Saturday, February 7, 2009

The American Experience

I have been thinking about the “American Experience” since writing that review in The Buddha Diaries, a few days ago, of the PBS American Experience episode about J. Robert Oppenheimer. In fact, I have given a good deal of thought to the American Experience over the years, starting with my own “naturalization” back in 1972, when I was a mere scrap of a lad in my mid-thirties. I flatter myself to think that I have something in common with Alistair Cooke, a fellow Cambridge-educated English writer who immigrated to the United States. It was Cooke’s history of the country that I read as I prepared to face my questioner to qualify me as fit for citizenship; and, like Cooke, I have written more than my share of letters about America—notably the 801, no less, that I wrote to George W. Bush in my 2004-2008 blog, “The Bush Diaries.”

It amused me no end, back in those young days, that I was virtually required to lie in order to meet the standards expected of a good American citizen. I wrote about it at the time, in an essay that was published on the Op-Ed page of the Los Angeles Times. The forms, signed and submitted under penalty of perjury, asked me to swear that I had never knowingly committed a crime; well, it happened that I had experimented with a variety of somewhat harmless but still illegal drugs back in the Sixties, with the rest of my fellow graduate students. Had I ever committed adultery? It shames still to admit to this youthful moral lapse, but was I going to risk my application by saying Yes? Clearly, I was expected to be politically and morally pure, in much the same way, I suppose, that we continue to expect of our politicians and politically-appointed bureaucrats today. No wonder they so often disappoint us. Naturally, I lied, and signed the forms, conforming with American idealism at its most ironic.

To which I must add that, while I have possessed an American passport since that time, it took me another thirty-five years before I actually felt American. I wrote about that experience, too, in this blog, The Buddha Diaries, that followed The Bush Diaries starting two years ago. The day that I first actually felt American was the day of the inauguration of Barack Obama as President.

Let me explain. As some of my readers will already know, I was brought up in England as a good socialist by a good socialist father. It never occurred to me to question the value of a government that provided health care, for example, and help for those who could not help themselves. No one likes paying taxes, of course, but it had never occurred to me that taxes were a scandalous imposition on personal freedom, to be contested at all costs whenever possible. Arriving in America, I was astounded to discover that socialism was a dirty word and, not too much later, that even the word “liberal” had become one to be uttered in a shameful, hushed whisper. I had also learned as a youngster, through a first-hand experience of twentieth century European history, that patriotism all too often leads to bloody confrontation, and that wars have dire and personal human consequences. I was something of an anti-patriot, then, by the time I reach America, and adamantly anti-war.

It will come as no surprise, then, that I did not feel American in my political and philosophical approach to the world, at a time when the Vietnam war was still in progress and Richard Nixon was President. My naturalization paper was really no more than a piece of paper. It may have allowed me in principle to vote and to enjoy the other privileges of citizenship, but these undoubted benefits did not reach the heart. Jimmy Carter provided me with a brief respite, but I watched in dismay and disbelief as his presidency was destroyed by fellow Americans who dismissed this fine, upstanding moral man as weak and ineffecutal, emasculating him to the point of impotence.

Then, during the nineteen-seventies, in California first but soon throughout the nation, came the taxpayers’ revolt. It seemed clear to me at the time—forgive the remnant trace of European pragmatism—that taxes were a necessary way to fund such things as roads and schools, a health care system that could serve the needs of all Americans, not to mention the cultural arts, the libraries and museums. This still seems clear to me today. If Ronald Reagan was the archetypal American, as the vast majority of my new countrymen—and women—seemed to think, I just did not feel too American myself.

In the years that followed Reagan’s election, I watched the country slide deeper and deeper into a conservatism that may well have been American, but it was something to which I felt alien in my very bones. I watched a (to my mind fanatical) religious right arrogate to themselves the power to sway the government of the country, to sabotage the rational benefits of science and medical progress and the education of our youngsters. My heart was not with them. If this was “American,” I did not feel it.

