In the last post I wrote, I talked about the influence of American politics on the rest of the world. While writing that post, Jeff and I got to discussing a related idea—how difficult it is to hear other people criticize your country when you’re traveling. It’s almost as if America is family; I can pick on it all I want, but by God, you better not say a negative word about it.
America is an easy target. We wield a huge amount of power, and we often do really dumb things.
I’ll be the first to admit that I think our current President is a moron, that the war in Iraq is a disaster, that our environmental policy stinks. And if you, Mr. or Ms. Non-American, say these things to me during a civilized discussion, I’ll acknowledge that you’re right. But if you just throw out an insult, or if you catch me in a foul mood, I’ll be right up in your face defending America tooth and nail. Though W and I don’t see eye to eye on pretty much anything, you better not tell me that he’s a terrorist. You better not say that our war is worse than the 9/11 attacks. You better not claim that America is evil. I don’t deal in platitudes and gross exaggerations. I don’t deal in comparisons of horrors. I know that America is good. And if you even dare go anywhere near these statements, you better have a damn good answer about what your country is doing to make the world a better place.
Way back when Jeff and I first started planning this trip, I mentioned to him the one thing that I would have a really hard time putting up with. It wasn’t squat toilets. It wasn’t long bus rides. It wasn’t having limited clothing options. It wasn’t even dealing with foreigners who hate America. Most of them don’t know America well enough for their opinions to count. The thing that will be hardest for me is dealing with those Americans, who we’re bound to come across, who love to have pretentious conversations about how stupid/awful/self-involved/arrogant/whatever America is and how whatever third world country they’re in at the moment really has it figured out.
Sure, I agree, the $6 beachfront bungalows and the $2 steak dinners and the $0.50 massages are awesome. But you know why they’re awesome? Because you can afford them. To the people who live in these countries, all of that is still out of reach. Education, health care, a chance to improve their lives…that, too, is probably out of reach. I’m not saying you need to pin an American flag to your backpack the way the Canadians pin the maple leaf to theirs (why, again, do they do that?). I’m just saying that you need to be a little more respectful of where you come from, a little more humble about what you’ve been given, a little more thankful that by the grace of God (or whatever higher power/good luck you want to acknowledge) you were born in a place that might not always do the wisest things or act in the best way but allows you a hell of a lot of opportunity.
I am not a flag waver. I can’t even begin to describe how frightened I was to come home to a post-9/11 world after months away and find flags plastered everywhere and the national anthem de rigueur at every event right down to the ballet. But send me out into the world for an extended period of time, and the patriot inside comes out. During the 2002 World Cup, my roommates and I risked life and limb to wave an American flag and chant wildly at a German gathering as the U.S. played (and almost beat) Germany. And I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more perfect rendition of our national anthem then when our German hallmates sang it to us (print out of the lyrics in hand) from the balcony as we played wiffle ball on the 4th of July at our Freiburg dorm.
Distance does indeed make the heart grow fonder.