Response: "Shut Up, You're Lucky to be an American"

    This morning, I woke up to my alarm going off, I got out of bed, snagged some coffee and drove in my car to my college classes. I didn't make it to lunch before I saw some inane blog post being shared around social media by the Trump crowd. As of this moment, it has over ten thousand shares. This peek into the conservative world view is eye opening, if highly discouraging and slightly outrageous in its assumptions and ignorance.

    Now, let me be honest, it was the salute in the image that got me first. Usually these types of posts are dripping in self righteous patriotism and if they’re going to walk that walk, they may as well source an image of a proper salute. Or maybe this is just the crotchety old veteran inside me who did one too many pushup years ago to let a slack salute slide even when used for cheap jingoistic purposes.

    The author, Bonnie Smith, an ambulance dispatcher from Indiana, insists that we, as Americans, are spoiled rotten. That our privilege is what allows us to complain as we do and that we simply don’t recognize how lucky, how blessed we are to live our days under the stars and stripes. Now, it is by no means a problem to count your blessings, to be grateful. In fact I’d consider the latter especially to be essential to living a healthy and happy life. The author didn’t just insist we practice gratitude however, she instead spent her time sneering at and generalizing millions of Americans with loose platitudes about American exceptionalism. “Shut up” she says.     

    The article reeks of cognitive dissonance and ignorance of the real world in favor of a conservative mythos parroted by the ignorant in right wing echo chambers. I thought it worth exploring the content of this article, its claims, and replying to them and those who would share such a piece. Here we go.

    “Most of your days are probably similar to mine. Where we as Americans enjoy the freedom and luxuries, and even have the audacity to complain about things many countries can't even imagine having.”

    I was raised on this sort of thinking. Reminders that we are lucky in the United States. Running water? Check. Electricity? Check. Food on the table? Check check. We are lucky in this sense, blessed in this sense, and we have much to be grateful for in this sense. But this line of thinking also silences dissatisfaction that would lead to meaningful change. It ignores real world realities that also prove that others indeed have it better than us. Others that we might learn from in order to improve our own lot and that of our children.

  “The Syrian government has been severely corrupt for a very long time (as well as a 6 year civil war in Syria), and there have been suspicions of highly illegal chemical weapons in their possession. Well this week, they proved those suspicions correct, and killed nearly 100 innocent Syrians, mainly women and children. President Trump was horrified by the videos he saw of the piles of dead children, or the villagers spraying down one another to try to get the chemicals off their skin. President Trump decided a major line had been crossed, and it was time to do something about it. About 60 American missiles were aimed at a Syrian government airbase where the warplanes that carried out the nuclear attack were based."  

    I really wish the author hadn’t tried to veer into foreign policy. The entire paragraph above drips with ignorance of the situation in Syria, the myriad of regional complexities, history and recent developments all. The emotional appeal to justify Trump’s questionably effective cruise missile strikes on the Al-Sharyat Airbase fails to consider the events leading up to the strike, which in my estimation constitutes nothing more than expensive theatre directed at a domestic audience. For all the uncertainty surrounding the attack and response, it most definitely was not ‘nuclear’ as the author suggests.

 “After the recent election, I saw so many negative comments about the US. How terrible of a country it is, how terrible Americans are, how much they wanted to leave. My response? Please leave. Please spend a few weeks in pretty much any other country in the world and you will be banging the door down trying to get back into the states.”

    That conservative mythos again. How many times have I heard the comment “please leave.” I have spent time in parts of the world notably behind the United States in most measures of development. I have spent years in Iraq and Afghanistan and I have spent time in Europe, among nations we might consider our relative peers; peers who, in many ways, are doing far better than us. I would rather we take lessons from nations whose citizens enjoy universal healthcare, higher rates of public safety and lower rates of crime, higher performing students and lower prison populations. I’d rather learn from states which have worked to address inequality, are working to face climate change and have long settled social disputes which still plague American discourse today. No one from the UK is banging down the door to get into America for our healthcare system. No one in Germany is banging down the door for our expensive colleges. No one from Holland is banging down our door to surrender their social safety nets and no one from Scandanavia is wishing they could lap up some of our inequality.

