Not long after I moved away from the United States, a college student was arrested in Louisiana for burning an American flag. He was protesting the extra-judicial killing of Osama bin Laden. As one might expect, a patriotic crowd soon gathered to protest the flag burning, and one of them was filmed on YouTube shouting, "If you're not proud to be an American, then get out! " Although that line has become so clichéd that it borders on the comical, the young woman's sincerity in uttering it left me, unexpectedly, disturbed. Because the thing is, somehow I do like America, and yet I still got out.
In America, I like the sympathetic looks of people in the streets and stores, even if I understand this openness to strangers is conditioned by an absence of close friends. I like the people's smiling belief that good things will always come to those who work, even if I know that good things come not to those who work but to those who employ or to those to fight. I like the people's hatred of governments and kings, even if they now make businessmen into governments and make managers into kings. I like the way the people smuggle ballads across borders, sneer at opera houses, and lurk around banks that are waiting to be robbed. Even if I know the robbers will be defeated by the banks. And I like the proletariat, the inventors of May Day, wanderers who abjure the false promise of false homes, even if I know that they've only dressed necessity in a virtuous cloak and that they wander because they've been cast out, because even homeless America would not offer them a home. I like all those things, but they didn't keep me there.
Of course, I don't like the rule of money or the flexing of bombs in foreign places. I don't like the charity that replaces solidarity and fades into selfish pride. I don't like the spilling fuel and the forest fires or the unclean industry and the ghost towns that it leaves behind. I don't like the right to work and the lack of rights to work together. I don't like that morality turns into moralism, that the search for improvement becomes a search for purity, and that the transgressing of borders gives way to isolation and ignorance. Of course. But those things were not the reasons that I went away. If anything, they should have made me stay and fight. And for a while I did fight, but apparently not hard enough to make the authorities drive me out. Once I even placed a Freedom of Information Act request for my FBI file, and I was strangely disappointed to learn that I had none.
The truth is, I left the United States for the same reasons most emigrants emigrate: I was escaping a job market that was bad and potential jobs that were even worse. It helped that I, like most other emigrants, had friends and contacts to help me settle in the place where I was going. But above all I saw prospects for finding something to do, someone to pay me for it, and some time on the side when I wouldn't have to do anything at all. In other words, I was hoping for something that is unthinkable for most young people in the US: an eventual job with evenings free and paid vacation. And it wouldn't hurt to add full health coverage and a chance at a reasonably secure retirement.
Sure, I also felt a bit of mischievous joy in telling my potential US bosses to take this job market and shove it. Maybe I imagined I would make some small crack in the confidence they exude. And maybe I wanted to register a minor protest against the destruction of living spaces by roads and the destruction of lives by cars, against the abandonment of health and education for fitness and social triage, against the piles of garbage and the piles of food as good as garbage and the piles of radio and TV sets transmitting garbage, and so on. I wanted someone to notice and to say, "if we keep making this place unlivable, the people will refuse to go on living here." But most of all I just wanted, for my own private sake, to leave.
The effectiveness of my little protest action was limited, in any case, by that I was embarrassed to admit to anyone that I was leaving. This was in part because, as I said, I like the United States, and I felt something like a son abandoning his self-destructive, substance-addicted parents at what might be their moment of greatest need. (But then, when is it an addict's moment of greatest need, since the whole problem of addiction is that it is outlasts every single moment and intensifies and worsens, so that every moment is of greater need than the moment before it?) Could I live with myself after starting a new and better life, while my friends and countrymen toiled on in sweat and air-conditioned miasma and burning gas?
This concern, however, existed only in my own head. It never seemed to cross my friends' and family's minds. When I selectively revealed my plans to certain trusted people, I faced a very different problem. Far from understanding that I was going to live better than they, they believed I was going to live incomparably worse. This fear of theirs was not generally based in any knowledge of the living conditions where I was going, or of my personal job prospects in either place. There might have been things to discuss in that regard. But what was really at issue, I came to realize, was that the very idea of leaving the United States inspires in Americans grave concern. At first I had no idea how to respond to these silent misunderstandings.
