American Culture

Fourth Thursday in November

So my first Thanksgiving ever outside the US was spent at a protest.

It was a protest against military actions happening in Israel/Palestine. It felt like a mix between a vigil and some of the peaceful protests that happen in the US. Music, candles, podiums, speakers, the usual. Overall, it was pretty chilled out and relaxed.

Then, all of the sudden, a new protest showed up. It was at the back end of the original protest. It was kind of small, but very loud. The original protest was in Danish, this one was in Arabic, so I couldn’t understand most of what they were saying. They stuck mostly to the call-response format, but once in a while they busted out into shorter responses. I recognized one though because it was English. They started chanting, in the angry way that I recognized from those two clips CNN has been running for the last 10 years, “down down Israel”. They then proceeded to burn the Israeli flag.

I really wasn’t sure what to make of it. There was a person onstage giving a fairly peaceful, informative, but inspiring speech, the solemn passion of a candle-light vigil, the wafting smell of pot (as there always is at these things) and a few yards behind it, a picture-perfect media caricature of ‘the middle east’. In Denmark. In the land of blondes, bicycles, and dairy, you suddenly have a scene that would have been thrown out of Team America for being too scripted and unrealistic. It was utterly incomprehensible.

Then, just at the tip of my hearing range, I heard something else. It took me a minute to realize I heard it because I didn’t want to realize it. For approximately 5 seconds, I heard the Arabic chanting turn to English again and say “down down USA”.

I really didn’t want that to be what they said.

Complete this sentence: “Hi, I’m from ___, pleased to meet you!”  Now, imagine saying this sentence almost daily for the last 6 months. Now, imagine standing a few yards from a very angry group with fire aiming their anger at whatever you filled in the blank with up there. Even for 5 seconds.

I turned back over to the peaceful side. Their message was clear: stop the military actions in Gaza for the sake of the people living there. That’s a message I could get behind. All of the sudden, the chanting stopped. Out of deference to the speaker, the chanting stopped. It was a Palestinian man talking about his experiences. It was in Danish, but I couldn’t concentrate so I don’t know what he was saying. I was worried about the guys in the back. What if they brought out an American flag next? How would I feel? What would I do? I know I wouldn’t ignore it. It’s the American holiday celebrating togetherness and family, I’m out expressing solidarity with people and a small group of them might undo all that with blind anger. After the speaker, their chanting went back to Arabic.

Next speaker was up, who was a rapper, rapping a political message. The tune was catchy but I could still see the syncopated, angry waving of Palestinian and Hamas flags from the corner of my eye.

Then, focusing squarely in front of me, I saw more Palestinian flags; considerably more, but they were different. They were waving and flowing in time with the beat and the music. They were gathered and moving solely in support of the person in front of them. It was amazingly steady and controlled, almost choreographed in comparison to what was going on behind.

Finally, the laws of fluid dynamics took hold. The turbulent flags poured in to the controlled wave of flags as the two crowds merged. There were 2 rhythms and two songs going on at once. I think this was the most important moment of my night…there were 2 incompatible moods that needed to be resolved. I definitely had a horse in this race so I wanted to see what would happen.

I saw the angry flags that their carriers were using to jab randomly at the sky, and then, in front of the canal facing the parliament’s castle, the jabbing changed. Maybe it was the beautiful street decorations, or maybe the air just got too cold, but the jabbing was different now. It started to have a distinct pattern. It was still jabbing, but there was a waving quality to it too. The waves matched the waves that were there earlier. All of the sudden, there were hundreds of Palestinian flags moving rhythmically to the background music of Gary Jules’ cover of Mad World. Some of them might have still been slightly sharper in their overtones than others, but it was clear that, at least for this moment, they were all there for peace.

This brings me to what I’m thankful for. I’m thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to live most of my life in countries where, when a peaceful concert meets an angry mob, the peaceful concert wins.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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I plead the 6th

I haven’t posted very frequently lately, and I think that’s because I’m past the ‘strangeness’ stage of moving, for the most part.

I’ve gotten used to things like ‘spicy seasoning’ being labeled as ‘blanding’ and hardly even giggle I walk past something that says ‘mad klubben’. I mean, I still gotta giggle a little because it’s hilarious, but for the most part things have stopped feeling overwhelmingly alien. This means my usual discussions, which mostly consist of me saying ‘How does this make any sense? What’s going on?? Explain!‘ have been replaced by normal discourse, primarily in the form of talks about US vs Danish life, society etc.

I think I’ve realized more about my personal attitudes in these talks than I had before. While it still trips me out to say ‘I live in a socialist monarchy’, it sounds less weird to me than it did before. I think the most amazing thing I’ve realized, though, is that I have a favorite constitutional amendment: the 6th. Ok, maybe it’s not my favorite-favorite, but it’s in the top 3 (trumped by the 1st and the SF version of the 21st). So, I thought, in honor of election day, I’d express my appreciation for the 6th amendment.

6th amendment, you rock. Truly.

It’s the one that guarantees you a trial by jury. I always thought that was a no-brainer. I mean, what’s the other option? Trial by fire? Turns out it’s not as obvious as it seems. I mean, we’re rounding up 12 people who we’ve specifically chosen to be ignorant of the law to make a legal decision. Why would we do that? Someone asked me that a few weeks ago. I really thought about it and realized how awesome the reason is: it keeps the laws in check with social common-sense. It’s like the ultimate anti-bureaucracy move. You can be found guilty of a crime, but not be punished because the average lay-person in society doesn’t think it should be a crime [1]. It means you don’t get blind application of the law, but instead get to stop and ask whether something should be a crime, and if so, how severe of a punishment it really warrants.

The other option would be to be convicted for something silly and be lost in the system until the law adapted. Of course, if you’re a judge or a lawyer, you can’t just say ‘Off you go son, this law is ridiculous and I’d be an ass to enforce it!’ or else your career would be over. A jury, on the other hand, is free to exercise all the common sense they want. We see this in modern times with juries (occasionally) acting against overly harsh drug laws [2]. There’s also the flip-side to this, where you could have committed a racist crime in the deep south and gotten away due to a sympathetic jury, but that’s just unfair jury selection [3].  If you can get a fair cross-section of society, I think that it’s an awesome and amazing way to put people’s voices back into the system.

Shit. I just realized I wrote a mini-civics essay. With citations. For fun. I must be more homesick than I thought…

I guess my point is that there’s some really awesome things about our system that we take for granted, and it really pains me that I wasn’t able to figure out the absentee system enough to vote this time around. Yes, even though it ‘doesn’t count’, and yes, even though there’s a bunch of broken parts to the system, it’s still something I miss and something I hope everyone back home at least participates in. Hey, even if all you get is a bunch of “I voted!” stickers, at least you’ll get some common sense in your criminal trial after stealing those stickers.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jury_nullification
[2] (just an example case) http://mywebtimes.com/archives/ottawa/display.php?id=374236
[3] http://www.personal.psu.edu/jph13/JuryNullification.html