       I love my home, and it because of that love that I wish to make it better, to fight for it, even if that means fighting against a popular tide of prideful ignorance that swept a buffoon like Donald Trump into office. 

    Further, her comment on seeing so many negative comments about the US…was it not Trump himself who spoke of an American carnage, of how we simply weren’t winning anymore? It was the Trump crowd who longed for a return to the “good old days” and spoke again and again of crisis or drama at home. For someone to so quickly forget the source of so many comments which seemed to think so little of us as a whole says a whole lot about their world view and capacity for critical thinking as a whole.

“American women want to fight for the equal wages, when women in other countries get beat and mutilated for simply being a woman. The LGBTQ community is becoming more accepted in America, in other countries you would be killed. You get offended because someones religious views are different than yours, but in many other countries you will be brutally tortured for having opposing views. You get annoyed because your friend posts way too much on social media, but in some countries the internet is completely controlled by the government. Everyone in America wants to have a mental illness, or glorifies the idea of being different, but in other countries you are considered demonic and again will be killed. You want to walk in a parade about "freeing the nipple" when women in other countries would kill to have their face uncovered, or show their hair. You get to go to the clean sanitary hospital and get medical treatment because you have an upset stomach, when other countries don't even have access to medical treatment, even in life threatening situations."

    The next paragraph goes on to make vast generalizations about rights around the world. While not roundly incorrect in each instant, there are counter examples for nearly every case. American women fight for equal wages because equality is the right thing. LGBTQ acceptance and equality is the right thing. The fact that it may be worse elsewhere does not lessen our need to push forward. The fact that America remains the only developed nation without paid maternity leave guaranteed for mothers should be concerning. The fact that religious views creep into our politics and seek to control the rights of others over their bodies or right to marry should be of concern. The fact that mass surveillance is accepted and as of this month, ISPs are allowed to monitor and profit off of your browsing habits as if you never had a right to privacy should be concerning. The fact that so many Americans with mental illness are on the streets, the fact that a for-profit healthcare system has relegated millions to an underperforming and over priced system all the while ignoring functioning universal systems which serve all citizens in nations we consider to be our closest allies. Smith speaks of demonic superstition while again ignoring the religious justifications for the oppression of LGBTQ citizens and the creeping preference of religious dogma over hard science. Among our peers, we are behind. That does not mean we need to remain behind.

“You get to wake up everyday, eat whatever you want, drive in your car to your job, and you don't have armed soldiers lining the streets, or the fear that there is going to be another bomb dropped at any moment. This country is full of people who will stand in line all night for a gift, but won't stand up for the pledge of allegiance. Get up or get out."

No, all Americans don’t get to wake up every day and eat what they want, drive in their car, etc etc. Your privilege is showing Bonnie. As for the rest. Who else is dropping bombs but us? Who, by and large, is the one sending armed troops to line foreign streets? It’s us! So we should be grateful that we don’t have a bigger and badder nation looming over us and the rest of the world ready and able to invade should the mood strike? This odd mashup of pity for those who have to live under the threat of regular bombings or military occupation and ignorance of our association with just that sort of action is boggling. 

“Seriously, get over yourself.

You have no idea how lucky you are to be able to say whatever you want and not be killed by the government for it, to wear whatever you want, to be whoever you want and not be murdered just for living. You are so lucky you don't have to worry about having clean water, or food to eat.

American's want to cry about everything. We have become so entitled that we think everyone owes us something. Well, they don't.

You want to talk about "white privilege" or "entitled millennials." Yeah, well I think all American's think they are pretty entitled, and thats coming from an American. America, your privilege is showing.”

