Monday, September 21, 2015

What Does It Mean To Be An American


This is a crazy time to not be in America. When I left for Japan, Donald Trump had announced that he was running for President, and held a press conference where he basically said something along the lines of "Mexicans are coming here and raping our women." And I thought "Well, he's done, and this is all going to blow over and he's going to go away."
Well, he didn't go away.
For awhile he was literally everywhere on my Facebook and various news feeds.
There was a very pleasant, peaceful few days recently where I didn't hear or see Donald Trump on my news feed.

But, as I said, this is a crazy time to not be in America. Donald Trump is running for President, California is almost out of water. When I return to America, will it be the same place as when I left?

When I first started having a crisis of national identity here in Japan, I noticed that mostly everyone in Japan is in shape. There are very few obese people.
However, go to Las Vegas or Florida in the middle of July, and you will realize, as Denis Leary said, "There are some FAT people in this country..."
Japanese people take care of themselves, and their environment. They have something that alot of Americans are missing: self- pride. 
I began to look back out at America, which stresses individuality. 
I remembered all the fat people, and the tattoos, and the piercings, etc. 
All of these things are very uncommon in Japan.
America has gone through some phases.
Let's take Elvis as the perfect icon to represent America.
America went from being this Elvis, very clean, very popular, very successful, yet still retained edginess, and originality. 
Then America became Fat Elvis:
I'm not talking about America's obesity problem (More than one-third, 34.9% or 78.6 million of U.S. adults are obese). I'm talking metaphorically here. America became a place of gluttony, where everyone felt entitled to do whatever they wanted, free of any sense of self-pride. 

When I began to look back at America from Japan, I began to start seeing America, not as the Fat Elvis, but as a Fat Elvis on a Wheelchair, Eating a Cheeseburger, Smoking a Cigarette, Beer Stained T-Shirt,with Full-Sleeve Tattoos, Purple Hair, and Eyebrow Piercings. 
America became a place of entitlement, where expressing individuality became more important than self-respect and self- pride. No sense of shame. 
In other words, I had a negative view of America.

The difference between America and Japan comes down to this:

Japan is a very shame based culture. Individual is suppressed, and complete submission and conformity are stressed. The group is more important in Japan, where in America, it's all about individual freedoms, rights, and expressions.

The historical difference is that Japan up until the end of World War II, was all about imperialism and monarchy. 
America, since its inception, has basically said "Screw you" to monarchy. 
Essentially, they told the King of England, "Screw you, we don't want you telling us what we can or can't do, we are doing our own thing."
Japan, has been quite the opposite. 


So, back to Donald Trump on my news feed, it seemed like I every time I logged into Facebook it was like this "mass shooting, cop killing a black guy, mass shooting, cop killing another black guy, mass shooting, cop killing a black guy, mass shooting, cop killing a black guy..."
And the last time I logged into Facebook...yep, another school shooting.


During Obama's latest speech, "Obama's frustration was visible on his face, palpable in a way it hasn't been in the past. And no wonder. He was president when James Holmes killed 12 people in a movie theater. He was president for 20 dead children in Newtown, Connecticut, and nine dead black parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina. He was president when one of Congress' own was shot in the head. We've watched him plead and cajole Congress to take action. And Congress has done nothing. After the 20 dead kids, there was a limp attempt to pass a neutered background check, but even with the names of a conservative Republican and the Senate's most conservative Democrat attached, the bill died an ignominious death, six votes short of breaking a filibuster.

Twenty dead kids, and nothing.

Once Congress couldn't act after Sandy Hook, what would make them act? Not Charleston. Not Lafayette, Louisiana. And certainly not Roseburg, Oregon, where nine people died yesterday at Mercer's hands."

In 2015, there have been 274 days so far, and of those days, there have been 294 mass shootings.
At least 240 black people have been killed by police in the U.S. in 2015.
878 people have been killed by police so far this year. 
Unrelated, statistics show that white supremacy extremist groups have killed more people in America, than Muslims. 
"These stats reveal a vast difference between public perception and the number of actual cases in which Muslim extremists have claimed American lives. So why aren’t more people outraged about domestic terrorists? Because then we’d have to admit that white supremacy is still a problem."

Statistics like these got me thinking, "What does it mean to be an American?"
One quote that came to mind, which is now more true than ever, is by H. Rap Brown: 
"Violence is as American as Apple Pie."

If we let culture be what defines out country, let's take a look at one of the musical movements created in America: Hip Hop

It's no coincidence that this year, "Straight Outta Compton" was released, a film about the 80s and 90s rap group NWA (Niggas With Attitude) that essentially made "gangster rap" popular, and it was a wildly successful film, earning to-date "$160,428,420" at the box office. 

