Land Of The Free

Postcard from America

 Back in the USA and it doesn’t matter which side of the tracks you grew up on, everyone here seems to like Bruce Springsteen and he has just been touring to rave reviews. He sings a lot about struggles and battlers and working against the odds. Although The Boss is famous for keeping ticket prices down, rich people love him, with some paying thousands of dollars for corporate boxes at his concerts. And the words of his songs are on bumper stickers and tee-shirts and quoted by presidents and senators and connect with the rich and the poor like. Paradoxically some people become richer and more powerful by identifying with and telling the stories of people who are poor. How does that work? Is it that in our depths we all feel a poverty and through vehicles like Springsteen’s songs we somehow feel known, feel the essence of love somewhere in ourselves and for a time, maybe just a moment, something feels true and timeless. And there is a preciousness about this and maybe it is the song or maybe it pries an opening in our hearts, but whatever it is, it touches us. I guess that is what an artist does, connects us to ourselves and frees us to sense more, who we are.

Speaking of free, songbird Beyoncé does a heartfelt version of Lee Greenwood’s, “Proud To Be An American”. A couple of lines that stand out for me are:

And I’m proud to be an American,
where at least I know I’m free.
And I won’t forget the men who died,
who gave that right to me.

I am not sure which men died to give America its freedom, maybe Beyoncé is thinking of the slaves who died so that by 1965 when national voting legislation was passed, there would still be some African Americans left to vote, not that many young black men, one in three of whom can expect to spend time in a prison during their lives, would sense that much freedom as they abseil up America’s level playing field. Maybe Beyoncé is singing about the young Americans who are sitting in a drone flight centre in New Mexico, killing people whose families adhere to an old testament religion that says if a family member is killed by an aggressor they must never, ever, ever leave that death unavenged.

Did we just kill a kid?” asked the man sitting next to the drone pilot.

“Yeah, I guess that was a kid,” the pilot replied.

“Was that a kid?” they wrote into a chat window on the monitor.

Then, someone they didn’t know answered, someone sitting in a military command center somewhere in the world who had observed their attack. “No. That was a dog,” the person wrote.

They reviewed the scene on video. A dog on two legs?[1]

So I guess young men will be fighting for Beyoncé’s freedom until infinity. Go figure that. But the irony for me is that the USA is one of the most unfree places I visit and almost everything done in the name of freedom seems to end up as one more way to be unfree.
For me this is evident from the minute you land at the airport to the moment you leave.

“Remove everything from your pockets sir and enter the x-ray booth and place your feet on the designated area”

“What’s that in your pocket sir?”

“Oh…. ah….. that’s a handkerchief”

“I said remove everything from your pockets sir……remove the handkerchief from your pocket sir and hold it above your head”

I remove my dirty hanky, hold it above my head like I am a hostage and the x-ray circles and whirrs around me.

“What’s that on your wrist sir?”

“That’s a wrist watch officer”

“Kowalski, check the man’s watch!”

Kowalski inspects the plastic watch as though it was a piece of dog turd strapped to my wrist. “Okay sir you are clear to go.”

In how many free countries of the world does the freedom to own handguns that can blow a hole in a person as big as a football or assault rifles that can pass right through a car, result in so many people getting killed for just waking up? Where else do rich people have arguments about the freedom people who are poor have to  bad health care? I guess it’s a kind of freedom that can be traded as a commodity. How is it that having more rules to protect the weak, more government support and higher taxes to fund more health care, education and freedom of choice for a greater number of people can be seen as a lack of freedom?

My colleague Steve is from Arizona, he has the square jaw and youthful good looks of a comic book superhero and he makes lots of “awl ” sounds when he talks  guess that is why they call it a drawl. Steve tells me that the USA is the greatest country in the history of the world. He is serious. I asked him about the Roman Empire that lasted 1000 years more or less and covered most of what is now Europe, and he looked at me blankly in a kind of George Bush 9/11 moment. So I say, what about the British Empire that was around 300 years and covered more than one third of the world and produced unsurpassed riches from the Commonwealth? And that I think America’s time as a great power will be lucky to last for a hundred years before they go bankrupt and lumber around the world like one of those 60’s Chevy Belair’s, faux luxury, expensive, high maintenance, best in a straight line,  hard to park but kind of stylish in a nostalgic way. And then I am thinking of the cars of Cuba.
Sounding a bit like Mohamed Ali, Steve said “Of course America is the greatest country, we beat the British……….. twice” and I said that didn’t mean anything, and anyway who won in Vietnam and did that make the Vietnamese the greatest nation that had ever been? Steve looked at me and I could see the wheel was still spinning but the hamster had left in confusion………  like Steve had just been told that he had won a million dollars but only had 60 seconds to live and in that moment I had deep compassion for Steve.

