Tag Archives: unpopular opinions

On America and Greatness

I don’t think it’s a secret that I love living here, that this is my home.

But I cringe when I hear politicians talk about America and greatness.  No matter who, and no matter how– whether it’s President Obama describing the things that make America great in a State of the Union, the Trump campaign’s “Make America Great Again” swag, or Hillary Clinton stumping about how America is already great.

I wonder if they really believe what they’re saying, or if they just know that it polls well.  I wonder if they’ve ever really thought about it, or researched it, this idea of America being somehow superior among nation-states.  I especially wonder about Obama, the black child of a white single mother, and Clinton, the civil rights activist and feminist icon– do they have to train themselves out of looking contemptuous when they spout these phrases?

I mean, surely they know.  They have marginalized identities, they are well-educated, they are politically left of center.  Surely they can see the opressions and injustices of the past and present– the racial warfare that accompanied the birth of the nation, as transatlantic slave labor created mercantile prosperity and westward expansion was synonymous with Amerindian holocaust; the toxic patriarchal agenda that permeates all levels and ages of American history, erasing the accomplishments of historical women and constraining modern femmefolk to a life of second-class possibilities; the racial, sexual, orientational, and gender-based disparities that have followed US society into the 21st century.

America isn’t great.

It has never been great.

Not for everyone.

In fact, America as a society has only ever served the needs of a small minority of the population.  Perhaps it was, or even is, great for them, I wouldn’t know– at no time in history has there been an iteration of the US in which I would be in that minority.

The American Dream– come here, work hard, and by dint of your effort alone become rich and well-respected– is a myth.  It’s a convenient fiction perpetuated by the oligarchy, designed to discourage lower-class rebellion in a cultural context where Calvinist predestination remains highly relevant and wealth disparity is stark and endemic.

There have always been a few people living the gilded life while many starve and freeze and even more hustle and graft to support them.

That, to me, doesn’t fit the definition of greatness.

In order to insist on America being great, whether now or in the past, one would have to somehow magically exclude from consideration that the prosperity of the US came through the blood of chattel slaves, over the bodies of slain indigenous people, and in the ruthless industrial consumption of children, elderly widows, and vulnerable immigrants.

In order to insist on America being great, whether now or in the past, one would have to forget that nearly every major liberal victory in its history was a case of America being late to the party, an embarrassing truth in the face of a pervasive narrative about America the great Enlightenment political experiment, especially as the US remains behind the curve today.

In order to insist on America being great, whether now or in the past, one would have to quietly pretend that its status as the sole superpower was somehow more related to its inherent superiority, or at least to the deliberate actions of its leaders, than it is to the confluence of greed, indescriminate slaughter, and simple accident.

America isn’t great.  Has never been.

No amount of firecrackers and political rallies could change that.

America could be great someday.  Maybe it’s even on the path to greatness now.  But ahistorical national pride won’t bridge the gap.

Let’s have bold, critical conversations about the American state instead.  Let’s talk, not about how great America is, but about how great it could be if we perservere.  Let’s talk about how to make America great, how to honor the promises of the liberal principles and founding narratives we hold dear.

Let’s talk about how to create liberty and justice for all.  What it means for Lady Liberty to lift her lamp beside the golden door.  What we can do now in order to form a more perfect union.  How we can come together, and be one out of many.

All that starts with saying, out loud, in your biggest speech of the year, on your bumper stickers, and in your stump speeches, that America isn’t great– yet.  That America continues to fail the poor, the elderly, people of color, immigrants, queer people, women, and the differently-abled.  That America cannot be great when there are still children facing hunger, women tasked with preventing their own rapes, communities fighting the extinction of their cultural identity, cities bereft of safe drinking water, families unable to make the best choices for their children, people who don’t have enough of what they need to thrive.

A nation is its people.  America won’t be great, can’t be great, until each and every American has the resources and support they need to live a great life.

And on that day, I will fly the flag and be proud to be an American.

Because on that day, America will be great.

About that patriotic stuff

The word “patriotic” is an adjective used to describe things that are patriot-like.  The word patriot was loaned into English from middle French patriote, but its lineage can be traced back to Latin and Greek words for father, making the meaning of the word less about being proud of one’s homeland (or patria), and more about it being a feeling one has in conjunction with others who are of one’s father.  It’s about human relationships, common history, shared identity.

It’s not the opposite of “terrorist,” “godless,” or “anarchist.”

For European Americans, the 4th of July is a celebration of their people’s victory over their oppressive colonial rulers.  For people of African and Native descent, it is, at best, meaningless.

That’s patriotic all around.

After the Declaration [of Independence] there is a long list of justification given for why the colonies were declaring their independence from the control of England. And the 7th justification reads:
“He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”

13 years prior, King George issued the Proclamation of 1763. In this proclamation a line was drawn down the Appalachian Mountains and the colonies were essentially told that they no longer had the right of discovery of the Indian Lands west of Appalachia. Only the crown could thereafter negotiate treaties and buy or sell those lands. This deeply upset the colonies. For they wanted those empty Indian lands and King George was “raising the conditions of new Appropriations of (their rightful) Lands.”

