Friday, October 26, 2007

Voyage to America’s Most Patriotic Town (II)

By Farooq A. Kperogi

In our eastward ascension to Rhode Island, the first state we passed through was South Carolina, Georgia’s immediate eastern neighbor. I had never been to South Carolina before; only read and heard about its stunning beauty and the legendary pleasantness of its people—in common with the rest of southern United States.

These qualities— that is, the proverbial amiability of South Carolinians and the breathtaking magnificence of their state— are encapsulated in the license-plate slogan the state cherishes about itself: “Smiling faces. Beautiful places.” Almost every car and truck (yes, Americans love to drive trucks, not for hauling, but for pleasure) I saw in the state had this slogan inscribed on its license plate. I thought the catchphrase was just as enamoring as the place and the people it describes.

South Carolina, which has the honor or the dubious honor—depending on which side of American politics you stand—of being the first state to secede from the United States in the 1860s, is a rattling rural state. Greenville, its biggest city where we stopped over for about an hour, is only a mid-sized city with less than one million people. But it’s a charming, entrancing, and historic city nonetheless.

It is the birthplace of Rev. Jesse Jackson, the fiery African-American civil rights activist and two-time American presidential candidate. A few of the residents of this city that I chatted with seemed proud of this fact. They also proudly told me that their city is the North American headquarters of Michelin and the sole manufacturing outfit of BMW cars outside Germany. Town pride and town loyalty run very deep here.

We also had layovers in other historic towns and villages in the state. I will bore the pants off you if I give every minuscule detail of my encounters there. But it suffices to say that in this state, like everywhere else I have been to in southern United States, most people—black and white alike— wore infectious smiles on their faces, were overly polite, called every man “sir” and every woman “ma’am,” and seemed happy, even excited, to help strangers.

Then we got to North Carolina, South Carolina’s twin—in both geographic and historic terms. North Carolina is a much more urban and progressive state than its “twin.” It has many big cities, several notable universities, and many industries. It’s probably southeast America’s most urban state. (Even in the state of Georgia, Atlanta is the only big city).

It has also produced at least three American presidents—Andrew Jackson, the 7th president of the United States; James Polk, the 11th U.S. president; and Andrew Johnson, the 17th U.S. president. This record is outrivaled, I think, only by the states of Virginia, which has produced eight American presidents; Ohio, which has produced six American presidents; and Massachusetts and New York, which each have produced four American presidents.

North Carolina, unlike—indeed in contradistinction to— its “twin,” also has the distinction of being the last southern state to secede from the United States. In a racially sensitive country like the United States, that is a feat to make a song and dance about, especially given that the immediate cause of the Civil War between the North and the South was over the abolition of slavery. The then rural and agrarian South wanted to continue the enslavement of Africans to service their plantations, while the urban, industrial—or industrializing— North saw slavery as not only immoral but also anachronistic.

Well, that’s the official line. Some people say it’s more complex than this. But I think it’s significant to note that even to this day the display of the Confederate flag in the South, that is,  the flag of the Southern secessionists,  inflicts deep emotional injury on most African Americans. It is, for them, not only a symbol of racial oppression but also an emblem of nostalgia for the return of slavery in the South. But I digress.

North Carolinians tell anybody who cares to listen that Hiram Revels, the first black person to be elected to the U.S. Senate between 1870 and 1871, was originally from their state, even though he actually represented the state of Mississippi in the U.S. Senate. To this day, Revels is one of only five black people to have served in the U.S. Senate. Does that tell you something about how much progress has been made in race relations in this country?

North Carolina is also home to the famous “Research Triangle Park,” the world’s biggest high-tech research and development center. It is the product of a collaborative endeavor of local and state governments in North Carolina, North Carolina-based private sector operators, and three well-known universities— Duke University, the University of North Carolina and the North Carolina State University, all located within close proximity to each other.

This Research Triangle is situated near the cities of Durham (where Duke University is located), Raleigh (the state capital, which is also home to the North Carolina State University) and Chapel Hill (home to the University of North Carolina). I passed through all of these cities and even had a glimpse of the Research Triangle. Thrilling experience!

