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Thursday, September 04, 2008

Separate But Equal....

We all (Americans if not other world citizens) know about the so-called "separate-but-equal" principle which had justified separate lives and facilities between whites and blacks.

Before pursuing my theme, however, I should ask whether someone living at such a time of "separate-but-equal" should have been "proud" of their country? Sure, you could find some things to be proud of. Even in the midst of injustice, one can be rightly proud of steps taken by one's countrymen to undo the injustices committed by other of one's countrymen (the abolitionist movement, the many soldiers who died in the Civil War with the aim to bring freedom, and so on). And it is not helpful in any time period to harp excessively on one's shortcomings ("one" being oneself, one's group, etc.). But does anyone have so much business dwelling on patting themselves on the back and being heartily proud when such drastic inequalities still existed? Or going further back, if you are a self-declared American patriot, should you have been, without qualification, proud of being British at the time America was deciding to become an independent political entity, since at that time you would still have been British? (though the perception of high-minded dignity with which we view the founding of our nation tend to ignore the facts that an apparently large part of our supposedly high-minded incentive for independence was resisting such annoying restrictions the British authorities were imposing on us like not being able to encroach into native American land).

While I am not suggesting that a sense of solidarity with a larger group inevitably leads to provincialism--there can be powerful and beneficial motivations in love-based identification with a larger group--I am suggesting that JUSTICE--a virtue above other virtues which implies the ability to think for oneself--demands that we attempt to transcend appeals to our group identity when we must make decisions, consider what is true and right, and evaluate what is fair.

I firmly believe that future generations of Americans--who will celebrate and take greater pride in their world citizenship than in their identity as Americans, just as most citizens of Illinois today take greater pride in the greater visionary wholeness of being an American, even while they recognize the need to take care of Illinoisans first--will look back and shake their heads in shame at our living with another separate-but-equal hypocrisy in this time--our continuation of support for the notion of permanent membership in the U.N. Security Council (of which the U.S., France, Great Britain, Russia, and China--the victors of the 2nd World War--are the sole members) whose individual members can veto any vote of significance in the U.N. (despite the way the U.N. is laughably painted by its enemies as some organization opposed to us) in contrast to the separate-but-equal non-permanent members of the U.N.--i.e., the rest of the world.

No doubt someone might wish to claim, by my attempting to draw a parallel, that I am somehow insisting that the separate-but-equal racial policies and current U.N. Security Council situations are equivalent. I most certainly am not, as the latter had some basis in reason in that the powers granted to these members was intended to deter them from declaring war on one another. However, one should also not underestimate the gross travesties to justice and serious implications that the current anarchic yet dictatorial quintuplocracy has in the world--ones whose severe implications might in fact even surpass the terrible damages of the separate-but-equal policies (as through genocides that might have been prevented, had the U.N. not been held back from intervening).

American politicians often like to throw around the "importance" of the U.S. as a superpower by assuming the insignificance of lesser powers. You don't have to look hard for such examples, but such attitudes can take the form of big clubs of so-called important nations, to choosing "lesser" countries as the indirect butt of jokes, to a more insidious form of threatening to destroy a whole but less powerful country because we can.

Imagine if such politicians were to denigrate a smaller town or state within the U.S., just because it was small. They would immediately (and rightfully) be accused of lacking patriotism, of being arrogant, insensitive, and so on (and probably driven from office), yet when these things go on on a regular basis toward other countries, since the target is not around to defend itself, very few Americans (as would be the case for other countries' citizens) seem to stick up for those who are absent (similar to how few individuals are just enough to stick up for those not present who are the targets of backbiting).

Even minorities who hail from the countries in question are often only too eager to show their American-ness (or forget their otherness) that these seemingly likely candidates shy away from the opportunity, often even more quickly then the majority.

And yet just the other day I read an intellectual denigrating the phrase "citizen of the world", as if it had no meaning. It has a strong meaning--that we believe in world law and order, transcendence of nationalism, and resistance against those who would instigate aggression against anyone in the brotherhood of man. Surely this intellectual would celebrate the sentiment "We're all Americans", and this sentiment does not need to be asserted against anyone else (though in today's shrinking world, I do find such appeals to nationality as being embarrassingly circumscribed--as if one were to say to a mostly Illioisan audience, "We're all Illinoisans, aren't we? We wouldn't do such a thing." while people from other states were present).

But it is not only tiny countries which are subject to this denigration. Even countries in Europe (or Europe itself) are not immune, and are even more strongly abused or dismissed as they are looked down upon in some aspect and find their cultures or attitudes dismissively mocked. Japan's culture too is treated in a similar fashion. You'd think we'd actually know something about the life of the people in the 2nd largest economy next to ours (one great mainstream exception was the excellent film Gung Ho! from the 1980's, which I heartily applaud--one of the only kind of films to make me feel proud as an "American"---because it is celebrating our role along with celebrating the different but potentially complementary role of others).

Not a friendly or even hostile banter where the country is actually represented with a live person from that country, but a dismissiveness of the culture as a whole in is absence. (I really believe most of our pundits on television who confidently talk about other countries (about their politics, but not, God forbid, their manners as a whole), sadly do not have a single minority or foreign friend, and even if they did, it would be in the context of exoticism or tokenistic political debate--and I'm not even talking here about the foaming-at-the-mouth jingoistic media types which have seemed to come out of nowhere over the past few years.)

While America has made great strides in multi-culturalism (without being too rosy-eyed, I swear things have visibly improved each time I go back to visit the States, assuming I can ignore certain vocally nasty segments of society), it still uses itself as the frame of reference (e.g., "come here and learn English and we'll accept you") but immensely far from a global outlook which sees itself as one part of a larger whole (e.g., "Let's collectively agree on a world language, and if it can't be English, we'll learn it too."). The lack of endorsement of the metric system is another example. We have all kinds of excuses for not playing along with others. We just can't fathom the possibility that WE are not the standard, but rather that the world (including us) can be a standard. So-called academics in the U.S. can equally fall into this trap and often even moreso. We are the objective ones, and the others have ethnicity and culture. Of course, we have the best system, and while we might learn a thing here or there (e.g., "How could China have such a developed .... and here in the U. S. of A. we still don't have it! Unconscionable!"), we don't really expect to learn that much for the sake of changing ourselves. (That's sarcasm, by the way, folks.)

I look forward to the day when the lamb can lie down with the lion and the leopard with the kid--the large and small nations together. The coming of that day is inevitable, but it is a question of how soon, and after how much turmoil. We cannot and should not be "separate but equal" as large and small, or "powerful" and "weak" nations.


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