Saturday, July 4, 2009

Patriot Gamesmanship

So here it is Independence Day, and here I am in Enemyland - otherwise known as Great Britain, specifically England. I've been thinking a lot about this particular Fourth of July, in the days approaching the holiday. For some reason, this year, it's made me nostalgic and more homesick than I've really a right to be.

Something's happened to me as an American within the past year - at least since the Presidential campaign of last summer. I seem, at long last, to have developed a nascent patriotism; and that's a truly new feeling for me to experience. After all, my early adolescence was spent at the height of the VietNam conflict. When social commentators remark on how television brought the VietNam War into our living rooms, I remember it. I was there, doing my homework whilst the likes of Chet Huntley, David Brinkley and wise Uncle Walter Cronkite spoke the words and showed the pictures which told the story. I saw Kent State, Woodstock and Neil Armstrong walking on the moon.

During the Seventies, Watergate and Nixon's treachery dominated the news agendae. I sat up until past 3AM at my boyfriend's home in Salamanca, Spain, where I was an exchange student, to watch Nixon resign on a flickering black-and-white screen. I came of age when patriotism was being downplayed, where it was considered not only au fait, but positively de rigueur to be patriotically lackadaisical. On Grounds at the University of Virginia, the only people 'allowed' to show overt patriotism were the ROTC boys, and - as potential dates and suitors - they were considered naff and to be avoided at all costs.

The US had barely got through the ill-fated Carter administration, when I upped stakes, got married and moved with my British husband to the UK, becoming, in effect, a Reagan exile.

There's something quirky about living abroad. It's one thing to visit a country for a few weeks, even to remain a year, working or studying. It's quite another to live, work and pay taxes in another regime. You become a paying guest. You're part of the proceedings, but you're not really a player in the game. After awhile, you blend into the woodwork, especially in Britain, where - in unguarded moments, the Brits forget their ingrained 'political correctness' (something they've grasped with fervour until they've practically made it a religion) and let fly with some particularly ignorant remarks. Not long after I'd married, I went to a cocktail party given by some pretty awful friends of my inlaws: jumped up types effecting the mores of the upper middle classes. I found myself in a gaggle of braying women and guffawing men, whom I was certain were the prototypes for Terry Jones's Pythonesque Village Idiots sketch. In my presence, the conversation turned to the subject 'Stupid Americans I Have Known' or something of the like. Every other sentence began with 'Americans are SO stupid that ...' and so forth.

After about 20 minutes of this hogwash, someone suddenly remembered that I was 'Jack and Amy's daughter-in-law'. Er, wasn't I Canadian? Sorry, no. Wrong nation. American. There followed much clearing of the throats and aversion of the eyes until some duffer in his infinitely ignorant hubris, remarked to me, 'You know, I think America has the most beautiful golf courses.'

I think at that point I understood the meaning behind de Tocqueville's phrase 'American exceptionalism.'

The myth of American stupidity abounds in Europe, especially in the UK. I've worked as a linguist for three different international companies, basically communicating with Spanish, French and Italian clientele in the vernacular (because there wasn't a single Brit to be found who could be assed to learn another language). In every job, there have occurred occasions when someone would stop, gobsmacked, and stare at me in wonder upon discovering my nationality. American? But educated in Europe, surely? Nope. Like the song says, 'Born in the USA'. Like the union label used to say, 'Made in the USA' too. The idea that a seemingly ordinary American could be coherent, articulate and educated to a high standard was beyond their ignorant ken.

Worse than that, were the American expats, members of the entertainment or news media world here, who - in a pithy attempt to 'go native' - end up dissing their own and thinking they sound clever. Ruby Wax, an American comedian who relocated to the UK some 30 years ago because the US already had Joan Rivers, and Louis Theroux, the son of Paul Theroux, forged television careers from nothing more than mockumentaries showcasing the weird and creepy underbelly of lower-class American society, cleverly edited (of course) by the BBC in order to make the assorted people showcased (usually people from the Deep South) look one shade to the left of Deliveranceland. That eminent American intellectual, Gwyneth Paltrow, most recently weighed in on the subject of how stupid Americans are ... of course, that was said about a week after she let rip on how boring British men were ... until she found herself a British husband, a bore who fronts a boring British band.

I have never been in the least tempted to become British, even though now I don't really have to give up my American passport to do so; and - curiously - I have never felt the slightest impulse, especially during the last 8 years, when the status of being an American abroad was positively at its nadir, to identify myself falsely as a Canadian, which some American expats did during the Bush regime, out of fear for repercussions against Americans.

Regarding taking up British citizenship, from time to time, both my husband and my inlaws sought to convince me; and, I'll admit, I was almost tempted. After all, the UK was a part of Europe. I was a linguist. I may, at sometime, have wanted to live or perhaps work in another European country. Having a British passport would facilitate things, because I would be considered 'European'. Travelling to and from the Continent, I was always the one who delayed proceedings, having to queue in the lanes labelled 'Non-EU Travellers' - and this always took longer. I even went as far as contacting the US Embassy to enquire about the actual procedure.

I was assured it was only a formality. The laws had changed to allow spouses of foreigners to acquire citizenship from the spouse's country. I'd have to go to the US Embassy, basically 'disavow' allegiance to the US, then go to the Home Office, swear allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen, and then reapply for my US passport. I could only travel to and from the US on my passport; otherwise, I'd be British. Not English. Not Welsh. Not - God forbid! - Scottish. British. And, instead of a citizen, I'd be a subject of the Queen.