We laid over for about an hour in North Carolina’s biggest city, called Charlotte, which competes with Atlanta as the southeast’s unofficial headquarters. While it is decidedly behind Atlanta in size, population, and sophistication, it is clearly a splendid and gorgeous city—and a worthy competitor to Atlanta. It is the banking capital of southeast United States, being host to the Bank of America, America’s second biggest bank, and Wachovia Bank, America’s fourth biggest bank.

The hometown of the famous Rev. Billy Graham, Charlotte is also often called the "The City of Churches" by its residents.

The next state we passed through after North Carolina was Virginia. Even though this state is geographically in the North— at least by my cartographic imagination— it is historically regarded as a Southern state and, in fact, functioned as the headquarters of the Confederate States of America, that is, the group of secessionist Southern states that wanted to break away from the United States between 1861 and 1865. (The Confederate headquarters was originally in Birmingham, in the state of Alabama, but moved to Richmond when Virginia joined the Confederate side).

Virginia is far and away America’s most historically significant state. As I said earlier, it has produced eight presidents, including the first president of the United States, George Washington— after whom the American federal capital is named. This distinction earned Virginia the epithet “Mother of Presidents.”

But that’s not all. It is also home to the historic Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the United States. It is, in other words, the birthplace of modern America. And it is customary for Americans to refer to the state as the "Mother of States and Statesmen" because the states of Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan as well as some portions of Ohio were carved from it.

I had traveled to parts of the state, precisely to Arlington, home to USA Today—America’s first and only national newspaper. This was when I first came here on a U.S. State Department-sponsored International Visitor Program.

But this journey afforded me the opportunity to see Richmond, the state capital, which I had never been to before. This city is so mesmerizing in its imaginative mix of old-fashioned grandeur and colorful art that it detained my admiration for a longer period than any place had done in recent times. It’s the only American city I have visited which lavishly honors its Native American aborigines in its architecture and arts. Call it tokenism, but I think it’s worth noticing.

I had always had some difficulty accepting Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. as parts of southern United States. But this voyage eased that difficulty. These places, far as they are from the “core” South (to borrow a Nigerian media expression), are decidedly Southern in culture, customs, and even regional accent.

They remind me of states like Kwara and Kogi which have more cultural affinities with states in the far north of Nigeria than they do with their immediate western neighbors. Sub-national regional identity is not simply about geography; it is, more importantly, about history, culture— and, well, politics.

The American south and the American north are remarkably different in culture and customs as you will see in the final installment of this series next week.

To be concluded next week

Related Article

1. Voyage to America's Most Patriotic Town (I)
2. Voyage to America's Most Patriotic Town (III)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Voyage to America’s Most Patriotic Town (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Have you ever traveled on a bus continuously for 51 hours (that is, for over two days!) with only occasional layovers? Well, I did two weeks ago. And it was an indescribably thrilling and sublime experience for me.

I traveled from Atlanta to a town called Bristol in the state of Rhode Island, America’s tiniest state located on the northeastern fringe of the country. Bristol is a charmingly picturesque, water-logged town of about 23,000 people that prides itself on being America’s “most patriotic town” on account of being host to the oldest continuous Fourth of July celebration. (Fourth of July is the fond alternative name for "American Independence Day," equivalent to our own First of October).

Atlanta and Bristol are located on almost opposite ends of the cartographic spectrum, kind of like traveling from Enugu to Maiduguri in Nigeria. If you take into account the fact that America is the world’s third largest country and that Nigeria is the world’s 32nd largest country, you can imagine the stretch of land I traveled by bus. But why didn’t I travel by air?

Well, I didn’t travel by bus on purpose. In retrospect, however, I am glad I did. I had been notified of the acceptance of my paper at the “New Media and the Global Diaspora” conference at the Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island, many months ago. And my department has dedicated funds to sponsor professors and doctoral students whose papers have been accepted for presentation in competitive, peer-reviewed academic conferences.

However, I didn’t have the presence of mind to book a flight for the conference one month in advance as is the custom here. Booking a flight a month before the actual flight reduces the cost by more than half.

A week to the conference, I approached our departmental business manager for my funds to fly to Rhode Island. But at that time, the airfare to Rhode Island had shot through the rooftop and was way above my entire travel budget for the year.

