2011 Rhymes With 1968

A couple of weeks ago, in response to my article, "Microsoft, Chase Bank, and What's Good for America," a Pakistani-American acquaintance emailed me:

"An interesting perspective with a very ominous undertone. For someone like me and many others who waited years to get the blue passport so we could call this country a home, we are even more stranded than the American-born. We don't belong to our country of birth, nor our country of choice. Is it time to fix this country [America] or to flee, like we fled from our home when the going got tough? I say we stick it out, but I am not sure I have the answers. It's up to the intellectuals, thinkers, writers (like yourself) and ideologists to create a movement to make the future brighter for our children. Your burden just became heavier, because people like you must take the lead with your words."

If there's anything our times cry out for it's leadership, and if I can provide some tiny portion of that with my words, so be it. Words do count as action. But the real leaders of the new America we find ourselves stranded in are people like 84-year-old Dorli Rainey, who might go down in history as the Rosa Parks of our day. Watching her extraordinary nine-minute interview with Keith Olbermann, I found myself wondering why I hadn't been there with her. The downtown square where -- if there's any justice in this world -- Seattle's finest will be remembered for having pepper sprayed a little old lady is a 20-minute ride by city bus from my front door. Why wasn't I there?

I'll cut myself some slack for now, because different people play different roles, but this is not a time for timidity. If you're not willing to put yourself, in one sense or another, in harm's way, then you're not part of the solution. For my part, the least I can do is to try to use words that depict reality accurately and convey meaning and hope.

A telling detail is that, like my friend quoted above, Dorli Rainey is an immigrant to America: She grew up under the Nazis. "I remember Goebbels," she told Olbermann. (There aren't many people left, in Germany or America or anywhere else, who do, so I think it's a good idea for us to listen when one of them has something to say.) One of my premises, as an American writer and citizen, is that my relatively privileged mainstream background makes me no more American than any other American; this was drummed into me by my parents, my grandmother, and the tradition of civics education that was still (barely) current when I was in school in the 1970s. Last month in Oklahoma City -- deep in the heart of America -- I told a conference of international educators:

"Orwell defines patriotism as a good thing, and nationalism as a bad thing. Making the distinction between the two explicit in today's America is important, because it's important for young Americans to know that loving our own country does not have to mean hating or fearing other countries and other people. This is important partly because millions of those "other people" are in fact also Americans, here to stay, just as (for example) I'm here to stay because my Irish and German and French ancestors came here and stayed. We're all in this together, and there's a lot of work to do to try to make a new, improved America in the 21st century, so it behooves us to get to know each other and to work together.

The point I was making to that mostly white audience was that immigrants are, by right and by tradition, welcome in America. The corollary point I would turn around and emphasize to Pakistani-Americans and other immigrants is that, if you hoped that by coming here you were leaving behind the instability, injustice, and other afflictions of the country you came from, it turns out you were mistaken. You're here now. Welcome to America; make yourself at home -- and please make yourself useful. If, up to now, you've enjoyed the middle-class (or better) way of life that America has allowed you to make for yourselves and your children, now America needs you to give back, no less than your country of origin does (and the two needn't be mutually exclusive).

Last week I quoted another immigrant, Pierre Labossiere, saying that seeing Oakland police fracture the skull of protester and Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen made him say, "That looks like Haiti!" This sort of global perspective, based on experience, is one thing America needs that immigrants have to offer. But, if comparing the United States to Haiti is a rhetorical step too far for some, it should suffice to compare 2011 to 1968. Read Norman Mailer's book Miami and the Siege of Chicago, then ask yourself if there is any real difference between Mayor Daley's police brutalizing antiwar protesters in Chicago then, and Mayor Bloomberg's police clearing Zuccotti Park in New York last week. For an almost literally blow-by-blow account of last week's police action, read "Occupy Wall Street Turns a Corner" by Michael Greenberg, on the NYR Blog:

"Various protesters told me of the use of pepper spray and freewheeling beatings with batons. Retired Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Karen Smith, acting as a legal observer at the park, told the Daily News of "a black woman standing next to me...frantically telling the cops her daughter was in the park and she wanted to make sure the girl was okay. All of a sudden, a cop takes his baton and cracks her in the head. She hadn't done a thing. Then they started chasing people down the street."

This is a time to keep in mind Mark Twain's old saw that, while history doesn't repeat itself, it does rhyme.

Ethan Casey is working on a book with the working title Home Free: An American Road Trip. He is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004) and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010). His next book, Bearing the Bruise: A Life in the Context of Haiti, will be published in March 2012. He lives in Seattle. Visit Ethan Casey's Website and Facebook page.