Monday, August 18, 2008

Boundary Skirmishes: A Morality Tale for Our Times

The Place: a small, racially and ethnically mixed neighborhood of long-term families and gay fixer uppers now seeing an influx of me-uppies [all about me and my property value, conservative suburbanites scratching an urban itch]

The Time: the 21st century

The People: a representative assortment of people, products of their times

“Is this a weed?” I asked my neighbor living to the right of me. She shuddered, then disdainfully pronounced, “Of course it is; it’s going to take over your garden!” “I don’t care,” I responded, “it grows well in this soil, fits with the xeriscaping, and, I like the flow-“ but before I could finish, my neighbor had yanked the “offending” piece of greenery out. Incredulous, I protested that I hadn’t wanted it pulled and certainly didn’t ask her; it was, after all, my garden. Her reaction: It was a noxious weed that would wipe out my garden, whether I agreed or not. She had done the right thing.


The American president, bringing the US to a fever pitch of paranoia laced with self-righteousness, invaded Iraq, grounding its decision in faked intelligence; Iraq, a dangerous country harboring terrorists and WMDs, was a noxious weed poised to take over the region, already having enslaved its own people. We were doing the right thing, no matter what anyone else thought.


Recently, my neighborhood went through a housing boom, prices on turn-of-the-century houses skyrocketing to three times what they had been only months before. We became the next “place to buy” with all the amenities for smart, downtown living and soon saw an influx of suburban couples flocking to our greener grass, installing themselves on the neighborhood association board in order to redo the area in an image to their pre-defined standard. Among their list of demands: one of the local churches, which had been serving the homeless dinner every Tuesday evening for at least 15 years, cease and desist. Why? Because, duh, it endangered their precious property worth. Since the newcomers paid high prices; they deserved to do whatever necessary to protect their property from perceived threats.


Various government agencies, as well as sections of the population, rail against the most noticeable immigrant population, declaring they are using up America’s resources, taking jobs away, getting a free ride, threatening the very fabric of our culture. Never mind that in reality they pay taxes, contribute to the economy, supply the same necessary labor pool every immigrant group before them has, have the lowest crime statistics… To hell with the Statue of Liberty. It’s us vs. them, and we don’t want them in our neighborhoods.


Another neighbor farther down the block, proud of his symmetrical lawn divided by perfect rows of tulips, had been harassing me for several years over my modest patch of plants: “It’s chaotic; it’s a disgrace to the neighborhood; it’s weeds.” I tried answering with humor. “You know, one person’s weed is another person’s flower.” I educated him about xeriscaping and the ecological role of our state’s wildflowers since we lived in a drought region. I even appealed to a fundamental respect for individual rights, but no matter how I worded my responses, they simply fell dry upon the pavement. Then, not too long ago, that neighbor said to me, “Now you want to kill me!” He pointed to an innocuous plant, Dock. “It aggravates my asthma!” “I’ve looked it up,” I replied calmly, “and it’s a simple, hardy plant, wild like my others, with no dangerous attributes. You can ask any gardener or look it up yourself.” He merely snorted, and the next day, when I walked out into my garden, not only was the Dock dead—poisoned—so were all the fuchsia, plum, midnight blue wildflowers and California Poppies that had been within spraying range of the Dock—shriveled to death with chemical burns. The next time that neighbor walked by, he smirked triumphantly, “I see you’ve finally learned gardening does not include weeds.”


President Bush, with over 800 signing statements attached to bills passed by congress, has effectively invalidated every aspect of every bill that he disagrees with, because, as he has declared, “I am the Decider.” The individualist, the lone cowboy, the one who knows right from wrong, the one who can ignore the facts. The ruler of our country. Hail, the Decider.


In our little compound of row houses that wrap around the corner of the block, we all share a common gate to reach the alley and dump our trash. That is, we did until the owner of the end unit on the alley decided the fence and gate was on his property and he could do what he wanted with it—without consulting anyone else. No matter that his property description was not certified. No matter that it didn’t bother to show he shared a wall with the adjoining property. No matter all the other concerns that would occur to someone taking into account the context. His property. His right. Ignore the surveyor’s map and the deed of trust that declared we shared it all in common.