Actually, I do have an idea how lucky we are. I’ve witnessed the desolation in Kabul, the frenzied rush to stay afloat amidst poverty in Mumbai, the constant threat of war in Kashmir and the simple lives so many global poor have been left with after the world passed them by all while images of abundance reach through screens of one size or another. I’ve witnessed the fight for secure elections in Iraq and as anyone who pays attention to history might recognize, we are blessed to have found ourselves in a nation borne of enlightenment principles, only it isn’t by mere luck that this occurred. It was because generations of our forebears sought and fought to make life better for themselves and for those yet to come.

No one owes us anything, sure, we owe each other. We owe ourselves. We owe each other empathy and compassion. We owe ourselves hard work and purpose. We owe our neighbors and our family and the strangers on the street a better future because we are all, ultimately, along this ride together. 

“Stop bashing America when you can't even fathom how lucky we are to be here.

This should piss you off, I hope it does. I hope you can look deeper into yourself and realize how blessed you really are. You may have been dealt the shittiest of hands, but if you get to call America home, you still have a better hand than millions of other people. Stop feeling sorry for yourself.

"For you have been called to live in freedom... use your freedom to serve one another in love." Galatians 5:13”"

Of course it ends in a bible verse. Of course that verse implores social good and compassion which seems completely absent from virtually every platform conservatives stand on. It’s this sort of logic that leaves me dumbfounded. How a party so closely aligned with evangelicals can be the same party whose essential message seems to be, "screw everyone else, I’ve got mine” or in the case of Smith’s article, "shut up, be grateful for what you have.”

We’re capable of better, together, but the echo chamber that birthed this nonsense is toxic and spreading. We’ve got a long time before elections allow us to respond at the ballot box, but this sort of ignorance cannot be allowed to propagate unchallenged in the meantime.

Kabul Chauffer

  Stoic, perhaps borderline grim, a stream of men began to pass, all bedecked in traditional afghan garb. Every other pair of sandaled feet carried an interwoven edifice of honor and age in a manner unique to Afghan men who have lived through war with two global superpowers and every other tribe to boot. A palmed Nokia or two betrayed the procession which otherwise seemed so clearly to belong to a place outside of time. For them I imagined a background of wide deserts, mountain horizons and drab street scenes. My own imaginings aside, I knew the place they came from to be all that and so much more, more garbage, more mud, more poverty, all that might fill a nation torn apart by war and peopled by a population of which few will ever join the men passing now. My own gaze was joined by that of another hundred Afghans all intently waiting to fill in the seats just vacated by the men in front of us. Oblivious to the contrast carried with them, the newcomers dispersed like liquid into the glossy bustle of Dubai International Airport’s Terminal One with its McDonalds, Sushi bars, Irish Pub and all. The digital Arabic letters above the departure gate flashed into english, "KANDAHAR - KABUL” as if were normal for a commercial flight to stop at two locations on one ticket.

  Joining the Afghans returning home were packages with an inordinate amount of plastic wrap to keep them secure, packed duty free bags larger than any reasonable carry on, then myself and a handful of other westerners bound for business across the Persian Gulf and in Afghanland. All shared a glance and a nod as seats were taken and overhead bins stuffed. For my part, I took pride in looking somewhat ambiguous, no labels, no bright colors, nothing that suggests I’m anything other than a traveler. If anyone asks, I’m merely a writer hoping to tell a story or two in this part of the world. My peers with decidedly lighter colored skin seem less inclined to abstruseness. Camouflage backpacks and ball caps which should have elicited a cringe in Dubai seemed staggeringly absurd aboard a plane to Kabul. One yokel chose to wear an “ISAF - OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM” t-shirt to go along with his “INFIDEL” patched multi-cam ball cap perched above his stupid, pink, goateed face. As if we weren’t traveling through a part of the world where you might not want to advertise yourself as part of an ongoing conflict. I nodded to him just the same, saving my frustration for the breaths to follow.

