Saturday, March 17, 2012

Being Un-American

I can remember the exact moment that my worldview changed.  It was on May 13, 1960.  After watching a movie at a theater on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley where I was a student at the University of California, I walked outside to find the next morning's San Francisco Chronicle on sale with this photo on the front page.  It showed students being washed down the steps of City Hall by police with fire hoses.  Their "crime" was protesting the hearings being held by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).  Many were seriously injured.  They were students from Cal, Stanford and other Bay Area colleges.  Notice the headline: the battling cops are the subject and the "mob" the target.  There was no sympathy for anything radical back in 1960.

I was shocked.  How could this happen?  I knew little about HUAC and even less about politics.  Eight years before I'd proudly worn an "I Like Ike" button.  My mother loved his chosen successor, Richard Nixon, and affectionately called him "Tricky Dick," the moniker given him by his enemies.  I would turn 21 in July that year and the 1960 presidential election would be the first in which I could vote.  I had assumed I was a Republican since I was middle class and white.  My parents had voted for Eisenhower's reelection in 1956 against the swarthy Democrat, Adlai Stevenson, who was not considered quite "our kind," whatever that was.  I lived in a new suburban town north of Los Angeles where ranch houses had replaced orange groves and most on my block had swimming pools in their back yards.  But our house was the smallest on the street and my father was a plywood salesman.  I was a teenager in the Fifties, a self-identified "juvenile delinquent," and life couldn't be better.  Until I saw that photo.

Thus began major changes in my life, an exodus from thinking of myself as "American."  I switched my major from English Literature to Journalism and joined the Daily Cal.  And I became a member of Slate, the radical campus organization that laid the foundation for the Free Speech Movement which would take place after I was gone.  We organized an all-night vigil on the steps of Sproul Hall and I was the publicity coordinator.  And we demonstrated against war at a military parade in downtown Berkeley.  I met students who claimed to be communists or Maoists and I was encouraged to attend the Helsinki Youth Festival that summer sponsored by the Russians, but my father refused to fund the trip.  With veterans of kabbutzim in Israel I learned to dance the Hora (in those days all the Jews I met were radical socialists).  My best friend and former roommate distanced himself from me (he later claimed to have worked with the CIA in Asia even though he was only a Navy dentist in the Philippines).  While passing out fliers at Sather Gate for some political activity, a former fraternity brother (I pledged Sigma Chi but quit before initiation) asked me if I was volunteering for the Young Republicans.  That's as radical as he could conceive. I was pro-Castro and anti-Dulles.

America was motherhood and apple pie, baseball, hot dogs on the Fourth of July, and the waving flag, Old Glory.  Americans believed in God, freedom and democracy, and the right to make a financial profit any way possible, which included crushing the competition.  In the Fifties it meant short hair, a crew cut.  But JDs wore their hair long and greased back in a duck tail. I sported pegged pants, white bucks, and a pink shirt that disturbed my mother.  When I expressed the desire to become an actor like my Uncle Ted, they were afraid I might become a (gulp) homosexual (although that word was never uttered, even around Ted, my father's twin brother, who was as gay as they come I learned much later).  I stayed out after curfew with my friends and was twice brought home drunk by the cops.  This may all sound like a typical rebellious teen, but when I got to college and became radicalized by that photo, I determined to reject my white bread roots.

Music was my mode of escape.  I played the clarinet and alto sax and dreamed of joining Stan Kenton's orchestra, until I discovered black jazz and rhythm and blues.  Norman Mailer's essay, "The White Negro," was about me.  I wanted to inhabit jazz clubs and smoke tea.  At night I listened to R&B with sexually-charged lyrics played on radio after midnight, and even visited Huggy Boy's show at a record store in the LA one night to make record requests.  We danced the "dirty boogie" at parties where the alcohol had been stolen from the liquor cabinet of the host's parents.  After Jack Kerouac published On the Road, I read it and became an instant beatnik.  Driving down Grant Street in San Francisco's North Beach with my parents one night, my mother rolled up the windows and locked the doors for fear we sightseeing straights would be attacked by rampaging beats.  I was appalled and ashamed.

Most of my junior high school and high school friends found their way back to the American mainstream by the time they married and had children.  I took my first wife to England to live in "swinging" London during the Carnaby Street period.  I read books from the Holburn High Street library on occult religions and politics, and was particularly interested in learning about the troubles in Southeast Asia that included the French defeat by Vietnamese in 1954 and the current (it was 1965) entry of Americans into the conflict in an attempt to stop the spread of communism.  By the time we returned to the U.S. with our young son in the late Sixties, the hippies had risen from the ashes of the beatniks and were spreading from the Sunset Strip in Hollywood to Haight Ashbury in San Francisco. I desperately wanted to be part of it but was a reluctant member of the married middle class.  So I refused to vote Republican.  I campaigned for Gene McCarthy, the progressive senator from Minnesota who wrote poetry.

