Tuesday, January 10, 2006

America Is an Idea, Not a Product

I bum a light off this guy in San Luis Obispo one day; in return, he bums a cigarette. The guy - a kid who returned from combat duty in Iraq a few months ago - used to be somebody I knew in a former life.

We grab a cup of coffee and split a pack of Marlboro No. 27s. This guy just wants somebody - anybody - to listen to what he has to say. The America he left years ago, to fight some vague conflict called the War on Terror, looks a lot different to him now. The scenery hasn't changed much, but how he views his country has changed drastically.

And the view from Baghdad ain't pretty.

This former enlisted soldier has had to listen to people who want to let them know just what they think about Abu Gharib and Gitmo. He's had to deal with people who think they know what life in Iraq is like because they watched a documentary on it, those who assume he's been a photo-op pawn of some dude named Rumsfeld. There are those who've grilled him about his political views before they ask how he's doing, complete morons who have called him a terrorist for wearing a uniform.

There have also been folks who've bought him drinks and wanted to know how many Iraqis he killed, wanted to wrap themselves in the same flag that has covered the coffins of so many of his former comrades. There have been friends who've assumed his tour of duty somehow resembled Halo 2 or Doom III, assumed he somehow advanced video game levels while trying to stay alive in places like Basra and Tikrit.

Over coffee and cigarettes, he tells me about how he's sick and tired of whiny Liberals whining about how they have too much to whine about and batshit Conservatives spreading enough guano to choke the life out of anybody’s patriotism.

He tells me how he just wants to get on with his life and to be an American again. He wants to hit a club or two, try to get laid, one day settle down, maybe have a few kids. He wants the Oakland Athletics to win a World Series. He wants to go to college, become a school teacher or work in law enforcement. He wants to be free to do, think, and believe whatever the fuck he wants without having to worry about politics.

He tells me of how Michael Moore's rhetoric turned him overnight from a registered Democrat into an independent, how sickened he was when politicians lined up like vultures to dig the political meat out of Terry Schiavo to get a few votes. He tells me about how he decided voting for the lesser of two evils was something they’d been hoping to prevent in Iraq even though it remains an accepted practice in the U.S.

The guy just needed to vent. Regardless of my stance on the Iraq occupation, it has always been my belief that what veterans have to say about a war matters more than the words of a war's civilian supporters or detractors.

The job of America's military is perhaps one of the most difficult in the world. For little pay, they volunteer to give up certain rights and, if need be, give up their lives for an employer that asks them to kill or to die, without the luxury of personal opinion.

The employer of the U.S. military machine can be a real brute at times, failing to provide a living wage or adequate equipment. The employer is a master of manipulation, twisting the truth to fit agendas, playing hundreds of thousands of employees for fools to get a few extra points in the polls.

But that mysterious employer isn't Donald Rumsfeld. It's not George Bush, either. It's not Congress, the Pentagon brass, MoveOn.Org, or the Christian Coalition for that matter. An American has to look no further than the goddamned mirror to see who’s in charge here.

That great employer, the People, has chosen to settle for playing American Idol with the fate of the world's most powerful nation, electing middle managers and entertainers instead of electing anybody resembling a real leader. We support the political equivalents of that Bill Lumburgh guy from Office Space, people more worried about getting the reports in on time and looking competent than about actually doing anything productive.

This guy asked what I thought about America, being a civilian. I couldn't think of anything, so I threw an old idea out on the table…

The Idea of America.

This idea, of course, revolves around the notion that being an American means more than just the moving of widgets, the selling and consuming of some product called America. The Idea of America is as old as the United States itself, yet has been painted over by politicians, repackaged by media outlets and lobbyists, conscripted and twisted by every political action committee and lobbyist group since the birth of the country.

Evidence of the American Idea is everywhere, despite the best efforts of American Product advocates, who have no use for the metaphysical ideas of liberty, freedom, and justice. It exists in everything, despite the best efforts of politicians on both sides of the political spectrum advocating different versions of the same old idea of censorship.