I had no intent to betray my ancestors, if that was the problem-my ancestors, I mean, who escaped poverty and pogroms to reach the New World's cities and farms, where they worked themselves to death so that their children could could become successful and work themselves to death so that their children could move into the largest and most miserable suburban cars and homes, so that their children could live in a wasteland of debt and ever-accumulating part-time jobs. I had no need to betray that dream, because the dream had already been betrayed by reality. But still, how could I say this out loud? How could I speak back to the generations, to tell them I had so little desire to live in the society they had given up so much to build (or to imagine they were building)? So i n true middle-American fashion, I avoided the subject.
I would just say, "I'm going to do my dissertation research. We'll see what happens next." Usually that sounded ordinary enough, but once in a while the conversation would, by chance, go on. "So then you'll come back to finish your dissertation here?" "Well," I'd say, "actually...maybe I'll finish it over there." "And then you'll come back to look for work?" "Well...maybe...but I might look for work over there...." And when pressed further I might finally admit that in fact I was moving away for good, indefinitely that is, if not definitively, for as long as nothing unexpected comes to change my plans. Yet still people would sometimes comment later on, when I thought my hints had made the issue clear, "But, eventually, right, you'll come back?"
If I had been moving away from almost any other country, or at least from any Old World country, there would be nothing strange in lamenting that a native son has gone away, and in hoping that he will one day return to friends, family, and home. It's different, though, when this comes from people who themselves are constantly on the move, who think little of taking a new job hundreds or even thousands of miles away, who rarely expect or want to spend their lives in the town of their birth, and whose attachment to a home is barely stronger than their attachment to the pop songs or Coca-Cola ads that might have been pushed on them at the moment of their youth. No distance is remarkable when it lies within the United States. The shortest distance is remarked when it does not. It is unremarkable that someone from the United States might travel far and wide. But it is inconceivable that he might allow himself to cease being American.
The trouble is that America, as an imagined community, is imagined as the endpoint of all migrations. This is not so much a conscious belief as it is a feeling which emanates from the deepest recesses of our being. Some people express it by waving the American flag. Others by researching genealogy and briefly visiting the impossibly quaint and/or hopelessly benighted towns overseas from which their ancestors once escaped. Others do it by reading American literary fiction or settling for nothing less than an American academic job. We see that the rest of the world exists and stubbornly persists, but it is eventually and inexorably moving here.
This assumption would appear to be as important for anti-immigrant nativists as it is for for the pro-immigrant liberals. The former base their identity and pride on the presumption that everyone wants to come to America, and they can revel in their superiority by standing at the gates and deciding whom to admit and whom to send away. The latter base their identity and pride on the idea that everyone does come and will and should keep coming, making this country the most diverse in the world-or, in an idea that somehow coexists with the belief in diversity but would seem better understood as diversity's opposite, that the country is a grand and swirling melting pot. In any case, the whole cosmology is distorted, America loses a bit of its essence as America, if someone moves away. If people keep emigrating, and if America is not re-imagined, will there be any America left at all? Or will the country take the approach of the imaginary Mahomet and resolve that if the world will not come to America, then America must bring itself by force of money and arms to the world?
