Saturday, March 6, 2010
A Writer From The UK Talks About Airlee
I know this is lengthy but anyone that knew or loved Airlee will enjoy reading Airlee's quotes that impressed this writter from the UK so much and rightfully so. Not only does this say great things about Airlee but in fact an amazing tribute to the kind of man he was as well as what he and others were trying to acomplish.
After spending over 8 weeks in the United States, travelling from New York all the way to San Francisco, I noticed several things which might well be called paradoxical in the Tocquevillean mould. For example there exists a formal separation between Church and State enshrined in the US Constitution, yet the words “In God We Trust” can be found emblazoned upon every coin and bill, and where to be an atheist is career suicide for any major electoral candidate. More strikingly, and perhaps seriously, the notion of the “American Dream” is still foremost in every political campaign and believed in by most Americans (from what I could tell), yet America currently experiences levels of social mobility akin to the 1920s, and the current administration has focused on tax cuts for the super-rich, whilst reducing federal expenditure which could off-set this lack of social mobility. And yet, the upcoming November election looks like it could well reward the GOP, which has held the executive branch for the last 8 years and periodically dominated Congress during that period as well.
I wish, however, to focus upon one particular paradox: the deep commitment ordinary Americans genuinely hold to the idea of political liberty, and freedom of speech in particular, whilst evincing a systematic reluctance to employ that freedom of speech to meaningfully engage with those who hold contradictory views. I hope to illustrate this by recounting my experience of meeting two groups of rival protestors in southern Oregon. Although two months is not a long time to spend in a country, especially one the size of America, I believe the following serves as a microcosm of American politics generally, and illustrates quite strikingly the particular paradox I wish to discuss.
As I was driving through the small town of Bandon, Oregon, I saw what looked like a roadside vigil with a group of men and women standing on the side-walk waving large white flags. As I rounded the bend there appeared another group, slightly greater in number, waving the stars and stripes. Intrigued, I decided to pull over to go and enquire what was happening on the corners of this four-way junction in small-town America.
I approached the group waving white flags first, and was able to see that each flag carried the logo “Veterans for Peace” and a picture of a dove complete with olive branch in beak. I walked over to an elderly couple and introduced myself, explaining that I was on vacation from the UK and asking what was going on. The gentleman was very affable and happy to explain. Apparently everything had begun when the so-called “Women in Black”, a group emulating the movement begun in Israel-Palestine, started a road-side vigil on Friday evenings. As it was only 4.45 pm, the women in black hadn’t get arrived. What – I asked – where these “Veterans For Peace” doing? The answer: “to show solidarity with the women in black, in opposition to those guys over there”, pointing to the group waving the stars and stripes. Further intrigued, I asked who the other group were. “Well”, came the answer, “we’re the Veterans for Peace, and so I guess they’re the Veterans for War”. I asked what he thought of the war, and the obvious answer from both him and the lady he was with was one of condemnation – but a special kind of condemnation. “We’re veterans, you see, and we believe this war is not doing any good to any body. We want our men and women brought home safely as soon as possible – that’s why we’re the Veterans for Peace”.
I asked if it was OK to take a few pictures, to which the Veterans for Peace agreed, and then said that as I wanted to get both sides of the story I thought I should go and see what the so-called “Veterans for War” had to say for themselves.
I must admit, I was expecting the worst. As I walked over I mentally prepared myself by repeating that I wasn’t in Oxford anymore, and that it was no good getting into a fight with anybody out here, because after all nobody is converted at the roadside. And anyway, I told myself, it would be far more productive to simply listen to what these people had to say, no matter how strongly I disagreed with their politics or how unpleasant I might find them. Yet what the so-called “Veterans for War” had to say surprised me.
The first person I spoke to – who must have seen me speaking to the Veterans for Peace a few moments earlier – was friendly and pleasant, greeting me with a warm grin and a firm handshake. I asked him what was going on and he told me the following. He said that their protest was meant purely as a show of support for American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan – and stressed that it was about the troops. Indeed he was keen to say straight away that “we don’t necessarily support the President or the war: what we want is the best for our boys, and by being here we are showing that we support them, and that they are not forgotten”.
