Americaville

4 Sep

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The Hebrew phrase “kol b’seder” literally translates as “everything’s in order,” or “it’s all cool, yo.” Tradition holds that Jewish shopkeepers, either in the American South or the New York Bronx, when asked how things were going, would say “kol b’seder,” as in, “no pogroms today, so there’s that at least.” This phrase “kol b’seder” was then, supposedly, overheard by African-American children of either the South or the Bronx, or possibly the Lower East Side, or maybe nowhere, and re-phoeneticized as “copacetic.” Or the word “copacetic” comes from the creole word “coupersetic” meaning “that which can be coped with,” or the Chinook word “copasenee,” for “everything is satisfactory.” Or Bill “Bonjangles” Robinson just made it up one day, because.

No one actually knows. It’s kind of a beautiful unsolvable mystery that remains glorious because it is unsolvable. It is filled with both etymological and anthropological intrigue. To figure out which origin story is correct one must nullify all the rest, which would just be sad, so let’s pretend that any of them could be true. Or all of them, why not?

This brings me to today’s Rant on Something Stupid Somebody Said on the Internet, this time from Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, who wrote an editorial in Politico about race. The crux of the piece being, ahem: racism is bad. Gee, thanks for the head’s up.

The article is eye-popping in the amount of pat la-di-da phrases Jindal employees. A few of which follow, with my comprehensive Talmud-inspired commentary in parens:

Racism is one of the more tragic features of the human condition. Like greed, envy, and other sins, it has been around for thousands of years, on every continent.

(Except Antarctica, and possibly The Enlightened Kingdom of Atlantis)

There is no more shallow, hollow, or soulless way to think about human beings than in terms of their skin color.

(So, homophobes, anti-Semites, and misogynists, you’re off the hook.)

Regarding the state of affairs of the world today, as seen by a Christian: Divorce is through the roof, pornography is everywhere, sexual predators are on the loose and on the Internet, our abortion rate is higher than almost every First World country, vulgarity and profanity are mainstream and commonplace.

(Nice to know that sexual predators are given their proper place as equals with the half of the country who has gone through divorce and the 98% that watches porn. Also, people who say motherfuckingbullshitcocksucker.)

Then he goes on to say this:

Yet we still place far too much emphasis on our “separateness,” our heritage, ethnic background, skin color, etc. We live in the age of hyphenated Americans: Asian-Americans, Italian-Americans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans, Indian-Americans, and Native Americans, to name just a few.

Here’s an idea: How about just “Americans?” That has a nice ring to it, if you ask me. Placing undue emphasis on our “separateness” is a step backward. Bring back the melting pot.

Some on the Internet interpreted this to be a “blame the victim” excuse. Racism is only around because people talk about race. We emphasize our separateness, he points out, not our commonalities. If black people would just stop talking about racism it would go away.

He then walks this back a bit by saying:

There is nothing wrong with people being proud of their different heritages. We have a long tradition of folks from all different backgrounds incorporating their traditions into the American experience, but we must resist the politically correct trend of changing the melting pot into a salad bowl.

(Probably because a countrywide salad tossing would go against Mr. Jindal’s delicate sensitivities.)  

The whole article is a rather useless rant that would normally have more outrage directed at it if the author was, like, a white guy, but Jindal is Indian-American, or just American-American, I guess. The piece is no better than a junior high essay on what makes this country great, though one which never actually gives us an answer.

***

So, what is American? What does it mean to actually be an American? Is it fireworks on the Fourth? Thanksgiving turkey (but not tofurkey, thank you very much)? Baseball? Football? NASCAR? Is it Country & Western or Hip Hop? Is it a history of slavery and Jim Crow, or the improbability of a black President? Is it Wal-Mart or small business? Mr. Potter’s bank, or the Bailey Building & Loan? Is it big cities or small towns?

And what does it mean to be un-American? Does it mean shopping at a Wal-Mart? Burning a flag? Protesting a war? Putting a Hitler-stache on a picture of the President? Sit-ins and strikes? Suing to remove nativity scenes from public land? Placing nativity scenes on public land?

Is it American to want to bomb a country because of its use of chemical weapons on its own people? Or is it American to keep out of other people’s business, and hope that they keep out of ours?

Is it un-American for a Muslim student to wear a headscarf, or un-American to make her take it off?

Actually, if this were France, she would not be able to wear it, just like a Jew would not be able to wear a yarmulke, and a Christian a cross. That’s because of a French law that promotes secularism in schools. It’s kind of like saying, “why do you all have to be ‘Muslim’ or ‘Christian’ or ‘Jew,’ why can’t you all just be, you know, French.”