I had only two options, the business manager told me: inform the organizers that I could no longer attend the conference, or put in my personal funds to supplement the departmental travel budget to purchase the outrageously exorbitant air ticket.

The first option was not an option for me because I had given my word to the organizers that I would attend the conference several months ago. Besides, many notable academics would be at the conference and I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to socialize with and learn from such a rare assemblage of high-achieving, cutting-edge academics.

The second option was not appealing to me either. So I told the business manager that I had a third option. “What’s that?” she asked. “I will travel by Greyhound,” I said. She was overcome with amazement. “Why would you do that to yourself!” she exclaimed. I assured her that I would be well and left her office.

Greyhound Lines, for those who are not familiar with the American transportation system, is the largest inter-city common carrier of passengers by bus in North America. Americans simply call it “Greyhound.” And it is named after the tall slender dog of an ancient breed noted for swiftness and keen sight, which is used in dog racing.

I had traveled by Greyhound bus to many destinations in the United States before. But this was the first time I was traveling for this long on a bus. I became an object of pity among my American friends and colleagues when I told them of my decision.

But why should I be an object of pity? This is an excellent, well-coordinated common carrier with very well-maintained fleets of buses that are, in reality, aircraft on land. The buses are neat and equipped with state-of-the-art toilet facilities. And they are incredibly fast and almost accident-free. Since 1914 when the Greyhound Lines has been commuting people from city to city in this unbelievably vast country, it has had fewer than 10 notable accidents. Plus, it is safe to travel in; there are no armed robbers lurking in the bush to ambuscade and rob people like in Nigeria.

Road transportation in America is an absolute delight. The roads are exceedingly wide, beautifully paved, and gracefully interlocked. Speed limits are religiously enforced and observed. Where there are no police officers on the highway monitoring compliance with speed limits, there are radars installed on the road to check speed in cars, buses and trucks.

Wayfarers’ comfort on the road is also assured. After every couple of miles, there are exits to which you can drive off to find well-maintained buildings with lush green background, called “rest areas,” where you can buy food, take a shower, use the toilet, refuel you car, or simply relax.

But Americans don’t think anything of these conveniences. They take them for granted. These spoiled Americans! That’s why my colleagues had “pity” on me for choosing to travel by road from Georgia to Rhode Island.

But I wasn’t discouraged because I knew I would have a heck of a lot of thrill. And sure enough, my trip was very eventful, adventurous and enlightening. Best of all: I have added to my list of states I know in the United States. I can now boast that I have been to almost half of the states in America.

And many of my American friends are “jealous” of me for this “feat” because states here are like countries, not only because of the huge expanse of land that separates them but also because of the remarkable differences in the cultures of the people of different states. In this trip, I saw a lot of the differences— and similarities, too—between the south and the north of America, which I will discuss later.

But let me first relate my experience of traveling through American villages. I had done this in the past, but the length of my present trip heightened my consciousness of the difference between American villages and ours. Here, villages are so called only because of their size and their exquisite rusticity. They do not lack the conveniences of modern living as ours do.

As our bus passed through the road-side villages, I couldn’t help being held spellbound by their elegant simplicity, their romantic charm, their spatial uniqueness, and their well-maintained lawns and farms. I saw communities that were simultaneously in perfect harmony with nature and in touch with modernity.

The sight of cows, sheep and other domestic animals joyfully gamboling and grazing in luxuriantly green meadows and of well-looked-after children playing boisterously in the background while their apparently contented parents sat on their easy chairs in the porches of their homes savoring, and rollicking in, the idyllic simplicity and chasteness of their exquisite abodes, inspired an inexpressible wistfulness in me. Oh, how I love the American countryside!

Interestingly, even American cities are very green and in constant dialogue with nature. For instance, New York, the world’s most technologically advanced city, is also a very leafy city. Atlanta, another high-tech city, is in fact called “a city in the forest” because it is interlarded with delightfully verdant forests. The viridity of American cities, towns and villages shames me to no end.

I am saying this against the backdrop of what obtains in Nigeria. Although Africa is often associated, in the popular imagination, with being the world’s surviving link to “nature,” our cities, especially in Nigeria, are in truth denuded of nature. There is no Nigerian city I know of that has forests interspersed with houses. We cut down entire forests because we want to establish a settlement.