It's no coincidence, either, that Dr. Dre, a member of N.W.A., is also currently the world's highest paid musician, with $620 Million net worth. 
Hip Hop, is definitively American. 
The genre, much like the United States, is a mixing pot made up of combined elements, that formed into something its own, and with its own attitude, edginess, swagger, and anger. 
If Hip Hop, is definitively the American music, and violence is inherently American, let's take a look at what I believe Will.I.Am said about Hip Hop and gangsterism, and violence:
"Hip Hop is obsessed with gangsters, the same way that Hollywood is obsessed with violence."

Jay- Z, an ex- crack cocaine dealer, now 560$ Million net worth rapper (married to Beyonc- net worth of 450$ Million, making roughly comined $1 Billion) is proof that "Gangster mentality" is The American Way. 


Listen to the lyrics off of the  first track off of his "American Gangster" album: 

A gangster is not defined
A gangster is not defined by how low your jeans fall by your waist, but more how your genes stand over his expectations. Never forget where you came from. 
A gangster is not defined by how many rocks are in your watch, but rather how many rocks you move while on your watch.
Gangsters, hustlers, republicans, democrats, pimps and hoes.
Conservatives, labor, the seller, the buyer, the product, the producer.
See you are what you are in this world.
The gangster is absorbed and adored by those that don't understand the laws that govern gangsterment. 
Gangsterment allows you to make up your own laws and create brand new words.
Gangster mentality.
Gangster mentality, an American way created by the white, mastered by the black, and absorbed by the fiends, taxed by the governmentality, charted by forbes.
If you believe in Jay-Z then you too can be a gangster.
The you too can be a gangster by any means necessary. By any means necessary, by owning that dream. I mean it's a long walk to freedom but, while deep,
deep, deep inside the bush.
The war on terror screams, damn it feels good
Damn it feels good to be a gangster.
To be a gangster swagger is not a must, it's a liability, a cliche, a bad suit, cut the bullshit. You know if it wasn't for this, there would be no that.
Which we call, the American Gangster."

Also, I am extremely pacifistic and non-violent, yet when I started dating my girlfriend, she went through my DVD collection and we noticed a trend: A lot of gangster movies. 
Why do I like gangster movies? What's the appeal?


My answer: 
They are American. 

One of the few things distinctly American about me, is my love of Gangster films. 

But what do I like about gangster films? What is their appeal?

First, "gangsters" have their own "rock n' roll attitude." 

"Goodfellas", is one of the films I would show someone who knows nothing about America, and it is one of the greatest films of all time.
In it they have a quote about "gangsters" rock and roll attitude:
"They weren't like anyone else. 
                         They did whatever they wanted. 
                         They'd double-park in front of the 
                         hydrant and nobody ever gave them 
                         a ticket.  In the summer when they 
                         played cards all night, nobody 
                         ever called the cops."

Let's take a look at what I consider one of the single greatest scenes in cinematic history, this scene from 'Goodfellas':


Gangsters have this rock and roll attitude, they do what they want, when they want, and screw you if you don't like it.
They sort of had they "live fast, die young, and leave a good looking corpse."

In Goodfellas, the most iconic quote is "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. To me being a gangster was better than being the President of the United States." 

But aside from their attitude, on a superficial note, in American history they actually had/ have their own distinct, style, which could be argued as being distinctly American, as well:

But I figured out deeply what appeals to me most about gangster films is:

The Psychology involved in Gangster.

You get to look at how these people behave.
Their problems, their worries, their anxieties, and even their daily trivialities. 
You get to see how these people, who are quiet killers, live in their daily life.
How do they remain calm, killing others, or committing robberies?
What is going on in these people's minds?
It's fascinating. 
The appeal of my favorite gangster films is that they show gangsters as everyday, normal people. They try to paint them as average people, people who you can relate to. 
The biggest appeal, deep down, is that gangster films are about the conflict of human relationships, and internal human conflict. Very important themes for anyone interested in psychology. 

But what makes gangster movies distinctly American?

If I were to portray the picture of America to someone who might not know anything about America, I might use the medium of movies to tell them about America.
Now what movies would I show:

I would probably show them "Forrest Gump"
Probably show them "The Patriot" 
Probably "Dances with Wolves"

But what do I think is maybe the most important American film of all time?
"The Godfather." 
A gangster film.