Then came the nineties, and my heart rose with the election of a Democratic President. Surely this would bring about changes that I could swing with. But by this time the “me-first” anti-government attitudes were so deeply ingrained they would not go away. The first sign was the abject failure of the attempt to create a national system of health care, swatted away without a moment's serious consideration. But the brash nineties brought with them the kind of wealth that enabled many of us to achieve unprecedented material comfort and the confidence that prosperity was our natural birthright. We could all take care of ourselves and, for those who couldn’t, well they must accept responsibility for their failure. The opportunities were endless for those who had the guts and the know-how to seize them.

On which wave George W. Bush rode in with a swagger. It crashed ashore on September 11, 2001. There followed just a moment when, yes, I felt American; when I felt a part of what had been attacked, a part of the family that had been violated by the barbaric attack on the World Trade Center. But that window slammed closed for me when it became clear what our response would be. Not the attack on the Taliban, perhaps. That seemed to me an unpleasant but unavoidable necessity. Not so the subsequent actions taken in our name: the invasion of Iraq with no clear evidence of necessity, the neglect of responsibility for the consequences of that action, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the assault on American liberties in the name of “homeland security.” There was a whole big part of me that did not want to be identified with such actions, that did not feel the least bit American.

I began to feel it during the past election cycle. It was agonizing to watch the country torn between those I felt in sympathy with and those with whom I vigorously disagreed with on virtually everything. There were times when I felt for sure that those other ones would prevail, times when the discord on my own side of things was so bitter and destructive that I all but lost faith in their ability to get things straight. And then I began to feel the massive surge of the desire for change, for a return to truly American values that seemed for so long to have been sacrificed to materialistic greed. I heard the voice of a man who spoke a language I could finally understand, who seemed to recognize the need for mutual understanding rather than divisiveness, who seemed open to the thoughts and beliefs of others than himself, who embraced the idea of service and self-sacrifice, who promised a return to basic human values and a respect for all, including the neediest among us.

So the election of Barack Obama seemed to me the triumph of what I always wanted to think of as Americanism. And yet I still held off, hardly wanting to believe it. I held off until the moment came when this man stood in front of the American people and took the oath of office--and finally, finally, I really felt American for the first time.

That, friends, is my American Experience. I do not think it can be taken away from me now. The bond is made. I know that I will disagree with much that happens on the national scene, that I will be appalled, infuriated, incredulous, probably just as frequently as before. But I suspect that I will continue--not to "be proud of being an American" as custom demands, I'm still not ready to concede that much to patriotism--but at the very least to feel American in my heart.


mandt said...

Wonderful essay Peter. And, just for the record---- many of us born here have always and still do question the nature of being an American; what is real; what is true, and which is both. In Obama we come as close to the latter as is possible in recent history. The social contract is the essence of what it means to be an American. I remain an unapologetic socialist to the marrow. 40 years ago England's socialized medicine saved my life and I remain eternally grateful, because if my illness that occurred in America I would be dead by now. We are very lucky to have you on this side of the pond.

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks, MandT! I do know that there are many, many Americans who feel much as I do, as an immigrant. And I feel lucky to be here!

Mark said...

Thanks for this piece, Peter. And I agree with mandt. You voice the opinions of many natives as well (in more eloquent and intelligent words than most of us ever could put it).

Nancy Youdelman said...

Thank you Peter for your wonderful words!

I agree with what you about Jimmy Carter. I remember that people would put him down by saying he was a peanut farmer from Georgia--like that was all he was and a bad thing.

He tirelessly worked for peaceful solutions (what a concept!) with Habitat for Humanity internationally.

In 2002 Carter finally got profound recognition by being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize "for what presenters cited as decades of work seeking peaceful solutions and promoting social and economic justice."

PeterAtLarge said...

From my sister, still living in England, I received this comment, which I'll post for her:

Just read your interesting article about being and becoming an American. I feel I, as your sister and once fellow-countryman/woman, want to respond by saying I can't help feeling a certain sense of betrayal. You write so well and with such honesty but maybe this sense of betrayal has been something that has come between us all these years. I hope you won't mind this very personal and truthful response. Flora