When I lived in Kaduna, I witnessed an old white man cry a river as former governor Makarfi’s administration ordered that the trees on Ahmadu Bello Way, planted by the late Sarduna’s government in the 1950s, be cut off. Makarfi’s idea of development was to eliminate nature. It took the wailing of the old white man to stop the madness—temporarily.

But people who even make attempts to make amends are vilified. In Nigerian universities, for instance, vice chancellors are often viciously pilloried for merely “planting flowers” and “painting walls.” What is it with us and drab, colorless, and uninspiring environments?

Why is it difficult for even academics, most of whom have studied in America and Europe, to appreciate the wisdom in “planting flowers” and “painting walls”? It renews the soul, re-energizes the spirit, reinvigorates the mind, unburdens the creative impulses and even liberates the intellect.

To be continued next week

Related Articles:

1. Voyage to America's Most Patriotic Town (II)
2. Voyage to America's Most Patriotic Town (III)

Saturday, October 13, 2007

American Secessionists Uniting to Disunite?

By Farooq A. Kperogi

This week, I am lifting a compelling news story from the Associated Press about threats of secession in the United States.

Secession in the United States? Why would this archetype of a cohesive nation be in danger of disintegration? If you are asking these questions, you have a companion in me.

Although I have always been aware of the existence of divisive regional sentiments in this country (about which I have had cause to write in the past), I had never thought that any American would want the disintegration of this fine nation.

Although the secessionists about whom you will read below are fringe elements whose views don’t resonate with the popular sentiments of a majority of ordinary Americans—at least as far as I know—it is significant that the Associated Press, America’s (and the world’s) preeminent news agency has given some notice to their meeting and agenda.

But it is not so much the unusualness of a group of people agitating for the dissolution of an obviously working union that piqued my interest; it is the lesson that a complex, multi-ethnic and multi-religious country like Nigeria can learn from this that interests me the most. It shows that nation-building is a perpetual project. There is no end to the search for national cohesion. It has to be permanently and consciously nourished.

The United States is over 200 years old as a nation. It is the world’s strongest and most prosperous nation. It survived a bitter and sanguinary Civil War and emerged a more virile nation from this experience. Yet it still has groups of people who are so dissatisfied with the state of affairs of the union that they want to dissolve it.

There is a lesson in this for us.

Last week, I traveled to the state of Rhode Island to present a paper at an international conference on New Media and Global Diaspora. Rhode Island is in northeast United States near New York. I traveled for over two days from Atlanta, which is in the southeast, to Bristol, which is in the northeast. It was a journey that broadened my knowledge of this incredibly diverse country in more ways than one. I will share my experiences with you from next week.

Enjoy the article below and see you next week. Barka da Sallah!

Secessionists meeting in Tennessee
By BILL POOVEY, Associated Press Writer
Wed Oct 3, 3:15 AM ET
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. - In an unlikely marriage of desire to secede from the United States, two advocacy groups from opposite political traditions — New England and the South — are sitting down to talk.

Tired of foreign wars and what they consider right-wing courts, the Middlebury Institute wants liberal states like Vermont to be able to secede peacefully.

That sounds just fine to the League of the South, a conservative group that refuses to give up on Southern independence.

"We believe that an independent South, or Hawaii, Alaska, or Vermont would be better able to serve the interest of everybody, regardless of race or ethnicity," said Michael Hill of Killen, Ala., president of the League of the South.

Separated by hundreds of miles and divergent political philosophies, the Middlebury Institute and the League of the South are hosting a two-day Secessionist Convention starting Wednesday in Chattanooga.

They expect to attract supporters from California, Alaska and Hawaii, inviting anyone who wants to dissolve the Union so states can save themselves from an overbearing federal government.

If allowed to go their own way, New Englanders "probably would allow abortion and have gun control," Hill said, while Southerners "would probably crack down on illegal immigration harder than it is being now."

The U.S. Constitution does not explicitly prohibit secession, but few people think it is politically viable.

Vermont, one of the nation's most liberal states, has become a hotbed for liberal secessionists, a fringe movement that gained new traction because of the Iraq war, rising oil prices and the formation of several pro-secession groups.

