Am I us? Or am I them?
Do I have to answer that?
To call the 3.8 million square miles that is the United States united is dismally laughable. We’re always fighting the ‘them’, whether that’s conservatives, liberals, Mexicans, Muslims, blacks, whites. It’s daunting to be in a constant state of asking, ‘Who’s ruining the country today?’
“To learn from history you have to listen.”
Wanda Lee is sitting at a small table wearing a bonnet, a long dress and a white apron, all of which have gone out of style. The farmhouse doors are open, exposing the men in military blues sitting under a tree reloading their muskets with blanks. Our conversation is interrupted by kids on field trips meant to interest them in the history of Chalmette, Louisiana, where Americans defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans, uniting the nation in a bid for continued westward expansion and control of the mighty Mississippi River.
“I think we do learn from history,” Wanda Lee says. “But most people only pick out what suits their beliefs, positions and race.”
But it’s only both sides of a story that will help us see the full picture.
For instance, in the War of 1812, Americans attacked the British first. It seems we have a history of aggression.
About that time, a man, maybe late 30s or early 40s comes clomping into the room and starts asking questions. He’s got a thick bayou accent and a booming voice, the latter of which is a product of his bad hearing. He’s covered in tattoos, and when he takes off his sunglasses has piercing blue eyes that see into your soul but on the other hand don’t see anything at all. I always associate these eyes with drug addicts.
Are drug addicts ruining the country today?
It’s probably his hearing or maybe he’s just slow or high, but he just isn’t getting it. Wanda Lee walks him through the whole story and towards the end he asks, “Are we talking about the Americans?”
She hadn’t been, for some time now.
Wanda Lee is visibly frustrated. It must be exhausting, sitting there all day regurgitating history to those only interested in the perception of caring about history and other people.
It feels like we used to. Re-enactors tell me about American medics, usually women, who cared not only for our soldiers but theirs, the British in this case. And the city of New Orleans felt so bad for the Kentuckians coming down to fight in tatters that they created a $16,000 fund to have women sew them blankets and pants.
Today, we drone strike hospitals in the Middle East. Today we let kids drink poisoned water. Not long ago, we let New Orleans drown.
“Demography is destiny,” says an older man with white hair.
I was introduced to him after asking a park staff questions about the Native Americans in Louisiana at the time, some of which sided with the British and others of which fought with the Americans. It was unclear whether the old man worked for the park’s department or was just a volunteer during the battle reenactments.
There were two trains of thought on Indians at the time, he says. The Federalists thought New Americans should extend a hand to the natives because “we were all in this together and had to live on the same land together,” he says. The Democratic Republicans were for Indian removal, to send them west of the Mississippi to avoid dealing with them, he continues.
I sense an opening to talk today’s politics and ask, “Which one of those is more in tune with American politics today?”
“Democratic Republicans,” he says, scoffing as though the alignment is all wrong.
But as he continues talking, I realize the scoff was maybe more of a snicker.
In the early days of America, he says, immigrants came over out of dissonance with their native countries, so they embraced assimilation to the American culture. Waves of Italians and Germans and Irish came to America because they “couldn’t compete in their home countries…for climbing the social ladder or for feeding their families.”
But in the ’60s that changed, he thinks.
“My grandchildren don’t agree with anything I say. That’s because they’re idiots.”
I’m hoping the noise that escapes from my mouth will be taken as a snicker, too, and say, “You probably shouldn’t start with that if you’re trying to talk to them.”
Instead the U.S. started getting immigrants that didn’t care so much about assimilation, rather they imported their cultures here, he says. For instance, he says, Mexicans came to the U.S. bringing with them Cinco de Mayo which many non-Mexicans in the States celebrate with sombreros teetering as they throw back tequila and binge-eat tacos.
Maybe appropriation is a better term there. But it doesn’t fit his narrative.
Like many Americans, I can imagine he believes it signifies Mexico’s independence.
But it doesn’t. Cinco de Mayo is a celebration of Mexico’s unlikely victory over Napoleon and the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. A battle in which, had it gone the other way, would have changed the destiny of the United States. Napoleon and his French Army supported the Confederacy during the US Civil War, and had they won and set up a base in Mexico, they might have aided the South to a victory over the Union.
