James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Sunday, May 27, 2007

After trip, there's no place....home

After about three weeks in central Europe, my wife and are back in the United States.

I was about to say, indeed did type, “back home,” but that no longer feels entirely true.

Saying that, and feeling it, is both strange and inordinately uncomfortable. But I realize that I've not felt at home for a long time now in this, the country in which I was born and raised, in which I have lived my life and which I have loved and which I love still in many respects.

One of the things I saw soon after our return was a report that Jimmy Carter said out loud that George W. Bush is the worst president in U.S. history. There was a storm of protest, of course.

With all respect to Carter, who was a far better president than the corporate media has allowed him to be given credit for, his judgment of Bush is akin to saying that Adolf Hitler was the worst chancellor Germany ever had.

It is a fact, but it doesn't begin to convey the full, horrible truth.

Bush, Cheney and the rest of their insane bunch of imperialists are responsible for the unnecessary slaughter of tens of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of human beings. They are responsible for the maiming, crippling, enormous physical and emotional pain of hundreds of thousands of human beings, and probably that number now runs into the millions. They have destroyed millions of lives by destroying homes, livelihoods, families, societies and nations.

They are by any rational measure, war criminals on a par with the German and Japanese butchers and thugs who were executed after World War II.

America, as a body, will not face that truth. Americans grumble about the war, but they tolerate the madmen; they will not act to dislodge them.

Most of the people I talk to here seem to think the Republicans will lose the next presidential election and that will make everything just fine over night.

No doubt some jingoist idiot will see these words and spread selected excerpts around, calling me a traitor and worse. Normal – what passes for normal these days – citizens will feel unease at reading this, and feel I've “gone too far.”

In Europe, a majority of people know the truth of what I say. That they continue to treat Americans with tolerance is amazing to me. They are kinder, more understanding of foolishness and raw stupidity, and are better people, by and large, than we are. They are thoroughly disgusted with this country's leadership – appalled and sickened, often -- yet most of them don't take it out individual Americans they meet.

And it isn't only the horrors we've inflicted on Iraq and, in fact, most of the Middle East, that cause the people of other countries to wonder whether we can be accepted as equals in the family of civilized nations. (While most Americans continue to believe we are superior to all the rest of the world.)

The Bush/Cheney madness in refusing to acknowledge or do anything at all meaningful about the earth's climate change has all the world (except brilliant, modern and oh-so-sophisticated China) gaping at us in disbelief.

I came back, as I said, truly happy, full of funny observations and good feelings about the world and the creative brilliance of so many of its denizens.

We spent the last nine days of our trip in Prague, the core of which is so beautiful as to feel almost unreal to an outlander. Tourists tend to walk its cobbled, patterned streets gawking and pointing and making “Ohmygawd” noises. You can stand on almost any corner, point a camera in any direction and come away with a snap of something stunningly beautiful.

It seems that hundreds of the world's greatest architects and artisans had to have gathered in Prague and worked there for about five hundred years, mostly in anonymity, creating a giant masterpiece.

The residents appear to appreciate what they have, and our casual contacts with lots of folks indicate that they're a damned decent lot, by and large.

We were in this country only a few hours when several other realizations struck me. The place comes from the people:

Although the people in Vienna's tourist industry aren't the warmest I've ever seen, they have a long, surly way to go to match the snarling level of employees of at the Ramada Plaza Hotel, near JFK Airport in New York, which was our first stop upon return to the United States. Previous experience showed me that extreme rudeness is the norm in New York “service” industries, but not exclusive to that city. I've never encountered its like abroad.

In the past week a host of other observations fell into place.

Not once, I realized, did I see a driver in any of the three cities we visited fail to stop for a pedestrian crossing a street. In Vienna we happened on an accident in which a driver had hit and slightly injured a pedestrian, but the circumstances strongly suggested that the pedestrian had illegally crossed a median, dashed off the curb into the path of the vehicle.

Also, not once did I see a driver fail to stop for a red light. In fact, drivers stopped if a yellow indicated an impending turn to red.

People drive fast in Prague, or so it seemed to me, yet they allow others to merge into traffic, and often pause to allow someone coming from the opposite direction make a left turn, and they show great patience when someone is trying to get into or out of an awkward parking space or do something else that briefly holds up traffic. Courtesies that would surprise one here are the norm there.

I was a tad nervous about the seediness of a neighborhood next to our hotel in Budapest, but a man at the hotel assured me that there was nothing to fear except, perhaps, very late at night, and even then one had only to be a bit wary. I believed him.

Never got a handle on public safety issues in Vienna, but the city certainly has its share of rude teenagers who gather in large groups in chosen places on weekend nights and tend to make their elders somewhat uncomfortable with their shouting and verbal harassment of some passersby. Just like the United States, though a bit less threatening. I never felt real danger, as I have in several American cities, including some parts of my own home town. And I'm not an overly wary or fearful individual.

