Friday, November 25, 2005

Of Grief, Unreason and Thanks

McWorld's hegemony is all America all the time: A starlet blows her nose in Hollywood, a teenybopper instinctively reaches for a Kleenex box in Jakarta. Paris Hilton adjusts her bra or Britney Spears births another whitebread pop clone and cultural stock exchanges from Thule to Bombay react acrobatically. A president clears his throat in the Rose Garden; everyone from here to Pluto takes cover, for good reason, from the expected expectorations that pass for foreign policy before finding more appropriate destinations in the nearest spittoon. “Thomas Jefferson once said that ‘every man has two countries—his own and France,’” John Micklethwait & Adrian Wooldridge tell us in The Right Nation (Penguin Press, 2004). “Today every man has two countries—his own and America.”

Except, that is, on Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays that, unlike anything else American, elicits nothing but indifference elsewhere. Today was just another day in every part of the world but ours.

I don't mean to diminish Thanksgiving. It's a wonderful holiday and an excellent launch into the Christmas season despite the commercial gluttony that launches with it. But it's also a silent Thanksgiving the world over: The world is giving thanks that on one day a year at least, what happens in the United States isn't an all-consuming black hole that presumes to suck in all that matters unto itself. In the rest of the world, Thanksgiving is the one day of the year that unfolds as if the United States didn't exist. Or as close to that as it ever could. Here's a brief look at life-as-usual in a few time zones unregulated by turkey and the Dallas Cowboys.

France is declaring war on rap. One hundred and forty three conservative French congressmen and 40 right-thinking senators want the French justice ministry to chase after seven rap groups they accuse of rapping hate and racism in those French suburbs that have been rapping bonfires for the last few weeks. That's an oddly Republican response though. Can't do much about the ship heading for an iceberg, so shoot the pianoplayer. It's as if Lynne Cheney and Tipper Gore had been vacationing in St. Tropez lately, together, with 183 lawmakers. Paris and the Washington Beltway: les cages aux folles. Britain is worried about the coldest winter in living memory, with blizzards heading for London and Manchester as I write. The Gulf Stream may not be lapping at Britain's west coast as warmly as it once did, now that global warming is dipping its toes into the Atlantic's currrents. In Chile, Pinochet has been charged again (this time for the disappearance of dissidents in the mid-1970s), though Henry Kissinger is probably trying to get Pinochet beattified as a 90th birthday present (the old "general" celebrates it on Friday). No Thanksgiving in Pakistan of course, where the Kashmir quake victims who filled a few good minutes of CNN's airtime have been forgotten even in Pakistan proper, to read that country's own papers. The death toll as of early November: 87,000, or roughly one and a half times the number of U.S. soldiers who died in Vietnam from 1959 to 1975. Grief, shock, reason: the relativism of it all is itself a shock of grief and unreason.

In Iraq of course it's never quite Thanksgiving. No surprise fly-by turkeys this year, no quick-hit posturing (our Lord and Savior commander-in-zilch is himself almost cooked through in the polls: his last two trips abroad were turkeys; a third to Iraq would’ve had him on a silver platter to ridicule). Three more soldiers killed today, four yesterday, four in the three days before that, nine on November 9 (for a total of 76 so far this month; have we said happy holidays lately?), though you wouldn't know it from the usual news reports. The Pentagon is brilliantly adept at dribbling out news of the dead in calibrated snuffs, so as to diminish as much as possible the impact of big-batch casualty numbers on the media’s barometer of outrage. The magic number seems to be five. If the death of five or more GIs is announced simultaneously, it makes the front pages. If five or deaths occur on the same day but the news releases are spread out over two or three days, you won’t hear of it. The proof: who has heard of those nine GIs getting killed last Saturday? The military tallies its dead immediately. It knows who, when, where and how its men die with the precision of nanotechnology. But it also knows how to lull and deceive. Last Saturday's nine dead, with the seven hours' difference, would have made every Sunday paper, above the fold, across the top, in bold letters. Instead: silence. The numbers dribbled out slowly, day after day. The military knew what it was doing. It was snuffing grief with calculated unreason.

It isn't all bleak. I was scrolling through the foreign press, completely at random. I dialed up the Daily Star, Lebanon's English-language paper (and a very good one), clicked on a couple of the usual stories of Lebanese political theater ("Everybody Loves Raymond" meets "Apocalypse Now"), when I came across a curious story about a young Lebanese movie-maker, Phillip Aractingi, who's been living in France. He went back to Lebanon with $800,000 from an Arab venture to make a movie, a musical, that "tells the tale of Kamal who returns to Beirut after 15 years of exile to reunite his old dance group, tackle his demons and conquer the traditional dabkeh dance scene with a new modern electro-dabkeh. They tour the length and breadth of the nation in a brightly painted old public transportation bus - representing both the past and reconstruction - tackling all their personal issues along the way." Readers of this blog have a right to care less. Why should I care? Because the coincidence, on Thanksgiving, is enough to confirm at least some sense that even seven time zones away, the day may have some refracted meaning: Phillip Aractingi (along with Paul Obeiji) was one of my two best friends in Jesuit school in Beirut, at the Petit College, those many wonderful years ago before the war, before our exiles, before we knew that we'd spend the rest of our lives between grief and nostalgia for a place and a time we'll never know again no matter how much we try. And no matter how thankful we are, in the end, for the places that have taken us in. I lost touch with Philippe years ago. These days of blogs and webs and coincidental sightings in internet haystacks, it seems inconceivable that we could not meet again. Happy Thanksgiving, wherever you are.