IMDB (the Internet Movie Database) listed "The Godfather" as the Number 2 highest rated film on their website. 
(Coincidentally, "The Shawshank Redemption", a film about prison,  is listed at #1; interesting because the United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, incarcerating at a rate of roughly 716  of every 100,000 peoeple, 22% of the world's prisoner population)


Why "The Godfather" (and "The Godfather 2") are important American films and stories is because they tell the story of coming to America as an immigrant, and finding success. 
Americans, are all about breaking rules, doing anything to be successful. 

The movie "Office Space", another film obsessed with the gangster mentality, sums up this American mentality, with a dialogue between two characters, one an immigrant:
"I'm not going to do anything illegal."
"Illegal? Samir, this is America..."
But I'm Not Going to Do Anything Illegal

What do I think are the films that truly show America the way

What makes gangster films, distinctly American is that essentially they show the "American Dream." 
Specifically, the movie "Scarface", which is one of the most important American films of all time.


It tells the story of a Cuban refugee, who comes to America to be successful.
Although, his ways of finding success are warped and morally wrong, his main belief is one that, although equally twisted, is not that far off from the belief of many other Americans:
"In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power, then when you get the power, then you get the woman."
This quote is not far off from what a lot of Americans actually believe. 
Essentially, it's this, which in a sense can be interpreted as the American Dream:
Maybe, this is why Scarface relates to so many people, and is still a wildly successful film. 

I think the above films are the most important American films of all time. They show the true attitude of America, and what it means to be American. 

So I would for sure show these movies to someone unfamiliar with American culture or attitude. But also these films:
"Gangs of New York" for telling the history of immigrant clashes and gang violence. As well, as "The Departed"

"Boyz N Tha Hood" for telling the story of inner city poverty in America being the source of violence and crime, and for these two scenes alone:

"Taxi Driver" for its revolutionary portrayal of New York as representing all that is wrong and crazy about the United States as a country.

Also in one of my last blog posts I talked about how in this Japanese book on American slang, they used this picture, which is a shocking interpretation of what an American looks like to an outsider:

"Easy Rider" for its realistic portrayal of the dream of 1960s freedom in America, and also, the failure of it:

"American Psycho" for its portrayal of the emptiness, insanity, and inhumanity that was at the core of 1980s lifestyle based on wealth and excess:

"Malcolm X" for its portrayal of the black man's mentality in America. Although extreme, the black man's history in this country is pretty extreme.
Malcolm X, was coincidentally, originally a gangster, who found religious and educational redemption in prison, and who was ultimately assassinated, and died like so many other Americans have: at the hands of a gun.
"Pulp Fiction" for the way it casual uses speech, speech that is distinctly American. The film was revolutionary in how it portrayed characters having normal, everyday conversations.

"American History X" for its brutal portrayal of skewed racist white supremacy that obviously is still an issue in America. It eventually shows racism for what is it: meaningless hatred. 

These movies could be described rough, rugged, violent, and unforgiving, but these same set of words can be used to describe the country of the United States itself. 

I know there are so many people who want to believe that America still looks like this: 
The reality is that America no longer looks like that. 

It looks like this:



Everybody likes to talk about the 1950s American Dream, and the "good ol' days." 
People have this nostalgic vision of the good old days in America, where times were simpler, there was less violence, and the economy was doing well, as if that's the most important factor in the human quality of life. 
But we tend to forget...they were only the good ol' days only for SOME.

They definitely werent the "good ol' days" for black people:
It wasn't the good old days for women:
It certainly wasn't the good old days for anyone "non-white":
Connecting it back to Japan:

Here's a scene from "Network", a film that is nearly 40 years old, yet the message still resonates today:

The reality is that today we live in an America where this is a news story:
and nobody bats an eye. 
We just accept it as a fact of life. 
Nothing is done, and nothing changes.




I apologize for the harshness of this post, but everything I've posted is just facts. It's the truth.
Here's a quote from the 1991 film "Grand Canyon":

"The point is there's a gulf in this country; an ever-widening abyss between the people who have stuff, and the people who don't have shit. It's like this big hole in the ground, as big as the fucking Grand Canyon, and what's come pouring out is an eruption of rage, and the rage creates violence, and the violence is real, Mack. Nothing's gonna make it go away, until someone changes something, which is not going to happen. And you may not like it, even I may not like it, but I can't pretend it isn't there because that it is a lie, and when art lies, it becomes worthless. So I gotta keep telling the truth, even if it scares the shit out of me, like it scares the shit out of you."




In my Japanese Peace Building and Economics class, our teacher gave us a book to read. On it is a shocking portrayal of Americans:
Let's look at it closer:

To an outsider, American look like that and like this:
And this:

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