Racism, the Rebel Flag, and the USA

Racism is front and center in the American consciousness right now, judging by the amount of media coverage that the subject has received in the last few months, as well as the current kerfuffle involving the rebel flag flying over the South Carolina state capitol.

My perspective on the rebel flag is one colored by spending the first part of my life in the American North (Maine), and more than half in the South (Georgia). Simply put, I never witnessed racism in Maine (mind you, it’s probably there), but I sure saw a lot of it in Georgia. I saw racism from, God help us, church people more than once. As time went on, I saw it reciprocated from people white and black, crossing any type of racial divide.

We all know about the history of the southern freedman after the Civil War–a burst of great freedom and triumph followed by startling, ugly repression and the emergence of Jim Crow, and of course the struggle for meaningful freedom that followed for years afterward. As for the flag–most people in rural Georgia explain that they fly the rebel flag not out of hatred toward black people, not out of a spirit of rebellion toward the Union, but as a means of remembering the conflict that spilled so much blood on the red clay. Some might say it’s simply a symbol of the South, as well, which certainly does have a different culture from other regions. I accept those sentiments to an extent, but if we’re going to acknowledge that the confederate battle flag isn’t always flown in a spirit of malice, we must also acknowledge that the flag exists because it was spawned by a treasonous segment of the USA, a segment in open rebellion, a segment which sought to preserve its power and wealth based on the exploitation of an entire race. Given this, it isn’t even remotely appropriate to fly the confederate flag over a state capitol. Fly it over graves of Confederate soldiers. Fly it at museums and memorials to the Civil War (and incidentally, isn’t the flag in South Carolina actually at a memorial, not over the State House?); these are places where it’s appropriate. Fly it on your own private property, for whatever reason you want–you might have honest-to-goodness noble reasons, and it’s your right, anyway. The Georgia state flag that flew from the 1950s until it was replaced in 2001.

Confederate flag controversy sure isn’t new in the South. When governor Roy Barnes got rid of the Georgia state flag that prominently featured the confederate banner in 2001, that was a change for the better. Why South Carolina still flies the flag on State House grounds, God only knows. Or, actually, history tells us quite clearly. I’ve been googling. It is because people hate change.

After all, we cling to the familiar, often unreasoningly, just like an immature little child. But we must develop. We must grow, getting wiser along the way, adapting, broadening, always getting better. And change we have. Look at the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage. Say it’s about time, or say it’s the end of the civilized world as we know it, say what you want about that, but change is upon us. It’s the only thing truly inevitable in life.

The world is evolving. Trade, travel, and communication are easier now than ever before, both on a local and worldwide scale. You can buy goods made in Malaysia, whip our your handy dandy iPhone that was assembled in China, and Skype family members or friends all over the globe, literally seeing what they’re up to, as long as you have an internet connection.

Speaking of the internet, the wealth of information at your fingertips also allows you to find out more about a place or culture than ever before, quick as a wink. I can chat with an Indian and find out religious views (“We compartmentalize our gods, but you have just one,” said a guy named Sharma). I can find out about the history of any nation or obscure military conflict I wish. As I read more and interact more, I discover a simple truth. There isn’t any reason for racism to continue. By now we should recognize how very much alike we all are. No matter where we’re from or what skin tone we’re endowed with, we have the same basic desires and the same basic needs; by the same means, we should understand that people and cultures are naturally different. Those differences are what make the world an interesting place. Everyone doesn’t need to be like us, and we don’t need to be like everyone else.

Earlier I said travel is easier now than ever before, and I’ve been doing my best to take advantage of that. Having touched the ground in 30 countries or so, I’ve discovered another truth. Racism isn’t an exclusively American problem. It’s worldwide, y’all.  I’ve observed Russian people look down on Indians. I’ve seen Chinese people turn up their noses at Malaysians. I’ve watched Arabs treat Pakistanis like they’re dirt. Obviously, it’s very human to view yourself as better than someone else. You might say that the fires of hatred are easily stoked. You’d be right.

Even so, racism isn’t pervasive. For every hateful, bigoted, racist person I’ve ever met, I’ve met six, eight, or twenty times as many who aren’t. I’ve encountered more kind, honest, good-natured, helpful people than I can count.

The USA doesn’t need to make first steps in solving the racial problem, since those were made long ago. It needs to acknowledge that there is a lingering problem, one which needs to be dealt with in a meaningful way. If removing a flag is all it takes to make a move in the right direction, then why shouldn’t that be done? If we can stop adding fuel to the fire, and instead be part of a solution to the larger issue, we’re remiss not to.

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Thursday List: Things Russia and UAE Have in Common

Thanks to all of our readers for giving last week’s post thousands of hits!

