Having observed romanticization of air force, I could only imagine the extent to which America could go in the production of much more combative and destructive war planes. In fact it is not just about military power.It is a lucrative business too! How much did the Harper government spend to buy a single fighter jet—close to 35 billion dollars?
What other features of DC captured my imagination? Yes, the sub way! Charismatic subway stops and uncharismatic train, and what I would regard as annoying operators. The train operators talk a lot – not just about departing and arrival stops. They talk all sorts of things. Whether it is a passion for their job or an obsession to talk, I cannot tell. But I can tell that for someone who is used to ride the TTC in Toronto, it is a bit irritating. They talk almost non-stop and much of it sounds nonsense. What do you feel when the operator tells passengers: “There are 18 exits out of the train. You don’t need to use a single one and hurt yourself?!”
Other than that, the subway itself seems to epitomize, when I see it with my political economy glass, power-power that Washington wields. It’s Washington in its own right! You buy your riding ticket from the machine, you swipe it and get in. Once inside, you feel like you are free and could change directions and travel as far as you want. The trouble comes when you try to get out. The original fare you put into the card might not be enough and then there is no way out! We put $10 at EastFalls Church station, changed train at the Metrocenter and rode to Silverspring. When we’re back to where we started from –EastFalls Church –we had to add more into the card. Simply in the subway, you’re locked in and there is surveillance of course! It’s much like the rhetoric of “open and free society”. It seems open. But it really is not. It is just that you do not see where the locks are at the beginning! The locks in the society, I mean outside of the subway, you open them either with “connection” to the power elite or you need to be a bourgeoisie unto yourself with the ability to spend to get everything you want. Fare in DC is expensive, I would say. Good that I did not ride it much as my friend was driving most of the time. (Actually, transit system in New York is cheaper- even cheaper than Toronto. But New York has a different way to rip you off. My Hotel Bill in New York had numerous taxes of which that makes me laugh was “city tax”- you pay “City tax” every day. Not sure if it is the same for all North American cities. )
What else should I mention about the DC subway?! Oh yes, on top of the seat close to one side of the exit I read “Federal law requires that these seats be available to persons with disabilities and to seniors.” What comes to your mind may be “rule of law” or something. I was thinking something different. I was thinking about the damage done, of course by capitalism, to social values and norms. Social value has to be enforced with legal means. Probably the idea of putting this notice was informed by observation that necessitated reminder of the legal provision.
Reflecting on the legal reminder took me far. I was even thinking about what happened in Aurora and Virginia tech among other things. In fact this topic needs to be treated in a different occasion and on its own and should not be part of the travel account.
Outside of the sub way, I walked around the city. “Cuba Libre” in the heart of the city was attractive to me for some reason. My friend was surprised that I was fond of a place I have never been to. In fact, I was feeling like having coffee or tea. We went to “Cuba Libre” the day after I saw it when he was driving. Unfortunately, they do not open until five o’clock and I had no time to wait until they open. Next time!
The city is fascinating. I can see the affluence I used to hear about. For sure it is good to see happy people with jovial mode and some seem to be full of life. What diluted my feeling was despaired and frustrated look of considerable number of people in the streets. Smiles of people in areas of tourist attractions- the congress, the white house, the museums –and what have you did not trick me into believing that everyone is happy in DC. Of course tourists are from somewhere else and visiting new place is elating and you get to smile at least inorganic “C-h-e-e-s-e!” smile–which I do not do unless there is really something to smile about. The despair and frustration I am talking about is in the streets some of which adjacent to tourist attractions and some not. Some of them seem to be homeless. Not far from where Abraham Lincoln was shot dead and where Martin Luter king memorial library stands, I saw a group of homeless people.
