America is, for all intents and purposes, the greatest nation in the world. But a lack of intellectual curiosity and honesty has led its precipitous fall in the 21st century. America is a paradox, a country built on a series of good and evil pillars:
- Imperialism: White Europeans seeking to conquer the world
- Opportunism & Barbarism: Genocide of Native Americans
- Individualism through Idealism: Democracy and human rights extolled by the French philosophers of the Enlightenment
- Idealism through Rebellion: Rejection of British Monarchy
- Injustice via Slavery, “the original sin.”
- The Second Amendment, aka the right to bear arms, which if you were a white slave owner focused on nation-building at the expense of native Americans would be a no-brainer, and finally:
- Capitalism: While we assume this to be tied to the constitution, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations is contemporaneous to 1776’s Declaration of Independence.
America is a Complicated Experiment
America is, by its very nature, an individualistic nation based on opportunism. It is what it is. The good accounts for the idealistic sense of American and individualistic nature, the bad explains what holds America back. Yes, the American dream elevates America to the greatest country on earth – where anyone can in theory, technically become anything – but the reality is more complicated than that.
A Lapse in Education
Despite being home to some of the world’s best schools, reality is America’s main export is not intellectual but entertainment. When Johnny Carson said that Americans preferred to be entertained than educated, he wasn’t kidding, and that’s what I cited when I called President Trump’s victory in January 2016.
But President Trump’s victory culminated a trend that started years before, the reality TV generation electing the reality TV candidate, unable to pinpoint the country it invaded.
Rejection of Science
America’s failure to manage a pandemic was amplified due to the Republican leadership’s rejection of science. In previous millenia, religion rationalized to mankind what it could not explain. It’s impardonable that we ignored science and risk continuing to do so with climate change.
The original, original Sin
While Native Americans were pushed out of white European conquerors’ everyday lives to reservations, Black slaves built America and over time became as part of America as its White population. But without reparations after the Emancipation proclamation, America has deluded itself into thinking life was business as usual, when in fact it has been anything but.
Having studied how people think, feel and act; and societies and organizations react, I like to go a bit deeper. Each person’s thoughts on racism, sexism – bias and prejudice of all kinds – depends on their own background. Mine is that of an Iranian, Muslim-born Canadian who built a media company profiling American pop culture and icons.
Six months after I was born, Iran had a revolution. Iranians detained American diplomats at the embassy. It was wrong. But looking at that historical moment in a vacuum is incomplete, as Iranians remain miffed to this day about Operation Ajax. We had a democracy – for a brief moment – Americans and British forces robbed us of it. Eventually my family moved to Spain, then Canada. I recognize my infinite privilege because I know how hard it was for most Iranians to flee the mullahs. We had it easy.
Emigrating to Canada at the age of 5, I always felt as Canadian as others. Eventually I went to Concordia University – a far more diverse institution of higher learning than McGill – where ironically, I was whiter than most, but began to realize that when it came to being Canadian, I was an outsider. I used humor as a coping mechanism. I’d state sophomorically: “I’m born in Iran, but brought up on bacon, babes & booze.” This was 1996 to 1999, before 9/11.
I then graduated from finance; with a name like Ashkan Karbasfrooshan, despite an impeccable command of the English and French language, it wasn’t like Wall Street firms were rushing to return my calls when seeking work… especially considering the Nasdaq market soon crashed, the dot com bubble burst and of course, 9/11.
9/11 was a defining moment for everyone alive. As much as I viewed myself as North America, 9/11 changed it all. Geopolitically, Iranians and Arabs are rivals, friends and foes, but while 19 Saudis crashed into symbols of American financial and military might, all Muslims bore the brunt of that affront.
O Canada: The Nice, 4th place finisher in Racism
By then I was working in media, traveling to NYC and LA frequently enough. Starting your professional career in media post 9/11 with a Canadian passport saying you’re born in Iran is… something. That said, American customs employees never gave me a hard time; it’s as if they knew Iranians were in fact largely sympathetic to Americans. But the “damage” was done, the bias and prejudice that I sensed before was front and center. My sense of humor as a defense mechanism evolved to “I could have been the 20th hijacker,” a crude but effective pre-emption of any nonsense racism I’d have to bear otherwise. “Let’s get on with it” to allow me to move on to business.
Recently, the debate here has shifted between “Is Canada racist?” to “how racist is Canada.” Look, if Germany is the winner of the Cecil B. DeMille Award in racism and Americans are the perennial gold winners, Canada comes in fourth (there are many jokes and passive aggressive references there). Canada is racist, but its racism is not rooted in slavery and people owning one another. Canada shouldn’t get a pass for its more benign, subtle form of prejudice, but Canada passes the test and is part of the solution and not the problem. The reason, ultimately, boils down to slavery – or lack thereof.