Justification 27, the final justification in the list, states:
“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

How can a declaration that begins by stating “All men are created equal” go on to include justifications that dehumanize the Indian tribes and peoples who were already living in this land? Clearly the founding Fathers had a very narrow definition of who qualified as human. Therefore they could state “ALL men are created equal” because they did not believe that the “merciless Indian Savages” who occupied the empty Indian lands west of the Appalachian Mountains were actually human.

— Mark Charles, Navajo scholar, “The Doctrine of Discovery: A Buried Apology and an Empty Chair

 

Given the current state of race relations in the US and the heatwave, I would like to remind people, especially white males and others with privilege, that there is much to criticize about this country, its history, and the conduct of its modern state.  Try to hear criticisms and anti-nationalist sentiments as an ally, or at least a neutral bystander.

The 4th of July isn’t for everyone, just as the Declaration of Independence wasn’t about the self-evident and inalienable rights of women, slaves, native peoples, and other marginalized people.  So don’t be an asshole to people who choose not to be excited about what is, in reality, a celebration for a small number of already privileged people that they worked up the courage to challenge a far-distant government for dominion over a vast and diversely-peopled continent none of them had any right to claim.

Have a safe weekend, everyone.

Cunt Reclaimed

I’m reclaiming the word “cunt“.

Yes, like in the Vagina Monologues.

Because it’s better than “vagina”.

We can discard out of hand the word pudenda, which literally means “things to be ashamed of”.  “Sex” is too vague, now that it’s the most common term for sexual intercourse and also for the biological concept of reproduction by more than one organism.  “Genitals” is borderline, but between the fact that I don’t identify with having more than one and the implied reproductive imperative, it’s not the best choice.

Vagina, in addition to being an awkward-sounding word that technically only applies to the vaginal canal and not to any other part of the body (like the vulva or the perineum), is a misogynist term.  It’s not a “sheath”; my parts are mine, and my so-called vagina is a thing unto itself, already complete without having to make reference to or use of anything else.  No part of my body is an accessory to the penetrative phallus.

Cunt, a dark and secretive word, a word with authority and power, is a word so old nobody knows what it means or where it came from.  It signifies the whole thing, potentially even the whole region, and has a rich undertone of mystery.  The Patriarchy is so afraid of the term that it’s been considered obscene ever since James Stuart succeeded Golden Bess.  Is it a coincidence that “cunt” was euphemized away into “the monosyllable” right around the same time that the last matriarchal societies in western Europe came under control of the patriarchal imperial powers?  Maybe.  But, maybe not.

Cunt.

Say it.

Gender Neutral in English

Oh, pronouns.

If you read a lot of social science books in English, you’ll undoubtedly find a statement about pronoun use in the front matter of some of them.  The dilemma seems to be that people feel uncomfortable choosing pronouns to use for gender-neutral purposes.  The everyday speech solution– to use the plural (they/their/them) as singular neutral– is inappropriately casual for writing.  Modern scholars have tried to artificially construct gender neutral pronouns for English, with mixed results.  Some authors alternate between masculine and feminine pronouns, and are then compelled to devise some system for making sure that the representation of the pronouns is balanced overall.  Some authors, especially in books about reproductive processes, assign a certain set of pronouns to all subjects of a certain description for clarity (e.g., in midwifery texts the baby usually takes the masculine pronouns because the person gestating/birthing/nursing the baby usually takes the feminine pronouns).  Very few modern scholars will defend the use of he/his/him as gender-neutral.

Feminist scholars have claimed that using he/his/him as neutral pronouns disappears people who take feminine pronouns because it creates the false impression that all these general persons are masculine, and that treating masculine as default and feminine as aberration is a form of misogyny.

Unfortunately, there’s an etymology problem with this line of reasoning– him and his aren’t simply masculine pronouns.

A proto-Germanic forbear of English created all of the masculine pronouns of modern English.  But, of course, it’s not that simple, because early English actually had a full neuter person.

Singular

Plural

masculine

neuter

feminine

nominative he hit heo (hio) hie (hi)
accusative hine hit hie (hi) hie (hi)
genitive his his hire hira (heora)
dative him him hire him (heom)

All these words are variations on the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root *ki-, meaning “this”, as opposed to “that”.  Over the course of time, the initial letter dropped from the neuter accusative and nominative to become “it”, which replaced all other cases for the neuter and became a way to differentiate between objects and people when English nouns lost their gender in the middle ages.  The assumption modern English makes is that things without gender are not people, so using the neuter pronouns that still exist to refer to people is offensive.*

In this space, when I need to use a gender-neutral pronoun,** I will use the traditional set of Old English neuter pronouns adapted for the modern English cases: “hit” for the subjective, “his” for the possessive, and “him” for the objective.

 


 

Chart adapted from here

 

*It occurs to me that this line of thinking conflates “being neither masculine nor feminine” with “being less than human”.  Is it necessary to fit into the gender binary in order to be human?  Is it necessary to have a gender in order to be human?  Obviously not, because unborn babies are humans totally without gender.  Is considering “it” to be a denigrating pronoun for humans in itself transphobic, because to think so accepts the assumption that if you aren’t masculine or feminine you aren’t human?

**I do use feminine pronouns for describing general case people who are pregnant, birthing, and nursing, because as a midwife, I have to hold sacred the feminine nature of childbearing.  I recognize that not everyone who is pregnant is a woman, and that some childbearing people prefer other pronouns, but for the general case, I will persist in feminine pronouns.