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Musings after Dark, or before Dawn

After three years in Morocco, I’m catching my breath for a while with my parents in Asheville, North Carolina. Asheville is for good reason considered one of the best places to live in America. It has an authentic Appalachian flavor but participates actively in the outside world. People come here from far away to live, with student activists and retirees living together in relative harmony. There is a strong civic spirit and it is visible, because the community is rich in culture and everything works.

It’s hard to imagine a better way to pass my time. I wake up in the morning, make breakfast in our well-equipped kitchen, then drive on winding roads through sun-dappled forest and autumn leaves to the highway, which takes me to the center of Asheville in about five minutes. I sit in a cafe with wireless internet, researching articles for my blog or adding new writing to the other part of my site, Radiant Days. More than half of the customers here have a laptop computer. We listen to an eclectic mix of Johnny Cash, the Pixies, Dee-Lite, even Sufi music. The vibe is progressive, laid back. It does bother me though that every person here is Euro-American. This isn’t Brooklyn or the Mission District.

I’m planning to apply to grad school, but so far I haven’t got around to taking it very seriously. I still have another month. I’ve picked out a few programs I’m interested in, in creative writing, journalism and Near East studies. It seems like it might be the right time in my life for this. A strategic pause, a realignment. I want doors to open when I knock on them, and for better or worse, one of the things people look at is credentials, because credentials are a sign of one’s ability to do discplined work. I want my ideas and projects to be taken seriously, and credentials are a starting point for that conversation.

My point here is that I have the luxury to think about all this, to catch my breath and plan for the future. Most of my friends in Morocco don’t have that option. As one of them put it, “We don’t have the luxury of choosing a career like you do in America. Here, we have to take the first thing we can get.” Competition is fierce, and jobs that pay a living wage are hard to come by. Those in the private sector are reserved for the children of the elite. Most decent jobs are with the state, so the state sets the priorities. It has Moroccan young people by the balls, or to pick a term that applies to both sexes, the short hairs.

I’m lucky to live in a society which despite its flaws, has practiced freedom over many generations, values transparency and accountability in government, and rewards education and hard work. These virtues are on display here in Asheville, and they translate into a high quality of life. The streets are clean and safe. There are parks and public festivals. People pay taxes, and the city picks up the garbage. The public library has almost 200,000 books. Nobody thinks any of this is remarkable or strange. It’s the way things are in America. If I have a criticism of America, it’s that. We seem to think that all of this just happened—that we deserve it because we’re Americans. Having lost our sense of history or context, we endanger our project by taking it for granted.

I spent yesterday reading Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. I admit that I’m coming to this a bit late. People have been recommending the book to me for years, and many of you may have already read it. Anyway, I devoured it in one sitting, all 300 pages. For those of you who don’t know the story, it presents a scenario of America a few years after a takeover by Christian fundamentalists. Women have been turned into property, and are used for breeding and household chores. Reading and writing have been banned, and all written materials have been destroyed. Society is riddled with spies, and those who resist the new order—feminists, gays, socialists, members of banned sects—are hung on the Wall as an example to others. Even the Bible itself has been rewritten to suit the convenience of the new order. It says “Blessed are the meek” but not “for they will inherit the earth.”

What struck me most was Atwood’s description of the first few weeks after the change, which came suddenly but was carefully planned beforehand. In order to get away with suspending the Constitution, everyone in Congress was gunned down en masse. The fundamentalist plotters blamed this on Islamic terrorism. (Although the book was published in 1986, Atwood was eerily prescient about how different extremisms can feed one another.) People are in shock, uneasy, but for the most part they are unable to react. They have no idea how to defend their freedom as it is being stripped away. They try to go on as before, hoping it will blow over. By the time the closing of newspapers and libraries, the outlawing of employment for women, the rounding up of undesirables, and the introduction of new religious police becomes intolerable for the average person, it is too late.

The frightening thing for me is the way in which Atwood makes the loss of democracy in America seem plausible, even easy. The key, I believe, is complacency and denial. “This could never happen here. Our leaders would never do this to us.” Here in the George W. Bush era, the echoes are uncomfortable. Hillary Clinton’s “vast right-wing conspiracy” is real. Allegations have been raised by reasonable men and women that the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 were stolen. Our government is on record as endorsing torture and the holding of suspects without trial. The president claims unlimited powers as Commander-in-Chief in a “war on terror” that will go on forever. Critics are accused of helping the enemy. We are the lobster in the pot. The water is boiling, but do we feel the heat?

The elections in one week may help us to see whether America is finally waking up. I’m optimistic that a critical mass has been reached. Americans are so fed up with what they have been seeing that they are willing to put Nancy Pelosi in power, even though she roasts and eats her own children. Once Democrats start to set the agenda and frame the debate, the truth about what has been happening will start to get through to people on a regular basis. But if it doesn’t happen this time, it’s hard to see what it would take. Rove, Cheney and Rumsfeld will understand that we no longer care about liberty, that we have left it unattended in the parking lot for any predator to walk off with.

I am convinced that we are faced with a determined and largely invisible evil that has wormed its way into our government and feeds on fear. Even if Democrats win the upcoming elections, it will not be easy to get rid of this evil, since even today, few are willing to see it for what it is. Indeed, this may be our last chance to reverse its effects. Only one out of three Americans approves of the job our president and Congress are doing. If the upcoming elections don’t reflect this, then something is wrong in America, and our goverment is no longer in the hands of its citizens. In that case, Margaret Atwood’s scenario will be the next step. I’ll be packing my bags and so should you.


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