On September 11th

A woman at the bar when I came in this afternoon:

“Well, he’s a foreigner.” She spat the word. “He’s a dicksucker, but I mean what do you expect?”

I think my eyebrows lifted off my forehead and were lost somewhere in my hairline. But I don’t know what to expect in the US these days, to be honest.I haven’t lived here full-time since 2009, and I notice differences. I quickly folded my face back into something resembling neutral, but I know the girl with short hair saw my hastily-hidden shock. I ordered a Golden Mosaic and went to sit in the sauna-like bier garden out back.


It’s downright weird to be here on September 11th. That day seems so far away now. Put it the way I did to my students last year during our discussion of the Paris attacks…it’s more than half my life (and will always be).

We’ve been at war in Afghanistan since I was 14. I’m 28.

My 14 year old students were born after September 11, 2001. That means that it’s much more distant in time to them than the Fall of the Berlin Wall was to me. I was barely a year old and have no real recollection of the event. They weren’t even yet conceived.

The collective grieving has slowed, but not stopped. Today, as every 11th September for fourteen years, the names of the 2,977 who died that day in New York, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania were read aloud at the World Trade Center site. I noticed that they deliberately used children of eleven or twelve for part of the ceremony. They, like my students, were not even beginning life when this thing happened. And yet there they were, enacting a national grief that they don’t really…get. They read the names in practiced, perfect, put-on adult tones suited to the seriousness of their task, the importance of the commemoration.

I fidgeted uncomfortably, watching them.


How I wish I were Orwell. I’d write some well-crafted, searing essay that would convince you all. But all I am is Coleen, and all I have is pathos layered on statistics. The huge, sweeping, perpetual national grief over 9/11 is a problem.

It masks our bigger problems. For fifteen years, we’ve been distracted by the “War on Terror.” Do you remember it ever stopping? Was it when we declared to the world, “Mission Accomplished?” Was it when our troops were pulled out of Iraq? Was it when Osama Bin Laden was shot through the head and paraded in horrific Blair Witch tones, nightvision photos the vindication we sought for years after the Twin Towers fell?

It hasn’t stopped, but then it probably never will. It’s useful, this expedient blaming of terrorists and ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ for all the ills of our society. In Donald “J” Trump’s campaign, it’s crystallised. Everything is an outsider actor’s fault. We’re under attack. Our American values are under attack. We are the last bastion of Western values (You’re on your own, ‘No-Go Zone’ Europe.).

I am disgusted.

There is a silent war at home that has marched on in spite of all the effort, money, and lives spent ‘fighting terrorism’ since the attack on 9/11. While we worked to revenge those who were taken away by terrorism on that awful day, the cultural diseases that threaten Americans much more were left to fester. Chicago is only one of the cities that displays our issues to the world.


Since September 11th 2001, the US Armed Forces count 2384 deaths in Afghanistan and 4504 deaths in the Iraq War.

The combined total is still more than 1000 people lower than the shooting deaths in Chicago during the same period:

More than 7916 people are dead who were shot on the streets of Chicago since September 2001.

Since this data was published by the BBC and Chicago Tribune last Tuesday, 13 more people were shot and 3 more have been killed.

The BBC’s coverage this week is just amazing. Take a look at this documentary that came out this week. 

Chicago is only the beginning.


“According to figures from the US Department of Justice and the Council on Foreign Affairs, 11,385 people died on average annually in firearm incidents in the US between 2001 and 2011.” –BBC World News

If we take that estimate, which includes suicides and police involved shootings along with homicides, then multiply by the 15 years since September 11th:

~170,775 killed in those fifteen years

Oh yes, but it could be higher. The CDC estimated that between 2005 and 2013, the number of violent gun deaths between just is

301,797. 

Jesus. That’s not even counting the years between 2001-2005. Given that we average 12,000+ firearm deaths in the US per year, let’s call it

326,000.

Put another way, that’s about 110 September 11ths. Imagine if there had been a terrorist attack the size of 9/11 ever 49.7 days, every single year since September 2001. For half of my life, 2,977 people dead from firearms every fifty days. It boggles the mind.


The one that really got me was when this was published. The claim was that more people have been killed in the USA by firearms since 1968 than in ALL wars in US history.

It’s a claim that sounds so outlandish that it just couldn’t be true. It would be too depressing. What would it say about us?

But it’s true. 

Total US deaths in all wars in our history: 1,171,177.
Total US deaths by firearms (homicide, accident, suicide): 1,384,171

Those numbers are from 2013.


I don’t have some grand statement to make about these numbers. I just feel sad. There is an acceptance of gun violence that borders on making it into a natural disaster in the US. Imagine tornadoes armed with AR-15s. An act of God. It feels wrong to reverently read 2,977 names aloud each year for fifteen years when so many anonymous thousands lay dead in the same time period. We’ve forgotten the terror we wreak upon ourselves.


