September 11, 2010

Fear and Loathing in America.

An idea is like a virus. Once that idea was torn into our psyche it festered and spread.

When I first heard that someone wanted to burn the Koran, I thought it was a fairly bad idea. Not because I’m opposed to burning religious texts, but because it seemed to just be an act of provocation rather than a statement. There’s a lot of hatred being spewed in America these days, mostly toward Muslims or anyone who might take their side . Lovely sentiments such as:

We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.

Our culture is superior because our religion is Christianity and that is the truth that makes men free.

One quote is from Ann Coulter, one from Adolph Hitler. If you can tell which is which you get a prize. (If you give up, Ann Coulter said the first quote, Adolph Hitler the second.)

Still, we live in a country where people can say vile things and that is their right.  We’ve certainly burned books before. So I wonder when did we start being so worried about the actions of a single buffoon who wants to burn a Koran?

The answer of course is 9-11.

That was the day that the enemy came to our shores. We lost something more than buildings and lives, we lost our hope and let it be replaced with fear. The swaggering American cowboy was dead. We joined the rest of the world in the knowledge that other nations have always lived with.

You are never safe.

An idea is like a virus. Once that idea was torn into our psyche it festered and spread. This is why terrorism is effective and it is the same reason governments maintain control. The only thing that stands between us and them is a strong government, we believe, so we let government take over.

Where the government stands aloof, the people open up, where the government steps in, the people slip away.~Tao Te Ching

But really, there is only us. There is no ‘us’ or ‘them’. As Americans we should know that better than anyone. America was once an idea, and at the time, a revolutionary idea. These radical ideas we integrated into our very system of government.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. ~ Declaration of Independence

To be able to pursue happiness without fear of reprisal was a revolutionary idea. But an even more remarkable concept was that all men are created equal, inspired by the French Revolution and the ancient Greeks. I believe it’s an intrinsic universal truth.

Positively, my social philosophy may be said to be enshrined in three words: liberty, equality and fraternity. Let no one however say that I have borrowed my philosophy from the French Revolution. I have not. My philosophy has its roots in religion and not in political science. I have derived them from the teachings of my master, the Buddha. ~ B. R. Ambedkar

To me these two ideas, more than any other are what makes America great. We are all created equal, we all possess Buddha nature. And we all have the right to pursue our own happiness with out fear. For all our faults, America is still seen as a beacon of freedom and independence. America was not just about becoming a nation but about embodying a universal idea for all mankind.

Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man. ~ John F. Kennedy

November 2008. I am in Egypt with my guide Ali. We have become good friends and are camping in the desert by the pyramids, watching the sunrise. In the distance the voices of the morning call to prayer rise from the city, a beautiful symphony of chanting filling the air.
“Do you need to pray?” I asked Ali expecting, as usual he will face Mecca as required several times a day.
“No, there is no one around,” said Ali. “In the desert I am free.”
“I thought you were Muslim.”
“I am, but it is not the same, as in America. There you can think and act as you want. I would be a free Muslim. I could practice as I choose, I would not have to be afraid.”
“Then come to America,” I said.
“Perhaps someday. But I am just a camel guide as my father. It is difficult to be more.”

I had always thought of Egypt as a free country, and in most ways it is, but still it’s not the same. It’s something you have to experience to see the difference. Every where I have traveled, for better or worse, how I think and what I take for granted is very different than the rest of the world. But this does not mean anyone ‘hates us for our freedoms’ as some would like us to believe. In my experience even the most fundamentalist Muslims do not hate America. Our policies, perhaps, but they understand the people are different. The idea of America still gives many people around the world hope.

I am sitting on a hill overlooking the temples ruins of Luxor when two guards approach me armed with AK-47’s.
“What are you doing my friend?” one of the dirty beareded guard asks, with a scowl.
“Should I leave?” I ask.
“No, stay,” the man orders. “You are American?”
I’d almost forgotten I’m American. It’s not something I am proud of after traveling through Europe. So usually I say I’m Canadian. Maybe I’ve gotten tired of bad Canadian jokes. For some reason I say, “Yes, I’m American.”

“Very good,” he says and smiles. They sit down, open a cooler and offer me some of their lunch: hummus with pita bread and tomatoes. It’s delicious. I share my water and cigarettes. I don’t really smoke but everyone in Egypt does, and American cigarettes are like gold. They turn on a radio and I pick up a word or two in Arabic. In spite of my reluctance, we talk about politics and some of the polices that George W. Bush had implemented. Apparently, for the past eight years, he had completely ignored Egypt, one of our true allies. The men want to be our allies again. They do not like Muslim extremists or terrorists. They cried when 9-11 happened.

“What are you listening to?” I ask.
“Your elections, of course.”
“Oh. Of course…” I said. I had completely lost track of the outside world.
“Who did you vote for?”
“I…didn’t vote,” I admit. “I’ve been out of the US for two months and-”
“How could you not vote!” the men raise their voices and talk to each other in Arabic. “What if Obama does no win by a single vote? It will be very much your fault!”
‘It doesn’t work like that,” I try to explain, but they don’t listen.
“Obama has to win,” the man says. “America could be great again. He brings hope and change.”
I know it doesn’t work like that. One person can’t change anything, not in America. I look away. But still I feel guilty for not voting. Apparently the fate of peace in the Middle-East if not the entire world could rest in my hands and I failed. The men pat me on the back.
“But do not worry my friend. They say he is winning!” The men look at the radio intently. They grow quit and then smile. They shout and stand up, their guns in the air as they dance and sing. “Obama has won! Obama has won!”
I get up and join them. For that moment, I was proud to be an American.

I was proud, (and relived) not just because Obama won but because I realized that America can still give the world hope. Sadly even in that moment I was pessimistic. Pessimism seems to be in our nature.  As Americans I think we have lost something: we have lost hope. We have given up on the pursuit of happiness and settled for just surviving. Hope has been replaced with fear. Whether you like Obama or not, he did inspire people and bring hope to an uncertain world. But it’s up to us to continue that and maintain hope. It’s up to us to act, not our politicians. It’s not too late, America is still the land of hope and freedom. And it will be as long as we come together and act as one, without fear of each other, without fear of the future. And really no one else is going to do it. No one else can.

All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent. ~Thomas Jefferson

I do not believe in a fate that falls on men however they act; but I do believe in a fate that falls on them unless they act. ~Buddha

Aron Stein lives in Utah and works as a freelance web designer and writer, currently working on a sci-fi Trilogy called Lost Gods. He enjoys rock climbing, snowboarding and short walks on the beach with his Lhaso Apso. He has lived in Buddhist monasteries, and studied Zen and numerous other eastern philosophies. He is an mixed martial arts enthusiast and has completed Anusara Yoga teacher training.
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