My Country, His Country
My passport tells me that I’m American. I’m not here to decry that fact.
It’s important that those of us who enjoy privilege as a byproduct of citizenship status remain acutely aware of that reality (as of the realities of other forms of privilege) without lapsing into self-satisfaction or giving way to a craven irony about the state of the world. I have had little hand in shaping our collective politics, but I can neither pretend to exist outside of them, nor demand to define the terms of our mutual exchange within.
I do have the power to make choices. Evidently, Aziz Ansari’s passport tells him that he is American as well. It is not for me to speak to the realities of his life; there is little doubt that a lifetime of struggling with contradictions is at the root of his brilliance as an observer of certain aspects of contemporary American society. Typically, speakers (including comedians) have a target audience in mind when they raise their voices, though, and it seems clear who Aziz’s target audience was in his recent article for the New York Times Style Magazine.
I’ll leave the critiques of Master of None to the critics. I watched the show and enjoyed it in parts. It did not change my life.
Certain questions have been at the forefront of my mind of late however, and Aziz’s chronicle of his recent trip to India serves as a lens to consider some of those questions: What do we, as citizens of the United States, expect from ourselves? What do we expect from our country? What do we expect from the world? How do we understand our relationship to ourselves, each other, and everyone else on the planet?
There are troubling signs on all fronts. I have no intention of making a nostalgic appeal to ahistorical greatness. The United States was founded on racism, greed, and genocide, and has never strayed too far from those foundational principles. Still, as the first, the most-lasting, and the presently-most-powerful bourgeois democracy on the planet, the United States has clearly been of world historical significance, and even in its present state of decadence, continues to be.
Comparisons with Rome are out of vogue these days. Nonetheless, we have an outspokenly-authoritarian megalomaniac as the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. Our crippling anti-politics, so-called, have seemingly stalled much of the legislative process. Perhaps our days as (even a nominal) republic are numbered.
Meanwhile, the majority of the American population seems to fail to grasp that, as citizens of the United States, they have power; or they prefer to languish and luxuriate in their impotent power rather than to test that power against a political reality so intransigent; or they simply enjoy the state the world is in? Rather than risk the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, they would prefer to sit back and watch cat videos on the internet while our government kills civilians with drones in their names.
Note that, here, the word civilians essentially has no meaning. This is our post-9/11 reality. A world of enemy combatants and indefinite detentions. But do we really want a 100 Years War for the 21st Century? Is the Long War really the ambition of the American people in this new century that should otherwise hold so much promise? Or are the hard truths of Realpolitik simply of the highest order in our political imagination? A resurgent Russia? China rising? The threat of global Islamic terrorism in the name of restored dreams of Caliphate? All of the above in need of constant check by ever-ballooning state military and intelligence apparatuses? And, of course, Africa, the other Americas, and the rest of the Global South perennially under our imperial heel?
For clarity and simplicity then, consider civilians to mean here: Yet another wedding party in Afghanistan who the CIA and DOD will inconveniently have to reclassify as Taliban militants. It’s not easy work the Deep State does.
Back here in the Homeland, random mass killings have become banal. We have a financial system that thrives on profitably unproductive manipulation and serves primarily as a mechanism for wealth redistribution. We have a military-industrial-complex that thrives on conflict. We have a chemical-industrial-complex that thrives on persistent toxification. We have a prison-industrial-complex that thrives on incarceration. We have a healthcare-industrial-complex that thrives on sickness. We have a nonprofit-industrial-complex that primarily perpetuates the status quo. We have an education-industrial-complex that is all but carceral in its structure and intentions. We have an agricultural-industrial-complex that fuels empty consumption. We have a consumer culture that, broadly-speaking, fuels the same.
Nor is this list by any means exhaustive. I’m thinking of our tourism-industrial-complex, for example, or the festering sore of our political-industrial-complex on such feverish display right now.
We have limited resources here on planet Earth. We are squandering them. We should look forward to a time in the not-so-distant future when we realize that the forests, the glaciers, the freshwater, the topsoil, even the fossil fuels are not coming back. What will be to be done then? Shall we live on money alone?
We are alive. Our lives have meaning. We have power. We have the ability to make choices and take actions. We may well be watching the long death throes of this many-headed hydra. It will be up to us what comes next, and to keep ourselves clear of its thrashing in the meantime.
As for our media-industrial-complex, it seems to thrive largely on the reproduction of stale images and the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes, which is where Aziz Ansari comes in. None of us can fully understand the ramifications of the lives we live, and Aziz is certainly not the villain here. He is, after all, the self-proclaimed Master of None. But we do all have choices about who we stand with and what we stand for. And he does have real power.
As much as this is my country, it is Aziz Ansari’s. Even as our infrastructure crumbles and our politics descend into insanity, our country. Even when history cries out that the very claim to the territory is unjust and drenched in blood. Our country, somehow, though we may not know what to do with it.
In that respect, New York is a haven for many of us, and I do not pretend to understand Aziz Ansari’s life. As long as the Ann Coulters of the world are recommending deporting the Nikki Haleys, Aziz, and millions of individuals whose experiences rhyme with his, will likely find it necessary to fight a rearguard action against the lunatics in the form of assimilation.
Plus, we all have bills to pay. And maybe that’s what it comes down to in the end: Paying the bills.
In short, I will not try to take the speck out of my brother’s eye because I’m aware of the speck in my own.
Our attention, too, is a scarce resource, though — and seemingly ever-scarcer. As the parasitic capitalism that the United States itself pioneered — having exhausted the growth medium of the entire world, its Petri dish — turns back inward to eat its own young, I encourage you to use yours wisely.