Further intrigued, I moved down the line and was introduced to a man named Airlee Owens (one of only two people, I must confess, whose name I know for sure, because not being a professional journalist I foolishly failed to take notes). Airlee is a great bear of a man, large in stature as well as in heart from what I could tell. Again he shook my hand firmly and greeted me kindly, keen to answer any questions I might have. He told me that although he didn’t start the vigil, he seemed to have become the spokesman for the group. “We didn’t start this to support the war necessarily” he said, “we started this because we are all veterans, most of us from Vietnam, and we don’t want the boys in Iraq to suffer the way many people did when they came back from Vietnam. You see, that was an unpopular war, and when the troops came home they were treated very badly: people would spit on them in the street, and the government basically abandoned them. Iraq is an unpopular war, and we don’t want the same thing to happen to the boys out there when they come home. So when we saw the women in black, we knew we had to do something in response. This isn’t – you’ve got to understand – a political protest. It’s about supporting the troops for as long as they are out there”.
I found this fascinating, and asked whether you could really have a non-political protest when one side is flying the stars and stripes, and the other flying white flags with doves on them. Airlee’s answer came quickly: “Sure you can. The flag isn’t supposed to be political – it should be a symbol of unity. Don’t get me wrong, we are all patriots – we love our country – but we fly the flag because we think it should be used to unite all Americans together. It’s a positive symbol, and one shown by the troops out there as well as by us back home”.
I noticed that the Women in Black were beginning to assemble on the other side of the road from the so-called – and apparently ill-described – “Veterans for War”. However there was another lone figure, occupying the final side at the four-way junction, standing proudly holding his own flag with signs declaring that “Defeatism Support Al Qaeda” and “Help Prevent A Nuclear 9/11″. OK – I thought to myself – surely this guy is going to be a jingoistic nut-case who I’m going to struggle to remain civil with – but again I was disappointed, albeit much to my relief. His name was Jim Nielson, and like everyone else I’d spoken to so far he was friendly and approachable. I asked why he was standing all alone, and the simple answer was that if the Women in Black and the Veterans for Peace occupied two corners of the junction, it seemed right that those supporting the troops ought to have two as well. We chatted briefly about Winston Churchill – Jim being keen to stress his admiration for a man who did not appease the forces of terror (and not leaving the perceived analogy with Iraq to the imagination) – and I got up the courage to propose something to him.
I suggested that after having spoken to people from both sides, I had to admit that it seemed to me like they disagreed about far less than perhaps they thought. I pointed out that both sides supported the troops – indeed, that both sides were composed of veterans and their wives – that neither side was necessarily expressing support for either the war in Iraq or for the Bush administration, and that all of them seemed to want the same thing: the best for ordinary Americans sent to wars in foreign lands. Yet as soon as I said this the shutters came down. Though Jim remained affable to me, his mood visibly changed: “no I don’t think so” he said, “those guys over there are quitters, they want to quit”. I tried to point out that while that was arguably true, in the grand scheme of things it seemed like only one wave of contention amidst a sea of agreement; both sides might disagree about how long the troops should be out there, but all professed a desire to support them for as long as they were there. I suggested that maybe a stronger protest could be made by both sides if they perhaps exchanged just one flag each – but Jim found the idea unappealing.
I decided it would be worth paying one last visit to the Veterans for Peace before heading on my way. I approached the couple I had spoken to earlier, and put the same proposition to them about the idea that perhaps both sides had more in common than they supposed. The reaction was basically the same, as the shutters came down straight away. When I pointed out that the so-called “Veterans for War” told me that they supported the troops but not necessarily the war or the President, the reply I received was that a poll of troops in Iraq showed them 6-to-1 for Obama not McCain – which was hardly a reply to the suggestion I’d voiced. I tried to point out what Airlee had said to me – that the vigil was about supporting the troops themselves to prevent a repeat of the post-Vietnam experience, to which it was replied dismissively that “the Republican Right has grossly exaggerated the treatment of Vietnam veterans”- a surprising response from somebody who was himself a veteran. When I voiced my suggestion that the two sides make a stronger protest by exchanging just one flag each I was again met by scepticism. I hadn’t the heart to point out that flying only white flags along the road from a group flying the stars and stripes could hardly be helping the cause of the Veterans for Peace in a country where so much is invested in the flag, and where so many connotations and assumptions are made when either the flag is or is not flown.
