04 October 2007

American Cola

We Americans who care about the opinions of others are sometimes known for our touching eagerness to be liked. We are liked, aren't we? The reality of the situation is, of course, a complex version of "it depends." Sometimes we seem to me to be some kind of outsized teenager; the world has to figure out how to put up with our undeniable creativity, enormous energy, and clumsy attempts at adulthood. As with many teenagers, we think we know far more than we do, and we have adolescent immortality, too; somehow we think our imperial status is permanent. In our disdain for the conventional wisdom of the rest of the world, we exalt our own high ideals, comparing them with the hypocrisy and cynicism of "old Europe," and rarely noticing when we betray those same ideals ourselves.

Yet there's still something attractive about that creativity and energy. What else would explain why so many people, perfectly capable of seeing our flaws, still consume a big diet of American culture, and millions each year seek to relocate to the USA? Many of them seem to be able to differentiate between the America that represents a rich seedbed (though hardly risk-free) for personal and family opportunity, and the America that refuses elementary provisions for access to health care, makes educational financing as complicated as possible, and whose national leadership seemingly believes that obstinate stupidity is a virtue.

So the SPAR supermarket chain seems to believe that branding their house cola as American Cola gives it valuable credibility. ("Genuine taste, genuine cola," it says on the bottle I bought at the SPAR grocery store across Yalagin Street from me, just past Elektrostal's McDonald's. The product's motto: "If you can't taste the difference, why pay for the difference?") I guess they're not conducting their marketing with fearful backward glances at Mecca-Cola. I was glad to have a bottle of that genuine taste as I sat in this kitchen, preparing my materials for the American country studies class I'm teaching at the New Humanitarian Institute. So reassuring that the adjective "American" still stands for something!

Here are some of the "first principles" I'm using to shape the American studies class:
  1. emphasize American values and their sources, without concealing our failures and compromises in implementing them
  2. provide links to the experiences of the Russian nation without invidious comparisons
  3. describe and demonstrate complex interplays of geography, culture, and politics with actual stories
  4. don't bite off more than we can chew: trace themes and provide cases, don't insist on unrealistic comprehensiveness or chronological rigidity.
  5. contrast different methods and approaches (example: typical high school text book compared with Howard Zinn)
Today, some of the stories I used to illustrate the theme of idealism vs realism were the decisions faced by Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War, and the overthrow of the Arbenz administration in Guatemala in 1954.

Arriving in Elektrostal; second day of classes.

Righteous links: Putin-watching has certainly become even more interesting. ~~~ Here's a helpful primer on conscientious objection, presented by the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. ~~~ Barclay Press's online book discussion for this month is on Mary Darling's and Tony Campolo's The God of Intimacy and Action. Co-author Darling is serving as moderator.

Two very different Texas videos! (1) The State Bar of Texas unveils a video contest to "Capture the promise of justice for all." (2) The Thunderbirds present Lou Ann Barton.


Simon Lemarchand said...

A few of my points concerning your teaching points stated here... While teaching, you have to take into consideration some of the strongest stereotypes among the Russian youth that emerged after 2000 and now grew in popularity to an immense extent.

90% of the casual youngsters of ages 16-23 believe (almost to the point where it grows into being some sort of a religion) that:

+ Americans are born stupid. It's a biological factor because American soil can't spawn anything but wicked, degraded or seeking to destroy Russia along with the rest of the world

+ Americans are inherently evil

+ Americans should only be considered as enemies

+ Russians are better than Americans; moreover, Russians are better than anyone else due to some obscure genetical or cultural reasons (think of NSDAP)

These stereotypes may sometimes fail to come into action after meeting a certain unusual person like you or other peace-preaching, understanding people who admire Russian culture, but please don't take my points as another conspiracy theory.

I still remember my deepest shock after seeing one of our student girls crying the next day after Saddam Hussein's execution, mourning over his death and cursing America. The whole institute was buzzing with anger on that day, wishing that Washington should be H-bombed as soon as possible.

I would have taken that for some kind of mass hysteria or my own hallucination if it had not been for the fact that during all the five years of my studies I kept witnessing a unusually high degree of boiling hatred targeted at everything American among my groupmates. On many occasions I was hated along just for humble attempts at warning them against sticking labels to nations. Once asked by J.G. 'Would you like to go to America for work and language practice?', the audience (except for me and some two or three other persons) choired 'Hell no, I won't ever go to the land of idiots!'.

Much of your popularity at the institute is owed to the fact that you spoke against Bush and his reckless (if not totally stupid) decisions on a number of occasions. It's fascinating (in a very sad way) how the young Russians are good at combining being amiable and (seemingly?) understanding towards peace-preachers like you with the blind, brutish mixture of hatred, discrimination and superiority complex towards anything generally American - 'on a mythical scale', quoting you.

I put a lot of hope into your mission of a peace and love promoting teacher here in Elektrostal since you are among the few persons who could siege and eventually bring down the Fort Hatersville built in the backyard of many of us. It's essentially important that our youth must see that Americans aren't evil and Russians aren't a superior race. By the way, I wonder how all those haters think it's great to have a lunch at McDonalds or buy the horrible pseudo-American cola brew.

When it comes to meeting a living person of flesh and bone (and a hate-free, wise mind like yours) stereotypes give way. Hope you'll succeed in providing us with a bit of a good medicine against bad stuff like that... I'm beginning to feel that should it go that way for some three of five years more, the Lord of the Flies book can come true in a grotesque, hellish reality of a future apocaliptical Russia.

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you ... I think!! (Do I want to know all the things you report? After all, another topic in that opening class was the proposition that "ignorance is bliss.")

Anyway, whatever the feelings about Americans at NGI, I've been made very welcome. Thank you for the ways you and your friends have created space for me in your community.

I have no way of knowing, but I think stupidity is distributed more or less evenly among all nations, proportionally.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the pictures, Johan, otherwise I'm not sure I'd believe you're really, really there at last!

I'd like Simon and your students to know that many of us here in the States spent a low and penitent day when Saddam Hussein was executed. I was not in the least proud to be an American that day--nor many days in these past six years.

Johan Maurer said...

Carol is right. My own blog post at the time was emotional almost to the point of incoherence.

Unfortunately, I'm back at about the same point of outrage today, as the public leader of our nation, and his obedient staffers, deny and defend torture simultaneously. Can our national honor go any further down the toilet? Simon and friends: this is not America's best heart, although how we are going to prove it to you is, for the moment, beyond me.

Anonymous said...

It's American Cola because the mix concentrate is from America and created with Corn Syrup instead of Cane Sugar like European Cola.

It's nothing more than that.