“Be American! Buy American!” Says the Foreign-Born Mini-Mart Owner Selling Chinese Lighters, Drug Paraphernalia, and Porn
When I first saw the sign I was ready to be offended, assuming the sign was a misguided attack against completely legal, hard-working immigrants who often found employment the only place they could, at mini-marts. But the moment I walked into the store the tables suddenly turned and suggested that I was the one discriminating against someone, not them. The store was in fact owned and operated by a family who immigrated from India.
The odd thing is, even now (months after I first saw it) the sign still bugs me and I can't figure out exactly why.
Part of my frustration with the sign stems from the fact that I still don't know exactly what it means. Typically someone telling you to "Buy American" means you should buy products made by US companies at factories in the US. But this sign can't possibly mean that because the store is hardly so exclusive, they sell all your typical, cheap, Chinese-made mini-mart crap and then some. So the next likely interpretation is that it means you should buy from stores owned or operated by Americans (as opposed to buying from stores owned by foreign corporations or staffed by illegal aliens). But this also confuses me because so far as I'm aware there are no stores within 5+ miles which are not owned and operated by Americans. We're in rural Pennsylvania, the vast majority of people around here have been here since at least the civil war. In fact the nearest and most popular competitor to this mini-mart is one called Sheetz, an American owned chain, operated by a whole lot of lily-white, native speakers. So, what would be the point of a sign saying you should do something that realistically you cannot avoid doing anyway? And that's what seems to generate most of my dislike for the sign. It feels not like a sign meant to celebrate, cement, and secure the owner's adopted homeland, but like a gimmick, a cheap marketing technique intended to somehow justify their excess prices, encourage a faithful customer base, or discourage robberies by patriotic Americans. Fueling my dislike for the sign and the store is also that the store is hardly representative of an America I want encouraged. Unlike other local mini-marts, this blue-blooded American neighborhood mini-mart sells many unsavory things: drug paraphernalia and raunchy porn. Perhaps those items were made in America, but I'm not sure that's sufficient justification for selling it. (The drug paraphernalia are mesh screens (which I understand are used for smoking various drugs), a large selection of rolling papers, Swisher Sweetz (and other cigarillos that people seem to put drugs into), etc.)
Separate and apart from my dislike for the nature of the shop and my suspicion about motivation for the sign, I can't help but admit to some vague and hard to define (or defend) uneasiness with the "new kid on the block" telling us native-borns what to do. I love the USA and I love that other people love it, too. I want people to become lawful citizens, marry themselves to our culture, accept our best and our worst, and want to join in our attempt to be better united than we are apart. But were I to move abroad and become a citizen of elsewhere it would never occur to me to tell anyone there how they should be. They were there first, they know their culture far better than I do, they "get" the nation I will be forever getting. I certainly do and will defend any new or old citizen of the USA their right to share their thoughts and opinions, but it doesn't mean I have to like it. Maybe that is a prejudiced position, or maybe it's just a natural position that all cultures have to encourage stability and discourage imposed change from unfamiliar or outside influences. I don't know.
I absolutely support the idea of promoting exceptionalism, and I am proud of what the US has achieved and continues to achieve, but I am frustrated that the discussion of American Exceptionalism (particularly by the right wing of our political system) seems always so one dimensional. Exceptionalists want America to be its best, continue to be its best, continue to lead the world. But lead the world in what? The exceptionalist talking points usually have to do with technological, ideological, and even military supremacy. But what about the supremacy of our health, supremacy of our freedoms, supremacy of our happiness? The Declaration of Independence wisely identifies all three of these as our unalienable rights ("Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.") Our model for exceptionalism as it exists today doesn't meet our unalienable needs. It is far too limited in scope. It requires a holistic revision.
On the matter of life, there is no denying that, ignoring cost, US healthcare is the envy of the world. We have focused on developing technologies and doing research which has produced results which has no peers. But that hyper-focus on new machines and new treatments has created a healthcare industry that many Americans can't afford, many Americans struggle to afford, and the remaining Americans pay dearly to afford. And the question must be asked, does our superior medical prowess and spending translate into more lives saved? The answer is clearly indisputably, "No." We're ranked 38th in longevity, and ranked poorly in many other metrics related to overall health and lifespan. The model of exceptionalism we've adopted and wish to export has us working diligently to create drugs to treat obesity rather than encouraging us to develop the discipline to eat less and exercise more.
On the matter of our freedom we have now legally legitimized invading our citizen's thoughts (with and without court involvement and with and without our knowledge). Warrantless wiretaps, warrantless analysis of phone and internet data, warrantless seizure and analysis of citizen's encrypted and unencrypted laptops at our nation's borders, warrantless and waranted examination of our web searches, web readings, book purchases and borrowings, etc. all show that this nation has completely lost its passion for liberty. Freedom is now just a pretty word we emptily use.
And on the matter of happiness, I would argue that our nation has completely lost its way. Most American happiness is now found at the bottom of a glass, in the unboxing of a new 57" HD TV, in the firing of a virtual gun in a game machine, and in the laughing at a prime time joke told on a major network. Obviously we still find joy in the more appropriate things as well, such as the enjoyment of our family, pets, nature, religion, etc. but few can argue how very much our happiness has shifted to the fleeting satisfaction of the material, technological, etc. If one of our national goals really is the pursuit of happiness then we must admit our increasing failure.
