Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award


What if the most powerful person in the world is a woman?

Today, I walked past a stand whose last remaining newspaper showed a photo of our candidates for President on the debate stage. A phrase came to my mind and just floated there, seemingly out of place. The most powerful man in the world.

I’m a white American male who voted twice for Barack Obama. I will this November cast my vote for a woman to be president of the United States. At the same time, I’m a citizen of the EU with extensive experience abroad, enough to allow me to see America from the outside even when I’m Stateside.

If I’m unable to watch American culture and customs with the eyes of someone who has never lived or visited the US, I can certainly sense the confusion so many abroad feel when they see our spectacle (this “debate” between a blowhard bully and a constantly interrupted woman many times his superior in everything from her knowledge base, experience, empathy, intelligence and political savvy) and wonder “How is it possible that someone should want to vote for this fiend?”

I know plenty of the fiend’s supporters, as I grew up among them. Some of them will vote on an anti-immigrant platform despite themselves being immigrants, displaced persons or the children of refugees. Some continue to hang on to a whitewashed Nelson fantasy of an America that put everything…everyone…in the “right place”. They now look at America and see a country where next to nothing is being arranged as their fantasy would have it.

It’s this perception of disorder that I want to consider. The election of a black man as President of the United States sent many into a panicked fit. The world was supposed to be one way, but it turned out to be another. Everything was supposed to make a kind of sense they were used to, but now nothing made sense anymore.

What was to blame? It wasn’t their worldview. No. The problem was that the world had gone wrong; it had been taken from them, its rightful owners, by rogue elements. It needed, as quickly as possible, to go right.

Originally, quickly meant either less than or no more than four years. But in 2012, it meant yet another four. Now, in 2016, those people stand at a threshold that, in their view, presents a chance for everything to go right again, for the world to be returned to its rightful owners.

Of course, to their great fear, there’s a chance for it to head to even greater disarray.

How can these people possibly perceive even greater disorder? Think of how often we throw around the phrase the most powerful man in the world to describe the President of the United States.

The phrase is significant to our collective consciousness. Part of the problem is that  we think in hierarchies, but for the sake of my example, let’s take it at face value and agree that, indeed, the President of the United States is the most powerful. Think for a moment, then, of what it will mean when the planet’s most powerful individual is a woman.

Germany and The United Kingdom and Lithuania and Austria and San Marino and Liberia and Georgia and Argentina and Costa Rica and Brazil and Switzerland have selected women heads of state. But those elections of women did not require the key phrase to be revised. How would we revise it? The most powerful woman in the world, spoken today, has a ring only slightly different from the world’s greatest female athlete. Both phrases assume there is someone greater and more powerful, and that person is most definitely male. But if we say the most powerful person in the world and end up meaning she’s a woman, the panicked see their order of things fall further apart.

Americans love power and success perhaps more than anything else. One person might have a high level of skill in something, but they won’t matter to anyone until they have presented success. Success is always money, as money determines one’s ability to impose or influence. You might be benevolent or evil, but in America you are only real and worthy when you’ve got enough power.

We don’t hate cons. In fact, we’re almost forced to love them. I am among those Americans who work in a place that’s pretending to be one thing (a college) but is actually another (a business). Others of us sell a product nobody needs, a tool or gizmo we know harms much more than it aids. Selling something, from a drug to a “service” or “course” is its own justification. And the more of it we sell, no matter the method or outcome, the more successful we are. The best sentence is the one bought more often than any.

That explains, partially, the appeal of a wealthy yet blatantly sexist fiend and con. But his act is only part of the gig. Alongside it stands a test of our collective identity. Sure…some people are voting against Clinton because they have some set of immovable reasons that have less to do with the fiend and more to do with how they perceive her nature. I’m driving at a larger sociological point: People are fine, to a degree, with a powerful woman, but they’ve never been faced with the prospect of her being the most powerful person of all. Electing Hillary Clinton to America’s highest office—a woman, mind you, more prepared than any candidate running in my lifetime, far better prepared than Obama was the first time around—would require us to rewrite the descriptive phrase.

To what consequence? The revision would push us further towards thinking not of people as men but of women as people. Quite naturally, it would also require us to rethink our concept of power. Let’s not pretend huge numbers of Americans are not prepared for either shift. Like their candidate, they like to settle things without any admission of guilt.

 

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Photo: Mural, East Garfield Boulevard, Chicago, IL


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Honestly, Europe, now’s not the time

In the last few weeks, I’ve gotten into several conversations with Europeans—British, Dutch, German and Lithuanian—who were having fun at America’s expense. Just today I received an article written by a friend who contemplates American identity as the stuff of hyperbole, superficiality and non-sense. Of course, none of these people could hide their current trepidation, not entirely.

The joy that Europe usually feels poking fun at American idiocy is at once an expression of bewilderment, superiority and self-consciousness. Honestly, I think it’s past time to be poking any fun, and Europeans really do need to start asking themselves some serious questions. What will the continent do in the case of American political, cultural and economic collapse?