Americans know that toddlers killed more Americans than terrorists in 2015. Americans know that the University of Texas just passed a policy that allows students to carry concealed weapons on campus.We know that a major party candidate called for political violence against his opponent this year, calling on “2nd Amendment People” to take matters into their own hands. We know that each time something like Sandy Hook, Columbine, Aurora, San Bernadino, or Charleston happens, the discussion will peak with thoughts and prayers, and lead to exactly no change whatsoever.

We mobilized $4.4 trillion in the aftermath of 9/11 to fight terrorists around the world. Where is the will to fight our demons at home? Where are the somber adverts with people looking out over the Hudson River, remembering the thousands slaughtered in acts of the mundane? Who will read aloud those names?

I have nothing profound left to say. It grinds along, this violence, and nothing I or anyone else says seems to be able to make a difference. I just wish that this day of remembrance for the last fifteen years was more accurate.

Seriously. Stop.

Assholes exist the world over. Their presence may be one of the few universal things common to all human cultures. But I’ve come into contact each time I go abroad with a specific incarnation of douchebag that gets under my skin more than any of the others, perhaps because they usurp my own cultural identity and transform it into something heinous without my consent.

These people are The Ugly Americans.

They assume incorrectly in our own country that those who don’t speak American English perfectly and with no accent simply don’t want to learn, because when they go abroad they don’t bother to learn a new language. No matter that everyone else has to be bi or multilingual, if you don’t understand Amurrrican then you must be simply stupid. Or better yet, racist against anglophones (something of a semantic problem since we are not all of a single race).

They offer opinions for the whole of the US population when it’s really only theirs. They spout political rhetoric that makes no sense outside the bizzare land of the Republican primaries. They assume that all cultures share universal moral expectations, roundly condemning any who fall outside their own narrow definition of “good.”

They include all other people from the US in their asshorlery by sheer association, often consciously. They look to me and say, “We’re Americans, we…(i.e. think that China is the devil/think only the US has famous people/are Christians/don’t like Kimchi etc. etc ad nauseum),” expecting me to confirm through a wink and nod that all Americans think the same way.

They are purposefully, willfully, inexcusably ignorant and cling to that as a defining characteristic of “our” culture. You know who Montaigne was? Elitist. You form your own opinion instead of eating from the hands of news anchors? Radical. You have some shred of appreciation for other cultures? Amurrica-hater.

They are paradoxically fat and yet picky about their food. Growing up in a country where one has the luxury to refuse food simply because one doesn’t appreciate its taste turns Ugly Americans into whining overgrown children when they can’t find their precious favorite brand of jam. This combined with laziness–“You want me to walk across the street? What am I, a pro-athlete? There aren’t even escalators in this building! I might get out of breath!”–makes me wonder how the US would do if push came to shove and we no longer could afford to refuse calories and sit on our asses all day.

They are disingenuous and superficial.  

They act as though theirs is the only way.

They jump from mild irritation to calling a person, company, or entire country racist in a single bound. One taxi driver passes them by because he’s already got a call, and he obviously was prejudiced. People stare on the subway, and they are clearly full of hatred for white skin and round eyes. The work website for a Korean company is in Korean? Racist bastards must be out to get us.

Despite their insistence on pointing out everything about every other culture that annoys them, even a kind word in jest pointing out their embarrassing and delusional behavior and they go on the warpath. They can dish out hours of criticism, but cannot fathom that someone else might have grounds to criticize their own behavior. Fastest route to having “UnAmerican” thrown at me, fastest route to hearing “racist” for those not raised in the US (and yes, apparently the American Race exists and somehow aligns with English-speaking).

Luckily, they only seem to be the majority of Americans abroad. In reality, the nicer people get drowned out in the drone of constant complaining and raging misplaced antipathy. I like to think that I am not part of their club, but grouped in with them against my will and found guilty by association. I wish that I could tell people to sit down, shut up, and start taking your lumps like the rest of the world.

But then, if I started openly arguing and complaining and carrying on…I would be associated with the Ugly Americans by more than proximity. Better to take my own advice, and quietly avoid them.

What’s Wrong With the United States? Part Two

Yesterday I started a series of blogs dedicated to the noticeable problems that I’ve observed since returning to the States. The complex underpinnings of our food culture and their encouragement through commercialization of food and the degradation of traditional eating patterns slowly leading us to collective suicide aside (mouthful!), there is a further extension of the glorification of quantity over quality. This extends to all areas of American consumer life.

