The Spice Girls

Yesterday, as news broke regarding the resignation of Sean Spicer as White House Press Secretary, I immediately contacted a fellow Washington vigilant – my younger sister Jenny. Since our earliest childhood days, we’ve been news and politics aware (I’ll hardly regret a ballot more than one cast for Reagan in a 1984 kindergarten mock election). But ever since the post-9/11, Fox News-aided ascendancy of modern-day Republican ideology, neither one of us has been able to relax for a moment.

Wound tightly by patriotic and personal concerns involving the war on terrorism, protracted assaults on woman’s reproductive health, the social safety net, voting rights, immigration and rational gun policy, we’ve been busy worrying. The Obama years brought some comfort in the form of a decent, rational if imperfect leader. But even then the Tea Party and other self-styled citizens of the “real America” talked endless, incendiary shit about the President, immigrants, the LGBTIQ and a long-settled woman’s right to make decisions about her own body.

Some of it was more than talk. Jenny and I have paid attention to what’s gone down in the states, including our own. Budget impasses, government shutdowns, disgustingly offensive bathroom laws, innocent citizens of color gunned down by local police. Elections matter and the right has been gaining the macro and micro majorities required to transform America into something less free for “those people” (most of us) – for decades.

My second favorite pundit and I are especially alert, exhausted and afraid for our country in the Trump era. The international shame, ridicule and danger. The proud, illiterate ignorance of our President, the moral and ethical stench wafting from every corner of the White House. But every now and then we’re given a gift of comic absurdity, a small moment of levity that transcends danger into the mere comically sad. So many of those moments have been offered by Sean Spicer these last, harrowing six months. Bless him.

It’s kind of hard to pick a favorite. Writers such as Erin Gloria Ryan have pointed out that Spicey came out swinging for the unintentionally humorous fences:

“Mr. Spicer’s relationship with the press got off to a bad start. Just one day after President Trump’s inauguration, our boy Sean issued a bizarre statement claiming the crowd was the biggest ever. His sagging suit indicated that perhaps he was not the greatest at gauging the sizes of things.”

Her piece in The New York Times yesterday ends with an endearment I burningly wish I’d written first: “Goodnight, sweet wince.”

No matter how insane Spicer’s behavior grew in defense of his probably-bankrupt-in-every-sense boss and the Trump administration, it was a mostly harmless show. We (and here I mean the larger “we,” not just Jenny and I) have long expected slanted spin from the Press Secretary’s podium. Spicey added that special mix of pitiful audaciousness that made his briefings among the highest-rated programs on daytime television. The man hid from the press in the bushes. This is a thing that actually happened. Under the direst circumstances – the running aground of America by a circus clown and his enablers – we need the occasional laugh to keep us going.

What are we to do now? Basically, this was my question to Jenny when I messaged her late yesterday morning. I sent her a link to the Times’ breaking news item about Spicer’s decision to walk away from the madness. She’s a mother of two girls married to a wonderful Muslim-American man. As many readers know, Jenny’s had to take vigilance a step further than some (me) when it comes to protecting her family from rhetorical and legislative threats. Thus she was predictably less flapped than I:

“This should surprise no one.”

Point taken, and yet somehow I was blindsided by Spicer’s move. I assumed that a man who’d spent six months and a day eating shit in front of America on behalf of Donald Trump could survive anything – especially a new supervisor. The moment when one is lulled into the belief that a head can’t be further scratched, The Donald and his team offer a new itch.

In reply to Jenny’s resigned assessment of the latest Friday news twist in Washington, I offered this. Maybe a sign of obscured, but persistent optimism.

“We must be ready for anything and yet because absurdity continues every day, any sort of end of it is still a jolt.”

Spicey was easy to dismiss. A fool who earnestly wanted respect, even if he had no idea how to gain it.  As Forrest Gump said, “Good, that’s one less thing.” Scaramucci, Sanders and their soulless sleaze on the other hand? No more laughing. Just more worrying.

