16 September 2008

Does America Still Exist?

America is more than a place, it is an idea--sometimes even an ideal. The idea/ideal is different for different people, but for centuries America has drawn millions of immigrants because it was place in the mind that represented the opportunity to make a life for oneself without having to explain one's choices or make excuses for choosing a certain life's path. The idea of a place where one has the freedom to succeed or fail on one's own terms. It is possible for such ideas to fade away, and for America to cease to exist in the minds of large numbers of people. Something like that happens to many American ex-patriots, such as Bruce Bawer.
The fact remains that I’ve never lived in post-9/11 America. When I left, Bill Clinton was president and the media were preoccupied with the Starr Report. Paradoxically, then, though I’m infinitely more plugged into America than I was when I lived there — with instant access to a zillion newspapers and websites that allow me to follow developments, big and small, in every part of the U.S. — I’m intensely aware that I’m not a part of it all, that I’m watching it from afar, as if watching a movie.

The passage of time has made a difference, of course. When I’d been away for just a year or two, I still felt as if the America I’d left behind still existed. But over the years — week by week, day by day — the changes mount up, the Zeitgeist shifts. Every few days, reading a fresh obituary in the New York Times, I find myself feeling that another part of the American landscape I knew has evaporated.

....Yes, yes, I’m still an American, and proud of it. But the longer I’m away, the less firmly that label clings to me — for I’m increasingly aware that the America I lived in is an America that’s no longer there. It’s an America where the Twin Towers are still standing, an America where my father is still alive. For millions of Americans, including my eight-year-old niece in New York, that America, my America, is not even memory, but history.

When I first lived in Europe, I saw it through American eyes. All these years later, I realize that I increasingly see America through Norwegian eyes. This doesn’t mean I’ve drunk the Scandinavian socialist Kool-Aid....Living in Norway has even affected me on what is, for me anyway, the most elemental of levels — that of language. When I first lived here, I noticed that American friends who’d lived here for decades spoke English that sometimes sounded a bit “off.” Why? Because they were (unconsciously) translating Norwegian phrases literally into English rather than using the proper English equivalent. Or (sometimes) translating the right Norwegian words into the wrong English counterparts (”using a coat,” for example, instead of “wearing a coat”). In the last couple of years — horrors! — I’ve increasingly noticed myself doing exactly the same thing when speaking English. Worse, when I’m writing English, the mot juste that pops into my head at a given juncture is increasingly likely to be Norwegian. For a writer — someone whose very stock in trade is his native language — this is, to say the least, a bit disconcerting.

To be sure, I have my share of grievances against the country I live in. I labored long and hard to find my place in it — spent three to five hours every weekday for months in a language course, and applied for hundreds of jobs without success. Professionally I’m a non-person here — which is OK by me, given that (with a couple of exceptions) the only times the mainstream Norwegian media have mentioned me it’s been to flail me for criticizing Norway in the American press. Not to mention that I hate the high prices and high taxes and can’t bear the climate. And yet I choke up when I hear the Norwegian national anthem, and every time I fly back here from abroad and catch my first glimpse of the Norwegian coastline, tears come to my eyes and I find myself thinking: “I’m home.”

...If I hadn’t come here, and stayed here, I wouldn’t have written [1] While Europe Slept — my own modest contribution to the effort by many people on both sides of the Atlantic to save the West from itself. When I left America, I never imagined myself writing such a book: in fact my immediate plans were to write a book about how wonderful Amsterdam was. Alas, the Amsterdam I was so eager to celebrate ten years ago is also gone with the wind. But that’s another story. _PJM
It is a poignant reminder of the uniqueness of experience, of infatuation with persons or places. When in the heat of love or merely the habit of love for a person or place, one believes that the love will always be there, the same as now. But everything changes.

Contemplating the changes America has undergone in the past few decades--moving from a largely opportunity society to more and more a society of entitlements, special interests, and tribalistic schism--it is easy to understand how one might be drawn to a smaller and more cohesive society that more faithfully mirrors ones' predispositions or inclinations. America is large, loud, often confusing, and constantly misinterpreted to outsiders and insiders alike.

The recent frenzy of attempted nation-making of independent enclaves from larger nations reflects that desire for being part of a whole that is more like oneself. The dissolution of Yugoslavia, breakaway enclaves in Russia, Georgia, many nations of Africa, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Bolivia, Canada etc.--all reflect this genetic urge to a more tribe or clan-based, smaller and more comprehensible society. America has been a grand experiment in the opposite idea, the melting pot of languages, ethnicities, and cultures.

Each of us feels himself pulled one way or the other, sometimes both ways at the same time. Each of us must find his own equilibrium between the confusion of the diverse, ever-changing, and in many ways more dangerous--and the more familiar and more comforting smallness of more uniformity and tradition.

If America chooses the empty promises of an Obama, leading to sweeping changes bringing more of the same gross incompetence and stifling corruption of bigger and bigger government, will America still exist for me? Perhaps, but the idea of America as an opportunity society will die an even more rapid death, in my mind. And the idea of a smaller more cohesive society retaining more aspects of an opportunity society than America will have chosen to retain, will present a stronger appeal.

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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