revisiting "dear john mccain"

Did I mention that John McCain hates gooks? He will hate them as long as he lives. I might've mentioned it recently. I just think it's rather important than you know. And Raymond Leon Roker in the Huffington Post agrees with me: How Come McCain's "Gook" Slur Isn't Bigger News?

But what I really want to share is this kickass blog entry by Michelle Myers of spoken word duo Yellow Rage, which revisits Bao Phi's poem "Dear Senator McCain," and so eloquently express the anger that I feel over this issue, and this man who could be President. I'm reprinting it here, with Michelle's permission:

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Revisiting "Dear Senator McCain"
Michelle Myers
"I hate the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live."
-John McCain, February 17, 2000

"I will call any interrogator that tortured me, a gook. I can't believe that anybody doesn't believe these interrogators and prison guards were cruel and sadistic people who deserve the worst appellations possible. Gook is the kindest appellation I can give."
-John McCain, February 17, 2000

'Cause we soft spoken, doesn't mean that we've forgotten
Your bootie smells rotten and one day you will be gotten
-Lauryn Hill, "Family Business," The Fugees' The Score
John McCain's people have deftly flippt the script on Barack Obama over the last 2 weeks. They've told us that The Maverick is back in full effect--the original straight talker. Behold our very own Greatest American Hero--the true agent of change for the American people. After all, they reminded us as McCain was introduced at the RNC before giving his acceptance speech, "When you've lived in a box, you put your people first."

And so it began: the narrative being sold to us about McCain--a narrative dominated almost exclusively by his time as a POW during the Vietnam War. It's been shoved in our faces so much we can recite the story by heart: McCain shot down on a bombing mission over North Vietnam. McCain pulled from his wrecked plane by North Vietnamese soldiers, both arms broken. McCain taken to "Hanoi Hilton" where he and other POWs were interrogated and tortured. Etc. Etc. Etc.

I read somewhere on the internet that McCain's acceptance speech contained 43 sentences about his POW experience while only 8 recounted his 25 years on Capitol Hill. And so, for me, if McCain wants us to swallow this War Hero narrative as the fodder for his character and his qualification for the Presidency, then let us really open it up to scrutiny. And that means us gooks are coming back to haunt him.

I don't care that he made his gook reference 8 years ago and that he claimed he meant it specifically for his interrogators. I don't care that he apologized for it under political pressure and a concern for a potential APIA swing vote in the CA primary while running for President in 2000. If currently he is continuously going to invoke his POW years and thrust before us images of his and America's enemy, and in doing so transplant Vietnamese faces to embody the word "enemy," then he is opening himself up to a resuscitated examination of his use of the word gook in referring to this enemy. Because what we should care about in helping us decide if this experience indeed makes him fit to be President is his initial, honest, straight-talker response when reporters first called him on it back in 2000: "I hate the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live."

I could rehash the criticisms from the APIA community at the time about McCain's blatant insensitivity and ignorance in his use/defense of a broadly racist term for Asian Americans; I could compare it to the word "nigger" and other racial epithets and complain that he wouldn't have been let off so easy if he had offended black people or other racial minority groups--all of these points are still valid (and can be readily found on the internet), and the whole incident still pisses me off. But in revisiting this word gook, what I really want to do is put McCain's statements in a context with current political issues and consider what it may reveal about how he would handle foreign affairs, military operations, and the war in Iraq.

It bothers me that McCain's POW years have become so commodified by his campaign. If you visit his website, the homepage opens up with 2 back-to-back videos chronicling his POW experience and lauding his heroism. The narrative highlights his sacrifices and dedication to his country, fighting for American freedom, and having a brave heart "to never surrender." Military images abound. Pictures of Vietnamese people situate them in no uncertain terms as the enemy--both John McCain's enemy and America's enemy.

The forgotten narrative of the Vietnam War is that of innocent Vietnamese civilians--their suffering, their loss. It is convenient that America's nostalgia for war, especially those that involve Asian people and countries, becomes one that forgets the desperate, pained Asian faces that the U.S. military/government purported to protect and save but actually ended up being complicitous in harming whether, in Vietnam specifically, through directly executed or coordinated napalm attacks, mass murders of civilians (My Lai), gang rapes of young Vietnamese girls, or the abandonment of thousands of babies fathered by U.S. military personnel. And as U.S. soldiers torture and humiliate prisoners at Abu Ghraib, kill innocent Iraqi civilians including women and children, bomb civilians in Afghanistan, fail to locate and catch Osama bin Laden, and become exhausted and bitter through several tours of duty away from family and friends, I am not reassured that these neglected narratives can be revised under John McCain. who finds such personal/political meaning and comfort in his "Look-at-Me-the Tortured-War-Hero" story.

I cannot trust a man who has proudly insisted "I hate the gooks" to lead us out of Iraq to peace when he's ready to stay there for 100 years or however long it takes to "win." I cannot trust this man, John McCain, to responsibly address the U.S. government's oversight of CIA interrogation techniques, i.e. torture, or prevent another Abu Ghraib when in February 2008 he voted against an anti-torture bill and supported Bush's veto of the bill after it was passed by the Senate. I cannot trust John McCain not to take Western/American, fundamentalist Christian-Judeo war-mongering to Iran, Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, or North Korea. Precisely because of his personal Tortured-War-Hero-POW narrative, I do not trust John McCain.

