Friday, February 09, 2007

the value of pride

Yesterday I went downtown to witness SK's naturalization ceremony. In a huge building across the street from the Post Office on Hoyt, right across the Broadway Bridge, in a shabby, stuffy room on the second floor, 30 people from 17 different countries swore their oath of allegience and became naturalized US citizens.

I won't write anything here about SK's personal journey to this event, or her feelings about it, that's for her to write. But I have a few things to say about my own experience as a witness. At first it was moving. Standing outside the room where everyone assembled to check-in and have their names marked off a list, SK looked in and turned around with a gleeful face. "The *world* is in that room!" she said.

I looked in and sure enough, the world *was* in there. Varying skin-tones and languages, ages and attitudes. I wanted to know each person's story. How did the two, short, squatty old Hungarian women with scarves tied over their heads end up in Portland Oregon on the 8th day of February, 2007? What about the tall, Indian guy who kept sighing? What about the woman with the hopeful face whose blue eyes each stared off in different directions?

Each person in that room had a story, they stood at a particular spot on a long path. For many, becoming an American was probably a joyous triumph over a life of oppression in places poor in spirit and in economy. For others, becoming an American was probably an unpleasant necessity to keep doing business or to stay with a partner or whatever brought them here. Some people probably swore their oath of allegiance with lumps in their throats, proud and moved to tears to finally come to rest in a place where they could think and speak and pray how they wish. Others no doubt swore it with eyes rolling and fingers crossed. "Yeah, sure America. I promise to take up arms to defend you. Whatever." As for me, I couldn't even bring myself to say the pledge of allegiance at the end, though I did put my hand over my heart.

I was moved by the people and the stories I imagined for them. I was disappointed by what passed for the ceremony. A woman with spikey orange hair, lifelessly repeated a spiel she had memorized about the glory of becoming a citizen, and no less than three video presentations were projected on a screen: one was a welcome from Dubya. Dubya is nothing but an embarrassment and every word out of his mouth was cringeworthy. What could George W. Bush possibly say to a room full of new immigrants: "Sorry for ransacking the world"? That would've been a start.

The other two videos were watery propaganda films with predictably lame soundtracks and images. The first was a photo-montage of immigrants through this country's history with a slow, cheesey rendition of America the Beautiful playing behind it. At first it was moving: very old pictures of people getting off boats in New York, little old Eastern European women in headscarves like the two right in the room with us, expectant children, emaciated refugees. Then, as it became contemporary, each photo contained a new immigrant grinning madly and holding a cheap, tiny American flag. Then the montage started feeling like a tacky branding campaign.

The last video was a photo-montage of the gorgeosity of America with, I swear to god, Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" blaring out over it. How miserable. The camera swept along those waving fields of grain or flashed on famous skylines, while Lee Greenwood sang "and I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free, and I won't forget the men who died who gave that right to me and I'll gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today 'cause there ain't no doubt I love this land... God Bless the U-S-AAAAAA"

Ok, fine. Besides this song being the kind of ridiculous thing that might bring grown men to tears at a rodeo, ignoring the jingoism, forgetting that it's only "men" who died for his freedom or the implication that America is the only free country on earth (note to Lee Greenwood: a lot of other free countries would disagree), ignoring all that -- the song's not so bad. The pretty pictures of America aren't so bad. So what's my problem?

Come on. Tacky slide shows with bad music in a hot, stuffy, unadorned room -- this is what we have to offer, this is the big welcome. The American face we're putting forward is shmaltzy and tacky and vaguely, pathetically commercial. Platitudes and ad-copy and a cheap nylon flag on a stick. Considering the struggles many people surmounted to get to that room yesterday, those cheesey videos weren't just lame, they were patronizing and, in my opinion, insulting.

Call me crazy, but there are things about this country to be proud of and those things aren't it. A bad country song and some pictures of how pretty it is here...? Poorly produced videos on par with the type you're shown at job orientations, one step down on the video food chain from infomercials...? I'd like to think we can do better than that. I hope the people who became citizens yesterday manage to find and live the things about this country that are actually worth being proud of, despite that lacklustre beginning.


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