These days, I am an expat in Thailand.  I left America more for financial reasons than political (it's cheaper to live here on Social Security).  But the un-American identity I assumed after seeing that photo in 1960 on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle remains.  It's affirmed in my exchanges on Facebook with friends from the past.  Why did so many from the Pasadena area become ultra-patriotic conservatives?  I've been de-friended by more than one for my criticism of American politics, war mongering, and support of Israel.  There are times even when I think of giving up my American citizenship (which might throw a monkey wrench into my retirement income).  I tell sympathetic friends online and in Thailand that I love the American land and the people, although lately the 50% that espouse and support fascist ideas and causes gives me pause to reconsider the latter.

I've been thinking about issues of identity while rereading Thongchai Winichakul's wonderful book about  the discursive construction of Siam (Thailand since 1941) by means of the technology of geography and mapping.  Yesterday I gave a PowerPoint synopsis of Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-body of a Nation (1994) to our political discussion group.  Tongchai has been a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin since 1991 but speaks here frequently, twice in the last month, about "Thainess," the political ideology of nationhood.  "Thainess" is the equivalent of "American" but it carries more urgent weight in Thailand where the government is described as a "democracy with the King as head of state."  With the succession looming, the monarchy is seen by some as requiring a strong defense (not from un-Thainess but from a perceived Republican conspiracy, which is much the same).  Thongchai describes these supporters from the miltiary and elite classes as representatives of "royalist democracy," and describes their efforts to inculcate "Thainess" by means of "hyper-royalism," a series of invented rituals and traditions that serve to strengthen devotion to the King.

Living in a foreign country, without speaking the language very well, prompts the outsider to question their identity, and to even wonder why identity seems necessary.  Who am I?  When I was younger, while  traveling abroad, there were times when I claimed to be Canadian to avoid any criticism directed at Americans (which is half true since my mother was born in Winnepeg).  The "ugly American" is a cliché, but I've seen enough loud-mouthed, obnoxious American tourists to see its truth (these days, particularly in Pattaya, it's the Russians).  All Westerners in Thailand are called farang by the natives.  Some expats object to this as racist but it's never bothered me (it probably originated with the Indo-Persian word farangi for foreigner).  It describes me but it doesn't feel like an identity I can embrace.

Well, for starters, I'm an elderly male, possessor of a certificate which allows me to preface my name with "Dr." (or append "Ph.D" to my surname).  Getting a doctorate was a stroke of brilliance which seemed hard work at the time.  Here in Thailand it gains much respect.  I know my superiors are proud of having an American doctor on their faculty.  And as a farang, I'm wealthy in the eyes of most Thais.  It's true, since my retirement income is over four times the average wage of a Thai clerk or salesperson, and vastly higher than that of a day laborer. I'm married to a younger Thai woman and we live high up in a condo building. I can afford to visit Starbucks every day.  It doesn't matter that, never having invested in property or putting much savings away, I feel poor compared to the folks back home.  "Home"?  There is a sense that in my consciousness I will always be an American far from home.


Stephen Cysewski said...

We should meet some time, we have many experiences in common. I just returned from our annual Thailand trip, but hopefully will be back to our Thai home next year.

"Simplifried" said...

I felt struck by the same sense of common experiences. Beautifully written I would add. Like Stephen I have only just returned to my home in K.L. after a business trip to Bangkok. The schedule was tight but I still hope that one day we might meet up for a cup of coffee. Warm Regards, Gary

Dion Peoples said...

Many similarities, but just replace the generational differences... or rather I was more into the machine, being ex-USAF, signing up during the 1st Gulf War... and 'served' for a decade, until the Kosovo War repulsed me, beyond repair, then 9-11 - I'm friends to Islam, not an enemy... America became the non-America that I formerly loved. It's direction is no longer my direction. I wish the nation well, and hope to return one day. I feel like I am in exile, waiting to return... but I have to live life, here.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the backround info Dr Will, as I enjoy you writing and agree with your politics.

Sounds like you are doing pretty good in Bangkok..I am about 10 years behind you, as I have left Asia recently , and will be working in NH for a year, but am planning to return 2013 with my Thai wife, as we have just recently married on 30 Dec. on a 15c day in New Hampshire. Still not sure where in Thailand we will set up house.. The politics in U.S. is not as frightening as the amount of Americans that actually beleive this far right rhetoric, not sure what one can do other than smile and take the high road.. Hope to see you next year, but regardless I wish you and Nan the best,


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info its great to read up on what others are doing in Thailand.