Everyone has some biases, many are racist, Canadians are no exception. I’ve faced a lot of prejudice, but it’s nothing compared to others. But Canadians are naive about it, almost nice to a fault (jokes aside, while Canadians say the right things about their own relationship with indigenous people, government and citizens’ acts say much more.
Due to genocide of native Americans & slavery, American racism is both malicious. Due to the seeds of imperialism, individualism & capitalism, America’s racism is also more opportunistic.
It always boils down to His story
When history books start off with “in 1492, Christopher Columbus reached the shores of America,” it’s building a disingenuous foundation for young students.
When my humanities teacher in college asked what’s worse: holocaust or slavery? I answered genocide. When he countered “slavery. I OWN you is worse,” it took years for me to understand the long-term dehumanization part of it, but over time, I understood.
If I bring up Germany, it’s not to make a crude observation, but to credit Germans for acknowledging their role in the Holocaust and paying reparations to the Jewish people.
While by no means perfect, paying reparations served as a bookmark to close one chapter and start another. When I interviewed Spike Lee, I asked him where would America be had each Black family actually been given 40 acres and a mule – the name of his production company and what was promised to Black Americans post emancipation proclamation. It’s nice and dandy to hire more Blacks, of course, but change will come through Black Americans owning more businesses.
To this day, there’s an element of shame, regret, humility in Germany’s past actions. America has never come to terms with that. After the Civil War, history books framed the Civil War as the “lost cause,” de-emphasizing slavery. In Germany, the Holocaust is taught throughout.
Slavery in America? Not so much.
Reject Religion, Reject Guns
As much as America was built on the separation of church and state, today America knows no boundary between those two institutions. When in 2008 then-candidate Barack Obama said that Americans “cling to guns or religion,” Hillary Clinton’s team latched onto his statement as his Achilles heel, but in the history of politician’s statements – let alone Presidents’ – nothing has ever rung truer (as side note: that America would elect a Black president before a woman president also speaks loudly about Americans issues with sexism).
My family wasn’t religious. Studying history, a pattern emerged quickly in how the most disenfranchised always turned to religion to justify their fate, and seek salvation in hoping for a better tomorrow. I never bought that. I believe in individualism more than most. That was what drew me to entrepreneurship. Semantics aside, capitalism is the economic model to lead us to a better place, but we need some of the safety nets that social policies provide.
Ultimately, inasmuch as I wish for Americans to recognize that you can own certain guns but don’t need to own weapons of war, I wish for their own sake that they also reject religion a bit. Religion hasn’t helped people get ahead, rather, it has helped Blacks rationalize the injustice they have faced (Amazing Grace is a manifestation of that), same way that growing up, I saw how Muslims used religion to rationalize the bias they faced.
Those who keep pushing religion onto Americans – black or white – have enriched themselves at the cost of everyday Americans. Religion has done more to tear humanity apart; America is no exception.
Without acknowledgement or reparations, there can be no reconciliation.
The Role of Covid and BLM in the Civil Rights Movement
Covid will accelerate history: 40% of people earning less than $40,000 lost their jobs, of those jobs, 40% of them won’t come back. With so many young, disenfranchised people “having nothing else to do” – but mainly, not much to lose – the intensity and resiliency of the protests won’t be easy to override. Trump’s lack of intellectual curiosity and honesty will amplify that. Technology has reduced the importance of history books, thankfully, for everyone can record things as they occur. Racism hasn’t increased, but the recording of racist acts has.
In turn, Covid amplified protests. Technology will fuel it. The stark juxtaposition of police standing by passively to right wing, gun-toting Proud Boys versus the brutal constant attacks on peaceful demonstrators laid bare American hypocrisy moreso than its exceptionalism (not dissimilarly, it was a reminder that America pulverized Iraq, which didn’t have nuclear weapons; but it did not invade North Korea, which had nuclear weapons). If American security forces react so harshly to its fellow citizens when exercising their constitutional right to protest, then how do they conduct themselves when occupying foreigners in their imperialistic pursuits?
An Empire on Its Last Legs?
In a few months, America lost its stature as the moral leader of the world. Like the British empire before and after the 20th century’s great wars, America went into the storm as the leading empire, but will come out of it giving up the mantle.
Everyone loves America, we don’t love all of its policies. The world is actually rooting for America to come out of this stronger, healthier. But it’s like looking at an addict, someone with problems. If you don’t think you have any problems, you are the problem.
Ultimately, while obviously Black Lives always matter, more importantly, combined with Covid exposing America’s fragility and internal rot, the BLM movement now has the opportunity to galvanize an entire population to make true progress to address centuries of socio-economic imbalance and political injustice.
MLK would be proud, but so would the founding fathers of the country.