It’s been awhile (7 months?!) since my last post–which fits into my family’s ‘no news is good news’ cliche. I’ve certainly faced a lot of challenges, but overall these last few months have been a productive and transformative period for me. I assure you I am working on a more traditional blog-post updating y’all on my life here in Panama. But for now I’ve got something even better! Without further adieu I present my rambling, though hopefully interesting, essay on Peace Corps, politics, and what it means to be an American who is both proud and ashamed of that title. Hope you enjoy it!
Reconciling American Shame and Patriotism
Peace Corps calls itself an ‘apolitical organization.’ Which is funny. Because c’mon, everything is political. We live in an incredibly interdependent and interconnected world, and we are all affected by policy, or lack thereof. Of course, that isn’t normally our definition of the word political. It’s normally the eye-roll-followed-by-big-sigh version of the word, which doesn’t necessarily reference policy at all, or even morality for that matter, as much as a game in which we’re told to pick sides. This is the political that rubs us the wrong way—politicians take a tragedy and politicize it by framing it in a certain way to promote a not-necessarily-connected-at-all agenda. Citizens are told to support a candidate not because of their values and achievements, but because they’re blue or red, or even just because they’re not red or blue. I feel like this is the dominant understanding of the word ‘political’—the conversation stopper, the please stop categorizing and silently judging me and let’s talk about something else version. In this sense Peace Corps is apolitical, because it doesn’t want to pick a side, throw itself in the middle of a petty fight, a game, between sides of our political establishment. Which makes sense, especially hoy en dia. But in the other sense of the word, the something that is connected to and therefore has something to say about government policy or lack thereof understanding, Peace Corps is totally political.
What we do, as PCVs, isn’t compatible with the nationalism and xenophobia espoused (publicly or deceptively) by people on both sides of our neoliberal political establishment. Our work has a lot to say about our relationships with other countries, which if heeded properly would have a profound effect on policy. We believe in fostering understanding and mutual support between different countries and cultures. We (for the most part) don’t march into communities with a preconceived notion of what is best for them—we listen to them first and try to act on their ambitions. In short, we try not to be paternalistic. PC is a weird organization really, contrarian in many ways to the USA’s normal approach to foreign affairs. I think this is partly what drew me to become a volunteer. PC is a far cry from the military, and it was something I could be patriotic about. How much the PC reality reflects its goals, and the extent to which it is crippled by the system it exists in, is something I think about a lot. PC is a part of the US government, but the development theory of the PC is not the development strategy of the government overall. This is why it’s funny to me when PC sells itself as apolitical. Sure, it doesn’t publicly take stances on issues or align itself with a political party, but in different ways it is both connected and disconnected to the state and the policies that govern it. Which means its successes and shortcomings, in the right context, have a lot to say about how we should, and should not, approach development and foreign policy in general.
PCVs in Panama are of course here to help Panamanians reach their potential. But I would say most of us will come back to America eager to tell friends and family that Panamanians have things to teach us as well. I have met all sorts of beautiful people where I am living—humble, loving, and profoundly connected to their land and their people. I think about what it means to be American, and while I’m blessed to have the family and friends that I do, I can’t escape the feeling that internationally, being American means being a selfish rich white guy who closes himself off from the reality of the suffering in the world. I’m generalizing a bit and definitely letting my white male guilt out a bit. But hear me out. I think it’s pretty self-evident that the more someone closes him or herself off, the more likely it is for ignorant and hateful worldviews to take hold in said person. And for all the potential connections globalization brings, technology has an incredible capacity for distracting the masses—not because of anything inherent of technology but because of who owns and controls it. Basically since Raegan, politics and Big Media have together perfected the art of distracting and or deceiving the American people. (Oh wait, I can just bullshit the American people on TV and win an election in the process?! Sweet!) Which is, of course, just like, my opinion, man. But the point is this—globalization/technology hasn’t inherently meant more connection and understanding between cultures. We all have the potential to reach out to someone different, someone or some people we could learn from, but many of us stay isolated, basing our worldview from what Fox News shows us.
So here I am in Panama, being asked to explain the phenomenon of Donald Trump. Even in the campo (super rural), news of Trump reaches the gente. Which shit, makes me ashamed. Not a new feeling, being ashamed to be American, but it reaches new heights (or depths) for me when in a Latin American country the USA has consistently deceived and manipulated since the 19th century. In a weird way, some Panamanians remind me of some well-minded but still woefully ignorant Americans—they still think of America as a morally enlightened land of opportunity and the rise of Trump has caught them off guard. So what do I do? How can I speak my belief (that Trump is not an aberration) while maintaining a sense of patriotism? Can I be ashamed and patriotic at the same time? Ultimately, I have to be, because my patriotism is what drives me to be ashamed. More on that later.
At the heart of my personal reconciliation of American patriotism and shame are two important distinctions. First is to distinguish patriotism from nationalism. Take the Olympics—perhaps truly unique in its capacity to inspire patriotism in disillusioned Americans like myself. It’s hard not to get caught up in it all. I will always remember watching Michael Phelps in 2012, and it just didn’t make sense how nervous I was during his races, and how pumped I was when he won. It set off something natural; this inherent connection to my birthplace, where I was raised, the environment I depend on—my country. But in so many fellow Americans this patriotic thrill takes a nasty twist, and a hate fest ensues, pointed at countries and cultures we don’t actually know much of anything about. In a recent ThinkProgress article, author Laurel Raymond quotes political psychologist Daniel Druckman: “Patriotism is love for our country or shared affinity for being Americans, without dislike for others. We don’t need enemies to be patriotic,” said Druckman. “Nationalism, on the other hand, depends on enemies, and is the combination of ‘I love my country’ and ‘I have disdain for Russians’ [for example].” This strikes me as an obvious distinction but I think it’s important to keep in mind how easily patriotism can turn to nationalism. Like if you’re using Fox News bits as evidence for your arguments…it’s a slippery slope.