Of course, if it were proposed in the U.S. a law like this would face some steep opposition on all political sides. The un-Americanness of this idea is tied to one of the two seemingly antithetical traits that define the country: individualism. (The other trait being community.) What makes a law like this so anathema to our shared (communal!) values is that it eliminates choice. It removes a person’s choice to believe in whatever god she wishes to believe in. It states that your profession of faith is hurtful to society and therefore should be banned. Similarly, a school should not be able to promote a certain faith via their curriculum, e.g., creationism, as it too would also undermine an individual’s beliefs.  (And, no, evolution is not a matter of faith, so there.)

What Jindal endorses – let’s all be American, as opposed to Hyphenated-Americans – creates a unique paradox: what truly being an American means is not removing an outside identity, but possessing co-existing ones. We may all live here, but we also come from somewhere else.

American does not mean one thing, but many. Being American means not shedding ones history in favor of a milquetoasty blandness, but having many different types of people living on top of one another, butting heads, and, yes, embracing our differences.

***

I’m a Jew. I prefer that to the term Jewish. Many of my people view the word “Jew” as a pejorative, but it only really is when used as an adjective, e.g., “that damned Jew lawyer.” As a noun there is nothing really offensive about it. Jewish, of course, is only an adjective, though “that damned Jewish lawyer” is still an oy-inducing statement.

I’m also a secular Jew. I’m not religious, not even reform. It’s what I’ve chosen for myself. It’s my choice. My identity is mine and no one else’s. I am my own melting pot: Jew, male, American, New Yorker, straight, nerd, writer, liberal, horribly depressed Cubs fan, and a whole host of others. I do not know what Bobby Jindal thinks of himself as: Indian, Louisianan, Republican, American, Christian, asshole extraordinaire, but those are his choices as well. And if he wants to de-emphasize some in favor of others, he is more than welcome. I don’t care.

But most of us like being unique. I cannot shunt off my Jewishness – something that has contributed, for better or worse, to who I am today – any more than Jindal can disavow a Christianity which he openly discusses in his article. Should I not be proud of Albert Einstein, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Philip Roth, Leonard Bernstein, Ron Jeremy, Baruch Spinoza, and so many others? Should Irish-Americans dismiss Seamus Heaney? How about African-Americans and Richard Wright? Should Wright be dismissed because he wrote mainly about the plight of one specific race in America, and not about America in general?

***

America is in many ways built on myths. Things like Uncle Sam and Washington’s cherry tree. There is a lot about this country’s history that is more than a little disquieting, much of which we never learn in Junior year history class. Over the past decade we have sent soldiers to an unjust war, bailed out banks that almost destroyed not just the national but the world economy, used drones to kill, spied on our own people, and watched as the gulf between the affluent and the rest of us has grown.

I like being an American, but sometimes it is difficult to say those words. One feels an enormous sense of pride at our electing an African-American to be President, but much of that is washed away when you see the xenophobic racism directed at him. Gay rights have progressed much faster than any could have imagined, but the country is still nearly even split on the question of same-sex marriage. There is still an Us v. Them mentality that pervades the country, whether it be Democrat v. Republican, North v. South, or individualism v. shared responsibility. With every step forward there is harsh pushback. Progress is slow, and the older I get the more impatient I become. I grow tired of trying to resolve my ideal America with the real one I see on the news.

Those who claim that multiculturalism is somehow ruining the country have it backwards: it’s the best thing about America. It’s our one saving grace, Without it we’d basically all be the same, and that would be horribly, depressingly, morbidly boring, like a mayonnaise sandwich on Wonder Bread with a glass of skim milk and a Twinkie for dessert. For every meal ever.

It is not my heritage that is important to me so much as it is about how mine is important to you, and yours to me. It is about how one group can influence others. Native Son is not a book for African-Americans, it is a book about African-Americans but for everyone. What Jindal gets wrong is that it is not just being proud of where we come from, but sharing that history and pride with everyone else.  

There are dozens of different parades in New York that celebrate everybody from Dominicans to Koreans to apparently mermaids. We bring our cultures with us. We try new cuisines. We wish each other happiness and joy on one another’s different holidays, even if they are not our own. We are invited to Christmas dinners and Passover Seders. We can dance the tango or the waltz. We can learn not to be frightened of people who are different because they are our neighbors and friends. We invite others into our homes and share with them our traditions, and they do the same with us. I am better off not just because of my own heritage, but because of yours, the one you share with me, the one whose table I eat at, whose floor I dance upon, whose parades I attend, and whose music I groove to. Music like Jazz, an art form that grew out of a combination of African rhythm and European harmony, and which I have to say is quite copacetic.

I leave you with this clip from the 2007 film, The Visitor:

 

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