more a nation of employees. As Walmart and shopping centers and factories moved in, the farmers sold their land to real-estate developers at what they thought mind-boggling prices, and went to work as security guards and truck drivers. Employees are not free. They fear the boss, fear dismissal, and become prisoners of the retirement system. So much for Marlboro Man.
Self-reliance went. Few any longer can fix a car or the plumbing, grow food, hunt, bait a hook or install a new roof. Or defend themselves. To overstate barely, everyone depends on someone else, often the government, for everything. Thus we became the Hive.
Government came like a dust storm of fine choking powder . . . more