An American in Vienna Looks Back With a Deep Surge of.... Ambivalence

News | Pat Blashill | October 2006

In 1975, Gary P. Nunn, a little-known country and western singer from the rolling hills of central Texas, recorded "London Homesick Blues," a song about a cowboy stranded in England that elegantly describes the downcast thoughts of the stranger in a strange land.

A wry undercurrent runs through the song, and in the grain of his voice, one can also hear all of the bewilderment and loneliness of someone who is far from home and utterly unsure of what to do about it. "Well, it’s cold over here," he warbles, "And I swear, I wish they’d turn the heat on." This is the dilemma of the American ex-patriot.

"London Homesick Blues" may not be available at the iTunes Music Store, but it should be required listening for anyone who has left America to discover the dislocation, identity flux, and reinvention traumas of living in another country.

In fact, any byte of pop culture – be it country song, Hollywood film or gossip magazine – which makes an attempt to define American-ness would be an indispensable accessory for anyone contemplating leaving the land of liberty.

Like no other time in recent memory, America has become obsessed with being American. Since the events of September 11, 2001, "patriotism" has been abused, and if nothing else, pop culture is always capable of reminding Americans of who they are. In spite of America’s mixed feelings about the war in Iraq, their loyalty to their own country remains unshaken.

But this American frenzy of self-definition though flag-waving and movies about heroes is also a response to a global condition. The speed and consolidation of this era is overwhelming, and not just for Americans: the ease with which people can cross the globe, both physically and virtually; the gradual deflation of ‘local’ culture, and its replacement by multinational entertainments; the rise of super-states like the EU, and the fall of independent media; the demise of labor unions and the rise of the Corporation, the pervasiveness of branding and logos, and most especially, the advent of telecommunications technology and the Internet – all of these phenomena, among others, have produced a bit of a planetary identity crisis.

It probably isn’t just Americans and ex-patriots who wonder, ‘Who the hell am I this week?’

This only makes matters more complicated for those who leave their homeland for one reason or another. People who are forced to leave their country are "exiles." Those who choose to live abroad temporarily are "expatriates." But "ex-patriotism" isn’t merely a misspelling of this second group.  It’s the condition of someone, an American, say, who loves what he has come to believe are American things, like country music, pinball and the Rocky Mountains, yet grows disenchanted with other American things, like flag-waving, to such an extent that one day, he leaves.

From a distance, the ex-patriot looks homeward and feels a deep surge of... ambivalence.

How can someone disillusioned with the ills of a nation, leave that place, yet occasionally look back and pine for it? The ambivalence of the ex-patriot of today is compounded first of all by the fact that many of the troubles of a place spring from the very things which one loves about it. The automobile nomad, whether it be the speed and poetry-addled beatnik of Jack Kerouac’s books, or the Jewish retiree tooling down to Florida in a Winnebago, is an enduring figure in the epic myth of America. Driving cross-country has always been an astonishing and moving way to experience the USA, and to feel that one can say they ‘know’ the place.

But as American soldiers sink deeper and deeper into the second war in fifteen years to safeguard what we imagine to be ‘our’ supply of oil, it becomes harder to swallow the myth, and easier to think of American dependence on oil as selfish and cruel. One easily could chart the curdling of any number of other America-Myths (the heroic Cowboy has become the Redneck in the White House; the rugged Individualist has become the blithe Unilateralist; etc. etc.).

But what haunts the American ex-patriot is the realization that he might have always been more in love with the myths of his homeland than its hard realities.

The ex-patriot’s disorientation is heightened by the fact that most nations in this globalized, borderless, information-technology age are becoming more like ideas than finite bodies. And America is the best and most confusing example of this.

Today, America is the same as it ever was, only more so. It is America to the "N-th" power. The America of John Wayne, the automobile, apple pie and baseball has become the America of Britney Spears, the Hummer, Red Lobster and the NFL on NBC. It was once larger-than-life; now it’s become a televised, super-sized, franchised version of a version of an Andy Warhol version of itself. It is everything and nothing. It’s easy to believe that America is a mono-culture, a Walmart shopping world, that America itself is exactly the same as the images in any sixty channel cable TV flow anywhere in the world.

But it’s not true. There is still a real America, if you know where to look.  It’s just that, in the last few years, living in the USA has been like living in a blackly humorous, savage parody of America, and at the same time, electronic entertainments from HBO to the Internet have continued to draw in, and employ, even more Americans. The real America and the virtual America have begun to overlap. So it’s difficult to grasp what America really is today.

It may be easier to define the patriot, through what he is and what he is not. A patriot is no longer someone who fights on the battlefield – we’ve got robots for that – but someone who stays in his homeland and spends money. Both political commitment and resistance cluster around the act: A nation of citizens has become a market of consumers, and in America, to buy or not-to-buy can feel like one of the last political gestures left. After 9-11, both the U.S. President and the mayor of New York told citizens to get out and shop as a way of showing the terrorists of the world that America would endure. Some activists challenged this macho-consumerism by turning it against itself: the New York-based conceptual leftist Reverend Billy took time off from his long-running assaults on the Starbucks coffee shop chain to found the Church of Stop Shopping. Writer and legendary crank Kurt Vonnegut Jr. went one step further by notoriously commanding anyone who was listening to "Turn off your television – it is the government."

These actions were real-world echoes of brilliant and paranoid films like "They Live" (1989) and it’s flashier update, "The Matrix" (1998), both of which suggest that pleasure and sex and peace are all bound into consumption and staying in line; that to buy is to be a patriot, is to stay asleep, is to be a dupe and a subject of control. The heroes of both films rebel by going off the grid, and becoming, in effect, out-of-sight inter-dimensional ex-patriots.

This, at last, is the solace of the ex-patriot. He has dropped out of the matrix of country music, shopping and flags. He has made the last refusal. He need no longer bathe in the glow of CNN and car commercials (although if he gets bored, he can always order satellite TV). He has freed himself from an imaginary America and a constrictive American-ness. He is who he will be.

Still, sometimes, late at night, he still thinks to himself, "It is cold over here."

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    the vienna review October 2006