Apparently they selected the spot to get the warmth of what seems to me like either a sub way or sewage. I’ve also seen emotionally disturbed people: all sorts of them. While the affluence and creation of wealth by the Americans –it is a reference to the one percent, not the 99 percent – could be taken as astounding story of success (with some qualification), the despairs and frustrations I observed are probably results of wealth creation process and failures of redistribution. By the way, It’s to be remembered that not all 99 percent are the same. Seriously, are those that are often described as “losers” parts of this category? Where do you put those who are living in a world of dystopia- “in the land of opportunity”? There has to be a new category- and I don’t know what percentage of the population they constitute. The reason that drove the group, which is not even part of 99 percent- to the street cannot be definitive and precise. I can only be speculative about it. It could be a resistance to a way of life where you toil a lot only to pay rent and grocery. It could be a form of rebellion to the brutes in the work place. It could be a rejection of the world view that the one percent, sometimes with the help of a member of the 99 percent, is imposing on them. Whatever the cause is this group of people could to be transformed to what is referred to as a “more productive way life.” If the work environment could be made attractive, no matter naïve may this sound, in all its forms, and if it’s possible to make people see meaning and significance in leading productive life, I think it is quite possible at least to reduce the number of homeless people in the street.
Apart from these observations in an allegedly affluent society and “land of opportunity”, I enjoyed my stay in DC. My friend took days off only to host me ( by the way who would do this other than a humble and caring Ethiopian friend) and drive me around the city. I caught up with old friends. I met my face book friends. I met new friends too! The time I spent in Skyline, Virginia was amazing. My Ethiopian New year this year was amazing and could not be better for an exiled man leading a sort of solitary life. I can’t ask for more. A day before leaving DC for NY, I volunteered for Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT-USA) and prepared interview questions. My friend’s wife –Chuchu – packed delicious “yetsome migib” and dropped it off at the ESAT’s office. It was good enough for three people. As well, I was able to be part of candle light vigil commemorating one year of illegal imprisonment of one of renowned Ethiopian blogger and journalist Eskindir Nega and that is where I met face book friends, people I know in my days at Addis Ababa University and what have you. We had a dinner in Ethiopian place in DC after the event and it was nice.
Based on my initial plan,my stay in DC was to be followed by a visit to New York. Yet, I had to manipulate my original plan in how to go about it. Initially, my intention was to interrupt my stay in DC, visit New York and head for home, Toronto, from DC. I changed my mind to go to Toronto from New York. Simply because I didn’t want to use the same route I used when going to DC. I had to call Megabus and reserve a seat for a trip from New York to Toronto which incurred extra cost.
After boarding the bus, I realized that the book I wanted to read (“ Hitchens Vs Blair”) was in my bag and the bag was not on me at the time. The strategy to deal with the four hours of bus ride to New York was a) to use the Megabus wifi connection and read some newspaper on my cell phone but the cell phone battery dies fast and had no charger on me. b) Alternatively, I was planning to strike and sustain a conversation with a girl who was seated next to me. I opted for the latter. What inspired me to opt for the latter was that when my eyes stealth what she was reading, I realized that she was reading Machiavelli which convinced me that I could handle the conversation if I take it in the direction of what she was reading. Specifically, she was reading “doing evil in order to do good.” I was aware that she might need the time to finish assigned course reading off. But again I was feeling like it’s only the beginning of the school year and the time might not be crucially important. “My eleventh hour personality” might have influenced me to think that way. I guess this was a creation of my veneration for spontaneity and I never lived on plan at all. I used to do school work at the eleventh hour and end up submitting unedited papers. It is not an easy state of affair for a non-conformist student to submit unedited paper and I have paid for them – of course in grades! It is now history. Now I do plan for the things I want do ahead of time.
Back to the story, this girl was not inviting to talk at all. What I rather read on her face was resignation, probably out of Friday night tiredness.Her silence was boring.Every time I try to open conversation, she cut it short.
“What is this city here?” I asked.
She hesitated if she has to respond or not, apparently.
“Baltimore!”, end of conversation
She was unchanged for about two hours. After having her “energy bar” I guess she was ok. She had to ask me if she could pass to go to washroom in the bus. This time she was smiling –you know that “customer service type of smile” (close to theinorganic “C-h-e-e-s-e” smile) that you have to smile even after an eight hours of tiresome shift? You have to smile no matter how tired you are. “Customer is always right” – if not where does profit comes from?! And where does “job” come from?
“Sure!,” I said. I stood aside and she passed.
When she comes back I tried, again, to keep her busy with conversation. I avoided asking anything personal (honestly I didn’t want anything personal as that might give her a wrong impression of my intention) and had to restrict my conversation to geographical features we see in our ways. A big river was in front of us and had to ask her about it. By the way I really wanted to know what river this was and had to google it later.