One is patriotic because he or she loves his or her country, its land and its people. But I can’t say I love, or even endorse, what we do as a country. Our actions as an international power whose politics are controlled by money and covered in a thick coat of shallow neoliberal rhetoric, well, make me ashamed. But that doesn’t mean I’ve lost faith in the ideal of America. America the republic of freedom and equality is still an ideal, one we may never reach, but it still carries immense power, especially internationally. We are a country of immigrants with a complicated past, and to fulfill our American destiny we have to be both physically and emotionally OPEN to all other potential immigrants who also have a complicated past. This, or some slightly dumbed down Spanish version of it, is what I keep coming back to when a Panamanian asks me about Trump and or America. Of course I’m not going to vote for Trump, I’m ashamed he’s even a possibility-and I’m ashamed of what we’ve done in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, but we are a diverse and beautiful country fighting with the reality of our great potential. For me, the Peace Corps at least runs away from, if not directly against, our country’s path in terms of foreign policy. It is derived from, and represents the ideals of America, if not its present reality.
I recently read Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, and the author John Perkins makes a similar distinction between what America was supposed to be versus what it is becoming globally. He talks openly about his guilt over what he did to destabilize countries like Saudi Arabia, Colombia, and Panama. He is certainly trying to right his wrongs, but underneath his writing is an inherent patriotism in the American ideals he feels he was betraying for so long. He differentiates between the republic and the empire:
The republic offered hope to the world. Its foundation was moral and philosophical rather than materialistic. It was based on concepts of equality and justice for all. But it also could be pragmatic, not merely a utopian dream but also a living, breathing, magnanimous entity. It could open its arms to shelter the downtrodden. It was an inspiration and at the same time a force to reckon with; if needed, it could swing into action, as it had during World War II, to defend the principles for which it stood. The very institutions — the big corporations, banks, and government bureaucracies — that threaten the republic could be used instead to institute fundamental changes in the world. Such institutions possess the communications networks and transportation systems necessary to end disease, starvation, and even wars — if only they could be convinced to take that course.
The global empire, on the other hand, is the republic’s nemesis. It is self-centered, self-serving, greedy, and materialistic, a system based on mercantilism. Like empires before, its arms open only to accumulate resources, to grab everything in sight and stuff its insatiable maw. It will use whatever means it deems necessary to help its rulers gain more power and riches.
Preach, Mr. Perkins! While I pretty much agree with what he is saying, it does say something that he refers to the ‘American republic’ in the past tense. To him, it does seem the global empire America has taken over, if not outright buried the American dream. Which, especially given his experience, is a completely reasonable stance to take. America is a global power, and overall our political system is really good at deceiving, or at least distracting, both Americans and international citizens from the real motives behind many of its actions. But that doesn’t mean the American dream, the republic Perkins talks about, is dead. The idea of America as a truly free and equal country is still very much alive, which means we can still reach for the ideal. Progressive, grassroots movements are learning how to take advantage of technology, and we continue to push back against the status quo, against the powers that be. Which makes me damn proud to be an American.
In the present I foster patriotism through my understanding of Peace Corps as a promoter of a non-traditional development model, and a vehicle through which we can talk about the failings of American foreign policy. I think my work as a volunteer does reflect American ideals and in this sense can run contrary to the political status quo. Maybe it’s a step too far to say American ideals contradict the American reality—it’s easy to get caught up in Trump fever, congressional incompetence, and a history of paternalistic if not criminal foreign policy. There is a large group of individuals like myself and organizations like the Peace Corps who are working to foster cross-cultural understanding and interdependence. Many of us whose patriotism is based on our capacity to listen rather than our capacity to point guns. Maybe we are more than America the ideal, maybe we are just living in a different American reality—perhaps the real, though less visible one. In the end, it is patriotism that calls me to feel ashamed because when American action matches its reputation as a paternalistic global empire, the America I identify with gets lost in the shuffle. I want to call out, voice my shame, to point out the significance of equality and freedom and how those ideals become perverted if we aren’t connected to other cultures and open to their wisdom. It feels like a catch-22 sometimes, because my patriotism leads me to voice my disillusionment, and in my expression of shame my patriotism gets lost if not outright challenged. But that’s the way it is—protest is patriotism. Chill out Peace Corps, I’m not saying you symbolize protest…or shit, maybe I am…
Ultimately I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes—that “real journeys answer questions that in the first place you didn’t even think to ask.” Life in a Latin American country during this crazy election cycle, while doing Peace Corps work, posed a new question in a new context: can I be both proud and ashamed to be American? What does that mean in Panama? In the end I’ve found that my patriotism can’t exist without my shame—my idealism can’t exist without some degree of realism. And when the subject of politics or America-Panama relations come up, I try to honor the coexistence/codependence of these two feelings.