Spots of Time

October 14, 2003

American Citizenship And Other Dubious Distinctions**

The year was 1997 and I was on a bus bound for the town of San Agustin, Colombia. Sitting next to me was a young Colombian mother with the fattest baby I have ever seen. As the trip was 6 hours long on dirt roads, we had plenty of time to get acquainted. Her baby's name was Arnold - not your typical Latino name. "I named him after the American actor - Arnold Schwarzenegger," she said proudly.

The year is 2003 and I am sitting in an Internet cafe after 10 days in a remote hill tribe village in Thailand. The Danish girl next to me draws my attention to the headline of her country's newspaper. Though I can't read Danish, the photograph accompanying the story says more than enough. Arnold Schwarzenegger, regally staring ahead, with a Mona Lisa smile on his lips and the American flag flying proudly behind him.

I am not proud to be an American.

I am not saying this because the Terminator is the new governor of the state I called home for five years. I am not saying this to start a fight - though almost every other time I have made this statement an intensive debate has followed (in which I was the minority). I am saying this because it's true - and because I can.

The fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary defines "proud" as "feeling pleasurable satisfaction over an act, possession, quality, or relationship by which one measures one's stature or self-worth." I do not feel "pleasurable satisfaction" for my American citizenship - nor do I measure my self-worth or stature on the fact that I was lucky enough to be born in a country that is currently the most powerful country in the world.

The United States of America is arguably the only superpower left in the world. Its influence is spread far and wide - from McDonald's and KFC chains worldwide, to Betty Boop T-shirts in remote Akha villages. Despite the fact that I donít usually follow the news in the United States while traveling, I am always informed of what is going on - usually from fellow travelers, all of them from nations other than the United States. Most of them are more aware and better educated on US foreign policy than my fellow Americans. I guess they have to be - they never know when it will affect them. Someone told me that the United States presidential elections are the only such elections in the world that are internationally broadcast (and viewed). I had no idea.

The United States gives millions of dollars in aid to poor African countries, pressures Asian countries to outlaw the cultivation of drug crops such as opium, and brokers Middle East peace agreements. We are first in line to give aid to warn-torn nations, and to criticize governments with records of human rights abuses.

The United States also holds hundreds of orphaned refugee children in detention centers, starts wars with smaller, weaker countries despite popular opinion and international pressure to the contrary, funds rebels groups one day (in the name of democracy) and says they are the "axis of evil" the next day (in the name of peace). We are the sole market for 50% of the heroin produced worldwide. We help overthrows governments for fear of Communism and bombs countries in "secret" wars - stories that never get included in newspapers, much less the history books.

God Bless America.

I know what you are saying. No country is perfect. What country doesn't have some skeletons in their closet? Sure, maybe the US does some bad things, but donít the good things outweigh the bad ones? Corruption is far and wide in Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe. Why single out the United States?

Because I can. Because I hold the United States up to a higher standard and I think others should as well. Because a country with so much power, and so much influence, has got to be BETTER. Has got to try HARDER. Because I was born there and I think we can do more. Know we can. And, if we don't set a higher standard - who will?

I admit that several months ago I read Michael Moore's "Stupid White Men." But all his book did was provide some facts and dates and figures for thoughts that have been running around in my head for a while now. His opinions and his views are clearly colored by his experiences, his past history and his current ideology - I have no illusion that he is trying to be unbiased. Still, I congratulate him for putting his ideas down - for saying his mind and giving us some facts to back up the opinion. And, for managing to get the book published.

Don't get me wrong. I count my blessings regularly that I was LUCKY enough to be born an American citizen. I can stand on any street corner and wax prophetic on any topic I like - from what really goes into a McDonald's hamburger to conspiracy theories about the bombings in NYC to the contents of George W. Bush's underwear drawer - without worry that someone is going to haul me off to jail or worse. I can groan audibly whenever anyone asks me if I voted for George W. Bush - and patiently explain, AGAIN, that in the United States it is possible for a man to receive less than the majority of votes and STILL manage to be President. A former roommate of mine can keep a gun under her bed - just in case. An ex-pat friend of mine can actively try to avoid returning to the United States - while still keeping his citizenship. Michael Moore can write a book that bashes the United States political system, highlighting corruption normally saved for Hollywood movies about third world nations - and make it to the best seller list. And, Arnold Schwarzenegger, a former Mr. Universe, born in Austria to a father who may or may not have been a Nazi-sympathizer, can become the Governor of California, a state who's economy ranks 5th in the WORLD.

America is an amazing place. A place of miracles and slights of hand. A place where people can not vote, yet feel they have the right to complain at will about anything they don't like - even write books about it. Maybe you aren't proud that Arnold Schwarzenegger is now a political figure and running one of the largest states in the country. Maybe you aren't proud to be an American. But I donít think anyone can challenge me when I say, you should consider yourself lucky to be born there. Somewhere, in a remote town in Colombia, a Colombian mother is proud of her decision to name her little boy Arnold - a name that, to her, stood for something special. Because maybe, just maybe - he will be as lucky as the big Arnold - and grow from immigrant roots to become an internationally known name - even if it is practically impossible to spell. Weirder things have happened.

As for the newly elected Governor Arnold, I say "congratulations" and "my condolences" in the same breath. He's got a tough job in front of him - and a tough electorate to answer to if he can't keep his promises. In truth though, I really can't imagine he will do much worse than anyone else. But, if you aren't in favor of his governorship, don't worry too much. Console yourself with this nugget. His political aspirations can't get any bigger. I believe the Constitution still states that only people born in the United States can grow up to be President. Someone might want to tell George W. I'm guessing he was beginning to sweat a bit about re-election.