Learning to Love America, Again

SOURCE: Granta, November 03, 2008

remember when I decided to leave America. It was 2003. I was sitting in a Dunkin’ Donuts on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, reading the paper. The news was all about Iraq: bombs and mutilated children, dead parents and American triumphalism. I was incredulous, as I had been for months. How could this be happening?
Iraq wasn’t the only reason I left America. I missed home, too; I had been away from India for more than ten years. But the war – and the cloud of nationalism and xenophobic pride that surrounded it – crystallized a feeling that had been building in me for years: a feeling of estrangement, and of cultural and ideological isolation.
I suppose my relationship with America had always been stormy. My mother is American, from a small town in Minnesota. I visited the country throughout my childhood, but I never felt at home. When I moved to America from Pondicherry, southern India, in 1991 I recoiled from what I perceived as its superficiality. Over the years, though, as I got to know America, and Americans, I grew to love the country. What I had initially seen as superficiality I started seeing as genuine openness and friendliness. I grew to admire the casualness, the flexibility and the broad-mindedness of the country. When I travelled in Europe or Asia, I found myself longing for the spirit of a land that was physically, existentially and emotionally expansive.
The ‘war on terror’ and the war in Iraq – and more broadly, the war on civil liberties and indeed on what I understood to be America itself – changed all of that. During those dark years of the Bush presidency (years when I literally felt afraid at times to criticize the president too harshly in public or even on the phone), I felt the country turn in on itself, the expansiveness that I admired shrivel into a ball of fear. It had taken me many years to feel American; by the time I left, I was once again an outsider.
Over the last twenty months or so, as I have followed the presidential election from afar, something of my old admiration for America has been rekindled. Over and over, I have watched to my surprise as American voters have rejected the demagoguery they embraced in the two previous elections. During the primaries, I was delighted when Mitt Romney (who at one point advocated doubling the size of Guantánamo) and Rudy Giuliani (who professed to be uncertain about whether waterboarding was torture) lost to John McCain – a man who, for all his flaws, argued for the closure of Guantánamo and harboured no ambiguity about waterboarding (or indeed about the morality of torture).
On the Democratic side, I have been astonished by the rise of a man who is in so many ways the antithesis of Bush. In American politics today, Obama’s middle name (Hussein) is something of a dirty word; political expediency dictates that it must go unspoken. But for me it is a symbol of American decency – a reminder that, despite two wars against Muslim countries and politicians’ best efforts to fan anti-Muslim sentiment, a huge number (maybe even a majority) of Americans remain tolerant and accepting of difference.
To be sure, there have been some less than edifying moments. As McCain has grown increasingly desperate, he has grown meaner. I felt my stomach tighten when Sarah Palin mocked Obama for being a community organizer, and again when she accused him of ‘palling around with terrorists’. I felt anger a few weeks ago when a Minnesota congresswoman called for an investigation to determine which members of Congress were ‘pro America’ and which ‘anti America’. But such moments have been the exception rather than the norm – and more importantly, they have been rejected by voters. Overall, it has been a serious campaign, fought honourably and mostly over real issues. Whichever candidate wins on election night, it has reminded me of all that is great about America.

I remember when I decided to leave America. It was 2003. I was sitting in a Dunkin’ Donuts on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, reading the paper. The news was all about Iraq: bombs and mutilated children, dead parents and American triumphalism. I was incredulous, as I had been for months. How could this be happening?

Iraq wasn’t the only reason I left America. I missed home, too; I had been away from India for more than ten years. But the war – and the cloud of nationalism and xenophobic pride that surrounded it – crystallized a feeling that had been building in me for years: a feeling of estrangement, and of cultural and ideological isolation.

I suppose my relationship with America had always been stormy. My mother is American, from a small town in Minnesota. I visited the country throughout my childhood, but I never felt at home. When I moved to America from Pondicherry, southern India, in 1991 I recoiled from what I perceived as its superficiality. Over the years, though, as I got to know America, and Americans, I grew to love the country. What I had initially seen as superficiality I started seeing as genuine openness and friendliness. I grew to admire the casualness, the flexibility and the broad-mindedness of the country. When I travelled in Europe or Asia, I found myself longing for the spirit of a land that was physically, existentially and emotionally expansive.

The ‘war on terror’ and the war in Iraq – and more broadly, the war on civil liberties and indeed on what I understood to be America itself – changed all of that. During those dark years of the Bush presidency (years when I literally felt afraid at times to criticize the president too harshly in public or even on the phone), I felt the country turn in on itself, the expansiveness that I admired shrivel into a ball of fear. It had taken me many years to feel American; by the time I left, I was once again an outsider.

Over the last twenty months or so, as I have followed the presidential election from afar, something of my old admiration for America has been rekindled. Over and over, I have watched to my surprise as American voters have rejected the demagoguery they embraced in the two previous elections. During the primaries, I was delighted when Mitt Romney (who at one point advocated doubling the size of Guantánamo) and Rudy Giuliani (who professed to be uncertain about whether waterboarding was torture) lost to John McCain – a man who, for all his flaws, argued for the closure of Guantánamo and harboured no ambiguity about waterboarding (or indeed about the morality of torture).

On the Democratic side, I have been astonished by the rise of a man who is in so many ways the antithesis of Bush. In American politics today, Obama’s middle name (Hussein) is something of a dirty word; political expediency dictates that it must go unspoken. But for me it is a symbol of American decency – a reminder that, despite two wars against Muslim countries and politicians’ best efforts to fan anti-Muslim sentiment, a huge number (maybe even a majority) of Americans remain tolerant and accepting of difference.

To be sure, there have been some less than edifying moments. As McCain has grown increasingly desperate, he has grown meaner. I felt my stomach tighten when Sarah Palin mocked Obama for being a community organizer, and again when she accused him of ‘palling around with terrorists’. I felt anger a few weeks ago when a Minnesota congresswoman called for an investigation to determine which members of Congress were ‘pro America’ and which ‘anti America’. But such moments have been the exception rather than the norm – and more importantly, they have been rejected by voters. Overall, it has been a serious campaign, fought honourably and mostly over real issues. Whichever candidate wins on election night, it has reminded me of all that is great about America.

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