As an expat, I’m not quite sure how to take the news that 81% of Americans believe “things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track.” Part of me chortles: no shit, Sherlock! Why the hell do you think I grabbed my suitcase and ran, six years ago, to the first country that would give me a visa? And then hung on by my fingernails till I was finally granted citizenship, forever absolving me of the need/obligation to return to the land of my fathers?
On the other hand, even a callous, no-regrets expat like me has to admit that a lot of the shitstorm currently hovering over the lower 48 is the work of a relatively small cadre of uber-villains. I mean, the majority of Americans in the last two elections voted for the guy who didn’t end up in the White House. When that shit happens in Africa or Eastern Europe the US of A is all for sending in the cavalry to ensure free and fair elections. Which, come to think of it, may explain why the cavalry was notably absent when America was getting stitched up by a vicious oligarchy of moneyed morons with bloodlust in their eyes. Having voted for the winning candidate in the last two elections I sympathise with the millions who didn’t have a passport in hand when the bad news blew down from the top of Mount Sinai.
Living on the safe side of the Atlantic for a few years had considerably dulled my empathy, until I went back to spend thanksgiving with my family last year. The first clue something was wrong: the better-than-two-to-one dollar to pound exchange which meant I could shop like Paris Hilton on a measly freelance writer’s wage. More alarming was my ex-boyfriend telling me how his (23-year-old) friend died of complications of treatable diabetes because his call-centre job didn’t come with health insurance. That’s the sort of shit that makes you sit up, pay attention, and stop playing footsie over your scrambled eggs. Especially when you hear the same story again and again… from your sister who can’t quit work even though she’s in constant, debilitating pain because – if she did – she’d lose any medical benefits; when the woman next to you on the flight home tells you she spends over $800 per month on health coverage; when you wake up struggling for breath and pray it’s not an asthma attack coming on because in the Land Of The Free you can’t afford to be sick.
The second thing that blew my “fuck ‘em” cynicism to high heavens was the casually dispensed news item in The Oregonian that noted over 10% of Oregonians are “food insecure” – a fancy phrase for “don’t know where their next meal is coming from.” I read this between making four-cheese macaroni and bourbon orange cake for thanksgiving dinner. Clearly, not everyone is suffering. But a lot of people are. Journalistic curiosity piqued I wound up taking a very long, wet walk around industrial southeast Portland to the Oregon Food Bank, which tries to stave off the worst effects of America’s non-existent social support network. A plump, smiley blonde PR girl showed me around. The OFB is a private charity so I had to ask, “What resources would be available for people who need food if you weren’t here?” She smiled more, shook her head, didn’t understand the question. “What government programmes are there to help feed people?” I asked.
She smiled at me gently, like I’d just asked for the Tooth Fairy’s home address. “There aren’t any.”
I left the food bank and walked through the rainy dusk, simmering with anger, trying to come to terms with the inexplicable: how the richest nation on earth casually shrugs its shoulders and looks away when its own citizens don’t have enough to eat. In a way it explains America’s crude disinterest in human suffering around the globe. Fuck, if they can’t pick themselves up to feed their own population (despite spending billions creating “biofuels” to pump into the ridiculously over-sized, over-priced cars of the privileged) why should they give a damn if kids are dying in Africa?
This was in November, 2007. Things have only gotten/are only going to get worse. And yeah, hell, I can’t believe it took Americans this long to realise what a fucking raw deal they’re getting. But more than ever I feel sorry for them. The way I feel sorry for the poor bastards trying to vote themselves out of hell in Zimbabwe, or the monks in Tibet trying to have their say in the face of a tyrannical government prone to violently, inexplicably incarcerating people who have the front to disagree with their “policies.” Mostly, I guess, because – like any other escapee of a corrupt, despicable regime – I worry for those I left behind. For my fiercely smart, articulate, intractable siblings; for my mum; for that ex-boyfriend, who isn’t going to know what hit him…. Maybe, even, for the tiny part of me that wishes the door hadn’t slammed so firmly shut behind me.