Despite the obvious unconstitutionality of the Patriot Act, both houses of Congress passed it, overriding civil rights protections and allowing spying on American citizens, no justification required. Even after the numerous scandals dispelled the original rationales given for the bill, the knowledge of the false claims about terrorism, the Iraq war, torture documents, and on and on, congress renewed the entire bill, disputed provisions in tact, and passed further legislation giving immunity to the telecom giants that had spied on us without warrants. President Bush hailed the decision a victory and encouraged citizens to spy on each other without fear of repercussions (a return to the good old days of McCarthyism).


Right before the owner of the alley unit fenced off our access, the owner of the corner unit changed the lock on the common gate and had only one key made, for himself, claiming he “owned” the gate, that it was “his” property. Ignore the facts. Ignore the legal documents. Take possession. Mine. In my best interest.


These are no differences between the squabbles in my neighborhood and the transgressions perpetrated on the national level, except in degree. And the infractions of respect and privacy are not representative simply of the current climate fostered by the Bush administration—nor even the last 25 years of basic Republican party rule with its invasions of privacy and social agenda imposing one authoritarian set of absolutist rights and wrongs on all of us. Despite our country’s supposed respect for private property, for honoring the idea of diversity and free speech, our “reverence” for individual rights, all it took for any of my neighbors to feel justified in interfering was that they saw their view as more valid than anyone else’s.

This is the true foundation of America. Not just now. Always: manifest destiny—the belief that Christian White settlers had the right to kill the “barbarians” already living here and claim all the land from “sea to shining sea,” to declare the inferiority of an entire race in order to fuel an economy based on slave labor, then denigrate each group of immigrants to wring every drop of labor from their broken bodies: the Irish, the Italians, Eastern Europeans, the Chinese to work the mines, power our industrial revolution, and build our infrastructure, the Mexicans to clean our offices and pick our fruits and vegetables—even construct our border fence between the US and Mexico—while the women labor in sweat shops…. Mic, Wop, Chink, Spic. Disrespect throughout our history for we the people.

Proud democracy? We are a representative republic, 33rd in the world to give women the right to vote, known to give LSD to our own soldiers without their consent, to inject men with syphilis, watching them die, just to monitor the progress of the disease, relentlessly spying on our citizens—oh, not just now, during the Bush years, but for as long as the CIA and FBI have existed, most publicly during the McCarthy Era, Nixon’s time, and as long as J. Edgar Hoover maintained power. And of course, we have our own political prisoners, people sent to jail for expressing unpopular opinions, such as equal rights for Blacks, equal rights for gays, even a group of women beaten and force-fed, held under assumed names in a hidden work camp. Their crime? Wearing a banner bearing the president’s words claiming equal representation for every citizen, yet they did not have that right for at that time, women could not vote. And these, the true foundational deeds of our country, not the aspirations reflected on pieces of parchment we have never followed, run through our veins, reach out and infect us all.

Our disrespect, a cancerous growth, influences our treatment of other nations as well; we assassinate democratically elected presidents throughout Central and South America and as far as we can reach, overthrowing Iran’s government in 1953 and supporting the Shah’s brutal regime for 25 years. Remember the despot Noreiga? He was one of our chosen puppets. As for our condemnation of Russia invading Georgia, it doth ring hollow to mine ears—given our invasion of so many countries and continued occupation of Iraq. And bellowing about weapons control? My, my, my, considering we are one of the top arms dealers in the world.

Does our government really think that if we do not teach our children about the atrocities we ourselves have committed that we can, in all innocence stand tall? Be a beacon of light to other nations who are aware of what we have done? Can we really be such fools? Do we really believe we can sell a lifestyle of wanton capitalism that requires at least 80% of the world’s resources for less than 18% of the population to achieve?

This is the country of denial, and as we sing our lullabies of ignorance, wrap ourselves in blankets of patriotic lies and lapel pins, our inheritance creeps through our dreams, and as every day passes, we repeat the petty indignities of disrespect that slowly kill, kill our souls, our families, neighbors, communities, connections across the world. Oh, it’s nothing new; after all, Mark Twain knew us in his time: we were and are The Ugly Americans. But even when Neil Young sang, “Teach your children well” we did not learn. Not only have we failed to teach our children, we failed to teach ourselves.


Sharath said...

Wow. Amazing post. The last couple paragraphs remind me of Gore Vidal's "United States of Amnesia" line form "Why We Fight." I love the intertwined allegory of the encroaching neighborhood association. Recently my own neighborhood covenant has been riding my ass about not cutting my lawn (which isn't too obscenely long)threatening "consequences" if I don't comply. They also made my neighbor take down his Obama for president sign. Its clear their mutual antipathy came from the same source.

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