The American Idea is a diverse collection of underlying thoughts that reflects our diversity, not some random exercise in group-think but a truly marvelous combination of moral, ethical, and legal intangibles. It is through this filter of differences that we find the heartbeat of an entire nation. Every single American has an obligation to work towards translating those intangibles into something real and something beautiful, to interpret and to evaluate and to reevaluate, to cherish and debate and to work towards a better understanding of the what constitutes this thing called the United States.

Similar to the plot of the film National Treasure (one of the vet's favorite movies), the secret to the Idea of America lies buried beneath centuries of political bullshit, hidden in ancient language, like the phrase E. Pluribus Unum - the national motto many politicos would rather see driven from the face of the earth in favor of the catchy, vote-grabbing In God We Trust.

The Idea of America is hidden in phrases like Sic Semper Tyrannis (Thus Always to Tyrants), the Virginia state motto adopted at the insistence of Founding Father George Mason. Sic Semper Tyrannis reflects the moral and ethical principle that defines tyranny as unacceptable. It is such a powerful, simple invocation.

New Hampshire's motto reflects part of the American Idea. Live Free or Die, attributed to a toast written by Revolutionary War hero Gen. John Stark, conveys, in four simple words, the dedication all lovers of independence must accept in order to maintain freedom. Living free requires sacrifice, and sometimes that sacrifice is paid in human blood.

Aside from the idea that freedom is something that requires, at times, human sacrifice, there is the idea of rule by the people hidden somewhere in the Idea of America - Missouri's Ciceroan salus populi suprema lex esto (roughly translated as "The welfare of the people shall be the supreme law"), Wyoming's simple-yet-complex Equal Rights, and Hawaii's Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono (translates from the Hawaiian as "The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.")

These ideas weren't meant to be hidden. But they are no longer taught in classrooms because the fighting man or woman's Employer would rather bicker over whether or not evolution is a valid theory, or whether putting condoms in school restrooms will damn us all to hell.

The Idea of America wasn't designed to hang from a $1.99 ribbon decal on the back of a car or on some silly silicone bracelet. The Idea of America was meant to be shared, over pints of beer and cups of coffee. The United States of America is not some phrase on a dollar bill or some elected manager; it is as grand as Los Angeles and New York City and as small as Ault, Colo., and Meherrin, Virginia.

To me, America has always represented something esoteric, something magical. It is not represented by its widgets or other junk but by the substance of its thought - and the sarifices required of its men, women, and children. The language of the States is but one reflection of the hidden face of this country, the part that hasn’t been twisted into political knots, sacrificed to the American ME.

There are folks working constantly to strip everything down into Liberal and Conservative, into Red States and Blue States, us and them. This is the mentality of those who see the American Idea as a product, a registered trademark to market, repackage, and manipulate to produce some measurable profit.

The American Idea is not meant to be earned; it is meant to be shared and harvested like Nebraskan corn, North Carolina tobacco, and Louisiana peppers. It is not all-or-nothing; it exists in the metaphysical mathematics of "all-as-something."

Regardless of my personal views or my political ideology regarding Iraq, I owe it to the men and women who eat, breathe, and sleep in lands where they could die tomorrow to vote for the best person possible, to advocate the best possible course of action, even if that means compromise.

My job, as part of the body of the American Employer, is to select leadership that will make sure that ideas likes Live Free or Die don't become jingoistic catchphrases. My duty, as a citizen of Oxford, Butler County, Ohio, and the United States, is to insure that I never promote a vision of America that leaves a veteran feeling alone in the world or as a pawn in political chess games.

My job is to insure that those we send out to bring death to tyranny are doing so not to fix the price of oil or to cover up mistakes made by the middle management or to protect those who don't have the guts to fight for what they hold dear. My responsibility to those fighting in Iraq and elsewhere is to insure that their service represents a diverse set of ideas, to ensure their sacrifice is required only when necessary and that anything called the PATRIOT ACT sure as hell better reflect true patriotism. My duty is to make sure that We, The People never becomes We, the Party, We, The Police State, or We, the Regime.

The duty of all Americans is to make sure that the middle managers we've put into place are representing the best of the Idea of America and not their own version of the Product of America. Every American owes that to those they employ to fight their wars, to house and care for their sick and poor, to police their neighborhoods, to educate their children. And if you're unwilling to pay that debt, then get the hell out of the kitchen so others may continue to cook up new ways to contribute to the American Idea.

