Tuesday, May 31, 2005

From the Other Side

Every once in while I'm reminded that no matter how long I live abroad, I'm always going to be American. The latest was during a dinner party with some friends. The conversation turned to Liverpool's unprecedented championship win, where they came back from 3-0 to defeat Madrid. I can only go so far in such conversations. I don't have the cultural background, don't have any relatives in Liverpool (as far as I know) and have no real emotional attachment to the team. I can appreciate a good game, and enjoyed watching it, but that's it.

Then the conversation turned to politics, and Iraq. What do Theresa and I think of "all that," the other guests wanted to know.

I've learned over the years to take positions rarely, and carefully. If opinions come easy, the issue is either drop-dead simple or you don't understand the complexities. I don't think the question of how to make the world safer is drop-dead simple.

I said the U.S. is separated into two, nearly equal camps. One boasts about the fuel efficency and small size of their Prius, the other brags about the dimensions of their Hummer. Neither side talks to the other. Both listen to different radio stations, watch different TV stations and read different newspapers. I didn't actually say what camp I'm in, and as an ex-pat I'm probably in a third one anyway. But the point I was trying to make, but didn't quite, is that people shouldn't judge America from just one side. The views of Americans are broader than you see on the BBC or read in the Daily Mail or the Guardian.

Whether this is a cause for optimism or despair is the question. Despair is more likely. The two halfs of the U.S. are mutually certain of their positions. So much so, that to each their "facts" seem so self-evident, so dead-simple, that they believe the "other side" must be deliberately ignoring them. Both sides assume malice in the other's position. Talking at all about Iraq, or politics in general, is next to impossible now. Ironically, it's easier to have these conversations in a London dining room, or even to random people on Skype, than in the U.S.

But it's getting harder even here. Dan Gillmor writes about spending Memorial Day as a visitor to another country. Check out the comments: The gap between the sides seems insurmountable. Malice assumed.

I'm finding it harder and harder to explain America. The newspapers, here and there, feature the same, tragic stories, often based on the military's own investigations. One Afghan cab driver strayed a little too close to an American base and died horribly, slowly, beaten by U.S. soldiers. Our president dismisses criticism of torture as "absurd," coming from "people who hate America." He's not listening. Malice assumed.

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