People might shrug this question off. European nations are, after all, survivors of calamities. But the current moment is troubling. Europe has looked at the United States, at least since the late 40’s, as a stable global player, and American political and economic interest has been predictable, even dependable, no matter how often it has proven vile. Currently, the threat of chaos is real and I don’t feel Europe is having the necessary conversation.

What’s Europe’s plan if America turns fascist? Make fun of our lack of culture and our poorly educated population all you want, but a fascist America would really put the heat on you. American descent into abjection would strain and risk so many systems. From a bird’s eye view, perhaps a massive teardown of the world’s power structure is exactly what’s necessary for our long-term survival. But it really won’t be any fun to watch the fields getting torched, or to find ourselves standing in the middle of one.

I suppose I’m saying, Europe, that your American friends are ashamed and frightened, and it should embarrass you if at this moment you need to feel better about yourselves by calling us idiots. We know we’re idiots. This thing in America is a mess: we’ve a critical mass of people holding jackhammers to the home’s foundation. If that crew gets to work as it wishes, you might be forced to bunker down in a way you haven’t for many decades. Sure, you’ll survive, as you always have, but I don’t see you laughing on your way to survival, just as I don’t see any global foundation being rebuilt without rational and sensible European leadership.

On an individual level, if you want to be a friend to an American, don’t immediately start pestering or laughing. We know you’re confused, but don’t start an interrogation. Instead, ask us if we could use a cup of tea or coffee. We really, really could, and if you made it for us while we sat forehead-in-palm at the table, we’d only love you. You can spike it with amaretto or brandy while you’re at it. We should have that drink together because, as we both know too well, there’s no place to escape from this planet. No matter what November brings, we’re all going to need each other.

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Photo: late summer light along US 45, East Central Illinois.


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Open letter to Lithuanian-Americans who tend to vote Republican

Dear fellow Lithuanians:

Today I’m asking you to think about one of our mutual interests: the continued independence of Lithuania and the rest of the Baltic States.

No, I’m not a Republican and never have been. So if you’re Lithuanian-American and have heard of me, I get that you’re probably not a fan of my writing or public comments. If this is your first visit to my website, know I’m not posting today to get you to like me or buy my books.

Instead, I’m asking you to think about something I know you take seriously: the sovereignty of  Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. I’d like you to weigh what party loyalty you might feel against the possibility of that sovereignty’s breach.

I was among those Lithuanian-Americans who protested wildly for the United States to recognize the Lithuanian declaration of independence in 1990. Many of you were there in places like Daley Plaza in Chicago or before the Church of the Annunciation in Brooklyn.

I’m also aware that many of you, particularly those born prior to 1985, are old enough to have some idea of what Soviet occupation meant following WWII. Many of you know this meaning intimately.

I know not all of you vote along party lines. However, chatter on social media is compelling me to share my point of view. Perhaps some of you will conflate my post as a plea to approach an election based on a single issue. The independence of Lithuania and the Baltic States isn’t really that.

As we all know, the world is interconnected; we have, all of us, always been interdependent, but that is only more readily apparent now in a globalized economy where  commerce and communication are instant. The survival of NATO and the EU affects every global citizen, at least economically and politically. The possibility of an occupation of a country in northeast Europe should concern us morally, intellectually and even spiritually.

I find it paradoxical, at minimum, for those who were either blasted across the planet while fleeing Soviet aggression, or found themselves (like me) born to the displaced, to now enter a ballot box and vote for a candidate who looks at an alliance like NATO as a sacrificial pawn in a geopolitical board game.

It is also curious, for those who migrated during the 3rd wave, to find oneself living between countries, with friends and family in Lithuania, now to face the prospect of electing a candidate flippant to the possibility of a Baltic invasion, of leaving loved ones open to the increased possibility of foreign occupation.

You might find yourself voting for a set of personal reasons, perhaps to return jobs to mining or steel towns, or to punish the politically correct. If you’re that person, fathom waking up one morning to learn little green men are supporting a “separatist uprising” someplace in eastern Latvia. It soon grows and spreads past Daugavpils and into Lithuania, where “liberators” come to rid Zarasai of “fascists”. This is theoretical but hardly hyperbolic. A similar scenario has been taking place in Ukraine.

Our friends and family in Lithuania—indeed, in the rest of the EU and in the rest of the world—do not have a vote. But if they were faced with the choice, to the vast majority it requires not a nanosecond of thought.

Yes, there are plenty of things for Americans to be angry about. We haven’t been all that nice to each other, and it’s a fact that both the government and our bosses at work haven’t listened to the concerns of the middle class. Your gripe is legitimate. But what are you willing to risk in order to voice it? What alliances are you willing to tear down? No one has proposed anything we can prop up to replace the structures currently keeping the world from chaos.

The battle for Baltic independence cost lives. When I was a child, my elders believed it was something I’d never see in my lifetime. After so much progress, here we are, playing with fire as the world holds its breath.

And people who fled Stalinism—or the children and grandchildren of those who survived it—enter the ballot box prepared to vote for a demagogue on record as saying he may not honor American promises to protect the country which remains a cornerstone of our identity.