Me: “What’s this river here?”
Her answer was a question rather.
She said, “is it your first time to NYC?” ( ብርቅ ሆነብህ አንዴ ማለቷ ይሆን ፤ ሙከራየ ከጠበሳ ጋር የተያያዘ መስሏት ምንም የገባኝ ነገር የለም። አንደዚች አይነት ዝጋታም ፈረንጂ ግን አጋጥሞኝ አያውቅም)
“It’s my first time!” I replied.
“I am not sure” – that is the final part of the answer she had to offer for my question. That was she cut the conversation shot again. Probably she really does not know it. Later, She opened up “Doing evil in order to do good” and close it again. Circumstantial evidences indicate that she goes to John Hopkins University. Why else would she drink water from “John Hopkins University water Bottle?” After I saw the bottle, there was another attempt to impose conversation.
“It seems you are reading politics.” I would have been happy if she was willing to discuss about Machiavelli and on issues related to power relation. Even I was thinking of discussing the “occupy movement of the 99 percent.” unfortunately, she appeared to be uninterested at all in that direction. She replied that she is reading politics. I commented that studying politics interesting and told her that I studied politics too. She was not impressed. She avoided discussing about her reading and took the conversation along career line – which I found it a bit uncomfortable. She told me she is doing her master’s degree and asked me how the job market is like. I did not want to disappoint her by telling her my experience and conception of “career.” I told her something different but I was thinking about my conception of career. The line of getting a career especially in the field of politics is fine. You be a conformist and get it. Or you be a non-conformist and forget it. I wanted my study not to make me a conformist. I could have told her the reality –that I work as a security guard in Toronto –and could have related social mobility and job creations to Machiavellian aspects of the capitalist politics. However, I imagined that lack of understanding where I am coming from could make her think that I never studied politics and was just making it up so as to hook up with her- this was not desirable for that time. I had to go about my answer in the simple way. I informed her that I am not working in the field that I have studied but this may not be true for all people. I told her that she can make it- which she probably knows. What I didn’t tell her is ( and probably what I should as it might have helped to trigger discussion on power relation) is the way to find a job after studying political science is by adding ideological value unto yourself- value that can help the status quo in some way. Honestly, this would have meant only testing the way she thinks. If I was to tell it like it is I could have said something like: the way forward in terms of “career advancement” is being a conformist. The other possible option is to study something that is not very political.
I remember in my first year in Canada, I met matured, as they are called in Universities, Ethiopian guy in Ottawa and inquired me as to what I want to study. I boldly told him that I want to study political science. He was in a sort of disbelief mood. He took his turn to be bold enough to tell me that it is not a good idea for a “bright person like me” to study politics. Instead he advised me to study “nursing” as the prospect of career is very promising. The irony is he was himself studying “conflict resolution” at St. Paul University in Ottawa. I burst into laugh forgetting that the laugh I had in a middle of a kind of conversation we had was kind of disrespect in our Ethiopian tradition. And he was my elder too -then may be in his mid or late thirties.
Anyways, when the hope of having a good conversation with the girl on power relation and her conception of democracy and power relation in the “democracies” was dashed, I myself resigned and began to eagerly wait for the arrival time to NYC. In less than an hour we arrived in NYC.
Settling in my hotel room in NY brought about a sense of estrangement. As if I have not lived my eight years in Canada in much the same way and as if I am not going to live the same way when I return to Toronto for a period of time that I don’t know, the feeling I experienced in my hotel room was overwhelming. I must have been spoiled by the five days of social warmth and cordial treat from friends and friends of friends in DC and Virginia. The beauty of my hotel room did not even trick my mind to take a feeling that I know for a long time easy: solitude. The only way to conquer this ugly feeling was to go out and explore the city in the evening.
The shuttle service from the hotel dropped me at the Astoria Blvd subway station- a stop you find before the last stop in the direction of “N” or “Q” train, as they call it. I had to explore MTA and made my way around. NYC subway is very confusing. The new trains are fancy and sophisticated. You get electronic updates as to where you are, what stop is coming next and what the final stop is- and it is very graphic. The problem is you have to know which train to take as different trains could run to different destinations in the same track. The other confusing thing about it is that the trains are labeled in letters and numbers. I guess it takes a couple of days before you figure it all out. Designated waiting areas could be confusing too. Some of them have a look of prison. Benches are not attractive at all. These things make what appears to be MTA’s mantra “improving non-stop,” which you find inside the train and walls of stops –laughable, to say the least.