    With only one in three seats filled, we left the modern world and all it’s refined ease behind. Sleep came quick without any in flight entertainment to distract. I awoke to see nothing but brown below, but brown in a million separate hues each vying for their own primacy on the mountains below. We arrived in Kabul at night, a cool and dusty haze weighted over the city. Passport control could be a pain; my bags might be scrutinized especially heavy by the border guards who no doubt have a unique opportunity with me to confiscate something valuable or elicit a little bit of baksheesh money. Somehow I breeze through, past my western counterparts and most of the Afghans ahead. I’m not even sure if I’ve done all I’m supposed to do but I’ve got my bags and the exit is ahead anyway. I leave the sagging ceilings and shouting guards behind to step out into the night’s chill. As I pace towards the exit I ponder the death of three American contractors here a month prior. Employed by Olive Group as Private Security, these men had left the same terminal I was now exiting into the same night air awaiting me only to be gunned down in the open. I had no weapon, no radio or contact with a nearby base, embassy or anyone else with the means to ensure my safety. To make matters worse, upon looking out a the ground ahead, I noticed no cover, no concealment from the exit to the single gated entry 200 meters ahead through the dark.

   No one else from the plane had joined me, surely there were taxis outside though all I could see was the white beard of a single guard, pale blue uniform and worn AK-47 lending a man long past his prime with the role of someone who might provide security to the site. He seemed disinterested in me, in the ground ahead of him, in everything really. I paced the empty pavement ahead in a manner I imagined wouldn’t appear rushed or particularly slow. My contact was supposed to have a sign for me in his window. He didn’t. It was only when I approached a group of waiting vehicles, any one of which might contain a driver intrepid enough to snatch an unarmed westerner for the prospect of a hefty ransom payment. Hell, maybe one of these men lost someone to a Russian thirty years ago, or one of my own fellows in the decade of conflict that preceded this particular arrival. The imagination doesn’t have to look far to find reasons why I might be wanted for the sins of empires present and past.

    The snub nose of a short barreled AK-47 glints in the amber light and an Afghan in his middle 50’s gestures me towards his truck. He knows my name, he carries a company ID and tag in the dash of the vehicle. It doesn’t matter that I’ve never seen him before and no one has told me what to expect other than “a company vehicle will be waiting for you.” My relaxed approach masks anything but, for everything is measured, and for all the uncertainty of it, this fellow is likely who I am supposed to ride with. There is no alternative anyhow. I settle into the backseat among what passed for small talk in broken English. A phone is passed to me, I confirm my own identity and set off towards a safe house for the night. As the streetlights alternate the interior between darkness and dull light, I notice a blood lined ring in the back of the plate carrier worn by the armed Afghan in front of me. Behind the hole sits an unmarked plate of armor, the blood a grim reminder of its predecessors efficacy. A dark stain remained where blood had pooled beneath the plate and under the lower back of the carrier. Whomever wore the vest before this guy had a bad day if not his last day, but it’s all small talk and smiles as we navigate the city. I noted the lack of armor, comms, weapons and backup as we drove through the night. I thought again about the three Americans shot dead outside of the airport. Did it happen on the steps of the exit, by the old guards gate or maybe among the bunch of vehicles gathered to pick up arrivals? If anyone had asked that question it hadn’t been reported anywhere. Only uniformed deaths are talked about at this point anyhow, never-mind that over half of the personnel making up the ISAF effort in Afghanistan now are private contractors; most of us prior service. Regardless of what uniform they once wore, the three dead outside of Kabul International Airport were forgotten by all but their family and those of us following in their literal footsteps.

    I did enter to win a Mclaren in the Dubai airport though. Wonder who got that thing in the end.

Open Mic Nights at Abe's

    Monday nights in downtown Savannah are generally still, restive even. The squares sit silent while stale beer stains fade from the sidewalks along Congress St. Abandoned to-go cups find their way into city trash cans and the consumption of pizza at Sweet Melissa's slows to a paltry pie or two an hour. Yet, a little after nine PM the sounds of guitar, harmonica and the occasional rising voice, in harmony or in laughter, echo in the blocks around Lincoln and E Bryan streets. To follow these sounds would be to find Abe’s on Lincoln, a local haunt and host to Abe’s Open Mic Night every week.

