Monday, May 11, 2009

Notes from a foreigner

While I am a native born US citizen, I often feel like I am living in a foreign culture. The language down in North Carolina is certainly understandable. Most of the time. But it's a different culture for me - born & raised a Yankee.

This came to mind this morning when I heard something on the radio about Confederate Memorial Day being celebrated today. According to Wikipedia, this holiday was officially yesterday in North & South Carolina. It marks the death of Gen. Stonewall Jackson in 1863 & the capture of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, in 1865.

In 2000, May 10 was made an official holiday in South Carolina, a compromise that also allowed Martin Luther King Jr. Day to gain status as a holiday. So, government offices are closed today, May 11.

I chatted quite a bit with locals yesterday & no one mentioned the "holiday." I didn't hear any "rebel yells." Didn't notice an unusual number of Confederate flags flying.

While the holiday didn't seem to spark much controversy locally, I do believe that the conflict is latent, not resolved. Just a few weeks ago, an African-American official in Alabama came under fire after removing Confederate flags from a graveyard. To African-Americans, the flags clearly indicate support for a regime that kept them in slavery. How can one note take offense at that? I have African-American friends who have expressed their feelings about it to me.

But for many white southerners, the flags mean something else. Pride in local history? Feistiness? I'm not sure. It would be an interesting subject for study - a good doctoral dissertation, but not mine.


From another foreign country, Azerbaijan, I got news this morning from a friend about the arrest of about 50 protesters yesterday in Baku. The US Embassy actually made some pointed criticism of the arrests.

Arzu Geybullayeva, an Azerbaijani blogger, has some interesting observations on the current political situation in the country and some links to some video coverage of the protests. The students were seized because they were protesting that the government is refusing to allow days of mourning for the victims of the massacre on April 30.

I read about the arrests and I think about the "dictator's dilemma." I became familiar with this concept during a class I took on dictatorship taught by Katri Sieberg at Binghamton University. The concept is quite simple. Because the dictator's rule is absolute, in some ways his information about his own subjects is the most imperfect. After all, who wanted to inform Stalin about the failure of the five-year plans? Who wanted to tell Saddam Hussein about the condition of his army?

In this low information environment, the dictator is unable to properly assess threats to his rule. He faces the choice about how severely he should repress - harshly or not so harshly. The safer option usually appears to be harsh repression.

So, this is what the students face. The government fears that acceding to their demands will just lead to further problems. The authorities fear that if they loosen up and allow tacit criticism of the government, who knows where a little free speech might lead. (Remember the chants about corruption during the May 1 protests?)

By the way, even if you don't speak Azerbaijani, check out this video. I think it conveys some of the sadness and frustration among the students.


Ani said...

I could much more envision living in the Caucasus than in the South--it's more than a foreign country, it's an unfathomable mindset and an alternate reality.

By the way, though, maybe a good first step for you might be to change your "About me" status, sad as that will way of moving on.

Anonymous said...

Good point. Time to accept where I am!

Radio Nomad said...

I sometimes feel like a foreigner in NC, too, and I grew up there! Never heard of Confederate Memorial Day though. The Caucasus very much reminded me of those incredible Blue Ridge Mountains!

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