I want the world to learn from us, but let us devote ourselves more to the business of getting our own house in order rather than trying to export our distressingly devolving values.
One thing that has always shocked me is just how ignorant many in America are. By no means is ignorance unique to America, nor is it necessarily so much higher in the US than it is elsewhere, but with our vast resources and opportunities it feels wholly inexcusable here.
A timely poll just released a few days ago, asking people when the United States of America declared her independence and from whom showed that a shocking number of Americans didn't know. Only 58% knew the year was 1776 and only 76% knew we became independent from Great Britain. How is that possible? Surely it's a combination of a poor educational system, poor parenting, and some seriously absent curiosity on the part of the ignorant.
It reminded me of all the other frightening points of ignorance revealed by polls in recent years, including:
- 20% of Americans actually believe the Sun revolves around the Earth (source)
- 20% of Americans in the run up to the last election were convinced Obama was a Muslim. (source)
- 41% of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11, years after the war with Iraq began, despite Bush repeatedly acknowledging no connection (source)
- 47% of Americans (most of whom are Christian) did not know that Judaism is older than Christianity and Islam (source)
- 36% of Americans don't know the Amazon is in South America (source)
- 21% of Americans believe witches/warlocks/sorcerers/etc. are real (source)
- 51% of Americans don't believe in the Theory of Evolution (with 25% actively disbelieving and the others not answering or being unsure) (source)
I hate the concept of elitism, the idea that any one person or group of people is "better" than any other and deserves a better life, more resources, more power, etc. But, faced with the shocking ignorance of a good 20-35% of the US population it's hard not to feel we do ourselves great harm by allowing woefully ignorant people equal rights to guide our collective destiny. Why shouldn't we require that people demonstrate knowledge of important and related objective truths before allowing a person to vote? So many of our monumental decisions as a nation are made by voted margins much smaller than this collective of the uninformed. Clearly denying anyone the right to vote is a dangerous activity, and has been a tool used to deny good people their equal rights (see the poll tax of ages past). But perhaps one day if our interpretation of democracy is allowed to evolve and reflect the technological achievements we've made, we might be able to engage in a more involved and vibrant democracy where people do not vote once every so many years on people, but daily, weekly, monthly, on the many individual issues which shape our nation. And perhaps then we can apply reasonable restrictions, allowing all the general right to vote, but restricting the right to vote on specific issues to those who can demonstrate the objective knowledge required to make an informed decision. I can dream anyway... and it's fitting for a day when we celebrate the ideas and sacrifices of our forefathers.
Back when I was 16 a famous CBS sports commentator, Jimmy the Greek (aka Jimmy Snyder) destroyed his lifelong career with the following comment:
"The black is a better athlete to begin with because he's been bred to be that way — because of his high thighs and big thighs that goes up into his back, and they can jump higher and run faster because of their bigger thighs. This goes back all the way to the Civil War when during the slave trading, the owner — the slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so that he could have a big black kid."
A furor erupted. He became instantly anathema. Everyone got very angry, screamed that his statement was racist and deeply ignorant. But despite all the television and print coverage of the issue no one seemed to actually discuss what he had said, no one would actually explain to me or anyone else what the factual errors were in his statement. Did slavery (by way of selective pressure in intake, purchase, transportation, or breeding) make African Americans better athletes? The question was so offensive that it didn't apparently deserve an answer. Everyone seemed to already knew why it was racist and deeply ignorant, and if you didn't know, then you were probably racist and deeply ignorant, too. But I suspect I wasn't alone in feeling very confused by this situation, very confused that we couldn't talk about it, couldn't educate ourselves about it. I'd never consciously wondered about African Americans in sport, never wondered why there were so many in sport, why they were doing so well in sport, never wondered about any possible genetic implications of slavery. But suddenly I'm presented with a very interesting riddle (why are African Americans dominating in most American sports: basketball, football, baseball?) and the only solution to the riddle anyone will openly share is Jimmy the Greek's. Nobody else is saying anything, nobody else is saying what specifically is wrong with his solution to that riddle. I tried to talk to people about it at the time, to understand what the "real solution" everyone else seemed to already know was, but the universal response I got from the enlightened around me (friends, teachers) was that everyone seemed very uncomfortable talking about the topic, seeming to feel my even bringing up the topic hinted of racism or ignorance.
So yesterday, after 23 long years I finally found the answer I had been looking for. And surprisingly, after the excitement of having a definite answer, I had to admit I was feeling pretty angry that nobody told me sooner. I don't like being actively denied answers to questions. I don't like being encouraged to remain ignorant and discouraged from trying to get answers. I don't like people hinting that I'm a racist or ignorant when my trying to discuss a topic is an attempt to eradicate whatever ignorance or racism I could have. If everyone wants me to be informed, inform me! And, now that I know what seems very likely the correct answer, I'm also pretty pissed because I suspect the vast majority of the people unkindly refusing to enlighten me had no idea what the answer really was. I think many weren't refusing to tell me the answer because it was a stupid question, they were refusing to tell me because they didn't know the answer, and were simply satisfied repeating what they knew society wanted to be the proxy answer, which was, "Don't ask such a stupid and racist question." Obviously some may have had the real answer, but I'm sure many didn't, or at the very least couldn't explain it.
