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How to Bring a Blush to the Snow
I almost always like Bruce Bawer's writing, but I have to say I'm baffled by his most recent piece on PJM. It's a reflection on how ten years of living overseas have changed his perspective on America. Some of it will be familiar to anyone who's live abroad for a long time--the way the local language changes your English, the way coming home and seeing little quotidian changes (such as those garish new dollar bills) can jolt you into feeling very keenly how far away you live.

And yet some of it was disturbing. Bawer's tone is thoughtful, not surly, but the sentiments expressed toward the end veer toward whininess:

Yes, yes, I'm still an American, and proud of it. But the longer I'm away, the less firmly that label clings to me — for I'm increasingly aware that the America I lived in is an America that’s no longer there. It's an America where the Twin Towers are still standing, an America where my father is still alive. For millions of Americans, including my eight-year-old niece in New York, that America, my America, is not even memory, but history.

...

When my partner and I flew back to New York for my father's funeral, I couldn't bring myself to write "0" on the customs declaration form next to "Number of family members traveling with you." Instead I wrote "1." At Newark Airport, the immigration official to whom I handed my card asked me where that other family member was. I indicated that he was in the non-citizens' line. She asked what our relationship was. I explained. Her face colored with contempt, and with an angry slash of her pen she turned my "1" into a "0" as she spit into my face the words: "That's not family!" It was a succinct summary of the U.S. government's official position on my life.

Well, maybe it was all meant to be. If I hadn't come here, and stayed here, I wouldn't have written While Europe Slept — my own modest contribution to the effort by many people on both sides of the Atlantic to save the West from itself. When I left America, I never imagined myself writing such a book: in fact my immediate plans were to write a book about how wonderful Amsterdam was. Alas, the Amsterdam I was so eager to celebrate ten years ago is also gone with the wind. But that's another story.


Oh, I don't know, Bruce--I rather think it's exactly the same story in practical terms.

When you feel out of step with you're own people, it means a great deal, and you have to wonder what it says about you. When you live in a foreign country--no matter how much you know about, care about it, and live a daily life that's integrated into it--you still have a comforting distance from it. You can appreciate its good points without being on the hook for its bad points, because it's not the society that formed you. When friends start telling you that you're getting to be more like a native than the natives are, you can draw warmth and satisfaction from the compliment; and yet if you're still awkward and out of place sometimes, that's okay, too, because you are, after all, a foreigner.

I really loved that feeling*, but in a sense, it's a dangerous crack high. As my best friend in Tokyo, an Englishman, once explained to another Westerner about why he still listened to the BBC daily: "The U.K. is my country, and even if I'm over here, I'm responsible for it."

Bawer wrote a lot in While Europe Slept (a book I greatly admire, BTW) about the ways social democratic European societies have adjusted to post-colonial and post-war realities. The general cultural relativism has benefited gays in that some countries recognize gay unions. But the flip side is the dysfunctional approach toward immigration; policies that allow Muslim immigrants to "preserve their culture" sanction behavior that would get locals punished by custom or law. And skittishness about being judgmental has had the perverse effect of allowing anti-Semitic and anti-gay violence to start rising again.

Does the ability to move to Norway to be with his partner, however understandably meaningful it is to Bawer, really trump the other disturbing long-term trends? The note that he ends on seems to say so, despite the disclaimer that he remains aware that Norway has its social problems. One can only hope that we're not seeing the beginnings of Andrew Sullivan-ization here.

A final note on Bawer's anecdote about the line at immigration: yet again, the implicit argument is that failure to give legal recognition to gay partnerships is bad because of how it makes us feel. When I started this site, I wrote so much about what a bad, bad idea that is that I don't feel like going into it now. But it's a bad, bad idea. And I hope I never see the phrase "the U.S. government's official position on my life" again.

*******


The focus on feelings also makes me uneasy about this piece by B. Daniel Blatt (a.k.a. Gay Patriot West) about what gays think of Sarah Palin. Policy isn't excluded--there are allusions to her reform-mindedness on the one hand and to her support for policies that aren't good for gays on the other. But the focus is on how exciting Palin is, delivered with the sort of pep-rally tone that we should all be over now that her nomination is weeks old.

Oh, and she's nice to gay people.

However, those gay people who know her best, men and women who live in the Land of the Midnight Sun, are delighted about Palin's nomination. Eric DeLand, an openly gay man who lives in the Kenai area, said even Democrats and independents like her: "They may not agree with her on everything, but they agree with enough; they’re happy with McCain's decision to pick Sarah."

Erich says the governor knows him — and knows he's gay. That hasn’t changed her treatment of him. She's always been respectful. Indeed, he offers, "I've never seen her mistreat anyone for being gay or for whatever."

...

She's also said that "she's not out to judge anyone and has good friends who are gay," confirming Eric's impressions. We do wish she would chastise her church, the Wasilla Bible Church, for promoting the notion that homosexuality is "curable." I fear, alas, that is not going to happen.


This stuff isn't inconsequential--Palin's ability to deal with all kinds of constituents matters, and dispelling the myth that social conservatives are all rock-throwing gay-haters is important. On the other hand, why is it the governor's duty to "chastise" her church ("Naughty church!"?) on theological points? And why does everyone in this article seem to be so gushy? I don't want to overthink these things--in terms of political positions, I agree with the guys at Gay Patriot more often than not. But the vague impression from this article is that she's mostly good, sometimes kinda not, on the issues...but she's cool and we love her! (And what is that "plucky nature" thing about? I'm sorry, but if war erupts in some region that threatens a shipping lane or resource, I want my executives to have more than just pluck. At least no one in Blatt's article used the word diva.)

* Of course, it gets more complicated over time, because once you've demonstrated an ease with local customs and woven yourself into the lives of the people you know, they'll start to expect you to know how to think and behave. But "Oh, that's right--you're a foreigner," whether tacit or expressed, still covers a multitude of sins indefinitely.
Posted by Sean on 2008-09-17 11:57:19
Rob (mail):
Oh, the dreaded feelings. Nothing more than ... feelings.
9.19.2008 2:18pm
I-Ronin:
Bawer's piece is yet another reminder that we are all inclined to see what we want or expect to see.
9.21.2008 8:46pm
Sean Kinsell (mail) (www):
Yeah, Rob, I wish both sides would knock it off, but the GOP is definitely going through the more egregiously histrionic phase right about now.

IR, I think you're right, but up to now, Bawer had seemed good at questioning his own reactions, or at least putting them in context. It's a shame. But it is just one column.
9.22.2008 11:26am

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