Things Fall Apart: How Chinua Achebe Opened My Eyes (March 22, 2013)

Things Fall Apart_How Chinua Achebe Opened My Eyes

 

 

Growing up in the 1980s, it was easy to believe that the United States was the only country in the world, or at least the only one that mattered. During the Reagan era of total cultural insulation and paranoia, Cold War indoctrination was barely questioned. That the Soviet Union was a jealous, constant threat to our national security was a given. Africa was the beneficiary of telethons and fundraisers, not the continent from which all humanity sprung. Think “We Are the World,” “Man in the Mirror” and the AIDS epidemic. I didn’t even learn of Lucy the Australopithecus until I went to college.

Part of my worldly ignorance during the “Me” decade can be blamed on a parochial Lutheran education more concerned with churning out students who can list the books of the Old Testament rather than master geography. But upon reflection, there was also a pervasive national arrogance that rather discouraged intellectual curiosity outside our borders. We had MTV, Diet Coke and we were winning the Space Race. Why bother with anything else?

In the mid-1990s, twin influences began to transform my limited perspective. As a member of the Chicago Children’s Choir, I played, rehearsed and traveled with a multi-cultural group of peers that afforded me the opportunity to perform in countries as far-flung as Russia, Poland and South Africa. And it was as a student enrolled in Lincoln Park High School’sInternational Baccalaureate (IB) Program that I became acquainted with curriculum and texts outside the Euro-American canon.

Junior year, as part of a World Literature class, I was introduced to novel entitled Things Fall Apart by an African writer named Chinua Achebe. An Achebe obituary published today in The New York Times provides the following plot summary: “Set in the Ibo countryside in the late 19th century, the novel tells the story of Okonkwo, who rises from poverty to become an affluent farmer and village leader. But with the advent of British colonial rule and cultural values, Okonkwo’s life is thrown into turmoil. In the end, unable to adapt to the new status quo, he explodes in frustration, killing an African in the employ of the British and then committing suicide.”

I am almost ashamed to admit that this book was the first perspective suggesting that white imperialism might be other than a boon to the infiltrated nation, to which I had been exposed. In the same way that primary school education managed to juxtapose “Manifest Destiny” and studies of Native American Culture while deftly sidestepping suggestion that one was responsible for the annihilation of the other, so too did subversive Anglophilia ignore the stains left by British colonialism across the globe.

I was never able to bury my head in the sand again, and I am certainly a more well-rounded individual for it.  Much as the biblical Adam and Eve became suddenly aware and humiliated by their nakedness pursuant to eating from the Tree of Life, so too did I grow embarrassed by bilingualism in my sphere of influence that began and ended with Spanish-language segments on Sesame StreetAchebe’s work included a focus on the ways in which language can act as a barrier between two cultures, or perhaps more malevolently, the ways in which imperialist nations can leverage their tongues and customs to suppress the “other.”

This awakening dovetailed rather perfectly with the 1980s-era social arrogance and hubris I had only recently begun to contemplate. Those nations with a command over the English language participated in ideological reproduction and took their place in the international hierarchy. And by what merit had that happened? Is there any skill involved in having bigger guns and more Bibles? The French classes which were part of my personal IB curriculum track thus took on a new importance. I did not want to be “that” American anymore, the one who assumed that everyone in the world worth knowing would speak in my tongue.

Young Americans in the 21st Century take globalization for granted. The world has been flat for as long as the Internet and cell phones have made neighbors of us all.  The U.S. ability to set the world agenda is no longer assumed to be part of the national birthright. Today’s youth are often enrolled in learning institutions where white English speakers are the minority.  As a result of many influences, including immigration, it is estimated that 20 percent of our citizens speak at least a second language at home. And though he cannot be exclusively credited for our collectively growing cultural awareness and evolution, Mr. Achebe, who died today at the age of 82, is directly responsible for one woman’s removal of the “American Way” from an unquestioned pedestal.