Thomas Naylor, the founder of one of those groups, the Second Vermont Republic, said the friendly relationship with the League of the South doesn't mean everyone shares all the same beliefs.

But Naylor, a retired Duke University professor, said the League of the South shares his group's opposition to the federal government and the need to pursue secession.

"It doesn't matter if our next president is Condoleeza (Rice) or Hillary (Clinton), it is going to be grim," said Naylor, adding that there are secessionist movements in more than 25 states, including Hawaii, Alaska, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Texas.

The Middlebury Institute, based in Cold Spring, N.Y., was started in 2005. Its followers, disillusioned by the Iraq war and federal imperialism, share the idea of states becoming independent republics. They contend their movement is growing.

The first North American Separatist Convention was held last fall in Vermont, which, unlike most Southern states, supports civil unions. Voters there elected a socialist to the U.S. Senate.

Middlebury director Kirpatrick Sale said Hill offered to sponsor the second secessionist convention, but the co-sponsor arrangement was intended to show that "the folks up north regard you as legitimate colleagues."

"It bothers me that people have wrongly declared them to be racists," Sale said.

The League of the South says it is not racist, but proudly displays a Confederate Battle Flag on its banner.

Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, which monitors hate groups, said the League of the South "has been on our list close to a decade."

"What is remarkable and really astounding about this situation is we see people and institutions who are supposedly on the progressive left rubbing shoulders with bona fide white supremacists," Potok said.

Sale said the League of the South "has not done or said anything racist in its 14 years of existence," and that the Southern Poverty Law Center is not credible.

"They call everybody racists," Sale said. "There are, no doubt, racists in the League of the South, and there are, no doubt, racists everywhere."

Harry Watson, director of the Center For the Study of the American South and a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said it was a surprise to see The Middlebury Institute conferring with the League of the South, "an organization that's associated with a cause that many of us associate with the preservation of slavery."

He said the unlikely partnering "represents the far left and far right of American politics coming together."

Monday, October 8, 2007

Debt Culture in America: Some Clarifications

By Farooq A. Kperogi
After reading a couple of email responses to my last two articles on the debt culture in America, I realize that I probably overstated—or understated—a few facts. I hope I am able to clarify them in this piece.

A reader was concerned that I had given in to the debt culture here. He was particularly disquieted by the fact that I would be compelled to mortgage the future of my wife and daughter! I initially thought it was some light-hearted banter until I read the whole email. I wonder what I wrote to create this impression.

Another reader wanted to know if everybody in America—including tourists, visitors, etc—is “forced” to get a credit card or take out loans. He was troubled that if he gets a chance to visit here, he might be forced to get a credit card. Huh? I had not the wispiest clue that I said anything that remotely suggested that.

Yet another reader was worried that Muslims in America are surrendering to usury without any resistance. But I thought I mentioned some Somali immigrants who have resisted credit cards and mortgage loans at the cost of being pushed to the margins of the American society.

If these responses are representative of the sentiments that my pieces have evoked, then I must have “miscommunicated.” And that’s not a light self-indictment for someone who has been studying, practicing and teaching communication all his adult life. But perhaps the blame belongs elsewhere.

The constraint of space that I habitually have to grapple with when I write, as all newspaper writers know, compels me to abbreviate—sometimes even omit—certain thought processes. So, perhaps, I occasionally relapse into elliptical writing, and a lot of information is implied without being explicitly stated.

Now, let me restate and clarify some facts that I may have muddled in my first two pieces. First, nobody is forced to own a credit card here. It is entirely voluntary. And it is only available to American citizens and legal residents here.

Tourists and visitors—and certainly tourists and visitors from Nigeria—are unlikely to get credit cards even if they apply for one precisely because there is no assurance that they will pay back their debts since they have no bank accounts here and will only be here temporarily.

Tourists from other Western nations probably already have credit cards from their own countries, which are accepted here. But most visitors and tourists who come here and don’t want to use cash to transact businesses often use what’s called the traveler’s check. It operates just like ordinary checks (that’s the American spelling for cheques!).

