On America and its birthday.
Holidays come and go. And they bring all the days, weeks, and months of the years with them. Being the American alien in Thailand that I am, US holidays often come in strange flavors and feelings. Sometimes, I only notice the holiday when things go missing from my day. The New York Times' Morning Briefing, for example. It's not there today, a Friday, which means it's a holiday weekend in America, where it's still Thursday night, and many people will have Friday on that part of the planet off from work. But I knew that already this time. Because Independence Day is a big one. It's a little like Christmas, in more ways than five. And that's where the strange flavors and feelings come in. Because what is a holiday like Independence Day to a person who's from a place but not living there anymore? A person who may never live there again?
There's no one answer, of course. It depends on the person. I've never been one to have many friends. But I've been around a bunch of Americans in a bunch of places that aren't America over the years. Some of them left the country and never looked back. Their lives are elsewhere now. Why should what goes on there matter to them anymore? And I have to say, I don't think they're wrong. In some ways, I even admire them and think their attitude wise. It's hard to remember now, but I think it's probably how I imagined I would feel after leaving, too. But it didn't work out that way. I inadvertently got on a train going in the opposite direction.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: I feel far more American outside of America than in it. I'm more aware of my roots than I ever was when I was still in the US. I see and feel them in so much of what I do every day. And the locals see and feel all that America in me, too. And I know this because I can see and feel them seeing and feeling it in me, which makes me see and feel it more. Some of what I see, I like. Some of the other things, not so much. But mostly, I just feel mixed. But I can see all of that only because I'm here and not there. And I see it through American eyes and an approximation of Thai eyes both, which raises a lot of questions.
There are the questions I ask myself, about the differences in our cultures, the flaws and messiness in both, the injustice and majesty in both. But other questions come from the outside. Why does America do X? And why does America do Y? And how did Trump happen? And do they have this in America? And what about that? Most of the questions I'm asked come in kind and from curiosity about a dreamlike land. Not all of them. But most. And they are asked by people who don't speak much English. So I try to answer them in the fewest and simplest words possible. But I also try to answer them as truthfully as possible, which often requires keeping crucial nuances intact. It's like trying to conjure the sparse syntax of Hemingway. And it is very hard.
But it is also very good. Because it turns gears in my head that need turning. It reveals what's important about a place buried beneath its own noise and burns the rest. It challenges me. It makes me a better communicator, a better thinker, a better writer and editor, a better American and traveler and expat. It helps me to more clearly see all sides, or at least more sides, which almost always helps me to see that there are no sides. We made them up. And keep making them up. Ironic. Don't you think?
There are things you see by being on the ground in a place, and things you see by not being on the ground. There are also things you don't see by being on the ground and by not being on the ground. Those are the breaks. We're a world of people with big brains and bigger blind spots. But that's only a problem if we refuse to accept that it's not only others who have blind spots; it's us, too. If we can accept this, we can stay small and uncertain. And we should want to stay small and uncertain. Because that's what we already are. When we're not pretending, that's all that's left of us: small and intricate things that really don't know—because we can't.
I had a dream the other night about something called the Patriot Pen. The Patriot Pen was a pen that the president could, and must, use to sign new legislation. But the pen would only work to sign things that were truly good for the country and its citizens. I watched an indistinct president sign an indistinct bill into an indistinct law. I watched all the dark suits around him with indistinct faces smiling and clapping. And it felt good. I had faith and trust in the Patriot Pen, for some reason. But then someone had to pee. And then I realized I had to pee. So I got up and peed and tried to commit the dream to memory. In the morning, I remembered the dream and thought about it while making coffee. Then I wrote a note to myself about it on my whiteboard:
- Same same AI
What that means is, the Patriot Pen wasn't a sentient being. It was just an AI. And while the pen was created to address the lack of trust many of us have in certain of our governing sentient beings and institutions, and to right their wrongs, and to bring justice to all injustice, the creation too was flawed. It was unavoidably cold and calculating, and it too had great potential to be indifferent and cruel and bring about just as much injustice as any human or group of them. Because it lacked all the fine and strange and tangled bits of human reasoning and emotion necessary for governing others made from these same bits. It was basically just a highly sophisticated calculator with machine confidence and no conscience. It had none of the smallness and uncertainty and ingenuity necessary for public service. And people don't always have these characteristics either. But they do, actually. Even when they don't know or show it, they're there. By virtue of the fact that they are human, they are there. Untapped, maybe, and maybe often, but there.