    Abe’s itself occupies the bottom floor of a home that, rare for this area, hasn’t been rented as a vacation home or purchased by a snow bird enamored with our  magnolias. It’s ceilings are low and the ancient rafters exposed above are covered with a patchwork quilt of, well Abe’s. Napkin portraits of Abraham Lincoln, "Babe-raham Lincoln,” Lincoln in the style of Picasso, Lincoln in punk rock attire, Lincoln driving a convertible, drinking a tallboy,  boxing a kangaroo. Chicken scratch Lincolns and Lincolns that darn near deserve a frame all their own. Your Lincoln could soon join the others, as every year they are torn down and the crop begins anew. Paper Abe’s aside, the bar is a little like a living room, immediately it wraps you up and the light of the bar beckons where bar manager Mike and his notable beard, colored much like a lust crazed flaming-hot cheeto, waits to pour you a drink.

    Just opposite the bar, a man near as tall as the ceiling tosses heavy amp cords closer to an outlet and arranges cases which just contained speakers and guitars. Abe’s is a small house, and it’s about to fill with music for which Craig Tanner, with the support of Mike, has built a home. For six years running Craig has offered his time and energy to give musicians a space here when he isn’t playing sets with his own band - American Hologram. 

    As a has-been regular at Abe’s, I’ve been fortunate enough to see the ever churning pool of talent that has come through Abe’s. There are locals who play regularly, first timers who forget the words to their original songs but win the crowd as their talent is laid bare. There’s jangly folk and melodic violin chords. Harmonicas and the occasional saxophone glint in the low light. Voices young and old, rough and soft rotate through three song sets. Craig himself backs up the artists who ask with a practiced ear long used to jamming with strangers and friends alike. The acoustic alchemy in the air is nothing short of incredible.

    On a good night and when the waiting players have all had their turn, it isn’t uncommon to see styles mix as the order turns into a general jam session. More than once the police have popped in after a grumpy tourist called about the noise from a hotel nearby. If only they had snagged a seat at Abe’s instead. Then again, Amy, who relaxes outside after a serving shift nearby says “stay away, I want my seats.” As much as I want a seat of my own, I want to share this local gem with anyone who has an ear for music or wishes to explore their own talents.   Savannah is small enough that one might be part of it’s story - at Abe’s, you can be part of its sound.

Abe's on Lincoln is located at 17 Lincoln St. in downtown Savannah, Open Mic Night runs every Monday from 10PM till close.


Stars Align at the Jinx: An Evening With the Savannah Sweet Tease

It's no secret that Savannah has a vibrant bar scene, with Saturdays generally among the more interesting of our days. Yet there were few places in town where you might have seen a libra weigh her scales, a mermaid find her legs or a gemini revel in psychotic tendencies all while sipping on your beverage of choice. Absurdities, delights and more were on display at the Jinx for Written in the Stars: A Zodiac Inspired Burlesque Show put on by Savannah’s very own burlesque troupe, the Savannah Sweet Tease.

Only the latest in a series of themed shows, the Sweet Tease has put on productions which paid homage to months of the year, awkward affairs of the heart, seasons, months and blockbusters of film to name a few. Each theme serves as a template for performers to interpret in their own ways, resulting in a wild range of creative displays and an ever fresh range of experiences for those who venture to see a show.  

Burlesque - when it’s done right - finds a way to weave and balance sexuality, humor, tease and talent into a display that isn’t just sexy, but one that is engaging, funny, thought provoking awe-inspiring or empowering. For all the threads which make the bright tapestry that is a Sweet Tease show, it’s the message of empowerment that seems to rise to the forefront.

"I love to support my girlfriends and my community,” said Gabby Fajardo, a student studying to be a massage therapist, said the Sweet Tease were ‘the pride of local women, who not only entertain but empower.” Indeed, the women - and men - who perform have an aura about them, one of confidence and security. In the few seconds between the end of an act and stage exit, I could see wide smiles spread across more than one face as the crowds applause filled the house. Peterson Morrell, a local musician and regular at Sweet Tease shows said he appreciated the message of body positivity that the troupe has brought to Savannah, and also the degree to which the group has reached out to male performers. To see such support for a diverse group of women and men representing all body types is certainly an affirming, unifying thing that might just benefit those on stage and in the audience alike.

