Citizen-Stranger in a Strange Land:
On Being a Foreign Correspondent at Home
By Thomas Adcock
NEW YORK, near America
In days of yore, when people used stamps and stationery and fountain pens to communicate via public post, my dear friend Gisbert Haefs addressed letters to me in care of a place he christened “New York, near America.” He was confident that mail from Bonn would accordingly reach me, here in my ugly-beautiful city along the eastern coast of the United States. It always did.
Thus did Herr Haefs, my comrade in the literary dodge, create what shall now be a frequent dateline for my dispatches in these good electronic pages. And now that I am a foreign correspondent—in my own country—it occurs to me that the bard of Bad Godesberg has created something more. He has elucidated the paradox of my city, near America, and of my personal identity: citizen-stranger in a strange land.
I write at a desk adjacent to the west windows of my apartment. The view is spectacular, for I live in a high-rise building a short stroll from the Hudson River waterfront of Manhattan—a small but storied isle that serves as the pulse of New York City. Across the river lies the edge of the American continent, arguably the world’s most exotic land; assuredly the most contradictory. My notion of America is jumbled. I think of a nation altogether generous and humane, narrowly egotistical, self-righteous and self-critical, sensible and romantic, good-humored and violent, inquiring and pontificating, moderate and passionate, judicious and arrogant.
Here on my side of the river, I am both inside and outside America. I live in the city Americans love to hate. But because New York is a polyglot of races and creeds, and filled with eight million disputatious individuals from the four corners of the globe, I would argue that New York is the most American of America’s cities. After all, my country was fathered and mothered by immigrants and revolutionists. No matter how we try to bulldoze that essence of American history, a scarifying island lies just off shore—an island city of high-rise opinions, throbbing with immigrants and revolutionists that remind the continentals of embarrassing relatives.
Perhaps, too, New York is hated because it is the nation’s media center, and therefore chock full of messengers—which people are traditionally pleased to kill. (Should I fear for my life?) It kills me that so many New Yorkers return the contempt by holding a low opinion of life beyond the Hudson. I do not excuse myself from provincialism: when confronted by a government form or a business contract in which I’m asked to declare a nationality, I fill in the blank with “New York.”
I do this because as much as my country amuses me—just the other day, legislators in the state of Tennessee had their knickers in a twist about a floor-level janitor’s mop sink in the capital building men’s loo, which they suspected could be used by sneaky Muslims as foot-washing convenience—and often fills me with pride, the strangeness of America gives me the willies. By way of illustration, behold a wee sampling of the recent disturbing occurrences:
• The trinity of hypocrisy, American-style, is sex (aberrant and otherwise), bigotry, and right-wing politics. On January 11, a federal jury in the state of New Hampshire convicted attorney Lisa Biron on eight felony counts of child pornography. Ms. Biron, who names the Holy Bible her favorite book, is—make that was—a proud volunteer counsel for a leading “Christian” organization: the Alliance Defending Freedom, which proclaims the “homosexual agenda” as the surefire pathway to pedophilia.
The Scriptures-loving lawyer was found guilty of producing videotapes of men having sex with a fourteen-year-old girl, identified by the Associated Press as Ms. Biron’s own daughter. In a separate and pending legal action, the Federal Bureau of Investigation alleges that Ms. Biron also made a cell phone video of mother-daughter sexual engagement.
• A largely unreported feature of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, held last month in suburban Washington, D.C., was the screen debut of a motion picture thriller, “Movement on Fire.” The movie was a thinly veiled call for violent insurrection against what the CPAC crowd firmly believes will come: dictatorship by an amorphous “liberal elite.”
The production was enthusiastically received by hundreds of whistling, clapping, hooting, foot-stomping proto-fascist attendees—many of them fresh from a panel discussion posing the title question, “Are you tired of being called a bigot when you know you’re not one?” When a panelist referenced a letter from ex-slave and social reformer Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) forgiving his slave-master, an audience member asked, “For what? For feeding him and housing him?” The applause and cheers were lusty and loud.
