The Complexities of American Exile
For Lewis, the ties that bind are simultaneously knotted, loose, and frayed.
"We helped to make America great, so why can't we help to make another country great? Anywhere we go, we are going to bring our African-American culture with us and transform the place we decide to live in. Why do we believe the United States is the only place where we can live and prosper? Is this not a slave's mentality?"51; KRS-One
"[T]he United States . . . has long thought itself to be a nation 'under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.' It is not a coincidence that this nation rose to become the most prosperous on Earth. It is also not surprising that this nation is gradually losing all that it has worked so hard to create-for this nation seems to have lost its vision."51; Neale Donald Walsch
Eight months before the reelection of Bush II, I left America to live in Paris. In this month of July 2005, containing both Independence Day and Bastille Day, I've been giving thought to my decision to relocate. Mapquest tells me that the Twin Towers stood four miles away from the Brooklyn address I called home on September 11, 2001. At the onset of the 21st century, people worldwide were looking for some monumental change, some gigantic line drawn in the sand of time, and on 9/11, it savagely manifested. American flags sprouted like dandelion weeds from every conceivable public space, a new blind patriotism ironically ruling the first days of the Aquarian Age. I was present at that moment in world history when my native neighborhood turned into a war zone, a domino-effect catastrophe that years later pushed me in part to exodus the country.
I don't hold myself out as a political activist or a "freedom fighter" per se, never have. The Buddha at the side of the road is not the Buddha, as the Zen parable goes. But two years ago on 15 February, I slid into my Batman T-shirt and took to the streets of Manhattan, trooping up to the United Nations with 375,000 others in a protest against the impending invasion of Iraq. One of 600 worldwide protests including marches in Paris, Athens and London millions of demonstrators made this the largest anti-war demonstration of all time. I added my name to the Statement of Conscience Against War and Repression circulated by the Not in Our Name Project, alongside the likes of Angela Davis, Alice Walker, the graffiti artist Zephyr, and over 1,500 others. Not in Our Name was founded by artists and activists in 2002 to oppose the domestic and international agenda of the Bush Administration through an online campaign and public demonstrations. Despite the global protest of the worldwide community on 15 February, and efforts like Not in Our Name's Statement of Conscience and Pledge of Resistance documents, even the collective voice of the United Nations, the American government bulldozed ahead and did what it wanted to do, anyway.
Last 2 November, my father and I woke early and walked together to the Duke Ellington School on Harlem's 160th Street to cast our votes for Senator John Kerry. (I'd left Paris briefly to promote my first book on an east-coast tour with political author Farai Chideya.) Kerry took New York but, of course, lost the national vote to Bush. Pundits blamed so-called moral values and fear of terrorism in politically analyzing that, despite the evidence of Cannes' Palm d'Or winner Fahrenheit 9/11 and other overwhelmingly damning evidence, the American public still by and large chose to stick by Bush. One can discuss red states and blue states forever, but Election Day 2004 raised a mirror to the true face of the United States. Most American voters support President Bush, period. And then everybody went back to work. What more can you do? Meanwhile, over 2,000 American soldiers and 25,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed since the American occupation, according to IraqBodyCount.net.
Weeks ago, I chuckled privately 10 minutes into Spielberg's War of the Worlds. Right before aliens attack Earth, Tom Cruise berates his son for procrastinating with his history report on the French occupation of Algeria. I can't say how patriotic Spielberg is, but the obvious zinger seemed to say France's politics aren't all that spotless either, despite President Chirac's strong opposition to war in Iraq. This is true. Thousands of African and French-Caribbean Parisians assembled near the Eiffel Tower at Trocadéro months ago; Journée Nationale du Souvenir de Victimes de l'Esclavage Colonial featured a series of speeches and lifted song, commemorating the Middle Passage of enslaved Africans taken to the Antilles islands and criticizing the French State for its treatment of immigrants. Politics are a cagey business. But I can say I feel confident that France has less bad karma coming back on it as a nation than America these days.
Moving away and glancing back, from this side of the Atlantic I see my country in a new light. People in America look fatter than they do here: greedy, ignorant-of-nutrition, no-self-discipline. Television addiction is more glaring; I find America's reality TV and its fame-at-all-costs celebrity voyeurism much more disturbing than I did when I lived there. Returning to the States at different points, the get-ahead and upward-mobility conversations I've heard while socializing seem shallower, more self-centered. At the risk of sounding brainwashed, since moving to France I've seriously had to ask myself, are Americans just sort of dumb?
So what does a citizen do when he doesn't agree with his country and no democratic channels give him satisfaction? Sometimes the truest answers result from living the question itself. I believe the citizen either does nothing, revolts or leaves. Apathy, revolution or exile. Leaving isn't an option available to everyone, and in fact, thousands still fight daily to be admitted to America from all over the globe. It's a bourgeois exercise, actually, the mental motions over becoming an expatriate.
Is it up to the citizen to take responsibility for the approximate 30 percent of her tax dollars going toward the $558 billion military budget, when that citizen is struggling at minimum wage to eat and feed her family? Fact is, I don't even consider myself an expatriate. That's too pretentious even for me, and the world is too small in the modern age to have to choose either/or anymore. I never said I wouldn't be back, and though I'm not in the US on a daily basis spending dollars, 30 percent of the taxes on my book royalties still pay for America's very real weapons of mass destruction. I'm not buying as many bullets and bombs per my dollar earned as someone living and working in America daily, but my dubious contribution to America's military might still exists.
I'm disillusioned with my native country for any disparate number of reasons. America throws away enough food every day to feed whole nations. Her foreign policy isn't determined from the greatest good, but from her own vested interests. (The same can be said for all nations perhaps, but not all nations hold themselves out as implicitly morally superior world police, a supposed force of good.) My son is soon to be born in Paris and when I carry him from the hospital in my arms I will not also be carrying a tremendous medical debt. Whereas the planet's wealthiest nation still refuses to provide universal national health care for her citizens. Theoretically a multicultural society, America still educates her youth from a Wasp male perspective, and its education system promotes memorization of facts over much-needed critical thinking. America is profit-driven to its detriment. She has lost her spiritual center, to the degree that she ever really had one. I find America's primary problem to be a spiritual problem, requiring a spiritual solution: essentially, what you do to your neighbor, America, you do to yourself.
I recently asked Amiri Baraka, after all his incessant (and warranted) criticism of the country, why he never left like Baldwin, Himes and his other contemporaries.
"It's my home," said Baraka.
And so what do you do when you disagree with the household of your parents: suck it up, live with it, or move out?