For this week’s list, we’ve come up with a number of things that the UAE has in common with Russia.  I’ve been to Russia three times, spending weeks at each go, and the wife, of course, lived there for many years.  After the better part of a year living here in the UAE, we’ve noticed some similarities.  Let me preface this by saying none of it’s meant to be offensive.  That’s not the spirit that it’s written in.  These are just our observations.  If you disagree, feel free to say so.  Also, we’re tag-teaming the writing, so you’ll have to apply your brain power to figure out who’s the “I” sometimes, but we have a great deal of faith in your capability to use deductive reasoning.

Alright, let’s get started:

1) Fatalism.  Wow, that’s a strong word, isn’t it?  I don’t think anyone probably likes having it applied to themselves, but here I go doing it anyway.  When I first visited Russia, I was amazed by the number of people who would observe a problem and then shrug their shoulders and say, “Ah, what can I do about it.” Here in the UAE, the number of “inshallahs” a person hears everyday, especially when dealing with important paperwork, is maddening, and basically presents an extremely similar viewpoint on life.  Jenia says that there is a saying, “Avos’,” in Russian which means more or less the same thing. What can I do about anything?  Nothing!  It’s not my fault.  I have no part in this.  I make no guarantees. Maybe…. God willing…

2) Cheating.  It’s practically institutionalized here.  Kids expect it.  Teachers expect it.  The sheer lack of ability that’s applied to academic pursuits is mind-blowing.  In Russia, it is the same.  Many will probably argue, but in reality it’s not nearly as big an offense as it is in the US.  It was absolutely normal for me (Jenia here) to help my classmates with Russian/English/French and to get help from them with Trigonometry or Chemistry.  Teachers knew. We never got zeroes. Ever.

3) Crazy driving.  Picture this: you’re driving along the interstate highway, the motorway, going a little over the speed limit (i.e. 80 mph or so) in the middle lane, and a Bentley sedan zips past you so fast that your car rocks from the wind blast.  It’s followed a moment later by a BMW and an Audi.  Roundabouts are an adventure in daring and intimidation.  In Russia, traffic incidents are so common that people install dash cams in their cars to help determine who’s at fault (among other reasons).

4) Rules are made to be broken.  Or bent, or flexed, or altered, or applied selectively.  Russians hop over fences and ignore signs.  So do Emiratis.  Seatbelts aren’t usually worn.  The legal driving age is 18 in Abu Dhabi, but plenty of 16 year-olds drive themselves to school.  In both countries, the number of people carrying infants in their lap instead of in a carseat is mind-blowing (we think, it’s partly ignorance and partly the afore-mentioned “inshallah/maybe” mentality.  Need I say more?

5) A default religion.  Here people identify themselves as Muslim because that’s the culture they belong to.  I know there’s further religious reasoning behind it, but what I’m saying is that there are plenty of folks who don’t take their religion very seriously, even though they’d identify themselves as Muslim.  In Russia, the same is true, but of Orthodox Christians.  Even if they’ve never been to a church service, they’ll tick the “Orthodox” box.

6) Conformity.  Society doesn’t like individualists here.  You’re part of a group, and you have to do things the way the group wants them done.  You don’t see it to the same degree in Russia, but the old Soviet reality of punishable initiative still dwells in the minds of too many.  It is not always a bad thing, not at all.  It can be, however.

7) Attitude toward foreigners/strangers.  A friend of mine once said that Russians are like coconuts.  They’re hard on the outside, but soft and wonderful on the inside.  The same seems mostly true of Emiratis.  They’re mostly oblivious to you in public, but once you are invited into a home, you’ll find yourself in the company of kind, gracious people.  This leads us to number 8:

8) Hospitality.  When you become friends with a Russian or an Emirati, they shower you with hospitality.  You’ll find lavish meals laid out before you and people eager to share their culture with you.

9) Propaganda.  As a friend of Jenia’s mentioned recently, one can’t help wondering if the Russian government is drugging its people: reasonable individuals seem to be losing their critical thinking skills and believing in whatever the TV is pouring down on them.  In the UAE, a teacher is not allowed to talk about anything related to Islam, Judaism, or any other religion, he/she cannot use a map or a globe that has Israel and/or Persian instead of Arabian Gulf on it; both terrorist attacks and pigs are never to be mentioned.

10) Nature. Both countries have some fantastic views to offer. Yet, neither culture seems to care in the least about preservation. Littering of epic proportions is widespread.

We’ve chosen to write about things which are different from what your average American experiences back home in the USA.  Some strike us because they’re surprising, others because they’re merely unlike what we live with normally.  There are, of course, a great number of commonalities shared by each of the countries we mention, and the UAE and Russia are wonderful and interesting in their own ways.