The most influential and highest-grossing store in the United States is Wal-Mart. They blow other competitors away on Black Friday, which is later this week (in case you hadn’t been bombarded with ads since before Halloween). Last year on this most thinly-veiled of all commercial holidays, this megastore saw a 30% increase in traffic as compared to previous years. Part economic recession, part clever advertising, and part extremely low prices on everything from underwear to electronics. No matter that the prices are slashed so low that they seem impossible…those Homer Simpson slippers were made with indentured labor in China and so they cost nothing to make. Wal-Mart could probably sell some of their products for a dime and still make eight cents of profit.

Anyone who’s ever shopped at the great Wal knows that the quality of the low-priced products is shabby at best. It will probably fall apart in two months and then you’ll have to go buy a new one.

And that’s the key. People in the United States (and elsewhere) have been conditioned into a culture of extreme consumerism. If something breaks or is out of fashion or doesn’t fit anymore due to our expanding waistlines, we stash it and then go buy a new one. The poor quality of clothing and other products that we buy is offset by their replacement. And that’s how you end up with five of the same sweater in five shades of beige.

A snapshot of her two-layered, 4000 package paper towel stockpile from TLC.Discovery.com

But I already knew that before living abroad eight months out of the year. What’s struck me as the next step in the insanity is TLC’s new show in their parade of the bizzare, Extreme Couponing. Just one look at the stockpiles that these people have amassed is enough to reveal a serious fixation on overwhelming quantities of household and personal products. They routinely are worth over $30,000. It’s true, those in these stories are probably clinically off-balance. Plus, they now have to eat the same chemical-laced soup that has enough preservatives to make it edible in 1000 years for the rest of their lives. If the prospect is not enough to push them over the edge, I don’t know what would be.

These people need help. - From TLC.Discovery.com

Just the fact that we have a TV show dedicated to this phenomenon is evidence of a serious cultural failing in the US. We want more and more and more until we can’t even possibly eat or use all the products that we’ve stockpiled. This valuing of quantity over quality puts pressure on companies to produce beyond their means. Then customers must buy beyond theirs in order to have “enough.” Then we need more space for all of our junk, and so we have to buy a house with a mortgage beyond our means. And two cars at least, and smartphones, and 50 pairs of shoes, and five giant-screen TVs….And all of that leads to the third cultural failing in the United States.

We are a culture of debt.

It’s undeniable. Our national debt has surged to over $15 Trillion this year, increasing by an average of $3 Billion a day, and leaving each US Citizen with $48,000 of debt if we divided it equally. Add to that the average of $20,000 in debt upon graduating university, and the average of $10,700 of household credit card debt, and each American owes around $78,700 personally. Americans carried $886 Billion in credit card debt and had an average of nine credit cards per household in 2006. That number went up to nearly a trillion dollars before dipping in 2010.

The fact is that Americans have bought into an economic system that requires massive debt to function. The average American cannot buy a house, a car, or even a TV without putting themselves in debt, but more than that, they cannot even be considered for a mortgage or car payment plan unless they are able to prove that they have a history of it. Credit checks force each and every American to take out a credit card if they want to be able to someday buy a house. Almost all of the traditional American markers for adulthood revolve around indebting oneself to a ridiculous degree. 

It’s no mystery to me that the national debt would be so high when personal debt is not only accepted but unavoidable. Just across the Atlantic, a credit card is a rare luxury. True, the countries in the European Union also have their fair share of problems with debt. But in sheer numbers, Greece’s debt is $498.3 billion. That’s 30 times smaller than that of the United States. Dividing it equally to compare to our personal burdens in the States, each Greek owes $45,000 in national debt. And yet their debt crisis nearly brought the Eurozone down and caused international panic.

In the United States, individuals must take action to reduce their consumerism and to actively oppose a culture of debt. How? Abandon the traditions of the American Dream that do not serve this generation. Join an Occupy Wall Street movement. Pay off your credit card and live only within your means. Shop for fewer articles of better quality. Repair your broken clothes and recycle them into quilts or pillows. Take a  challenge (ahem…) and commit to changing one spending/shopping habit.

Better yet, take a stand this Black Friday by refusing to participate in the commercial feeding frenzy. Buy absolutely nothing that day. Spend the time you’ll save  volunteering, being with family, reading, or making your own holiday presents by hand. And then take the money you would have spent and support local, quality businesses on Shop Local Saturday.

Check out #BlackoutBlackFriday and #ShopLocalSaturday on Twitter for more information!

What’s Wrong with The United States?

Living out of a backpack is easier than you might think!

I’ve spent eight months out of the last twelve abroad. On two vastly different continents, I immersed myself in families, languages, and cultures to the point that I occasionally asked myself whether I’d gone too far native.

