Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Something has haunted me for a few days.
My wife does work in the field of teaching English to non-native speakers in other countries, via the wonders of internet video chat, from our home office. Her classes range from one-on-one sessions to small groups, going over a series of dialogue exercises and also engaging in free conversation.
The other day she had a female student from Saudi Arabia, a very advanced English speaker presumably just getting some extra practice in a group that included a few other students from other countries. At one point in the class, the exercises called for students to describe themselves; what they were wearing, the color of their hair and eyes, etcetera.
When it was the Saudi woman’s turn to engage in these exercises, the response to each question was the same: “I can’t describe myself. There are men here. My father wouldn’t allow it.” Here, mind you, was a virtual space. The other men in the “room” were a continent away. My wife ultimately moved on, understanding that this was a cultural difference and not to be argued against.
This isn’t a story I tell to inspire umbrage and hold ourselves superior to Saudi Arabia, a kingdom that we ever consider our ally, even as they manipulate our oil prices, even as they foster the environment in which 19 men could be raised and inspired to kill 3,000-plus people simply because of where they live. Calling out Saudi Arabia for its medieval views on women is a task equivalent of shooting a barn’s broad side, when the barn is filled with barrels and the barrels are full of fish.
Indeed, holding ourselves superior to Saudi Arabia is folly and arrogance. We stand atop the peak and look down upon others and then fail to remember that mountains have many sides, to notice the slope behind us is crumbling and sloughing, and before we know it we’re down in the valley ourselves, suffering from compound fractures and multiple lacerations.
The first European settlers on these shores were Puritans, remember, a few hundred dissatisfied Englishmen and women who wanted to live their lives under the doctrine they’d chosen, a doctrine that included the tenet that Man was the spiritual head of society and that Woman’s role in all things was to be obedient and submissive to Man. The nation we have today began with Saudi Arabians of a different color, and that we are not that today is only the result of an uncounted number of choices made by an uncounted number of people. What we will be tomorrow will be the result of even more uncountable choices by even more uncountable people.
The day before my wife’s interaction with her student five men in robes handed down a widely misunderstood and wildly interpreted decision giving certain corporations the right to consider their owners’ religious convictions as tantamount to federal law. The first stumble down the side of this mountain, predictably, is about the reproductive agency of American women, and has led to both academic conversations about the nature of the First Amendment as well as ugly rhetoric about the righteousness of consequences meted out to women for daring to enjoy sex. Five men, reminding women that their bodies are only mostly their own.
Louis CK — a comedian who, if not the second coming of Bill Hicks, is perhaps as much of the ghost of George Carlin that we as a species deserve — pointed out recently that considering the American Experiment an exercise in democracy from 1776 on is a lie, since women were not granted the right to vote until 1920. America as an idea may be 238 years old, as a ratified nation 223 years old, but as an actual democracy it’s been less than a century. As such, it’s perhaps understandable why we’re still not particularly good at it.
There is a Japanese proverb I also discovered earlier this week:
Vision without action is a daydream; action without vision is a nightmare.
A country is what you make of it, and what you make of it requires you to care enough to have vision for what you want, then to care enough to make that vision a reality. And in the absence of either vision or action, somebody else will make the decisions for you.
So what I’m saying is this: Happy Birthday, America.
A birthday is a moment when we mark growth.
Remember to celebrate. Don’t forget to grow.