This is a deviation from the theme, yet obviously relevant. Future posts will go back to the suggested theme.
I often find myself, at times reluctantly, in the surreal position of unofficial American ambassador. My job requires me to construct metaphorical bridges between cultures everyday. I’m also just naturally interested in this kind of thing, so I guess that it’s logical that people recognize my willingness to be open about my opinions and culture and they feel comfortable asking me about anything and everything American. I do my best to sound intelligent while expressing that my experiences and my opinions do not necessarily reflect all of the various opinions of 300 million Americans. To provide some context to this here is an email that I sent to all of my friends and relatives after Obama’s first victory in 2008. I tried to express my own feelings as they melded with my experience of the situation living abroad.
Friends, (sorry for the mass email, but I felt it necessary)
I just wanted to put in my two cents regarding Barack Obama’s victory as seen through some eyes outside of America. I’ve lived in Italy for nearly 7 years. I work for a study-abroad program for American students. A question that I’m often asked by students at the start of each semester is “What do Italians think of Americans?” My response is usually something similar to:
Italians usually like to talk to individual Americans, they like our music and a lot of things about us. They do not like American policy and they do not like George W. Bush.
I have lived outside of the U.S for almost the entire span of Bush Jr’s presidency. I have had to defend my position as a proud American to friends, colleagues, shopkeepers, and everyone I meet from all facets of society. Frankly it has been very difficult to be proud of my country as I watched the European media tell their story. I have watched a war rage on and am constantly asked ‘why is the US in Iraq?’, ‘What does that have to do with 9/11’, and ‘Why do they want to invade Iran?’ There ARE answers to these questions, but NONE of them make me proud to be from Denver, Colorado. I watched as the local news sent images of the city of New Orleans as it drowned, unnoticed by its government. To the questions ‘Why didn’t they try to rescue anyone?’ and ‘Why did they just let people die in a country as rich as America?’ I had the answers, but found them hard to say out loud. The current economic crisis that is the fruit of greed and ignorance is not only embarassing but it affects everyone in the world. People ask me constantly about our healthcare system and how it works. My answer is “If you have money, you get care. You might get the best care in the world, but not without money.” They are shocked, but it breaks down to that.
Through all of this I still ultimately defend my home. I know that there are millions of wonderful things about it, and I’ve always tried to explain those things as best as I could to people. This summer two friends of mine came to Denver and were surprised that it wasn’t as they thought it would be. There are great things. Lots of things to be proud of. There are wonderful people, republicans and democrats, in America. We have to remember though, that not everyone has a chance to come to our homes and that lots of people only see what we do through the eyes of their media (for better or for worse). Others see us as we invade their countries, use their resources, and promote greed. We have to remember that we are not number 1 in the world, because there is no number 1 in the world. Who can really say that one person is a better person than another? If I wanted to get into this argument here in Europe, any european from ANY EU COUNTRY could easily demonstrate that their educational and healthcare systems are far superior to those in the US. Does than mean I am worse than them? No.
During the last few months people have asked me constantly what would happen and who I was going to vote for. I told them that I supported Obama, and that I had no idea what would happen. Nearly everyone in Italy had high hopes for Barack. A friend of mine who plays basketball with me said last night at practice that he felt that if Obama lost that the whole world lost.
This morning I woke up to the news that Obama won. Not only did he win, he incited 130 million Americans to vote and voice their opinions for and against him, a number unprecedented. I’m not even going to mention other unprecedented things about his candidacy and victory. This morning, the entire continent of Europe watched the democracy scream its lungs out for change. Barack Obama is still a politician and he probably won’t do everything that he claims he can do. Superman does not exist. However, his victory represents America’s vitality in the eyes of, at least Italy, if not all of Europe, if not the world.
For the first time EVER since I’ve lived here I was able to talk about America and be 100% proud. I know that this euphoric moment won’t last, but in my lifetime this is the second of two moments regarding my country that will remain with me forever. The first is 9/11. I’m happy that this time it’s something that I can be proud of.
I hope I haven’t offended anyone. This is simply how I see things from the other side.
Back to 2016. Yesterday was the final night of these long and drawn out, at times disgusting, elections in the US. Instead of staying up all night, stressing out when CNN told me to stress out, I went and played basketball with friends, and then I went to bed knowing that the next day there would inevitably be a slough of friends acquaintances who would look to me for answers (as if I ever had any….).
Indeed, I woke up and read the news about the guy that we elected. Not surprisingly, I was flooded with insight and questions from local friends. Honestly I can’t even respond to half of everything that’s said or asked. I’m American, but I’m not a political scientist and I can’t predict the future. I have two thoughts at the moment, and as always, these are just the opinions of a dude from Denver who lives in Italy and goes to Amsterdam a lot.
First, I do not think that despair is the right reaction in this situation (or really ever). In a healthy democracy, the pendulum of power HAS to swing from one pole to the next, passing through the middle as it swings. Republicans deserve a voice, Democrats deserve a voice, and so does everyone else who no longer finds them self represented by either of those groups. Including everyone in a democracy means including everyone and if you think that it’s an easy thing to do, then I’d say that your understanding of human nature needs an overhaul.
My second feeling is the one that’s really hard for me to accept and what I’m going to say may piss people off. It’s evident that there is a massive population in our country that accepts, even if passively, racism, sexism and bigotry. Many of us probably thought that by having a black president we had overcome some of our deepest, darkest issues. It is now evident that the majority of the US is, to varying degrees, racist, sexist and bigoted. Many people didn’t like Hilary Clinton. It’s understandable, especially for those who are traditionally republican. However those who voted for Trump accepted a discourse of racism, sexism, and bigotry and they own that now. I, and the rest of America, now own that as well. I would be kidding myself if I did not accept that as much as it makes me want to vomit.
If I were to answer the question what now?, I guess that I would say that we probably need to face up to reality, in all of its ugliness, and if we want to make any changes, we’re going to have to talk to each other. A lot. Not on facebook, but in person. Personally, I’ll try my very best to stick to a simple mantra that I’ve unofficially adopted over time and that is to try hard to not be an asshole to anyone. It’s not easy especially in the face of ignorance, but I believe that it’s crucial.