Friday, April 13, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut

I read yesterday that Kurt Vonnegut passed away, age 84. A few weeks a go I read a book of his called 'A man without a Country', which I believe was very much in his style of humour, black humour, slightly vulgar and beautiful human and sensitive. I read that he had said: 'that a tangible purpose of art is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit.'

Reading his book, 'A man without a Country', which is short and easy to read, made me accept somethings about the USA that I had been not really daring to think about. Mainly that it has changed a lot since I was here last five years ago. I spent 3 months as a young backpacker around the West coast. I enjoyed it very much, so many beautiful places, interesting friendly people and cultural diversity and richness (SO many people!). This time I have had a harder time, finding the simple beauty, connecting with the beautiful interesting people (I know there are many!) and cultural diversity seems to be getting a little shameful and out-dated.

Though there are masses of contradictions to anything I can think of commenting about the US, one particularly elegant example is the completely unselfconscious and natural bi-lingualism in the state of California. As I approach the supermarket check-in I notice the 'check out' person moves effortlessly from Spanish greeting ( perfect accent- she must have Mexican heritage I think), back to English (perfect American accent, perfect subtle judgements who is Spanish, who is English- she must have learnt the two simultaneously).... you find the same thing everywhere. On the advertisements, at the police station, the corner store, the telephone to the gas company or Health Insurance, such a smooth unassuming transition from one language to another. But the interesting thing is how it goes quietly unacknowledged.

Spanish is not an 'official language' of California (English is its only official language) except that a good deal of the population identify more closely with Spanish that English. So perhaps it is out of necessity all services are offered in both languages, not by mandate.

I found this on Wikipedia:

"On May 19, 2006, the United States Senate voted to make English the national language of the United States. According to the bill, written by Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), the federal government will no longer provide multilingual communications and services, except for those already guaranteed by law. Shortly after the approval of the Inhofe amendment, the Senate voted for another bill by Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), according to which English is the "common unifying language of the United States", but mandated that nothing in that declaration "shall diminish or expand any existing rights" regarding multilingual services. The impact of these bills is not immediately clear."

Further to this in January 2002 the Bush government (administration?) implemented the 'No Child Left Behind' policy. Among other things this states that all enrolled school children's details: home phone number, address and parents names must be provided (without informing the student or parent) to military recruiters. Parents may 'opt out' of this by filling out a form and submitting it to the school- it means the children's details will also be withheld from Colleges and Job recruiters. The name 'no child left behind' possibly comes from the United States Army Rangers 'no man left behind' (most of this is lifted from Wikipedia and the NCLB website).

Another scary thing about it, is that included in the law was the 'boy scouts of America equal access act'. The bill states that NO school receiving Department of Education funds:
shall deny equal access or a fair opportunity to meet to, or discriminate against, any group officially affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America ... that wishes to conduct a meeting within that designated open forum or limited public forum, including denying such access or opportunity or discriminating for reasons based on the membership or leadership criteria or oath of allegiance to God and country of the Boy Scouts of America
The Boy Scouts of America have had a bit of trouble getting 'equal access' to public forum's, because they believe and actively educate their young scouts that 'atheists' and 'homosexuals' are morally and in other ways 'unclean', and therefor cannot join the scouts. They also, obviously, exclude girls and women.

The act basically focuses on teaching the children to past tests on reading, writing and math, and the school funding is based on the outcomes, in some places this has produced statistics that look like a positive change. There has been plenty of controversy because it often means cutting back on other subjects (no room for languages other than English, which the tests are conducted in). I am not being all that objective in my overview- but I find it shocking.

These kinds of changes in the USA in the last five years are what provoked Kurt Vonnegut out of retirement to write his last book; and returning after five years, (the war in Iraq started in 2003), I feel like things have shifted fundamentally here.

But Kurt Vonnegut was onto to it when he said: 'that a tangible purpose of art is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit.' He was a brilliant writer, and an amazing American that did this very well.


Blogger bulanjdjan said...

Great post, Soph. But, oh my goodness...

It's so overwhelming hearing all that news about the top-down goings on in the USA. Not least for Americans themselves. So overwhelming in fact, that it engaging with it enough to challenge it all seems insurmountable.

Good news is that bottom-up stuff (e.g. 'effortless' bilingualism in California) is alive and well...

11:19 am  

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