Yet what I think I was seeing that day was arguably a microcosm of American society and politics. The so-called “Bill of Rights” in the US Constitution provides for 5 key freedoms – of Speech, Press, Assembly, Petition and Religion. Americans are proud of these freedoms. Indeed, the words “liberty” and “freedom” enter into almost every piece of political rhetoric, and America is of course the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave”, the self-proclaimed “defender of the free world”. If you visit any historical or cultural museum in America you will be bombarded with the constant message of the importance freedom and liberty, and how important it is to Americans, how deeply committed to these values Americas are. Indeed this can get a little nauseating, and after a trip to the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia I swore I never wanted to hear the words “freedom” or “greatest democracy upon God’s earth” ever again. Yet ordinary Americans appear committed to these values in a deep and genuine way, as evinced by my experience in Oregon. Neither side objected to my talking to the others – indeed they were pleased that I wanted to hear both sides of the story. Neither side dismissed the others’ right to assemble or speak, and I genuinely believe that they would have opposed measures curtailing the political freedoms of the other side, and done so vigorously.
Which makes the following seem even stranger: from what I could tell neither side at those Oregon vigils talks to the other very much. They simply didn’t seem to know all that much about what the other side thinks, and this appeared to be because they haven’t asked. They’d seen the white flags, or the stars and stripes, or the black clothes, and assumed they knew exactly what their opposition thought and felt. There at the roadside I saw two groups of veterans, men and their wives with a shared common background, who all professed to want the best for ordinary young men in Iraq, yet who did not talk to each other. The one difference about whether support for the troops is best shown by calling for immediate withdrawal, or whether that is a decision of politicians and generals whilst hoping to raise public support for ordinary men and women in the meantime, was enough to put these groups on different worlds whilst standing only 20 meters apart. And they’ve been on different worlds for a long time: September 2008 will mark the third anniversary of the Friday evening vigils.
Driving away that evening I came to the following conclusion: what I saw in little Bandon was something of a microcosm of American politics generally. Both sides sincerely believe in the value of free speech, and of the importance that anyone can hear both sides of the argument if they wish to – and yet they themselves are happy to hear only their own. The other side is ignored and demonised, yet despite being so close not just physically, but in terms of background and outlook, they will not talk. Rather than hearing what the other side has to say, each would rather go on subscribing to their established pre-conceptions of why they are wholly right and the others are not only wholly wrong, but not even worth engaging with. This reluctance to engage with the opposition appears to be as defining and characteristic a feature of America as the commitment to freedom of speech and political liberty which these ordinary men and women on the roadside expressed to me that day.
For example, the campaigning for the 2008 Presidential election was getting under-way as I was still in America, and the pattern is essentially the same but writ large. Both sides profess a commitment to Liberty (and God), and lambaste what the “other side” thinks or does. Political speeches are delivered in TV-friendly sound-bite formula, designed not to refute or rebut the opposition, but to paint a simplified picture that can be sloganized and used to demonise the opposition. This is characteristic of, and contributes to, an “us versus them” mentality in wider American politics, which I believe was acutely manifested at the Oregon vigils.
First impressions, however, are rarely wholly reliable. A few days later I wrote up a report of the above for my on-line travel blog, and a week or so later both Airlee and Jim had come across it and sent me replies. At first glance, their replies appeared to contradict the above. They pointed out that they had tried to approach the other side, but the other side refused to engage. So much, it seems, for my thesis about refusal to employ that cherished freedom of speech. Yet a little close attention to what they said seems in fact to paint only a more detailed picture of the same phenomenon.
Jim wrote that “I have talked with the opposition and know their positions but from experience have learned that arguing is worse than useless because it hardens positions, causes irrational statements and makes enemies”. It is interesting that while Jim says he has “talked with the opposition”, from his own experience he has decided that arguing is not worth the bother. It is interesting – and also instructive – that Jim equates talking with argumentation, and I believe it is no accident although I don’t lay the fault at his door. Here another anecdote from my time in America is worth considering. Upon arrival in the USA, whilst waiting to be “processed” at immigration control, I watched a live “debate” on CNN between a McCain and an Obama supporter. CNN is one of the more respectable news channels in the USA (unlike, say, the virulently pro-Republican Murdoch propaganda machine known as Fox News), yet what I witnessed was the following. The issue being debated was gun-control, and the McCain supporter essentially said just one thing, though he said it often: “Obama is a gun grabber!” To this, the Obama supporter simply replied, “No he isn’t, he believes every American should have the right to own a gun!”…to which his GOP opponent simply repeated (albeit louder) “no, he’s a gun-grabber!”. And so forth. There was no attempt to engage with the issue of gun-control itself, or with the nuances and impacts of the recent Supreme Court ruling on Heller vs. D.C. over the reading of the 2nd Amendment and it’s problematic punctuation. In short, there was no attempt to engage in serious debate. There was only accusation, denial, and sound-bite politics.