Additionally, you can, at any time, opt out of a credit card after you acquire it—provided you have paid up all your balances. And when I said most people don’t pay up the mortgages for their homes in their lifetimes, I ignored an equally large number of people who do. They do this by saving and paying substantially more than the minimum monthly payment. In this category are a lot of immigrants from deprived backgrounds who appreciate, and make very good use of, the opportunities here.

The whole point of my series was to show how Western economies, as people who travel internationally know all too well, are becoming increasingly cashless, paperless and debt dependent. And it seems to me that this is the path most other national economies are now treading.

A loyal reader of this column wrote to tell me that what I’ve written about the debt culture in America is gradually emerging even in Nigeria. Banks, he said, are now targeting people who have regular, fairly well-paying jobs and are offering such people loans and mortgages. It’s only a matter of time before credit cards will be introduced too—if that has not already happened.

When that happens, I only hope the government will strictly regulate the banks in the same way that lending institutions are regulated in the United States. Lending institutions here can’t charge just any interest rate; they have to operate within the limits predetermined by government regulation, which are usually reasonable and take into account the interest of the borrowers--well, to some extent.

Now, is this debt culture bad? You bet. But it also has many redeeming features, as I will show from my personal experiences shortly. And I bet that many Nigerians would gladly jump at the opportunities the debt culture offers.

But more than that, the global economy itself has been run on debt since at least the 19th century. Nigeria, like all countries in the world, is an indebted country. Our national infrastructure, our universities, etc are built with money borrowed from other nations or from international lending institutions. You can’t be thoroughly immersed in a global debt culture and be worried about its manifestation only in personal and national economies. That seems to me like a misdirected worry.

Apart from the nagging guilt that gnaws at me for being “indebted,” which is a holdover from my background, I have no bad experiences with credit cards. I am in absolute control of my spending habits and of my debt profile. And when I am ready to leave this country, I will simply repay all my debts and close my credit cards.

Thankfully, I don’t incur more debts than I can repay in a month, and the interests I pay are so small as to be almost unnoticeable. So I am not in danger of mortgaging anybody’s future!

When I relocated to Atlanta over a year ago, I found myself staying in a hotel for a longer period than I had anticipated because I had difficulties getting an apartment that was affordable and close to my school.(And hotels in Atlanta are incredibly pricey). After staying in a hotel for a month, I ran out of money.

And I have no family here. I was in real danger of starving to death because my salary would not be paid until the end of the month since I hadn’t done any work for the school yet. My saviors were my credit cards.

But my credit cards were to save me on an even bigger occasion. When I finally got an apartment that was decent, affordable and fairly close to my school, the management of the apartment complex had to run a “credit check” on me. Fortunately, they found that I had a “good credit history.” And so I didn’t have to pay any “security deposit” to get into my new apartment.

My Russian colleague was not as lucky. He had just come from Amsterdam, had never lived in America, had no credit card and therefore had no credit history. So all the apartment complexes required him to pay a hefty security deposit worth thousands of dollars before leasing an apartment to him.

He couldn’t afford it. And he was so disillusioned that he wanted to go back either to Russia to Amsterdam. Then we met.

I offered to let him stay in one of my rooms, and we shared the cost of the apartment. After one year of staying here, he wasted no time in “building his credit history,” as we say it here, and now lives in his own apartment. How did he do it? He applied for and got a credit card, then paid his debts and bills on time, etc.

The whole point of the credit check, as I said elsewhere, is to demonstrate that you have the capacity to pay your rent, your debt, etc without defaulting. If the data from the credit bureaus shows that you have never defaulted in the payment of your bills and your credit card debts, you inspire confidence in a prospective lender or an apartment complex owner, etc that you’re trustworthy enough to do business with.

Of course, this should not obscure the fact that this debt culture is naked capitalist acquisitiveness. Credit card companies and lenders make a hell of a lot of money from the interests they charge on credit cards and mortgages. They are not some altruistic, benevolent people who are concerned about you. But every cloud, as they say, has a silver lining.

It should be mentioned, too, that there is a curious outgrowth from this debt culture. There are many marginal businesses that now appeal to people who have been pushed to the fringes by the dominant debt culture. I have seen many commercials directed at people with “bad credit or no credit.”

So people actually have more choices than my two previous articles probably portrayed.