Everywhere I went, I talked to people about my country. Often, it wasn’t really a choice, being American means an inevitable amount of intense scrutiny abroad, whether we like it or not. Just opening my mouth and revealing my accent occasionally was enough to get me into a lengthy conversation about world politics and my nation’s place in them. My favorite awkward interaction was an hour-long lecture about how shitty the economic crash was on a ferry across the Straight of Magellan, practically held hostage in the bridge by the blustery captain. He’d lost his investments. So have I. Toward the end, I purposefully antagonized him in the hope that he might let me go back to my seat. In the end, feigned seasickness saved my ass.

Yeah, the captain made me put the hat on…couldn’t escape the awkward

I’m not a huge fan of UnitedStatesian culture (including the use of “American” to describe only a tiny fraction of those who live on the American continents). When I returned from South America in August, I was just so happy to be somewhere that I could drink tap water and not fear being robbed every two seconds that the US regained some of its shiny happy glimmer that I’d seen when I was younger. But this return from Europe revealed a few things about my own culture that cause me to take a step back, and analyze why they exist and how they might be affecting us and in turn the world that we so desperately hope to influence and guide.

I think that especially after the Congressional SuperFail today and the growth of polarization (Are you for the Occupy Movement or the Tea Party?), we are in dire need of some introspection. What happens in the larger world is played out in the details of everyday life (1), and our problems on a global and national scale can be traced to the problems within the decisions individual citizens make each day.

Many people asked what specifically needs to change in the States when I wrote about my first Occupy Denver protest. I agree. We need to put forth specific problems and try to raise specific awarenesses. Over the next few days I will explore my top cultural reasons why the USA is in serious trouble, and a few ideas of how to ameliorate the situations. Next up, the political reasons.

Obesity percentages broken down by county

Cultural Failing #1-Food/Health

My new part-time job at the local mall affords me plenty of people-watching. Four hours a day, I watch as a snapshot of the American people amble past the doors of the eyeglasses shop and mill about in the local temple to commercialism. Despite the fact that I live in the skinniest state, I’ve noticed an interesting contradiction. Americans are known the world over for wearing extremely white athletic shoes in totally inappropriate situations, but t’s the largest people who seem to wear them most.

Our clothing sizes are larger than anywhere else I’ve lived. We can’t seem to get enough of stretch clothing. We complain about having to walk up a stalled escalator. Some even have to use power-chairs to get around, because their joints simply can’t take the strain of a stroll around the mall under the immense weight.

No one can claim that the obesity epidemic in the US is a mystery. Excess of food+sedentary lifestyle=obesity. Not exactly a complex algorithm. One can see the breakneck speed at which the cultural roots of obesity are changing the face (and waist) of the United States by comparing the statistics from 1985 to those from 2008. 

The difference is staggering. And it’s not just obesity that’s on the rise. Diabetes is the epidemic of the 21st century, especially in the developed world. Cancer, heart disease, gastrointestinal illness, and many other disorders are all linked to diet and exercise (2). Millions of Americans are living without health insurance, and these are those in the income tax bracket most likely to be unable to afford decent food as well. Plus, pizza is officially now a vegetable.

But wait! Isn’t obesity a global epidemic? Yes, but it comes from emulating the American diet. In China, the growing buying power of the middle class has led to a huge increase in demand for meat, and in many nations the consumption of sugary sodas and simple carbohydrates is rapidly increasing. Part of the spread of American cultural hegemony the world over is the food paradigm that shows up in movies and TV, but despite this the people I met around the world this year had no idea how bad the food culture in the States has gotten, nor how unhealthy we’ve become.

Except those who’ve been here. My French host mother called our food culture “collective suicide.” She’s absolutely right. We are already slowly killing ourselves. The United States already has a lower life expectancy than many other countries, ranked 50th in the world and below Bosnia-Herzegovina (3). Children born in this decade may be the first generation in several to have a lower life expectancy than their parents.

How can we change the relationship with food and exercise that has crept up on us? It’s an overwhelming conundrum. I suggest that each of us start by changing one thing about the way we eat or exercise. Take five extra seconds to read the labels of your packaged food. Take a page out of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food and only buy foods that your great-grandmother would recognize. Make a list every time you go to the grocery store, instead of guessing at what might be needed and buying far too much.

My favorite? Ride your bike or walk to the grocery. Ditch the oversized shopping cart for a small basket. You can’t grab things on impulse if you have to counter their weight with your own strength, and you get exercise when you can only buy as much as you can carry. No excuses!

Being counter-culture is sometimes as easy as taking a second to choose your food carefully. Power to the food revolution!

Next: American Cultural Failings #2 and #3, Quantity Over Quality and The Culture of Debt.

Sources:

(1) Dark Ages America, The Final Phase of the Empire by Morris Burman

(2) http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0002934303006715

(3) https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2102rank.html