Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Carpetbagger

I've said before that I consider "assimilation" to be a dubious concept at best.  I am fearful of it because it implies a kind of surrender (abasement even) before the altar of a foreign culture.  Giving up everything that has made you up to this moment and exchanging it for something that seems brighter and more appealing feels like the highest treason against oneself and a sure path to future insanity.

And it's not terribly thoughtful.  I don't think you can come to another culture via a rejection of your own without doing yourself enormous damage.  It's not flattering to the host country either.  To say to your new country, "I love you because you are not where I come from" is a little like saying to a future spouse, "I love you because you are not my ex-husband."

You come to another country and culture with baggage - what you hold in your hand and what you have in your head.  The American writer Henry Miller understood this very well.  When asked about his essays (some of which were very critical of the United States) he replied, "The tenor of most of them, though strongly critical of our way of life, is nevertheless strictly kosher.  American is seen through the eyes of an American, not a Hottentot.  And Europe, which is often favorably contrasted with America, is a Europe which only an American might have eyes for."  And he goes on to cite Walt Whitman who once said to his compatriots, "You are in a fair way to create a whole nations of lunatics."

So call me one of the deranged.

What being abroad has done for me is to give me some compassionate (not dis-passionate) distance from  the conversation.  I was not in the United States during 911, nor was I there during the debate over the Iraq war or the sub-prime crisis or Occupy Wall Street  or a thousand and one other events that have shaped my country over the last 10 years.  Watching it all from a distance (and fiercely debating these things with my friends here in France and in other countries) has given me no end of grief and guilt.  It has also given me enough space to think long and hard about what these and other things have meant for my country and the world.  Surrounded by other voices, other points of view, that challenge my own ways of thinking every single day, the place where I sit is well outside the comfortable majority and I am harshly insulated from any sort of groupthink.

None of this has turned me anti-American or anti-US.  On the contrary, I hope it has made me a better American.  My compatriots who fear foreign ideas (attacks against "European-style" Socialism, for example) and attempt to purge these things from the national conversation are, quite simply, fools.  If a new thought and a bit of fresh air could truly sink us, well, then perhaps we deserve to drown. Americans are free individuals or we are nothing.

In the final days of the constitutional convention in 1787 when all the delegates were bickering futilely and unproductively themselves, Madison reported that Benjamin Franklin (patriot, ambassador extraordinaire and Francophile) rose and gave this speech:
Mr. President
I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others. Most men indeed as well as most sects in Religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error. Steele a Protestant in a Dedication tells the Pope, that the only difference between our Churches in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrines is, the Church of Rome is infallible and the Church of England is never in the wrong. But though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain french lady, who in a dispute with her sister, said "I don't know how it happens, Sister but I meet with no body but myself, that's always in the right-Il n'y a que moi qui a toujours raison."
Mr. Franklin was a great man and a great American.  If I do a tenth as well in my lifetime in service to my country, I will be content.  A large part of that service and the thing that will keep me an intellectually honest and loyal American is being constantly, intentionally and willfully exposed to "better information."  And that is the very best reason to love and to be eternally grateful to the other country of my heart, France.

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