Even when we're dealing with the worst of the worst, in politics, for example, those are individuals. They are not most of the people they represent. And that's a real problem in itself. But we have this instinct to take one problem, or one Gremlin, if I may, and pour water on it to create more. This weekend being a birthday of sorts, let's stop doing that. Let's grow up. Let's evolve. Let's at least admit we have this problem and try to correct for it.
At the risk of sounding too much like a Bon Jovi song, we’re all we've got. When we s**t on "the other side" we're really just s**ting on ourselves. We don't all think the same, it's true. And yet we're still all we've got. So we need to get past the tribalism. It's old and worn out.
I can already hear all the imaginary objectors in my head saying, "BUT THE OTHER SIDE IS RACIST!" and "BUT THEY'RE SNOWFLAKES!" and "BUT THEY'RE TRANSPHOBIC!" and "BUT THEY'RE A CULT!" and "WE'RE NOT A CULT! YOU'RE A CULT! AND YOU'RE NOT FEMINIST ENOUGH OR IN THE RIGHT WAY!” and "BUT YOU WANT BIOLOGICAL MALES TO HAVE AN UNFAIR ADVANTAGE OVER BIOLOGICAL FEMALES IN SPORTS! ARGHHH!" and "OMG STOP PRETENDING YOU CARE ABOUT FAIRNESS YOU TOXIC ANTI-TRANS WHITE SUPREMACIST!"
Obviously, I'm exaggerating. But remember, this is just what it sounds like in my head. And there are clearly some legitimate issues in all that noise that need to be addressed. But we're not doing that. We're just fighting. And instead of getting anywhere, we're just, if I may again, making Gremlins out of Mogwai.
Thankfully, I can also hear a better voice in my head. A mediator: quiet, calm, caring, but tired, so tired, saying, "Shut the f**k up. Everyone just shut the f**k up. To everyone on my left, most of them probably aren't as bad as you think they are. And most of you probably aren't as great as you think you are. And to everyone on my right, same same. And to me, what the f**k do you know? And to me again, point taken. So let's all just shut the f**k up. For five minutes. After that, put your smallness and uncertainty and ingenuity together and engage in some sensical discourse. With the other person. Not against the other side. Okay. Five minutes. Go."
Okay. Now that we’re back together in this thing I’m still writing, or that I've already written, if you’re reading this now, I think the first thing I need to do is apologize to Bo Burnham. It occurred to me after writing “shut the f**k up” a number of times in my last paragraph that my general message was strikingly similar to one of the masterful bits in Burnham’s new Netflix special. So my apologies to Bo. That said, the voice in my head saying “shut the f**k up” was real. So the paragraph stays. Sorry again, Bo.
The last thing I will add here is this: a big part of my day job is looking for signs of progress in the news. I spend hours looking for it every day. I look for it in the US. I look for it in the vast expanse of states and cities and counties. I look for it all over the world. And guess what? I find it all over the world. Every day, I come up with sprawling lists of substantive progress. It's rarely the top story on any news website. Because people don't click on stories where things went well, where things worked out okay. This is another of those strange bits we have in us. We like drama. We want to see a world with a #FreeBritney. But not as much as we want to see a world with a Britney still fighting to be free.
My point, in a few words, is we are the Patriot Pen. We are the People of the United States. We are its promise and progress. And we are its barriers to both. We need to see each other as people. And as individuals. We need to come together. We're all we've got. It doesn't make a difference if we make it or not. We've got each other, and that's a lot for love. We'll give it a shot.
Happy Birthday, America. I love you, you big idiot.
28 people received this email.