So theoretically we can celebrate on the basis that the US is not still a slave-holding nation.
Although the real reason the holiday gained popularity in the US is because we’re consumers. Cinco de Mayo didn’t take off until the ’80s when marketers, chiefly beer companies, began promoting the holiday as a way to sell to America’s indulgers.
But maybe this does align with his narrative…
Because it’s the narrative of us versus them. And us are Anglo-Americans, whites, and the them are Hispanics, Middle Easterners, Asians and blacks.
“Trump,” he says, “is capitalizing on white anger.”
This is Trump’s chance to, well to use his own adage, make America great again. And in the man’s eyes that’s white. Otherwise we’ll be taken over by people whose only difference is the color of their skin.
My insides boil, but I’ve gotten good at hiding it.
“So why didn’t we assimilate with the Native Americans?” I ask.
“We did. We live spread out in the country and use the resources of the land. We’re a resource-driven culture.”
“And what culture isn’t a resource-driven one?”
“Muslims. Why else would they stay in the Sahara Desert? Why would they stay in the desert without resources? In his mind, just because they’re living there to use what they can and then leave.”
I think I could explode at this point.
Every culture is a resource-driven culture, because resources mean survival. That’s likely why Western powers, including America the great have involved themselves into Middle Eastern politics, because they want oil.
But all that comes out of my mouth is, “Uh huh.”
“Is Syria a country? Is Iraq a country?” he asks. “No. They’re tribes.”
“You know who I thought of as the aliens when I watched Independence Day?” he asks, filling the silence that’s come over me, like the eerie quiet before a tornado hits or a volcano erupts.
“Well it was nice talking to you. We don’t agree on all things but that’s OK,” I say, feeling sick to my stomach.
“Well that’s because you’re under 50 and don’t know anything,” he says.
It’s the same sanctimonious, condescending bullshit I’ve struggled with most of my life in the Midwest. Conservatives, which if you’re to believe the maxim–”Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains.”–skew older and patronize as if older always means wiser.
I hold my stomach and drag my feet towards a giant American flag. About 30 people are in costume beside it and the another 30 visitors are watching “history.”
Tears well up in my eyes as two young kids play in the grass beside the “soldiers” and immigrants of all kinds watch as though they deserve to be called patriotic.
“You as Americans should cherish this day,” says one of the re-enactors.
I spit. I might throw up soon. Fuck you.
From my angle, the large flag flaps in a blue sky over a lone tree, still green here in the south, but with those brownish-green wisps of bayou vegetation. A bright blue cannon sits near, ready to send gunpowder rumbling through the barrel in a loud bang like the ones that made most people (visiting and working) jump during the day.
But they only jump and then laugh at the silliness of being scared by a loud boom. We don’t fear loud booms here in America.
I’m sure the experience would be different in Syria and the likes, where American drones send bright lights and deafening booms through your home town, the kind that break skin and shatter bone and leave bodies empty. Bleed slow… Remember this day… When the world became so removed that we forgot just how similar we are.
The flag descends and a giddy older man beside me says, “Oh. This is a good time for a picture.” He walks forward a couple steps.
“I pledge allegiance to the Flag…”
To do what I can to see it burn, because this is not my America. Nothing that breeds the xenophobic nationalism that the United States has is worth seeing succeed. May we become the dust the serpent eats.
“So the LORD God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.’”
Three big hip, hip, hoorays for the U S of A. I’d rather die.
The giddy man comes back. I’m not in the mood to talk to anyone else. He’s a writer too, though, and from my minimal input to our conversation he says, “The facts should be the facts; you shouldn’t cleanse the facts.”
I know the above is only vitriol. Had I not pushed myself out on the road, had I not decided to dive into the rabbit hole that is American politics, had I not listened to the man bellyache for an hour, I wouldn’t be quite so harsh.
I’d still be smiling, because I sense a turnaround.
But I won’t sanitize what is altogether polluted.