It begs so many questions, among them this one: if American promises have a price tag, what will the demagogue’s promises cost, and who will pay the price?

Please think about that.

Gint

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Photo: the Vilnius Television Tower, site of Soviet crackdown against Lithuanian independence on January 13, 1991.


Brilliant Lithuanian street art

All art is political. All art contains truth, although some art is more true that other art. This is about the truest works of art I’ve ever encountered, and it’s from Vilnius, on the wall of Keulė Rūkė BBQ, where I will most certainly be dining next week.

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Photo originally discovered at Imgur, posted by gintrux24.


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I Am Lietuva (not me, personally)

I was recently interviewed by Alexsandra Kudukis of I Am Lietuva. She asked me one question that is, to date, the most difficult one I had to answer in any interview.

The script is available in a newsletter available to subscribers only. To subscribe, please follow this link and go to the upper left-hand corner of the web page where you can add your e-mail address and receive the weekly letter.

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Here’s a teaser:

 

6.) We ask all of our guests at www.iamlietuva.com the same final two questions. What does Lietuvybė, or being Lithuanian mean to you?

Being Lithuanian in America offered me a vantage point from which I eventually grew and evolved to imagine myself a global citizen. What I mean is that the policies of isolationism and the point of view that sees America as exceptional and God’s best friend with a gun didn’t work on me.

When I came to Vilnius at age 19, read the city’s history, realized how complicated the place was, it was liberating, and I started to see the entire world not as a set of teams behind borders but an ever-shifting, ever-changing interplay. Realizing how different Lithuania was from the story I’d been told drove my curiosity through the stratosphere. I started traveling, opening myself up to the stories and ideas of people different from myself. Vilnius was my gateway drug to global consciousness.

 

 


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Feeling the weight of history

The perpetrator and the victim learn the real truth, but the witness, the observer gains only an impression. The quality of that impression—is it stronger or weaker—to tell the truth, there’s no difference. One way or another, the impression will die out, become a distant, faint memory, but the victim and the perpetrator will never forget the truth. –Sigitas Parulskis, Tamsa ir Partneriai (Darkness and Partners)

I have experienced a handful of moments in my life when I felt history as a massive, unfathomable force sprawled out behind me and yet entirely present in the moment. These transcendent moments inform my work as a writer about as strongly as anything I’ve experienced. My identity conjures itself around these immovable forces.

One of them occurred when I was about seventeen years-old, standing on the corner of Michigan and Wacker, facing the Tribune Tower in Chicago. This is the former site of Fort Dearborn. I had read about it for a high school assignment, but this day I happened to look down on the ground to see the demarcation. (Photo from Chicago Detours):

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In a flash, the fort and its story, the people who lived there, the people who died violently on the bank of the Chicago River…it all became real. Not a story in a book or a memory dancing amid the lightning of synapses. Not a film or a painting. I could sense the reality, unfathomable yet palpable, and how different that space had once been: no skyscrapers or metal bridges, street lights or fancy stores. I became aware of a force all around me, inside me, in which there were no longer sides to a story, enemies and friends. There was simply a human experience so overwhelming that I felt myself extinguished yet deeply connected to a great everything.

I had exactly this experience, although perhaps ten times more intense, while sitting at a table with writers Ellen Cassedy and Sigitas Parulskis. Cassedy, author of We are Here (an amazing book) was traveling around Vilnius, Lithuania collecting stories and experiences that had to do with her Jewish identity and the Holocaust in Lithuania. Parulskis had published Tamsa ir Partneriai, a novel which imagines the events of the Holocaust from the point of view of a Lithuanian photographer. She was to interview him, and I had been recommended as an interpreter.

At first I approached the conversation as I would any job. I felt a little anxiety, had brought my small dictionary along, made sure to come early. We sat at a table in an outdoor cafe, just down the street from the University of Vilnius. The conversation began and lasted a few hours.

The interview was published this past January in Cosmonauts Avenue. I highly recommend it, not just to those interested in the Holocaust, but especially to those interested in European history and questions of ethnic identity.  Click here to read.

I recognized, perhaps a quarter hour into the experience, that I was witnessing something important, and I knew the conversation I was hearing—I was soon participating—would change me forever. I hope one day to write with greater detail about that afternoon—in fact, the experience inspired me to pursue the completion of a work of non-fiction. I won’t say very much about it right now, only that I’m working on it, and that it is based on a moment of transcendence. It left me understanding what it means to admit a burden and then to let it go.

I will forever remember the moment I walked away from the table with Sigitas and Ellen, and how ultra-vivid Vilnius seemed to me. An orange sun had skewered puffy clouds with shafts of glass. I walked down streets in the middle of Old Town where atrocities had taken place. I had always known about them, but now they were different. Not scenes from a book, images from photos, memories I’d heard about. I recognized the feeling, the weight of history, at once annihilating and unifying, unfathomable yet palpable, sprawled out behind me and yet entirely present in every brick and cobblestone. Indeed, it was there in my body, in a hand that trembled uncomfortably for the rest of the night.

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