What Constitutes an American

Washington DC TaxisI’ve been trying to get inspired to write something for my next iteration and was toying with adding a revised perspective on the migrant crisis in Europe (note the term ‘refugee crisis’ has now been clarified into ‘migrant crisis’ as apparently only 20% of the people in the crisis are actually Syrian regugees…but that’s for another chapter).

In order to find some inspiration, I thought I’d work my way through some of the articles from Brookings, as I subscribe to their e-newsletter. The following article caught my eye on Friday, when it gonged in (all my alerts come in as the gong of a temple bell), so I settled down to procrastinate a bit and read “What is the American Public Thinking?” (or, as the newsletter headline read: How the Republican electorate thinks about foreign policy).

The article, written by Jeremy Shapiro, starts is written tongue-in-cheek, which is fine for an op-ed of course, but what caught my eye was the following sentence right in the opening paragraph:

And in D.C., the taxi drivers are mostly from foreign countries so I have fewer direct insights into the American mind than Thomas Friedman.*

There is a very implicit assumption being made here that taxi drivers, because they are from foreign countries, have never bothered to become American citizens, perhaps from a lack of interest and for wanting to milk the American cow (I say “cow” strictly in the bovine sense as a provider of nutrition and health – these are also my musings and not the author’s, just to be clear).

Clearly, a taxi driver is not representational of what the American mind, however that mysterious entity may be defined,  is thinking.

I don’t take cabs all that often, but I used to in Calgary when I worked late night shifts with Telus. Yes, most of my taxi drivers were foreign born, quite often white collar workers – doctors, lawyers, and teachers – back in their countries of origin. But they had, or were trying, to become Canadian citizens. I would hazard a guess that the say could be said of many of the foreign-born taxi drivers across North America. And, to be fair, obtaining citizenship in our countries the old-fashioned way (take that as you will, given the scenarios being played across the globe right now), is a very long, multi-year, bureaucratic process.

What is question here then is this: what defines the American mind?

Is it the milk-faced (again with the milk analogy!) young farmer and their (his, not her, in this sopping analogy) 2.58 family from the Mid-West? Is it the (insert: ethnicity of choice, carefully not to mix them with that of a taxi driver) New Yorker found crossing the street in upper Manhattan? Or the Minnesota retiree, driving a Lincoln Continental as carefully preserved as the owner’s fake n’ bake, who is guaranteed to be found in Florida on a hot December day.

What limits one’s perspective from identifying the ‘American mind’ is what keeps most people from thinking about talking to their taxi drivers. I do not know whether Mr. Shapiro does or does not speak with his taxi driver, but if he does not, I would encourage him to do so, as he may find that the American mind has been sitting in the driver’s seat the entire time.

*Thomas Friedman’s article on the “Taxi Driver” is quite a fun read as well, for what it’s worth, but he falls into the same trap as Shapiro in that he identifies his taxi driver as a foreign born individual, and not a hint of thinking about him as a French citizen.

Another Unfortunate Headline (and one of the more potentially racist ones out there)

Europe's refugee crisisI looked down on the BBC app on my phone and this headline loomed out at me:

Clearing the rubbish at migrant camp

I know what they meant – the accompanying picture (not the one displayed here) was worth more the headline words put together – but, lord, this one comes off a rather scandalously at first glance, particularly in light of some of the nationalistic comments that are starting to swirl through Europe.

Just brings the point home that we need to be careful how we phrase things in the public eye.

Washington Drivers (written with love, respect, and a wink)

Sea-to-Sky Highway between Vancouver, Squamish, and WhistlerI drive to Squamish periodically, along the Sea-to-Sky highway, a superbly scenic winding road that wends its way along the northern side of the Howe Sound, seemingly precariously perched along steep fjord walls that rise above you several hundred metres to snow-capped peaks in the late fall through early spring, and fall sharply below you into the deep, always dark waters of the Sound. My grandmother affectionately says that the Sea-to-Sky highway reminds her of Italy’s Amalfi Coast, which is arguably a jewel as one of Europe’s most scenic routes.

For those living in Squamish, the Sea-to-Sky makes for an always spectacular commute, rain, snow, or shine. You quickly get used to the twists and turns of the snake-like road, which almost mesmerize you, and certainly I’ve had passengers in the car fall asleep as the car rocks back and forth with the sun shining down on them after a beer in the local in Squamish.

One thing mars the scene. It’s really more the fault of the road-makers than anything else, but in parts, when the highway was updated from a single lane in either direction, to two lanes, there are still parts of the Sea-to-Sky that narrow back down to a single lane in either direction. This narrowing makes for a frustrating drive if you end up behind a nervous driver who is traversing the track for the first time, not used to the continuous sharp s-curves. I do blame the engineers. They should have either punched their way through the rock and tunneled the highway in order to twin the lanes, or built the perch further out over the Sound. Expensive, I know, but would likely have helped to prevent the numerous accidents that inevitably claim a life or two every summer and winter; I’ve been stuck on the highway for two hours as a foolhardy motorcyclist had to be scraped off of the highway because of their reckless disregard for common sense (FYI to all motorcyclists: driving between two cars in order to overtake your sense of frustration will only result in you being scraped off of the pavement at some point).

But my peeve is not the narrowing of the two lanes into one, it’s our Washington cousins who sit in the left lane and go on the speed limit on the nose, hunched over the wheels, oblivious to the fact that half a dozen cars have overtaken then in the past two minutes. I have seen the signs in Washington: “slower traffic keep right, use left lane only to pass.” Why can’t they carry over this motor maxim up north?

I had some minor justification of God’s existence today, in this regard. A motorcyclist of the decent variety was stuck behind a Washington driver driving a behemoth of a dated white Cadillac, who was keeping pace with the vehicle next to them. Just around the Lions Bay, the motorcyclist finally had his opportunity to overtake the Washington fellow, but oddly enough kept pace with the Cadillac. I wondered what the heck he was doing. I realized that he was trying to get the Washington driver’s attention, and started to gesture for that driver to move over into the right, slow, lane. Super awesome. Message received. The Cadillac moved over.

Washington drivers: please, the left lane is the fast, or passing, lane – the right lane is the slow lane. It’s a beautiful winding road so if you want to really take it in slow, wonderful, just stick to that right lane. Our traffic rules in Canada are essentially the same. Just like the size of our change: our quarters are just like your quarters, and so forth. The same principle applies to traffic rules.

And in the meantime, I’ll just trail you and vent loudly to no one in particular.

He should be sleeping, not just looking like it.

image

It’s not just about the photo. It’s about rectifying the horrible crisis in the Middle East that is the root of people like Kurdi dying in an attempt to escape it.  And what about all those who are living half lives as refugees in camps or on some road to nowhere,  as long as it doesn’t lead them back to the hell that is their former home? I don’t have an answer and our leaders need to work on solutions for all those whom Kurdi now represents, who were,  before this photo,  mostly nameless mobs of migrants that people ignored as someone else’s problem.

That little boy is not a piece of human flotsam and we cannot turn our backs on what he now represents. We never should have turned our backs on that situation in the first place. The fault is as much ours in our complacency of absorbing such human tragedies as the norm of our world (“at least it’s not in my back yard so what do I care for a civil war in Syria? “) as it is of the people who meddled in Syrian affairs to the point that ISIS was able to grow into a terror-filled caliphate. What was the lesser of two evils there?

But that question does not bear any impact on Aylan Kurdi,  or his brother,  or his mother,  or the thousands that went to the same fate before Aylan: death by desperation. And that will never stand trial in the Hague.