The Sweet Tease has established itself as a landing point for performers from other cities, hosting this week Atlanta based crooner Johnny Pine and Starry Delight from Knoxville. Collaborations go both ways though and the Sweet Tease have hit the road as a group and lent individual acts to the road. Tease original Jack N. ThaCox even performed in London’s annual Burlesque Festival, giving europeans a reason to crave a little sugar in their tea.

Upcoming shows include ‘123 Tease’ on March 16th at Club One as well as appearances at Bernie’s on Tybee and the Savannah Tattoo Fest. On April 21st the troupe will be launching it’s ‘Pussy Grabs Back” Tour as a tribute to powerful women. Follow the group on instagram @savannahsweettease or connect on Facebook at /TheSavannahSweetTeaseBurlesqueRevue.

This piece was revised and published in The Inkwell, The Student Newspaper of Armstrong State University.


My Own Ghosts in Savannah

A thousand midday suns threaded delicate beams of light through the thick canopy of oak above. The leaves themselves seemed to sigh together perhaps to emulate the coming and going of a gentle tide. Heavy, ancient branches groaning and knocking as their leaves caught the gentle breeze, unfelt but no less present to those walking below. For all the noise made by the live oaks which populated Lafayette Square, the characteristic sound here was that of the fountain in its center. A steady and gentle rush of water falling from two bowls into a round pool surrounded by a low brick wall, the fountain seemed as timeless, as unrushed as the Spanish Moss swaying from the branches above.
My mind was elsewhere. Far from the beauty of the square and farther still from the peace the space evokes to so many visitors and locals alike. I would depart Savannah for Afghanistan again that day, a goodbye I've grown more numb to rather than accepting of. Yet, as I paced over the undulating brick sidewalks which passed the fountain, my mind flashed to another time, another night, years before.

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The Long Road to Black Rock City

It was twelve-thousand two hundred and thirty kilometers from Dubai to Atlanta alone. Eighteen hours airborne if memory serves. Once, I dreaded the flight, but now I see it as a necessary bridge from one world to another, an intermission of sorts. Dubai is this surreal, dusty, cartoon version of the west whose excess screams so loud as to mute the senses. At least, it can seem that way after coming from Afghanistan where a thousand shades of doleful brown dominate the days. The long flight allows one to ease back into the 'real' world. It's not just flying from city A to city B, it's the feeling of returning to your hometown, only scaled up as a return to your people, to your culture. Mileage aside, my journey to Black Rock City began years prior, from a world as decidedly distant spiritually as it was geographically.

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Magic Has a Name: On Collective Effervescence

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"What I love about a festival, when it gets it right, is that sense of ego separation dissolves, and what comes in it's place is this communal joy." Burning Man has created a temporary community, a tribe, where friends and strangers alike share, and create, just that. As diverse a group as burners are, the collective joy, curiosity, openness, expression and love are near uniform. All are tangible in the air though the mood shifts notably on burn nights. Euphoria, perhaps most so the night of the man burn, and warm, somber as the temple smolders. Mr. Conley described the experience we all could feel and asked, what can science do to capture and study this?

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Bagram to Burning Man

It's 11PM here in Bagram and I'm sitting here reminding myself that no, the date on the calendar has not yet changed. Soon I'll be flying from Bagram all the way to Reno and joining the experiment that is Black Rock City. Total time in the air, 28 and 1/2 hours. Miles to be flown, well over 10,000. Timezones, twelve.

Jet lag is going to have to wait. There's good times to be had upon landing.

Savannah, GA: In Brief

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As with anything that provokes a passion; it's hard for me to be brief when sharing words that orbit so close to the heart. In speaking to visitors about Savannah I often resort to an analogy of my own creation to keep myself on track and share the gist of my sentiment.  It goes as follows....

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