In spite of this I really don't think that most people from the United States truly believe their nation is the best of nations. On the contrary, they are plagued by the suspicion that their nation is among the worst. Consider the context in which the claim to American greatness is most often made. It does not usually come bubbling up in the emotion of American success, following, say, the winning of an Olympic medal or a war. Then the response is something more like "USA! USA!" which involves no particular assertion of American exceptionalism but simply acknowledges the accomplishment of the moment. It shows a generic, formless pride analogous to that held by fans of any country or team. But the phrase "America is the greatest country in the world" is something different. It seems to me that the phrase responds not so much to success as to failure. It comes after things have gotten bad enough to be commented on, at the moment when the mounting fears must be tamed, justified, and brought back into an appropriate structure of national feeling. "OK," it typically goes. "So we have problems. Our cities are falling apart. Our industry is shutting down. Crime is high. Our schools are getting worse and worse. Our politicians are liars and thieves. Government is in the pockets of greedy corporations and special interests. Our wages are stagnating and our social benefits are dwindling. Our national debt is on the rise. The state is broken and broke. But still we are the greatest country in the world." That is to say: America is the greatest country in the world, so don't worry, it will suffice. America is the greatest country in the world- alas. It is a statement not of national arrogance but of resignation. America is the greatest country, not by comparison but by default. America is the greatest country in the world. Too bad for the world.
Or consider the song "God Bless the USA," which was played during the ceremony at which my wife became a naturalized US citizen:
If tomorrow all the things were gone, I'd worked for all my life.
And I had to start again, with just my children and my wife.
I'd thank my lucky stars to be livin' here today.
'Cause the flag still stands for freedom, and they can't take that away.
And I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free....
The speaker imagines losing his entire material livelihood. All he has is his family (which soon falls out of the song, presumably having fulfilled its role as a private precondition for man's civic belonging). The man is poor, perhaps out of work, perhaps kicked out of his house and off his land. But "at least" he knows he's free. This knowledge is not supported by any evidence other than presence of "the flag," which "still stands for freedom," followed by a series of national symbols listed in the rest of the song. The man's life has fallen apart, and he is left with nothing but representations. Yet that is enough for him. In earlier times we had "beautiful...spacious skies...amber waves of grain." Now, in the post-postwar-boom period of American consciousness, we have shit. But we have our Americanness as some kind of consolation prize.
The function of American greatness as consolation for American mediocrity first became clear for me when I was riding a commuter train through the Chicago suburbs a couple of years before my move. The conductor casually mentioned China's then-recently-begun project to construct a massive network of high-speed railroads. And although the conductor made no overt comment on the state of US trains, one of the riders angrily objected-not to the sorry state of US rail service, but to the hint that some other country might be doing it better. "That's China!" he said. "And they are not America!" The man did not dispute the facts, which were in any case supported by the sub-par service on the vehicle in which he at that very moment was riding. But the facts were an insult to the essence of America, because they stubbornly insisted on existing. America is the greatest country in the world. Of that there can be no doubt, precisely because the assertion is impervious to argument. If another country, in some certain respects, seems better, that can have no bearing on America. That country does not count. America is the greatest country in the world.
Compare the way other countries speak of themselves. If a French schoolchild is told "France is a very good country," or even "France is one of the best countries, perhaps the very best," such a statement would be accompanied by various comparative justifications. "Americans think their country is the best, but they are wrong. France has superior culture, health care, a heroic history..." and so on. Yet nothing analogous crosses the average American's mind. If it should occur to some rebellious American pupil that France has continued to exist all these years after sending Lafayette to help us win the Revolution, and if that pupil, still insufficiently trained, should think to ask "Is France as good as the United States?" the teacher would have great difficulty replying. Very likely, the teacher would know little about France and would simply repeat that America is the greatest country in the world. But if the teacher did know something about France, he or she would still be hard pressed to make such a comparison between countries. Mostly likely, the teacher would say, "France is good in many respects. But still, it is not America." Granted, one occasionally hears that America is good because it has the best Constitution, the biggest economy, the most rights, or the greatest quantity of freedom. But these statements rarely take the form of arguments. They are slogans, recited like the "Pledge of Allegiance" and sung like the "Star-Spangled Banner." It is entirely possible that even the greatest patriots, if pressed to compare America to another country point by point, would concede the other country's empirical superiority. But such comparisons cannot be made, because America is fundamentally incomparable. (That is probably also why , for example, it is so easy for Americans to believe that "America" is the name of their country, putting out of mind the rest of two continents that might with equal justification claim the same name.)