If you owe your allegiances to something as silly as that Impeach Bush or that Proud to Be a Republican bumper sticker, well...don't go crying to those who've fought for you to have that right. They probably could care less about what you think anyway.

I'm guessing this is along the lines of what the Iraq War vet wanted me to write. This was basically what he and I talked about, in between our gazing at the beautiful feminine scenery native to Southern California. I hope this is adequate representation of that conversation.


Lupe said...

Dude, you know I was thinking similar stuff the other day when I saw somewhere that all these democrats are just as bad as republicans with this abramoff thing. i dig that america/idea thing; i wish we could get ppl in government that meant something instead of just telling people that already agree with them what they want to hear.

Lupe said...

and you know what? i'm sick of this shit where people think i'm conservative just because i'm a catholic latina. or that i'm some liberal whacko because i have a few peircings. i'm both and i'm neither because i'd rather think for myself.

Sorry...pmsing today :)

Katherine said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The ZenFo Pro said...

Oops...sorry...deleted a comment by mistake. Kath, if you're still there, repost, will ya?

Alice: In Wonderland or Not said...

I am sick of people telling people what they are sick about to be honest. I have to disagree on some points. The people have not really been in charge for a very long time. We lost that a long time ago. Whether we lost it due to apathy or whether it was a well healed political plan all along (and this there is enough evidence to support) I can't say but it was taken from us, we just didn't let it go. We have some culpability to be sure and the modern media has certainly not helped as with our aid they have become nothing more than food to feed the fat, lazy and ignorant. We will have to work a little harder to get back this thing we lost because of the duality of cause.
Nice post Jason.

Katherine said...


I said:


Don't do the blog thing and like chat online at the same time (like I'm doing with you right now)

So are you going to post about the roommate LOL...

The ZenFo Pro said...

The Jack Abramoff donations is further evidence, to me, that both the Democratic and Republican Party have ceased to provide adequate leaders. While Tom DeLay and Dennis Hasert's nearly $100,000 was atrocious, so too was Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., $67,000 "refunded", and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-WA, who gave her app. $18 grand to charity. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bill Frist, realizing they need to give money back to earn credit towards presidential bids, gave back $2,000.

Yeah, America is currently a product. What's getting bought? Votes, chica, votes!

I will state, here and for the record, that maybe EVERY incumbent should be voted out of office next cycle because of their ties to Abramoff.

[Thanks, BTW, for the AP link from Crash Patterson over at Zen and the Art.]

Sorry about the PMS :)

Again, my bad. Wasn't thinking :( And the recent houseguest? Working on it. Thanks for the conversation tonight.

Well, I got sick of people being sick of other people being sick a while ago ;) You're right. It was taken from us. But I think, like most crimes, we have to be at least willing to stand up for ourselves at take it back. We must, actually - American apathy is turning out to be the greatest WMD the world has ever seen. I don't know if I was more pissed off, in talking to this vet, that people were assuming he was torturing people or that people were patting him on the back, thinking war is somehow like a video game.

Hey, good post today, yourself. Yup, blogosphere is getting to be a tiny place.

Leigh said...

That has to be my favorite of your posts. I think it represents what most people, especially myself, are feeling now a days. I drive down to Santa Cruz (bummer sticker capital of the world)passing the opinionated on the corner of Ocean and Water, with their protest signs, and say "Yeah, yeah, yeah... wah, wah, wah".

Talk is cheap, action speaks.

Leigh said...

That has to be my favorite of your posts. I think it represents what most people, especially myself, are feeling now a days. I drive down to Santa Cruz (bummer sticker capital of the world)passing the opinionated on the corner of Ocean and Water, with their protest signs, and say "Yeah, yeah, yeah... wah, wah, wah".

Talk is cheap, action speaks.

A Disturbingly Cynical College Student said...

Brilliant post. There are no reactionary words.

Anonymous said...

I don't have anything really to add other than i get more out of reading this page than I do out of reading the Miami Student. Very nice post.

kendra said...

add me to the list who can't add much, but want to thank you for this post. i know i've been going through a huge crisis of faith over politics and america recently, and it's nice to know that it's not crazy to be distrustful of the extremes.

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