However, there is lots of fun in stations. Saturday is, I think, not supposed to be a rush. Yet, you see people in a very rushing mood in the subway. I was thinking “what’s wrong with NY?!” on a serious note, the rush itself could even entertain you. It reminds you of a capitalistic mindset (“productivity”) – “cogs in the machine.” As well, it reminded me of one of Charlie Chaplie’s comedy- which I watched as part of one of my undergraduate courses at York University. Moving non-stop to the point of not holding your breath- and on Saturday! Amid such rush in the evening, what I saw at “Union Square” station was very captivating. A group of four people (call them “multicultural” if you want- picture is down posted down) were playing instrumental music. A trumpet, a saxophone and a drum blended beautifully to give a powerful melody. The intensity with which the drummer was absorbed into drumming is exceptional –the likes of which I have never seen. It had me glued to the ugly bench for about half an hour and they were playing non-stop. For the first time, I gave out some money for people who play instrument in subway stops. That ugly feeling I got in the hotel room was conquered and fast!
There after I had to go out to visit “Ground Zero” and “Freedom Tower.” Planning to visit some sites of tourist attraction (although I was not a tourist, and was never ever in my life) for the next day, I decided to return to my room and took train to uptown where my where I was staying. It was about midnight when I get there. “Statue of Liberty” and “Empire State building were sites that planned to visit. For the rest of the day my plan was to just rove around the city and go to places that I frequent in Toronto – like Starbucks!
The following day, my first planned visit was to the “Statue of Liberty.” A train ride to “WhiteFall” (I wanted to know why it was named like that—it sounded to me like “WhiteHouse”) and then I got a ticket to the statue of Liberty for $24. No extra cost to “Miss New Jersey” – the ferry that took me to the Island where “the statue of liberty” is located and to Ellis Island, where Immigration Museum is located.
No question the statue is magnificent and charismatic. The closer you get, the more charismatic it become. In addition to its look, perhaps the very idea it embodies gave it more charisma. By the way, am I alone to feel like the idea of “liberty” is very charismatic and captivating? Not just that the idea of freedom and liberty is selfless or is supposed to be that way. Freedom and liberty is over-powering and exceptionally attractive. I think that is why people give up their comfort –even their life for the cause of liberty. What is Eskindir doing in Kaliti? Why were other Ethiopians led to torture chamber in “maekelawi”? What is justice if there is no liberty? When justice is exclusive or a mockery –there is no such thing as liberty. The rhetoric of liberty becomes empty. The malaise of America’s rhetoric about liberty could simply be revealed only when you consider its foreign policy. The government in my country –Ethiopia –represents stories of the repression and tyranny – in that it is probably one of the leading in the country. Yet, it has been the leading aid recipient from the United States of America and America never unequivocally, to date, denounced repression. Ironically, the US was an ally for this same system—in fact what more could explain this story than the tremendous development aid that the US grants in different forms?
Rhetoric of “freedom and Liberty” that glitters does not represent “freedom” in the real sense of the term. Like the deeds of America as seen in its foreign policy, description of the statue of liberty seems to suggest that the statue of liberty is not American in the sense that the sculptor and architects are of European origin. To be specific, the sculptor of “the Statue of Liberty” is a French man. The material itself (copper) is from Norway. So what is really distinctively American about the statue of liberty? It’s essentially a purchase from Europe. In fact even the idea that the statue embodies – liberty –sounds, to me, very French. Where else could we trace from the very origin of ideas of liberty and freedom other than the enlightenment movement?
On a historical note and in view of the experience of African Americans, institutionalized repression, bullying and war mongering, the message the statue seems to convey is not just misnomer, it is lie and a pure propaganda. The statue is 125 years old but the “freedom” we see in America is not. And did I read a line that sounds like “globalization” in one of the notes? The poem by Emma Lazarus, which is displayed on the side of the description of the statue of liberty, sounds nice, but does not give much of a meaning or significance. It just represents propaganda. *** pic and the poem.