It is possible that things are changing. In the current economic crisis-coming after decades of successive crises, American self-doubt may be on the rise. The popular television show The Newsroom recently provoked public discussion after one of its characters launched into a tirade on how American is not the greatest country in the world, for which he cited a litany of statistics placing the United States far below other industrialized countries. But then this character concluded the tirade by saying "we used to be" the greatest country, and we might soon be again if we get back on track. The negative comparisons were thus effectively reinserted into the standard discourse of America's greatness, a faith-based consolation for the country's worldly failings. And the counter-arguments that appeared in the press were remarkable as well, as many of them tried to de-legitimize comparative statistics on the grounds that many countries supposedly better than America were only pseudo-countries like Singapore, Macau, Monaco, and Luxembourg. The list of pseudo-countries would then be expanded to include Northern Europe when, around this same time but in another context, liberal comedian Jon Stewart quipped that Nordic economies could not serve as models for the United States, because they have "an instruction-manual-based economy." Other countries are other countries. Only America is America.
Another type of defense, though, was made by Brookings Institution fellow Michael O'Hanlon in a recent LA Times op-ed (August 11, 2012): Despite its problems, America remains the greatest country on Earth. Just look how many people still dream of moving here!
Americans do, on occasion, leave America. They are not especially avid international tourists-they trail far behind many other industrialized countries in international tourism expenditure per capita-but what is more remarkable is the attitude they take when they are abroad. I don't only mean the phenomenon of the "ugly American," loud and brash and forgivably inexperienced in adapting to foreign custom. What I mean is the difficulty Americans have in experiencing other countries as real places, where real life goes on. It's true that all tourists bring with them their own customs and prejudices. But there is a difference, I think, between tourists who visit a society which they take to be roughly like their own, perhaps a little strange, perhaps inferior, but still a fully functioning contemporary society which just happens to be providing its paying visitors with pleasure, and tourists who experience those places as if they were museums-interesting, maybe charming, but not valid components of the modern world. Families of recent immigrants are possibly, in this respect, the most extreme of all. The old country becomes frozen in time, and return visits become visits to that unchanging land that was left behind.
This, at any rate, was my own attitude when I first left the United States to travel through the outside world. I remember the wonder and admiration I felt for those other countries, but I also remember my assumption, however critically and sadly I looked upon it, that those less developed countries were bound eventually to grow into mirrors of America. I could imagine living there in theory, but not belonging there. And even after I eventually did move away, for a long time I was uncertain whether I had really emigrated. After all, as a recent (summer 2012) N+1 editorial said, "No American ever becomes an immigrant; she remains an expat....Americans fundamentally have no desire to cease being American, in the way immigrants seek, in some capacity, to lose themselves." But the question, I think, is still more complicated than that. Because, were Americans ever really American in the first place, capable of giving up their national identity the way Japanese or Mexicans or Slovaks gave up their Japaneseness, Mexicanness, or Slovakness when they chose to emigrate? Being American is, for the American, an assertion of universalism. An American belongs not to a specific country but to the universal country. Would anyone, in his heart of hearts, really choose to give that up?
I wasn't really sure of having emigrated until I first came back to the United States a year and a half after moving away. It was then I realized that for the first time in my life I was going to the United States without returning there, but only passing through as a visitor. Suddenly I was less American than all those people on the streets around me who were born in a hundred different countries but lived firmly there. Because if it is difficult to cease being an American, it is fairly easy to become one. All it takes is the act of immigration and the renunciation of permanent return to a former home. Meanwhile I, without having become anything else, had turned my back on Americanness by deciding to leave.
And maybe that is what distinguishes an emigrant from an expat. The expatriot, generally speaking, has never really decided to leave her place of origin. She has simply decided to go somewhere else, and often she starts her travels with every intention to return soon to where she came from. Something in the new place attracts her then, making her stick around, like a visitor to a museum who at the end of the day still hasn't had enough. Each morning she goes again out among the exhibits before returning to take her meals at the museum café. If the museum is interesting enough, she may even remain there for the rest of her life. It is liberating to have a break from life back home. But at any moment the expat could grow bored, give up the adventure, and return to the real.
