Wednesday, January 4, 2006

American is an American is an American

Express Staff Writer

Dick Dorworth

Consider the expatriate, sometimes called the "expat," not to be misspelled or confused, as sometimes happens, with the "ex-patriot" or the "exile."

It could be said that the American ex-patriot is one who once believed in the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, democracy, the American experiment in governance according to the rule of laws that apply to, are understood by and are available to everyone, high and low, but who, for one reason or some others, has abandoned those beliefs. Just who is a patriot and who an ex-patriot is an interesting topic to throw into a political discussion. (For instance, is the recently resigned U.S. Congressman Randy Cunningham, the first U.S. jet ace of the Vietnam War, a patriot because of his military exploits or is he an ex-patriot because of his betrayal of his office and the trust of his fellow citizens? Is Cindy Sheehan a patriot because her son was killed in Iraq, or is she an ex-patriot because she opposes the war in Iraq and questions the motives, integrity and veracity of the people who started it? Or is she a more committed patriot because of her perspective, and are those people she questions patriots or ex-patriots?)

The topic has myriad possibilities, but I digress.

An exile is one who is banished from one's country. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the world's best known exile, and he is, truly, a Tibetan patriot. Alberto Fujimori, the ex-president of Peru, has spent five years in exile from Peru, though he is currently under arrest in Chile, as is ex-Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet. They are charged with crimes ranging from corruption to murder. As ex-leaders of their respective countries, are they patriots or ex-patriots? Or were they simply corrupt thugs who seized power under the cloak of nationalism?

Nationalism is a very different matter than patriotism.

The word expatriate comes from the Latin "ex" (out of) and "patria" (country). In my generation the expatriate was most strongly identified, given voice and defined through the literature of America's "Lost Generation," and the mythos that surrounded its best writers, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, who told Hemingway, "You are all a lost generation." She was referring to the American group of writers, poets, artists and intellectuals who, after the horrors of World War I, rejected the materialism of American society and sought a bohemian life in Paris rooted in intellectual, philosophical and personal freedom, exploration and values.

Stein, who lived from a sufficient but not extravagant trust fund, considered poor people lazy and has been described as a "conservative fascist" in her political ideas. Still, she had a huge influence on the world of letters and the expatriate community through her Paris salon. Among her memorable lines are: "There are no straight lines in nature," "Rose is a rose is a rose," and, speaking of Oakland, Calif., where she spent much of her childhood, "There is no there there." Her Zen-like attention to and appreciation of the present moment in her writing, and the shift in consciousness it indicated, was identified in the minds of many literary-minded people of the 1950s and '60s with the word "expatriate." That is, the expatriate was someone who had learned something of the world and how to live in it worth learning that one couldn't get at home. While this may or may not be true, subsequent generations of Americans influenced by the Lost Generation have expatriated themselves throughout the world seeking answers and lives they were unable to find on home soil.

The first time I went to Europe in 1964, I planned to stay a month but wound up selling my ticket home and staying a year and a half, seeking and perhaps finding a distinct shift in personal consciousness. A couple of months after I arrived, the bogus Bay of Tonkin incident took place and America was suddenly at war with Vietnam, a country that so far as has ever been determined posed no threat to the U.S., though more than 50,000 American boys and men died before the threat that didn't exist vanished entirely. While I enjoyed my expatriate life in Europe and had thoughts of extending it indefinitely, several of my friends in America argued that I was American and my place would always be in America, in my case, more specifically, western America. Besides, they assured me something was happening in the mid-1960s of America that I should not miss. I came home to find how right they were. It would have been a great loss to my life to have missed the '60s in America, particularly the California counter-culture America in which I landed. Among other things, I learned that my deepest understanding and best contribution as a citizen of the world is rooted in place. For me, that's western America.

Such musings come to mind lately in response to several friends who are ashamed, alarmed and angry at the current policies and actions of the United States, and who are becoming expatriates in several other countries, seeking answers and lives they cannot find at home. I wish them well and to remember that for us all—expatriate, ex-patriot, patriot, exile, immigrant, refugee, liberal, conservative fascist and just plain American—American is an American is an American.

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