Two things stopped me doing that. The first was an insipid American writer, Bonnie Greer, who became the BBC's resident 'per American' and expert on all things American, who wittered on ad nauseam about abandoning the US when Ronald Reagan was elected and who showed up on every political discussion show to weigh in her expertise on matters American at hand. Frankly, if I were going to choose to be a member of such an elusive club as the former British Empire, then I really didn't want to belong to the same club as such a ditz trying to tart herself up as an intellectual. I didn't ever remember seeing any of Bonnie Greer's books in print, much less on the Best Sellers' Lists.

The second was something I remembered from my 11th grade government class: That whilst we were citizens of the United States, the 'citizens' of Great Britain were actually subjects of the Queen. Our ancestors, I was taught, had fought against subjegation and had come out successful on the other end as free men, citizens of a country founded on the premise that all men were created equal. OK, so that phrase in 1776 wasn't the all-inclusive mantra it is today; today that phrase is understood to include all races of men and women who come under the blanket citizenship of the United States. It has yet to include all gay citizens of whatever hue. I'm hopeful it will.

To be a 'subject' of a ruler who rules by dint of birth and not achievement intimates that one has to know one's place. That's the great unspoken tenet which runs rampant through British life. It's the great, dark fear in the soul of everyone who began life in a humble station and advanced - be it by luck, ability or marriage - to the upper echelons: that he will have to know his place on the social scale of life. This fawning admiration of the lower classes for the upper class in British life gave the world three of the greatest British comic characters of the 1970s - Rigsby, Basil Fawlty and Del Boy.

That second fact, alone, was enough to convince me that I was really better off keeping the nationality with which I was born.

Then came George Bush.

It's ironic that I felt the first stirrings of what I now know to be patriotism during the regime that did more to negate and vilify the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence than any single person in the history of the United States. It happened on the 12th of September 2001, the day after 9/11, when the Queen asked that the Stars and Stripes fly over Buckingham Palace and that, instead of the usual marches, the band play nothing but Sousa marches during the Changing of the Guard. Surprisingly, the BBC, never a friend of the United States or anything American, showed a clip of this on the news that evening. When, at the end of the parade, the band played our National Anthem, I did something I'd never done in my entire life. I cried.

As Bushco went from bad to worse, as I read more and more pithy writings from American expats or writers living abroad about how, when questioned on their accents, looked the other way and claimed to be Canadians, I began to feel angry and justifiably so.

I did not approve of George Bush. From the moment I saw him campaigning in 2000, I had that bastard pegged. He was a dimwit frat boy, legacied into an Ivy League uni he would never have had a snowball's chance in hell of entering if he hadn't been the son of an alumni. He was the fuckwit in the corner at every frat party, always with a big glass in one hand, a streak of white powder under his nose and his other hand down the blouse of the latest, blondest co-ed. He was the proverbial 'stupid American.' I did not vote for George Bush. George Bush did not act in my name. There were other people, other Americans, I knew, who felt exactly this way - members of my family, people with whom I'd grown up. Cindy Sheehan. Alec Baldwin. Bill Maher. Why should I, living abroad, deny my nationality because of the tragic and ignorant blunders of a bunch of neocon marauders? It was they who'd ravaged my country's essence, why shouldn't I reclaim my nationality and make a positive statement with it? In my opinion, these people, turning their heads and averting the gazes of others, whilst claiming to be Canadian, were not only disrespectful of their own origins, but they were showing scant respect to Canada as well. Canadians are a proud people; they would run a mile rather than associate with intellectual lightweights like that.

Besides, hadn't they read Mark Twain, he who said, 'Patriotism means loving your country all the time and your government when it deserves it.'

That's very true.

And now we're entering into the age of Obama, an age when - as presaged by Bill Maher in his Patriot Editorial of November 14 last - the world, again, looks at us with envy. We the people were smart this time. We elected the leader best qualified for the job; and we elected him because of that and not because of the colour of his skin - which would have been, as Bill pointed out, a pretty cheap gimmick. In the course of one night, every pejorative thing the BBC and the British press had written about racial prejudice being rife in the United States (notwithstanding the fact that such prejudice in the Mother Country is conveniently and surreptitiously swept under the carpet) was thrown out like the baby with the bath water. Both David Cameron and Gordon Brown clamoured to proclaim themselves the British Obama. The French are suddenly pro-American again - to the point that the French President 'forgot' to invite the Queen to the 60th Anniversary celebrations of the D-Day Invasion. We're everyone's best friend, but you get the feeling that behind all the smiles, the Europeans are just waiting for Obama to fail.

Like Rush Limbaugh, only subtler.

I cried again for the second time when Obama won the election. I'm easier now in my American skin. I can admit to patriotism, because my country is my country and I am an American. I'm part of my past, a lot of which was shameful. I come from a large and prominent Virginia family, and my branch had ties, as colonials, to the Royal Navy. The first shameful thing one of my ancestors did was to desert and link up with John Paul Jones. The next shameful thing they did was to carry on as slave-owners until the Civil War saw otherwise. But we all have shameful things our ancestors did too. We have to take our nation's good history with its bad - and with that, the histories of all the people who came to our shores and made the US the great teeming melting pot that it is. We're all a part of that, and I remember that, when I look out on the UK and on Europe at the moment, struggling and fighting with their heritage and the future as more and more ethnically diverse people pour into these heretofore homogenous countries.

Ours is an evolving and young country; where we were formerly exclusive, we are now inclusive or trying to be; the Europeans, are having their problems. We shall see.

You know, sometimes I still get homesick, and I have a moment of doubt as to who I am culturally; because sometimes when I do go home, the first day generates a feeling of being a stranger in a strange land, that's really my land. And here, there's that feeling as well - because I can be 5 hours ahead of the East Coast and 8 hours ahead of the West, but still lag a day behind in news. Out of kilter just isn't descriptive enough. But at the end of the day, I'm still an American after all these years, and I don't think I'd ever really want to be anything else.

Have a Happy Fourth from the land that lost the Revolution.

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