Fortunately I found a great discussion yesterday where some poor fool asked the question I could easily have asked, and he received profoundly thoughtful answers, though similar to my experience the answers were delivered with an air of irritation and condescension.
Just to try and reiterate my own position, or lack thereof, I've never claimed that slavery contributed to the superiority of African Americans in sport. I have (I think) always admitted that I have no definite answers, but that it seemed plausible to believe that the slave trade could have altered genetics and unless someone told me why that couldn't be, then I'd continue suspecting it might be. But suspecting something might be true is not an actionable position, and shouldn't be viewed so harshly anyway; I suspect capital punishment is wrong, but I wouldn't cast a vote for or against it because I have not yet devoted the time/energy to come to a definite conclusion.
My inherited false line of reasoning went this way:
- Selection occurs gathering slaves in Africa (selection for strength, perhaps)
- Selection occurs transporting slaves to market in Africa (selection for strength, survival, perhaps)
- Selection occurs by traders in markets in Africa (selection for strength, perhaps)
- Selection occurs in transportation to the New World (selection for survival, strength, perhaps)
- Selection occurs by slave masters controlling resources and forcing or encouraging sexual matches (selection for strength, docility?, perhaps)
To a person with very modest knowledge of biology/genetics, a coffee table/cultural knowledge of evolution, that surely sounds perfectly reasonable. We see all sorts of variation within species, and under extreme pressure we see many of these variations introduced within a very, very short span of time. I am forever reminded of the program that completely transformed and domesticated Russian silver foxes in less than 40 years. So, all I wanted is for someone to tell me where that chain of reasoning failed.
And here is the answer I finally found...
- Selection in Africa was largely the result of tribal conflicts and war. Those who became slaves were not selected for strength but were merely the survivors of conflict. Even if the people choosing who became a slave was selecting for apparent strength/health the basis of that strength/health was NOT genetic but was environmental/opportunistic, that person just happened to not be suffering from randomly acting disease/injury/malnutrition.
- Survival on the way to the slave markets was similarly not genetic but had to do with the slave's health at the beginning of the trip and specific events (disease exposure/nutrition/etc.) during the trip.
- Traders in markets in Africa may have selected for perceived strength/health, but again the basis for this selection was not primarily genetic, it had more to do with the "luck" of the slave to that point.
- Transportation to the New World was like the previous transportation, survival was primarily controlled by the environment and initial health conditions of the slave
- And while some slave masters did engage in eugenics their efforts were ineffectively crude, being incredibly limited in scale and inexactly uncontrolled. Further, even with a more controlled and widespread eugenics program, 250 years would not have been enough time for major genetic differences to emerge.
That is all the answer I wanted. It is perfectly reasonable, makes absolute sense, and therefore I believe it. Why couldn't someone have just told this to me 23 years ago? If the goal on everyone's part is to stamp out racism and ignorance, it really doesn't help when everyone refuses to share the details of their enlightenment.
Why do some topics have to be viewed as so god damn touchy that people refuse to discuss them?
Back in 7th grade we learned about the Coriolis Effect. If you don't remember, the rotation of the earth causes hurricanes in the norther hemisphere to rotate clockwise and in the southern hemisphere counter clockwise. A few years later I hear someone say, "The water goes down the drain clockwise in the northern hemisphere and counter clockwise in the southern hemisphere." I accepted the statement as true. I knew nothing to disbelieve it, and it fit well my understanding of the Coriolis Effect. In senior year in high school I was in a physics lab and at some point had the occasion to relay this drain comment to my lab partner. The student had never observed this and as the teacher was passing asked him if it was true. The teacher helpfully explained that while the Coriolis Effect effects hurricanes it is too weak to influence water going down a drain, that the direction in that situation is controlled by random chance and subtle asymmetries in sink/tub shapes. Why can't we expect all of our ignorances to be similarly corrected with alternative information, without being made to feel stupid for asking the question, without being made to feel stupid for wrongly believing or suspecting something else was true, most particularly when the unchallenged errors fit other facts/theories as best as we know them?
I do appreciate, to the degree anyone can when an issue does not directly effect their identity, that the suggestion of a genetic advantage for African American athletes could be driven by a racist attempt to deny African Americans their achievements, that it could be driven by a racist attempt to suggest slavery was a "positive" for African Americans, that it could be driven by a set of racist assumptions that African American achievements in sports are related to strength and not intelligence, but the person asking the question should not be suspected of having those motivations, consciously or unconsciously, without other evidence to the contrary. In this case, I did not create the question. I only asked for it to be answered because other people claimed they knew what the "right" answer. And even left without their answer, I never treated my "wrong" answer as fact. Why can't we dispassionately discuss these things, so that those who are educable can become educated?