Most troubling to me about McCain's declaration and defense of his using the word gook is his unapologetic insensitivity to how it both completely conflates and demonizes all Vietnamese people--which can very easily be extended to all people of Asian descent. His vehement hatred towards "the gooks" bothers me too. In using such a hatefully racist term to talk about his North Vietnamese captors, I cannot believe this is a man who would work successfully with the diverse peoples and cultures of the Middle East or will make the effort to bridge the divide between Christianity, Islam, and other religious beliefs practiced around the world. War and hatred; fear and loathing; fighting and survival; Gook and Terrorist/Muslim/Other; America vs. Vietnam/Iraq; Hero vs. Enemy--how can the dominant personal/political narrative of such a man give us confidence that he can take us in a direction of progress and change and, ultimately, peace both at home and abroad as President of the United States? But then again, isn't that the point--to keep us at war indefinitely until all America's real and imagined enemies are crushed?

In his poem "Dear Senator McCain," Bao Phi seizes McCain's POW/gook narrative and spits it back in his face, holding him accountable for his hypocrisy and insensitivity. Bao is a Vietnamese American spoken word poet from Minneapolis, and he wrote this poem after the gook-word incident 8 years ago, but it is relevant to our present political discussion for all the ways that I have already outlined. Full of irony and sarcasm, "Dear Senator McCain" exposes the inherent racism of McCain's statement, situates McCain's comments in the contentious American militarist discourse that surrounds the Vietnam War and all of America's war narratives from Asia, and demands that he take responsibility for his wholesale demonization of a group of people that crosses generations, continents, soldiers, civilians, refugees, immigrants, citizens. What hope are we to have with such a man representing the American people to the rest of the world? How can we read Bao's poem and not think about the current war narrative being constructed of Muslims--the conflation of "Muslim" and "Arab" and "Middle Eastern" with "enemy" and "terrorist" and "evil"?

We cannot let such narratives dictate history and determine our lives. We must reclaim our narratives, humanizing them so that the fuller story is told and calling out those which demonize. And we can set off this corrected retelling with Bao Phi's scathing "Dear Senator McCain."

Many thanks to Bao Phi for giving me permission to reprint his poem on our blog. Thanks to all of you who have read my long-winded set up of Bao's poem.

Always love and peace,

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By Bao Phi

Dear Senator McCain

I write this letter on jungle leaves
and the skin of a white man.

I am a gook, a jungle spook,
a steamed apparition
of piss and foot rot
building torture devices from old rotary phones
and the rusted hulks of American cars

I am that gook, when you turn on the light
I scramble away and if you see me
you know there's ten more
where I came from
catching tracer bullets like fireflies
in my teeth
my language like malaria
sweating itself into your brain

I am a gook, riding on top of water buffaloes,
waving welfare checks like a white flag of surrender
but shot in the back by your finest when they thought
I was standing in a martial arts stance

I am a gook, miscellaneous bomb bait,
agent orange evolved primate
creeping thru cashmoney colored jungles
and masturbating neon onto Wall Street
slit eyes fixed on white women
fingers like 10 long drips of grease

I am that villain in a white lab coat
trading bomb secrets for red cash
stashing code in surgery folded eyelids

I am gook, no speak no Engleesh
too much headache, tell me go back to my country,
motherfuck you eh?

I am indeed a gook, polished gold yellow
at Yale, driving my Ferrari horse-powered dick
deep into your spread-legged streets
while Miss America screams out an orgasmic "There goes the neighborhood!"

I am gook
that gook waiting in that nightmare jungle
that gook in front of you with 17 items in the 10 items or less lane at the supermarket
that gook born with a grenade in his head
that gook that got a better grade in your shop class
that gook uppity enuf to stand with his brothers and sisters and demand an apology
that gook who patted you on the back and said "That's okay--I hate gooks too."

I am that gook who stole your bomb secrets,
that gook that held you hostage,

that gook whose culture your daughter robbed for her tattoos, trinkets and t-shirts
that gook whose language your son attempts to speak so he can crack some nookie
from the fortune cookie

I am the gook who blazed you
the gook who saved you

I am gook, chink, slope, slanteye, victor, charlie, chan, suzie wong, dickless rice picker, model minority, binder of feet, your favorite sushi waitress, piss colored devil, nip, jap, snow falling on cedars, miss saigon, memoir of a geisha, joy luck club, ally mcbeal,

I am gook,
I ate your motherfuckin cat

I am that gook who will hang himself on Nike shoelaces
so your sons and daughters can play pickup or NCdoubleA final four,
I am that 14 cents an hour gook whose ghosts paint those Gap commercials white,
I am that gook that took over your pool hall and your roller skating rink,
I am this gook, I am that gook, I am your gook, I am my gook
I am that gook, popping out of a motherfuckin bowl of rice
to ask:
what's the difference
between an Asian
and a gook
to you?

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You see, to John McCain, we're all gooks.

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