If there is a place on earth that I never imagined I would revisit, even rhetorically, it is the city of Greeley, Colorado.
Greeley has recently made the blogs, starting with this post on Eschaton. It was something of a shock to me, because Greeley makes the news basically never, and because Greeley, Colorado was the very first place in the United States where I lived. My family moved there in the fall of 1980 so that my father could pursue a graduate degree at the University of Northern Colorado. We stayed a total of three years, until my mother had completed her Bachelor's degree and obtained a Master's degree, and my father had completed the coursework for his Ph.D.
Some students at a high school in Greeley undertook a symbolic walkout the other day against the war in Iraq, apparently only during the period they would have had free anyway and only after consulting with the school authorities. This - as far as I can tell from that bastion of the fourth estate The Greeley Tribune - has caused a great deal of unhappiness and tension in the community. The comments at the Greeley Tribune are rife with bad stuff. Like this:
These are nothing but educated idiots. Since when have the students taken charge of the school? They have no responsibility, nor sympathy for the Iraqi people, or education of what happens if we let these psychos' become more powerful. Every country is in danger. Freedom of speech is one thing. Doing it in the appropriate place is another. I'm not putting my money in a school system that allows kids to take charge.Or this:
Most of the American heroes that are fighting for freedom are close in age to the protesters. I would like to see the students tell the heroes face to face why they are protesting against freedom.And this one is a particular gem:
Vanquishing the Oppressor:
The Bible states in Proverbs 3:31 Envy thou not the oppressor, and choose none of his ways. I wish the protesters in this the land of the free and the home of the brave would read and understand this and many verses of the Bible which talk about wicked leaders and people. [...] To you protestors, this is the oppressor that you are supporting when you protest a righteous liberation of a people by the United States military. Iraq is totalitarian country where the only law is the law of Sadaam Hussein. One man in Iraq controls the press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion. That man is Sadaam Hussein. He does not allow dissent.
The Greeley Central students who walked out and protested the United States act of liberating a nation of people ought to be ashamed of themselves. These students are probably the offspring of the 1960s hippie generation that protested during the Vietnam era. With the help of those protestors in the 1960s, our military was not allowed to win the war in Vietnam and the people of South Vietnam were then placed under the tyrannical communist oppression of those in Hanoi. Thousands of South Vietnamese citizens were killed and placed into reeducation prisons and their children taken prisoner by a cruel form of government. Thousands of our military were kept imprisoned and tortured even-though the war was over. These protestors of today firmly align themselves with the communist led United Nations instead of the freely elected government of their own nation. I am ashamed of the protestors of this nation. The soldiers of this nation have shed their blood for your freedom. They have lost their lives for your right to assemble. They have given it all so that you may have liberty. You have slapped them in the face and given comfort to the enemy for the blood that they have shed for you.
I hope that the majority of the people of this nation that still respect this the only Representative Republic on the face of Gods earth will join me in praying for the leadership of this nation, our military personnel, the civilians of Iraq, for Sadaam Hussein and his subordinates to be vanquished and for the liberation of the nation of Iraq. I will also pray for the souls of you idiotic protestors who do not understand the gift of liberty that our forefathers have given you. I also apologize if you public school educated protestors dont understand that the United States has never been what you were taught in school, a democracy. It is a Representative Republic.
May God bless and Protect all of our military personnel stationed throughout this world and with his grace bring them home safely after the battle has been won. For those who perish in this battle against oppression, Lord, please assure them that their lives were not given in vain and without our heartfelt gratitude and love.
Let me tell you about Greeley. Greeley was founded, IIRC, shortly after the Civil War as a utopian community of morals and piety. When I lived there, I think bars were still banned inside the city limits. It was named after Horace Greeley, who never set foot in the town, and was built on the then fashionable "American" city plan: numbered streets and avenues, in consecutive order, all perpendicular and evenly spaced. You need only know the address of a house in Greeley to know precisely how to find it, unless it's in an area built after WWII. From the 50's onwards, city planning styles in America changed, and cul-de-sacs with streets named after trees became the norm. Anyone who has traveled in the Great Plains will know exactly how Greeley looks from the dozens of other small cities just like it.
