America 101

I was in the midst of writing something on how to backup a database, export out of WordPress, and even how to do a direct database to database transform, but I wasn’t sure how to engineer a disaster first–to make my help seem like a miracle, and me a saint. What’s the fun of writing something helpful if all it does is, well, help people. After all, I am an American and this is a true American way of doing things.

I got to thinking, though, that perhaps those of you in other countries don’t know how all this works, and sit there in befuddlement and perhaps even a little outrage at all the daft things we do and say. In particular, it must seem at times as if we rush around breaking things and then, when we fix them later, call ourselves heros. So I thought a little cultural America 101 might be in order.

First of all, you need to be aware of our really fine use of semantics: whenever we make mistakes we never call them ‘a mistake’. In America, never call an apple an apple if by doing so you have to acknowledge that you picked the apple without permission. How can we forget that all important lesson: love means never having to say you’re sorry?

As an example at a very micro level, you don’t describe deliberately shutting down a server something like, “I’m deliberately shutting down the server where your material resides”. You call it an outage as in:

We now have a transition plan for the corner-turn, and have implemented most of it. The plan exceeds the commitment I made, by quite a bit; and will be implemented much sooner than promised. I’m writing the heads-up statement right now. The outage should be, Murphy-willing, completely cleared by the end of the weekend.

I had no idea that Boston was suffering a blackout. Or is it that a tree fell on someone’s head? Regardless, notice the small steps to redefine this event, until it morphs from a deliberate action into an act of accident or God? I am filled with admiration. Truly.

But this is small potatoes compared to others’ masterful use of semantics. Witness the invasion of Iraq: what started out as a move to ‘protect this country from weapons of mass destruction’ has now become a move to ’save the people of Iraq from a ruthless dictator and bring true freedom to the Middle East’.

This is truly brilliant. After all, no one can deny that Saddam Hussein wasn’t ruthless and violent to his own people; so how can anyone deny the rightness of our actions when someone like him is displaced? And if people continue to try to question our actions, the answer is ready made: you must want the people of Iraq to suffer.

I don’t care what anyone says: Japanese marketing might be more novel, European marketing more clever, and South American sexier, but no one knows how to position the opposition into a rhetorical corner better than we Americans.

Of course, if people still question specific actions, then you bring in the bigger guns: what do you know, and what does it have to do with you?

Returning to our micro example, the ‘what does it have to do with you’ is wonderfully illustrated with the following:

I’ve found the same thing most of the time—those seemingly the most offended by something like an outage were those who it didn’t effect. People are strange that way.

True we haven’t heard much negative commentary from those whose files haven’t quite been restored yet. I imagine they’re still overwhelmed by how grateful they are for the free hosting they’ve had, and the four years of writing they’ve created during this time.

Of course, the same could be said–who are we to talk when the natives are so content– about the situation in Iraq. After all, we see pictures of smiling, happy Iraqi standing next to a Marine carrying a big gun all the time. And then there’s all the polls in Iraq saying how grateful they are for being liberated. Now would the Americans please, pretty please, leave now?

See, they’re polite ladies and gentlemen, too.

As for the use of “what you don’t know”, insider versus outsider knowledge is one of the most powerful weapons ever used in this country–much more powerful than any atom bomb. It has a long history, but I believe it had its most proud moment when Senator McCarthy waved around a sheet of paper that he claimed had the names of communists serving in the government. Didn’t matter that he was waving about a shopping list–all that mattered is that he knew. If people asked to see the list, they were told they couldn’t “…in the interests of national security…”

People are being held in prisons here and abroad without due regard to either national or international law and we’re told it’s in the ‘interests of national security’. After all, if these people are allowed access to the outside, they can warn their compatriots of…what? That the US knows about plans that are now two years old?

And how often have you responded to an overt act with a negative reaction, only to be told, “You don’t have all the facts.” The end result of statements such as these is to make you slink away, being made to feel as if you’re tromping on the kittens or stealing candy from babies. A more legitimate response would be to say, “Well then, give us the facts.” But then, of course, you’re invading the other’s privacy with callous disregard to their troubles.

This whole approach is effective, not because we in this country are particularly sensitive to harming others, as much as none of us cares to look bad–to look like we’re tromping on kittens and stealing candy from babies et al.

Personally I’ve long felt that if a person’s actions impact only on themselves or a small circle around them, they have a right to privacy. But when they impact on others, they either have to take responsibility for the act, or expect to be questioned. But you know, I’m not all that good at America 101–raised too close to the Canadian border, I ’spect.

Of course, if these approaches don’t work, we then pull out the final weapon in our American arsenal – we bring out our metaphorical checkbooks.

We make amends with toys and shoes and TV equipment, or perhaps we generate a call out to others to help and they come forward with things like frisbees and server space, or even their own personal time, and the issue then becomes…complicated.

You see, Americans are also a very generous people, and we genuinely want to, and like to, help others–but that help can sometimes form a camouflage around the event that generated the need for help in the first place. If this is called into question, the response may be the same, but isn’t necessarily rhetorical: does it matter what caused the problem, as long as we fix it? And isn’t it better to focus on the positive than the negative.

How does one respond to this? This is not an issue that can be painted black & white, with clearly defined good guys, and bad.

If I break a vase in a store and pay for it, does it matter the reasons I broke it? As long as I make the results ‘all better’, does it matter why I did an act? I may have broke it by accidentally brushing up against it; I may have broke it because I was offended by its looks, and ‘accidentally’ dropped it. Does it matter, though, if I pay for it? Why would a store owner keep questioning my act, once I made good on my damage? Wouldn’t it be better to just focus on the positive outcome?

If in the end, a desired outcome is achieved, what matters the means to achieve it? And if our generosity has a price tag attached, whether it be a name on a building, or a flag around a box, or even an expectation of gratitude, what does it matter if good results?

(I am reminded of a story I heard once about an old man who always dropped gold coins into the church collection bag every Sunday. When questioned about using such an odd form of currency, he replied with, “I’ve lived a long life, and I’ve not always been above sinnin’ now an a’gin. If I’m gonna donate money every week to save my soul, I damn well want to make sure God can hear the coins when I drop them in the bag!”)

As I was writing this, a solution appeared to the little micro-example I used in ths writing, and alls well that ends well. Others have even commented about how useful this all is from a bitter herb get o’r yerselves’ metaphysical point of view; re-awakening the issue that it doesn’t matter if our writing disappears, none of us owns what we write anyway.

I’m trying to find the logic in this, and all I can find is: Writing is an action; none of us owns our actions; therefore, none of us owns our writing. The logic seems valid, but the arguments give me heartburn, and cause me to stumble in confusion–I feel as if I’m listening to the hollow echos of a language, and a culture, that has past me by.

So much to do over nothing. Why don’t you all tell me to stop thinking about these things so much, and to stop making such a to do over nothing? Oh, you have? Well, perhaps I’ll start listening to you more in the future. But it’s an addiction you know–thinking.

To return to the here and now, and the quandary that began this writing: how can I write a helpful essay without first generating a disaster to make it truly worthwhile?

I don’t suppose some of you would be willing to just blow away your weblogs, would you?

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