The next visit in the Island took me to “Immigration Museum.” Not only is this meticulously displayed, it also demonstrate a considerable degree of honesty. The things I visited reminded me of diligent Irish professor in my years at Addis Ababa University and his well designed “modern world history” course. The visit, as much as it was a reminder of my history lesson at AAU, was a reminder of my own immigration history something like eight years ago. The traditional chants and songs – the mechanisms with which workers trick their mind to forget the brute of the work they do –in the sound area is amazing. The confession note in the museum that immigration was both forced and voluntary is an interesting point of reflection that could make another article, if not book.
In this museum, you could see challenges of immigration in the past. Even baggage was a problem. The bundles of belongings immigrants brought with them reminded me of house hold furniture where I grew up. In fact we had some at home [ሳጥን]. The touch of innovation that baggage has got from “modernity” is very visible. Heavy Wooden baggage gave way to light, expandable ,wheeled and easily movable baggage.
Putting stories of misery and failure aside, stories of success of immigrants, so to speak, vary. To me, it appears to be the case that immigrants from Europe are remarkably successful. Not only did they seem to succeed economically but also they managed to entrench their respective cultural heritages in their new country. On the way from New York to Syracuse, I read traffic sign posts of towns like “Amsterdam,” “Rome,” “Utica.” I have heard about other towns too that sound very European. Do Latino’s have towns named after places of their origin too? What is San Diego?
My last visit to a tourist attraction in NYC was to the Empire State Building. Magnificent, exquisite and glamorous building which stands 1250 feet tall. It tells a story of the height of architectural and engineering excellence while giving you a very good view of the city of New York in all directions. When you see the city of NYC in different directions, you feel like the magnificence of the ESB is not an exception except that of its height. Lots of incredibly amazing buildings. The problem is when you get down, get out of the building and take a walk to explore the city. Perhaps people are wont to the things that shocked me. Same like DC. You can read anger, frustration, desperation and see many emotionally disturbed people, people who ask for a change and what have you –and in the land of opportunity!
This is where you clearly see those architectural wonders are just investments meant for profit maximization and has little, if not nothing, to do with improving the lives of people. In fact the ESB itself is generating, I can imagine, serious revenue. It cost me $42 to get to 102 floors. The queue is always long. Imagine tourist (from the bourgeoisie class around the world) spending in gift shops in the building! The desperation, frustration and disappointment you observe in the streets are manifestations of problem related to redistribution of the wealth that is created at the expense of the down trodden. When I see majestic cloud high in the sky of NYC while I was on the 102 floors, a spiritual mood and thinking kicked in. I felt like all those magnificent buildings did not bear an attribute of eternity. The majestic clouds, as natural as they are, better represent eternity and imagine Heaven beyond the clouds. I forgot where I stood and all those magnificent buildings right away. After all, they didn’t sound to me as representations of justice, freedom and compassion. They might rather be reminder as to what exploiting others could do. The political meanings of those buildings are not as appealing as the fascinating architectural and engineering achievements. The exploiters need to repent and arrest their greed which is causing devastating wars, sometimes support brutal regimes –and unbearable working and living condition for their fellow citizens as well!
Seriously, I happened to see a church somewhere between 10th and 9th Avenue of the 34th street –St. Michael church (not sure if it is Angelical or Catholic Church). Engraved notice board on the wall of the church spells out schedules of prayer and confession. The idea of having appointment, just like a doctor’s appointment, for prayer or confession makes me laugh but on a second though I did not see anything wrong with it. For those who are restless, depressed, angered and even for those who made it all, it’s a very good reminder that everything outside of God is not everything. It does not represent real power. Nor eternity. More importantly, God is a reminder about what is just and what is not just. Redistribution is just (imagine that you have to give the extra pair of pant for the one without it)! I am not sure whether the capitalistic world would ever realize that campaigns to demolish faith and religion could fire back in a very bad way!
Anyways to wrap up, my trip to DC and NY was excellent. The time I had in Virginia and DC was excellent. The social warm I experienced after eight years was amazing. Who knows it might tempt me either to visit very often or to find job and settle there for good. From the perspective of political economy, with all the problems I observed America seems to be inspiring. In a matter of days I was writing books after books- just in my imagination.
This article was originally posted on www.bokena.blogspot.com
Writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @dimetros