• Following December’s massacre in Newtown, Connecticut—in a four-minute fusillade of one-hundred and fifty-four perfectly legal bullets engineered to liquefy internal organs, twenty elementary school children and six teachers were slaughtered by a crazed young man armed with his mother’s perfectly legal AR-15 semi-automatic military-style rifle and high-capacity banana clip magazine—a national consensus on gun control was formed. According to the politically neutral Quinnipiac University poll published in mid-March, fifty-four percent of Americans favor a complete ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines and eighty-eight percent want federal background checks prior to all gun sales—to determine if prospective buyers (overwhelmingly male) are lunatics, felons, or wife-beaters.
Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association pondered methods of improving school safety. Last week, the results of NRA pondering were unveiled in a report titled “School Shield Program.” Although it pretends to be all about safety tips for deer hunters, the NRA is a lobbying organization for armaments corporations and showers millions of dollars in campaign donations on elected officials of both political parties in the Congress. Unsurprisingly, its report recommends that teachers and other school personnel should purchase plenty of guns and pack heat on the job. (The logical extension of NRA mercantilism will be the organization’s push to sell pistols to the children themselves as a follow-up “shield program” in the wake of the next schoolhouse massacre.)
Of further non-surprise, the public is advised by congressional leadership in logic-free Washington that there is zero chance of federal legislation to ban military-style assault rifles, high-capacity magazines, or organ-melting ammo. As for federal background checks—well, maybe, but the vote will be close, if indeed a vote is taken.
As mentioned, we Americans are an arrogant people—particularly in our use of great power. National arrogance is a story as old as dirt; the globe creaks with empires that have self-destructed due to barbarous conduct. All the more reason that I claim patriotic sadness in the fact that America is a modern-day empire unable to learn the lesson of barbarism.
What President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney did in propagating war in Iraq was barbarism. The war was based on the Big Lie that Saddam Hussein was responsible for terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in September 2011 and might well strike the United States again, when in fact we now see it as a grand pursuit of $40 billion (€31 billion) worth of military supply revenues raked in by Mr. Cheney’s Halliburton Corporation. That these two liars were not held to account by the only constitutional means at our disposal—impeachment and removal from office by the Congress—was barbarism lite. That President Barack Obama has said, in effect, that the country needs to forget about it all is gravely disappointing, to say the very least.
One American who chooses not to forget is Tomas Young. He lives in the state of Missouri, which is considerably further into the continent than what I see out my windows—exactly halfway to the other edge of the U.S. continent. Mr. Young was twenty-two years old in September 2011, and as committed to enlistment the U.S. Army as a means of hunting down the real perpetrators of terrorism as Messrs. Bush and Cheney were committed to whipping up a phony casus belli in the cause of cash.
Mr. Young will die very soon, courtesy of a bullet from an AK-47 (Russian progenitor of the American AR-15) that severed his spine on the fifth day of his arrival in Iraq and began slowly killing him. He has not walked since his time in Iraq; he has lost count of his surgeries; his voice is weak, but his pen strong.
Last month, on the tenth anniversary of the war that cost some three-thousand American soldiers’ lives and murdered more than a hundred thousand Iraqi civilians, Mr. Young made public a deathbed message to a pair of unpunished, unapologetic barbarians. In part, it reads:
I write this letter, my last letter, to you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. I write not because I think you grasp the terrible human and moral consequences of your lies, manipulation and thirst for wealth and power. I write this letter because, before my own death, I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done. You may evade justice, but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans—my fellow veterans—whose future you stole.
The New York Times and the Washington Post were this country’s foremost media cheerleaders for the Bush-Cheney lies. Neither newspaper published Mr. Young’s cri de coeur. Nor did America’s major television news networks air his words, opting instead to broadcast interviews with a pair of moral bankrupts. Mr. Bush told the cameras that he could not imagine a single mistake he made during the eight years of his disastrous regime. On the subject of Iraq, Mr. Cheney said, “I’d do it all over again, in a minute.”
It is a universal truism that ordinary men and women are likely to be more evolved in political integrity and human morality than potentates of their governments; often as well, more intellectually evolved than corporate media. Tomas Young is that sort of ordinary man.
Tomas Young is my kind of American. He is an island speaking truth to a continent.
Thomas Adcock is America correspondent for CulturMag