I am in Washington DC for a conference, and on the first day attend a presentation on access to markets for poor producers which is facilitated by a white South African woman. The audience of about twenty-five is about one third Africans and a smattering of others from the Subcontinent and South America and the rest Caucasians. At one point the presenter was referring to a dynamic within communities called the ‘tall poppy syndrome”, which as we know in ‘Anglosphere’ refers to the tendency among some cultures to resent or attack and generally ‘cut down to size’ those who show talent or achievements.  In her broad South African accent she talked about this “tall puppy syndrome”……… I looked around the room and saw that this had the attention of even the sleepiest of the Africans, they may never have heard of a poppy, but they sure know what a puppy is. And then the presenter elaborated, saying that the people in some cultures “cut the heads off the tall puppies”; the Africans at the back shot up like meer cats. They had no idea how headless puppies and the alleviation of poverty fit together but she sure as hell had their attention now.

I am thinking that in a way we all need to have an environment in which to be tall poppies, to be free to flourish and flower, somehow to connect with that inner poverty that makes us strong, kind of like the lotus in its magnificence rising from the mud. And how we are bound together more out of our collective brokenness than through any competitive heroics.

Later I had dinner at Le Chaumiere in an expensive restaurant in Georgetown just up from my hotel. I didn’t realise quite how expensive it was until it was too late. At the table just across from me sits independent Senator Joe Lieberman, formally a Democrat, stood for Vice President in 2000, supporter of gay rights in the military, outer of Bill Clinton during the Monica thing. And he is sitting right there almost next to me. His hair is amazing, not a strand out of place, like the fuzz on a grey pink tennis ball. He is with his wife, who is kind of loud and they seem to be hosted by a guy in his early 40s, who looks very Jewish and rich and has an attractive, slightly overweight Pamela Anderson wife. The Jewish guy has bad posture like he is keeping his head down so as not to be noticed, perhaps he too had heard about the tall puppy syndrome and was playing it safe. He is wearing beautiful soft black leather shoes and no socks. No socks in a restaurant like this, that has wine for $650.00 a bottle, means you are very rich or in the wrong place and risk finding yourself a&se up on the footpath. Anyway, the French red wine ordered by the guy with no socks is not  on the menu…….. I looked but in the entire restaurant it was the only one that was decanted into a crystal carafe. Lieberman looks up at one point and at me directly, okay, I might have been staring. I nodded, he smiled, we were mates. I paid my $100 for a glass of sparkling water, two glasses of wine, a buffalo steak and piece of chocolate cake and left. Characteristically I trip on the sill at the door and explode onto the footpath outside. Might have been the wine but I am blaming my bad leg and I did the exaggerated limp thing to keep the world in its orbit for the foursome of silver-haired people who were just about to enter the restaurant but are now collecting themselves and their beating hearts. Ah it’s good to be alive.

Washington DC December 2012

About jocknoble

I have worked in thirty countries with most time spent in India, Kenya, Indonesia, USA , Australia and Armenia. My current role with World Vision International is as a Livelihoods Advisory based in Manila. Before this I spent 4 years based in Armenia leading an economic development learning hub for 10 countries across the Middle East and Eastern Europe. I spent 8 years with World Vision Australia where I founded and lead the Social Entrepreneurship and Economic Development Unit (SEED), a team of economic development specialists,to establish and support innovative initiatives in poor communities from Africa to the Asia Pacific, Senegal to Timor Leste.. I believe the reason people are poor is that they do not have enough money and our challenge is to help instill hope and a genuine sense of self-belief, starting with those of us who somehow work in development. I was the founder and CEO of Diversity@work Australia Inc, a social enterprise developing innovative models, strategies and educational programs to strengthen companies through diversity and inclusion. I hold a Master of Entrepreneurship and Innovation and a Masters of Strategic Foresight from Swinburne University in Melbourne, post-graduate studies in Not for Profit Management at Georgetown University and Negotiation and Conflict Management at Latrobe University Melbourne. I was the Carey Medal winner for 2007 for exceptional and outstanding service to the community. So it goes Published Books: 'Postcards - What am I doing here' (2016) which is a collection of my blogs along with selected photographs, and Stores from the Road - Ten stories for workers in international development (2016)
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