With the emigrant it's different. The decision is not to go but to leave. The emigrant does not need to be especially attracted by any destination; it is a matter of getting away from here . Such decisions are rarely taken on a whim the expats often tell us something came up to make them stay somewhere. For the eventual emigrant, things accumulate slowly, until they can't be taken anymore. Another of joblessness and overwork. Another rising insurance bill. Another widened highway, another lengthened strip mall. Another tuition hike. Another school closed down. Another shooting in the neighborhood. Another service cut from the transit authority. Reason gets the better of habit, and it's time to go away.
On the other hand, was it really so un-American for me to pack up and leave? It was a terrible sin against that America that is the endpoint of the world, but it wasn't so inconsistent with the Americanness that I still felt in me even as the plane was lifting. Is America the nation which devours and absorbs all others, or is it a people patched together from lost nationhood? Is it a state demanding allegiance from the world, or is it a world opposed to states? Is it a secure homeland, or is it a shared belonging in homelessness? Is it the exceptional country, or is it an exception to the very principle of countries? Maybe all Americans are a priori homeless, emigrants before they ever hit the road, an aspirational community of wanderers. And maybe it is only the betrayal of Americanness that pins us down, walls us in, and makes us stay. I don't know. Both ideals have long traditions. But the latter ideal, America as the refuge for the banished and proscribed, has clearly been eclipsed by America, the greatest country in the world.
Maybe it's the feeling of having lost that old ideal that makes Americans so sensitive to criticism of their national dream. As long as the rest of the world can be marginalized as a place from which immigrants come, America can stand up to criticism and comparison. But when the world rudely breaks into contemporary reality and forces America to look upon itself, America starts to play things much less cool. Maybe this underlay the violent American response to the attacks on September 11, 2001. America, under attack from those who hate us, could not at the same time be America, admired haven for the outlaws and outcasts of the world. The attacks were not only an affront to America's might as a state. They were a reminder that America had long since ceased to be a scrappy underdog, bringing together those yearning to break free. It could be respected for its power, but it was no longer loved.
And maybe a similar feeling drove the angry crowds whose celebrations of bin Laden's death were insensitively interrupted by the burning of a flag. L ike the troubled playground kid who knows that his friends' taunting is grounded in truth and, lacking argument but feeling the injustice of reality, punches them in the nuts. America knows it is oppressive and miserable and provokes and mistreats its imagined enemies, but it doesn't need to hear it from you. America wants to feel righteous and happy but does not know is how to fix itself, so it lashes out at those who remind it of its sorry state.
I hope I won't be misunderstood. It isn't Americans and their (our) ways of thinking that bother me so much. What bothers me is how the ideology of immigration-of America as the destination of all people-is used against all the people who have ever had the misfortune to come to America and stay. I don't think it's an accident that assertions of American greatness seem to grow more frequent and urgent as the quality of life in America falls. The discourse of exceptionalism is directly connected to the deterioration of American life, because it is a tool used to push forward the deterioration. Bosses lock their factory doors so that no matter how bad things get, their workers won't leave. The rulers of America only have to lock the country's doors from the outside, against those who want to enter, and the effect is the same. If they can convince us that everyone is clamoring to get in, it won't occur to us that we could ever leave. They can make things worse and worse, and we will go on working. Not that escape is the only good response. There are two things you can do when the boss shuts the door behind you. You can break out, or you can stay and occupy.
For all that, I still like to give America the benefit of the doubt. In my mind I still look past the facade of the bully proclaiming its greatness. I see the troubled being within, calling for help, asking where it has gotten itself and where it can go. I see America as an ideal that has been betrayed by history but not yet by the future, a hope for the nationless, stateless, homeless, and countryless, a call to create a new kind of country, somewhere, from the ruins of all countries. But I got tired of waiting for someone to answer the call.