The town had two industries. One was the university, a source of state money and income transfers from people all over Colorado whose kids just weren't good enough to get into UC Boulder. The school also had a surprisingly large body of foreign students.
The other industry was the Monfort feedlot. Monfort was - and I believe still is - the single largest feedlot in the world. At any time, a quarter of a million head of cattle were there, spending the last three weeks of their lives in tiny open-air compartments, gorging themselves on an endless supply of food. There are many things I've forgotten about Greeley, but the one I will never forget is the smell when the wind turned and the city found itself downwind from Monfort. You see, when a quarter-million head of cattle are all in one place and you're basically pouring food through their bodies, well, they shit. They shit a lot. Vast mountains of cowshit.
But, for many folks, the occasional ill odour was a small price to pay for secure, unionised jobs with benefits and regular raises requiring no advanced education. The community was an active centre for trucking and rail - cows come in, beef goes out - as well as having a thriving local agricultural economy, providing mountains of feed to the plant despite the notoriously low rainfall and poor fertility of Colorado soils. And the university added that smattering of culture and cosmopolitanism that let people convince themselves that Greeley was not all about cows.
Eric Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation documents much of what was going on at Monfort during the period when I lived in Greeley. The short version: The owner shut down the plant and reopened it later, in large part in order to rid himself of an unwanted union. For Greeley, this was devastating. One family that we knew well had a house with a mortgage so far in arrears that their bank actually gave them free furniture and carpets when the bank remodelled, in order to raise the value of the house when they inevitably seized it.
Greeley was a town being screwed by the Reagan revolution and the recession Paul Volcker engineered to end stagflation, and not incidentally to rid American businesses of their unions. While I remember people at the university with "Impeach Reagan" bumperstickers, the town seemed implacably conservative. It was not, however, a lily-white middle-American community. It had a large Mexican and Mexican-American population as well as a very large Arab student body. I remember one of my mother's friends was a Palestinian from the West Bank, and our neighbours in Student Family Housing (dorms for grown-ups with kids) were Iraqi. I don't remember the foreign students causing much tension, but if they had, I probably wouldn't have known. I wonder if Greeley still has so many Middle Eastern students?
My parents, hoping to keep me out of reach of the hated American public school system, sent me to a "Christian" school. There, I learned that the answer to "What would Jesus do?" is "Nuke Russia!" My 5th grade teacher was a rabid anti-feminist and former Marine, for whom God seemed inextricably linked to patriotism, patriarchy and military service.
It was there that I learned that the "Christian Nation" has a flag and an anthem, and that churches sometimes fly the Stars-and-Stripes right next to it. It was in Greeley that I was first exposed to the notion that God was an American, that America lost in Vietnam because of the "liberal" media (as opposed to the idea that many people in Vietnam didn't want America to win), and that America had never lost a war before they got rid of prayer in schools. I also learned that the Book of Revelations describes how the Soviet Union is going to attack Israel with its Syrian allies, bringing on the rapture and the End Times and that this simple truth is obvious to anyone who has studied scripture. I learned that the war in Afghanistan was really about how the Soviet Union needed a warm water port, so it had to occupy Pakistan. (For some reason, my teachers were unaware of the Soviet naval base at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, even though one of them had been stationed there less than a decade earlier when it had still been an American naval base.)
I learned that the Civil War wasn't about slavery, it was about "secular European culture." I learned that Southern people loved their Negros, and that most would have been quite happy to free them, except that they were culturally unprepared for American life. Slavery, you see, was an altruistic act on the part of the slave owners. I was quite surprised to find out that black people have problems in America because they were freed too soon. I was informed, to my great surprise, that the founding fathers had explicitly intended for America to be a Christian nation, and that the separation of church and state was the creation of a cabal of Yankee liberals who the true, Christian sons of the South had tried, and failed, to resist.
