Tuesday, August 16, 2005

DISSENTER'S NOTEBOOK: On American Success

I told this story in an old book called Wide Skies. It came to mind again when I was thinking about the state of America these days.

A young Eskimo man, raised in a village far out on the Kuskokwim, was trying to make it at a small college in Anchorage. He had been drinking in a Fourth Avenue bar and gotten in a fight. Rather than take him to jail the police had taken him to the ANS (Alaska Native Service) hospital. In those days Alaska Native students at Alaska Methodist University carried an ID card. If they got in trouble with the law or needed some other assistance, they could show the card, which identified them as a student and had my phone number among several others to call.

A policeman had found the card and given it to the doctor who was trying to settle Isaac (not his real name) down. Isaac was "literally ricocheting off the walls," the doctor said when he called to ask if I could take Isaac off their hands. He was "uncooperative and creating havoc, running around, leaping up on desks and counters," and they could not get him to hold still long enough to give him a sedative.

When I got to the hospital and walked into the back of the emergency room, Isaac was standing on a gurney like the king of the hill fending off marauders, a huge grin on his face. The doctor and a couple of nurses were standing nearby, watchful but, fortunately, unwilling to use force to subdue him. At the appearance of a familiar face, Isaac jumped down and we left without trouble.

We sat in my kitchen drinking coffee while Isaac talked. He was still hyper from his experience, still mildly drunk, but had been thinking hard about his life and the culture that surrounded him at the university and in the city. Since he talked slowly with long pauses, not caring a whole lot about what I did, I wrote down as much as I could of what he said. I found his commentary sobering for me as well as for him, revealing what many highly intelligent, capable minority people must feel. What struck me most was this:

I can't succeed, so I can't prove I exist. You know it, Gary. The White man succeeds at everything. He even thinks he discovered this country. He proves he exists. I can't succeed at anything here, so I can't prove I exist.


I'm going home. To hell with White man's culture. I've tried to cope with it. I've tried! You know I've tried. I'm going home and live alone -- as far from the White man as I can get. To hell with him. Nobody can say I didn't try. I'm going to just fade away.


There is no White man's God. There's only shamanism. You know it exists. That's all there is. You know it, Gary, you know it exists. I'm going home and go out on the tundra by myself. To hell with white man's culture...

Isaac articulated with great exactness the dilemma faced by a member of a minority group who is required to forfeit his culture to live in ours, but cannot find a way to participate in it except in minimal roles.

Isaac's assessment seems right: the Cartesian formula, revised for America, might be “Succedo ergo sum.” Since that night when Isaac taught me something about our country, now over 20 years ago, things have gotten worse, not better, for Native American students on our campuses throughout America.

But now I find myself thinking that Isaac's statement can be written on a larger screen, that here lies one of the roots, not only of minorities', but of our national discontent. We are not succeeding too well, as individuals or as a nation, these days. Many of us are feeling a shallow version of the anxiety and pain that Isaac was feeling. We have always believed that "good old American know-how" will help us surmount any obstacle, that if only we work hard enough we will be rewarded in a very material way. Somehow God is on our side, we think, surely loves us more than others, especially more than the dusky hued, and therefore we will succeed at any endeavor.

Now that no longer appears to be the case and we are not so sure of our existence as we once were. The failure to succeed (as we define success) raises questions about our most fundamental beliefs about our own nature. If we cannot succeed, we cannot prove we exist.

The culture of endless success, built on ever-increasing material goods, is one doomed to self-destruct. There are limits that we have refused to recognize, shifts in the world's population that prohibit any endless rise in wealth, demands for energy that foreclose our future prosperity. The American proposition we have grown up with does not finally make sense, is not internally coherent, and is one root of our own dilemma. Our pride in having built an almost classless society in which a yeoman farmer is "just as good a man" as the manager of General Motors has been lost. We seem to believe that the rich and famous are different from the rest of us, not because they have more money but because they are smarter or somehow more deserving or more beautiful. We look up to them, peer into their televised homes as if they were something to emulate, and for a moment think that could be us. Yet down inside we know that cannot be true and are diminished in the process. Our public economic policy, presented to us by our wealthy Congress and Administrations with overwhelming p.r., is a false bill of goods we have bought without thinking hard enough. We see too late that it has been designed to increase the gaps between classes that are a hallmark of third world cultures.

This loss of status in our individual lives is magnified when we look at our nation’s place in the world. A decade or more ago we began a fast decline toward third world status and didn't even recognize it, though the signs were clear to see: health care a disgrace; homelessness more prevalent and more visible than in many other "developed" countries; education systems below grade level; our national debt the largest in the world and our economy lacking in prospects to repay; our food supply becoming dependent on foreign imports; our dependence on oil a sickness like crack addiction; our environment sacrificed to corporate greed and growth; personal income from our labor in serious decline. These are all buzzards circling, waiting to come home to roost.

It is so painful to consider such things, we get depressed thinking about them, and finally just stop. The burden of such thoughts becomes too great. We feel powerless, but it is hard to recognize the source of the feeling. One legacy from Viet Nam was our fear that we might not have the power we once had in the world. But the real source of our powerlessness lies not in our relationship with the world, but our lack of relationship with our own government. We have little influence, little power to effect change or improve our lot. The government is not responsive to either our ideas or our desires. The possibility that it represents those of us who do not represent transnational corporate power seems more and more remote. We have become an angry people, defensive of our ways because we are no longer sure of them.

One characteristic of the powerless is that when they do gain power, they use it. And they use it in ways that it was used on them. The prisoner beaten by guards, eventually serves his time and is free and beats up his wife or children or neighbor. Israel, beaten up by Germany beats up on Palestine. The U.S., beaten in Viet Nam, beats up on powerless nations that cannot possibly respond. Wars against Nicaragua, Grenada, Panama, and the first Gulf War won public support in part because they assuaged the fear of our loss of power and made us feel, briefly, successful and powerful. Lacking moral power, lacking economic power, lacking intellectual power, lacking any unifying spiritual power, we exercise our military power, bludgeoning those who dare to cross us, threatening our allies if they do not cooperate. In our desperation to succeed, to reinforce our false and crumbling image of power, we use force against smaller nations, or beat up on members of minorities in our own country. We have become the biggest bully on the block because we are afraid we cannot succeed, cannot otherwise prove to ourselves that we still exist.