Tuesday, May 11, 2004
Renouncing Jack Kerouac

I've been doing my best to avoid blogging lately. Firstly, because I've got too much to do as it is... we start shooting Morgan's film on 5 June, and we've got the big fundraising banquet in less than a week. That's occupying most of my free time.

Most of my reticence, however, comes down to the simple fact that there's really only one thing on my mind where politics is concerned (see recent posts for details), and I'm trying to avoid thinking about that particular topic as far as I'm able. It genuinely makes me physically ill, and I have no idea how to cope with it emotionally or psychologically. But a lot of stuff is going through my mind, and maybe it'll come into clearer focus if I get it down in writing... maybe this'll get somewhere before I'm done; maybe it won't. I'm not making you any promises.

For me, the last four or five years have been largely about neogiating my relationship with the country in which I was born. That's been hard, because the United States has become a moving target in that time... the country I refer to now is not the same country it was when I began this process.

I have no particular attachment to the US; I've felt strongly since I was a child that my future would ultimately lead me elsewhere, although I can't explain why. And I feel no special sense of pride or loyalty for the US. Maybe it's because I happen to be short on both family and roots -- there's very little here for me to identify with, or to keep me from leaving. Maybe it's just a touch of wanderlust that fell to me completely at random. But it's definitely in me. When people talk about patriotism, I genuinely don't know what they mean by the word... what is patriotism, why do they think it's a good thing to have, what am I supposed to do with it? What separates patriotism from nationalism? Why am I supposed to be "proud" to be an American, when I had nothing to do with it? I'd have been just as happy if my parents had fucked in Canada, or Italy, or Japan... not so much in Somalia or Bangladesh, admittedly, but the point is, it was an accident, the luck of the draw, for better or worse. What's to be proud of in it?

At the same time, obviously I identify as an American. I can't not; it's my culture -- such as it is -- it's where I was raised, it's my frame of reference for the rest of the world. That's not to say it's better or worse than anything else (I don't think there's such thing as "better" or "worse" when speaking of culture... society, like water, seems to find its own level wherever you are.) But it is, and always will be, my own. I'm not one of those people who believes that I can adopt another culture... I could live in India for 80 years, and still I'd only be an Indianized American. But, having lived and come to identify with another culture, even briefly, I'm now something other than what I was, and part of a frightingly small minority in the US. Because I've discovered first-hand that (whisper it) there are good, noble societies outside the United States, by current parlance neither am I a "good American." It's an awkward position to find oneself in.

The trajectory has hardly been simple, though... to my surprise, I felt far more "American" living in London than I have ever in the U.S.; similarly, I feel more "foreign" now than I did when I was actually a foreigner. For a while, during my last year in London, I became infatuated with America; I was grossly romanticizing the place, carrying these Kerouac fantasies around in my head while I walked around Covent Garden. I was appalled when I came home and discovered that the place was as crass as I'd remembered once thinking it was, only now it was faintly alien as well. I remember being morbidly fascinated with an enormous American flag that flew over a nearby car dealership... seriously, it was ungodly huge, it had to be at least thirty feet long, several times the size of the Union Jacks that flew over Parliament in London. I regarded it as an anthropologist might... is it meant to be an attraction? An advertisement? What message, exactly, is it intended to impart? Somewhere I had lost the vocabulary, and all the stars and flags and eagles and other symbols of "America" began to seem bizarrely overwrought. (I also remember all the food tasting painfully salty, wondering why everybody was shouting all the time, and wishing people would stop being so in-my-face friendly. I had been solidly Anglicized and Londonized without ever realizing it was happening.)

Anyway, not long after this return, fateful events transpired, and everything took an enormous shift. I still wouldn't say I was "patriotic," but I was probably as close as I've ever come to being so, and I was a great deal more tolerant of it in other people. I was as affected as anyone by the destruction of the World Trade Center... it felt something like the sudden death of someone you didn't know that well, but were fond of... I remember wishing I could see the standing towers just one more time. And there was a universal sense that we'd collectively lost something that maybe wasn't crucial to our identity, but was valuable nonetheless.

Since then, things have gotten steadily worse, but in an elusive way that's hard to quantify. This might sound familiar to anyone who's lived with someone who was abusive, or had a drug or alcohol problem, or to anyone who's struggled with depression... there's a certain weight you feel, something slowly wearing you down, and things happen from time to time that make you feel sad or angry or hopeless. But if you try to explain to someone else how you feel, you realize how slippery the sensation actually is... you can recount events, you can try to describe the monster but you discover that it's almost impossible to name it while you're still so close to it. As long as you're in the middle of the problem, you can't see it for what it is. But sooner or later you hit a point where perspective becomes possible, where you can catch enough of a glimpse of light that you realize how dark things have become.

Everything that has recently transpired has become that point of perspective. Some horrible process began with the destruction of the World Trade Center, and has reached a very noticeable low point (please god, let it be the low point) in the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. I've been thinking for days that there is a connection between these events -- not just the false, propagandistic connection that a certain kind of pundit draws, but a more profound connection. And I think I'm beginning to figure out what the nature of that connection might be.

As I said, the WTC attacks felt like a loss, even though (thankfully) I didn't lose anybody myself. But the torture scandal has created a far more painful loss, worse in that it was self-inflicted. And every week in between has contained a loss of some kind or another, the gradual chipping away of something we desparately need, happening so slowly that it's hard to tell from one day to the next exactly what's changed. It's not until you wake up one day and find your society asking itself unthinkable questions -- what exactly is torture? has the US committed it? how much torture is too much? -- that you can clearly see how agonizing the loss has been.

And... since all this began I have often felt as though I were being squeezed, rejected, spat out. Part of me wants to hang on, to resist the urge to give up, even though I suspect I could find a more agreeable life elsewhere; what my people go through, so shall I, etc... some latent martyr complex expressing itself, perhaps. My contributions are not valued here, my opinions are not respected, my voice is not heard (or if it is, it's dismissed and ignored), and I am not treated as a valuable citizen. Nobody, it seems, considers my future, or the futures of my children; nobody is working to prepare for the many impending problems we face, blithely assuming that my generation and those behind me will do the work, however unpleasant, and bear the expenses they incur. And nobody even considers the needs of the rest of the world, a place that few Americans can even conceive of apart from 1) places to attack; and 2) places to go on vacation (and possibly 3) places where our clothes and electronics are made).

My little Kerouac fantasy has been killed, and stomped on a few times for good measure. I don't know what I was thinking... I just can't see that America anymore, and I feel like a fool for ever having bought into it. Now I'm waiting for the election. I have no great hopes for it either way -- I think it'll be messy and prolonged and full of spite and rancor -- but if it goes well, it might provide a small bit of hope that we're not as sick as I'm afraid we are. But it's going to be a turning point for me. There's very little holding me here, in either practical or cultural terms... were it not so difficult to emigrate, I likely would have left already. If the election goes badly, and if I can find a way to leave, I will turn my back on the United States. I am an American whether I like it or not, but even more than that I'm human, and if I am to be asked to choose between patriotism and humanity, humanity is going to win every time.
1:00 AM ::
Amy :: permalink