Of course, I cannot say for sure that Jim and the Veterans for Peace behaved in this way when they talked to each other, but it would not surprise me if the scene had been similar. When I talked to Jim he was quick to label the other side as “quitters”, and when I talked to the so-called quitters, they greeted my attempts to engage them in debate by offering factoids and assertions which had little to do with the arguments I was putting to them. Given the examples set at a national level, I’m inclined to suspect that when Jim says he “talked” to the opposition, then argument and shouting is what resulted. But after all, he “knows what their positions are” already.
Indeed, what Airlee had to say seemed also to fit into the general pattern of observation. In an email he wrote to me that:
I would like to point out that there has been an attempt at discussion of our different points of view but we each are so polarized in our belief system that there is little hope of coming to a common agreement. In fact, at one point in time, I felt that perhaps we had all made our point and I approached one of the Veterans for Peace and told him that if he would talk to his people and call off the Friday night vigils I would approach my people and do the same. I never got a response from him.
As he puts it, they are so polarized that there is little hope. Yet it is interesting to reflect upon two things. Firstly, as noted above, both sides are polarized over pretty much just one issue, despite agreeing – or having common room for agreement – over much else. Secondly, as there is “little hope of coming to a common agreement”, the conclusion apparently seems to be that it is not worth engaging with the other side despite this fact. Although there has been an attempt, falling short of common agreement neither side seems to think it worth engaging with the other any further; either there is full, common agreement, or there isn’t. Either all can stand together, or all must stand apart. Finally, notice also the (I would say, characteristic) demonisation of the other side, and the corresponding intransigence: the other side never responded (ergo, it’s all their fault) yet his side would certainly not back down first – if the opposition was holding a vigil, then they certainly would not cease theirs. Of course, politics is a fiery business, and emotions run high when something like war is at issue, but nonetheless I feel much can be learned here.
Although the picture now looks more complex, and lacking access to statistical evidence, proper research materials, and, frankly, time, I am of course unable to argue for the following conclusions as anything more than a general impression derived from my time in the USA. Yet I believe there exists a striking paradox in modern American politics: there is a deep and fundamental commitment to political freedom and freedom of speech in particular, but a simultaneous systematic reluctance to exercise that freedom in a meaningful way.
The protestors at Bandon were seriously committed to each others’ freedoms of speech and expression, yet they did not employ that freedom to seriously engage with the other side, to discover why they were so polarised (or as perhaps it happens, not so polarised as they might think). Yet this is symptomatic of a wider American reluctance to engage with political opposition beyond the shouting of simplified slogans and denunciations. The American media routinely divides the country during Presidential elections into simply “red” versus “blue” states. The hugely complex – not to mention contentious and politically salient – issue of abortion is reduced to “pro life” or “pro choice”. Either you are “pro tax-cuts” or “pro big government”. You are either “pro war” or “defeatist” according to one side, or else “anti-war” or “imperialist” according to the other. Barak Obama presents himself as manifesting “hope” and “change”, whilst John McCain is thus painted as being anti-hope, offering “more of the same”. McCain presents himself as an experienced patriot who fought in Vietnam, hoping to present Obama as inexperienced and unpatriotic (a tactic only a couple of steps removed from reminding people that Obama is black, an effective political ploy in a nation still utterly obsessed with, and trouble by, race).
America appears to me a nation in which politics has been reduced to the art of slogan-forming, and which shies away from attempts to seriously deal with and engage in the questioning of difficult political issues. Americans truly believe in freedom of speech – yet it is the freedom to shout at the other side and paint them black which they prefer to practice, not the freedom of attempting engagement so as to make progress or to achieve understanding. The paradox of a population deeply and sincerely committed to freedom of speech, yet equally reluctant to use that freedom in order to engage with others who likewise posses it, would not have surprised Tocqueville at all.