I learned so many things there.
I learned that many teachers are in the habit of dividing their students into exactly two groups: the compliant and the non-compliant, and that I wanted to be non-compliant. It was in Greeley that I learned that if you don't want to say the Pledge of Allegiance, you don't have to. And I didn't. And it was there that I learned that there is only one thing that will keep your teachers in line: well-spoken and extremely vocal parents. You can cause fear indirectly if your parents scare the hell out of your teachers.
So, I took to using Canadian spellings in school. I reminded my history teacher that America had lost the War of 1812. (It was not a victory for the US nor a draw - the British burned Washington DC down. When you loose your capital and have to make concessions at the peace talks, you've lost.) I relished my different identity and I enjoyed failing to fit any pigeonhole my teachers could try to put me in. These are habits that have stayed with me through school, where I have always enjoyed grinding my teachers down before they can grind me down.
But I do recall one particular incident that has some bearing on student protests.
After two years of private school, my parents had to place me in a public middle school for grade 7. There, I encountered a much more diverse student body. We didn't live in the best part of town, so many students were the children of the school's many Middle Eastern graduate students or the local Hispanic underclass. Half of the school - me included - benefitted from the free school lunch programme that Reagan tried to kill. (Remember how ketchup was a vegetable?) We still had to say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, and I still wouldn't do it. My teachers though, a far more battle-hardened lot than my private school teachers, mostly just left me alone.
On the 5th of May 1983, just as the school year was ending, a large group of students simply left the campus. I remember watching them walk off, a couple lighting up cigarettes as they went. They were all Hispanic. When I asked the teacher what had happened she said that it was Cinco de Mayo, and that the Mexican students had asked for the day off because of it.
That is why it surprises me so much to hear that Greeleyans are in such a snit about a little protest that didn't even disrupt school. If the Mexican kids could go then, why can't the protesters do this now?
Perhaps Greeley schools no longer permit children to just leave because they might prefer a non-gringo cultural identity. Back in the early 80's, the racial lines were still pretty clearly drawn in Greeley, but unless the town has done a 180 degree turn in its cultural relations, I expect that it is still a place where the people who aren't accepted as Americans are still grudgingly allowed to not be American.
It is a real shame that it is also a place where Americans are not allowed to be themselves.
But there is one other thing I want to share about Greeley.
I learned so much about American life in Greeley, and today, I have learned that I am not the only one who learned a lot of lessons about America there. You see, Greeley has a link to Middle Eastern terrorism - a very important one. I have learned today, from the Guardian and Eschaton's comments that Greeley, Colorado figures prominently in the works of one Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual founder of modern Islamic fundamentalism. This is a man whose words and ideas permeate the speeches and writings of Osama bin Laden himself.
It seems that Qutb attended the Colorado State College of Education - the institution now called the University of Northern Colorado - in the late 1940's. Perhaps that is why there seemed to be so many Middle Eastern students there in my youth? At any rate, upon his return from Greeley, Qutb had gone from having a moderately poor view of the West, primarily from his experiences under British colonial government and his objections to US and UK support for Israel, to completely rejecting the West and all its values.
A quote from Qutb about his observations of American religion in Greeley: Nobody goes to church as often as Americans do [...] Yet no one is as distant as they are from the spiritual aspect of religion. Remarkably, I remember my father saying more or less the same thing.
So, in the unlikely event that anyone from Greeley who thinks war protests are treasonous is reading this, I want to point out that your community has already once served as an example of America to someone whose ideas matter a great deal. Right now, you may well be serving as an example of American tolerance to some future Sayyid Qutb. What lessons are you teaching them?Posted 2003/04/08 11:34 (Tue) | TrackBack