In Prague, we came across just one gathering of teenage rowdies, and local cops shut them down rather quickly. They were just kids whooping it up. We never felt threatened by them, merely annoyed by their loudness in an inappropriate setting.

Over-all, Prague is the safest real city in the world. By repute, it has no stranger-to-stranger violence. We met an American man who owns one of the city's best restaurants, so named by critics, and who has lived in Prague seven years. He swore the claim is true.

“Violence just doesn't happen. I go anywhere, on foot, at any time of the day or night without the least concern,” he said.

My wife and I walked dark streets late at night, and felt at ease. We frequently met individuals, including many women, often alone, some young, some old, who also walked those dark streets with obvious comfort. No wary, hooded eying of other pedestrians, no speeding up and determined striding when a male stroller was met, no glances over the shoulders.

That's not all of Europe, of course. But it's a revelation. If only we could discover what it is in that culture that keeps humanity's violence in check, and learn how to use it.

Sadly, the American gift of graffiti now has been received in every part of the world we've traveled in recent years, though it's not yet as awful in most of Europe as it is here. The vandals don't mess with the old buildings, the beautiful buildings or the monuments in central Europe. It's as though they have a list of buildings that are off limits and adhere to the list.


With a mind still digesting and analyzing such observations, I came back to the United States, to the snarling desk clerks, the red light runners and the cell-phone talking drivers who will step on the gas to prevent someone else from making a left turn, to the pushers and shovers and the news, the stories of bought politicians and billionaires cheating and clawing for more more more.

The news.

Democrats in the U.S. Senate give George Bush the gift of unfettered funding for the occupation of Iraq. They're afraid of a Republican campaign next year saying they didn't support the troops. The usual army of pundits says it was the right thing to do. A majority of the public, apparently, says it was cowardice. It was cowardice.

Minnesota's right wing Republican governor beats a Legislature controlled by Democrats, disallowing real tax reform and allowing continued underfunding of major public works and such little endeavors as public education.

On the other hand, the Legislature and the governor, Slick Tim Pawlenty, agree to subsidize expansion of the privately owned Mall of America and a couple of other projects which will further line the pockets of obscenely rich guys at taxpayer expense.

In order to undercut any possibility of any sort of agreement on anything with Iran, which they want to attack militarily, the Bush Gang begins new and bigger naval maneuvers off the Iranian coast just before the start of direct talks with Iran on stabilizing the situation between the two countries. Talks will result in less than than mere failure to progress and Bush will say it's all their fault.

Gasoline prices climbed to new heights while I was gone, and the excuses for the huge raises are more feeble than ever before. Refineries had “a round of outages” that “stoked supply concerns,” said one report I read. Right. And some people probably believe that oil company executives aren't a very rich mob of lying, gouging bastards, but some people are wrong.

The same congressional Democrats who bowed to Bush on Iraq funding are falling all over themselves to cut a deal with him on a trade agreement that guarantees still greater deterioration of the American economy while enriching the already super rich.

Every labor, environmental, small business, consumer and public health organization that is aware of the reeking deal opposes it, but Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and a bunch of other Dems who dwell in corporate pockets are going for it anyway. The press, of course, has almost entirely ignored the deal, and will report it, when it passes, as simply another trade agreement, without explaining what it does for whom and to whom.

And speaking of the press, I came home to learn that the investment people who bought the Minneapolis Star Tribune are laying off a mob of people, and have eliminated the jobs of the paper's only truly intelligent and talented sports writer, the main and most knowledgeable classical music critic, the architecture specialist and some others of equal worth.

The new editor of the paper, hired by the money-guy owners, who are simply positioning the paper for resale, said in a radio interview that the thing she is proudest of is acquiring an MBA, “which taught me how to manage journalists,” thus demonstrating in one sentence total incompetence as a journalist.

And in a hugely important story virtually unreported in corporate media, George W. Bush issued a new “national security directive,” giving himself what amounts to complete control of the U.S. government, including things normally under control of judicial and legislative branches, in event of a “catastrophic emergency.”

Under the the directive, he and he alone determines what constitutes a catastrophic emergency. The thing went almost unnoticed, but it is not inconceivable, given the madmen in the White House, that it lays the ground for a coup. Stage something like 9/11 and there ya go: Bush is dictator “to ensure constitutional government,” as the document so cutely phrases it.

There's much more, but it's enough. More than enough.

I now know several American expatriates, living in four countries. All but one have told me they will not, could not return to live in the United States. I somehow failed to ask the other one, and do not know what her answer will be when I do ask.

Ten years ago I wouldn't have understood how people could make such a choice. Now I get it.