(originally published in New Oxonian 2009)
I was having dinner with friends before leaving the sweltering Lahore summer to return to Maine in June. Discussion turned to politics, as it often does in foreign parts. Having spent most of my professional life, by choice, outside the United States, I have learned to fine –tune my discourse, even to absorb comments that betray a woeful lack of information or historical perspective on America.
The one that requires the deftest response is what I have come to call the “German question.” Every expat has heard it in one form or another: “How is it that America continues to be strong?” A rough translation is, “Given your Coca-Cola view of the world, your cave-dwelling masses who can’t find Europe on the map, a national legislature whose debates we run on our comedy channels, why hasn’t your country blown itself up?”
America, as we all know, is unavoidable. I have spent my whole life running from it. Probably because the various movements ranging from tepid socialism to anarchism to secular humanism that try to make a dent in its demeanor and overt sense of Exceptionalism are full of Americans, they quickly become homespun, dull and remind you of church. To avoid this curse of serial movementeering I joined the motley band of those who take exception to exceptionalism in the far corners of the world. Here we try to avoid each other by pretending we’re a lot more interesting than we really are. The common denominator among expatriates is that each of us privately thinks the reasons he is living abroad are terribly important and special whereas your countryman’s presence abroad marks him as a misfit or a political refugee. In the case of missionaries, this is usually true.
But the word “misfit” will do, especially for Americans. I have been a misfit in Australia, where my older daughter was born, in England, where my younger daughter was born, and with wife and them in tow developed graduate skills as a misfit in three African nations, in Beirut, in Wider Europe, in Pakistan.
I knew I was at an irredeemable point in my exile when, on her return to Oxford, a teacher asked my nine-year-old daughter if she had ever lived out of the country–in this case outside the UK—and when she began to rattle off for the benefit of a dazzled group of classmates the places she had lived the teacher said, “No dear, I didn’t ask where you have gone for holiday.”
Unfortunately, the condition of being a real misfit is probably an irreversible condition. You know this when you realize that the only place you feel really Not at Home is back in the USA. Odd, because I always considered myself a non-extremist politically. I do not seek the overthrow of the United States government nor predict with French hauteur that America’s ascendancy in the twentieth century was a drole act of Fate, serving as further disproof of the existence of a just God.
I do not believe America is evil. I do not think other countries, with the exception of Iceland, are “better,” or at least not much better. And I regard the idea that America is the “greatest nation on earth” as the kind of Barnumesqe mildew that grows on the brains of gun lobbyists, NASCAR addicts and people from Alabama generally. Like a pretty good novel, America has a pretty good story to tell. But as the hearings for judge Sonja Sotomayor just demonstrated, it can sound ugly in the mouths of dumb southern lawyers who get elected to the United States Senate.
My misfitedness has now reached a critical level. This visit home coincided with two epic events, or rather the aftermath of them: the election of Barack Obama and the (consequent) possibility that other countries would begin to see an aspect of “America” that corresponds to what Americans think about themselves—the “liberty and justice for all” bit.
As a believer in omens and appreciator of the British knack for getting ceremony right—especially occasions of state—I was a bit thrown off by the Inauguration—a Chief Justice who botched the only solemn component of the day, the Oath of Office, ah! and that dreadful flatulent praying and that worse poem (etc.). But I could defend these things by saying, “Hey: we’re a seriously democratic place that takes mediocrity seriously. Why shouldn’t awful liturgy be the appropriate paradigm for what we’re all about?”
But six months on, my return passage is booked. “Yes we can” has become, “Maybe not.”
Simple principles of justice, embedded in the reform of health care for this allegedly rich and powerful and compassionate nation, are turning into another fight about bogeymen—euthanizers, atheists with syringes visiting hospitals and hospices.
Arguments that would be risible in almost any other country on earth—the “birther” discussion, for example–are dealt with by “serious” newscasters as coming from a nutty fringe that they fertilize with every news story devoted to the nuts.
Billions of dollars are going to be spent not on giving people a break with their insurance plans but in advertising campaigns designed to convince old people that liberals are trying to send them to their grave. (“And crowned thy good with brotherhood.” ) Forgive my saying that a big, wide more interesting world that doesn’t give a camel’s fart about this idiocy beckons.
As the country eats more and learns less, its historical revolutionary spirit in politics has descended to the level of a football game where policy and real issues matter far less than popularity and the opportunity to change the team at half time. America’s brain seems to have gone to its trans-fatty butt.
Flash: The President is in Trouble. Poll numbers down.
Flash: Republicans are gaining ground, poised to take back the House in 2010.
Never mind that literally nothing has happened to cause these numbers to change. The point is, a game is being played. Half time is coming up. The paradigm for politics has been set by Wal-Mart, where store wide Thanksgiving comes in August and Christmas on Labor Day.
Is the point to get to the Apocalypse sooner? Just to vindicate the expectations of those southern Republicans?
Misfits of the expatriate variety have an acute awareness of what the citizens of other places hear when they listen to CNN International or the edgier-bordering-on cynical reports about America on the BBC and other international channels.
The average American sitting in his living room in Ropeadope, Iowa (if he listens to news at all) doesn’t give a flying fig about the giftie gie us. I’m sure there was a time when I didn’t care either, because like all Americans I thought the world was in orbit around American power and interests. It came as quite a shock when I discovered my cosmology was way off, that American mass and strength didn’t make America great except in the derogatory sense Freud meant when he said, “America–great, yes: a great mistake.”
I am old enough alas to remember Viet Nam era bumper stickers that read, “America: Love it or Leave It.” I was living in the American south in those days, and I tended to agree. Why would you stay if you could leave. It’s a free country. The doors are open. That’s how people including my ancestors got in.
But now I am a stranger in a strange land, where not the election but the assassination of JFK has become the seminal and defining element in a country that seems to have taken another giant step forward in advance of many bigger steps back.
I suppose America has always been an idea, more than a country. That is why it is hated around the world. It’s a theological dilemma isn’t it? Just like the God who is meant to be sublimely good and compassionate and merciful and fair can be the opposite, America turns out to be nothing but a disappointment, the negation of the ideal. You learn to doubt a God like that. You learn to be a political atheist about a country like that.
With its gaming politics, its weird sense of what racism is or isn’t, its refusal to rise above sensationalism to its better instincts, and its stubborn refusal to put its best face forward in times of international stress, it has become (to borrow a phrase) Hollywood’s suburb, and easy to hate.
But I do not hate it. I am merely a misfit, a prophet not at home in his own country.
So, I said to my friend in Lahore: “You’re going back to Paris, but will you come back—from Paris?” And she said, “Yes, I can only be French when I am out of France.”
And I said, “I know what you mean.”