Letter from South Africa
Tuesday, June 1 1999, 7:02 PM
Recently, it has been brought to my attention that I am an American. A few hours ago, in fact, when the plumbers were here to fix a burst valve in the bathroom. Shortly before that it was the waiter at a coffee shop, and several hours earlier still it was someone at a party. I should say, really, that it is constantly being brought to my attention that I am an American. Few are the daily transactions I can conduct without my nationality being detected. And in the sly smiles and mildly disoriented looks my "I'll have the English Breakfast, please" elicits, I see the reflection of a familiar character. We've all encountered him before, haven't we? Wearing slightly odd glasses and shoes you can't quite pin down, maybe teaching a class you're stuck in or behind you on line at the bank half-bitterly trying to make himself understood through his outrageous middle-European inflections. I have become The Guy with the Funny Accent.
Of course, in this case I am not so much a mysterious enigma from somewhere you might have seen on a map once as I am an eminently known quantity. American sitcoms and pop songs fill the airwaves, Hollywood movies pack the theatres. The sly smile and the disoriented stare appear on the faces of those I buy coffee and newspapers from less because they can't tell what I am than because they know precisely. I am an American.
Restaurant and coffee shop scenes are usually benign. A knowing grin, like they've caught a leprechaun trying to pass for human, or a few stock questions: Where are you from? How do you like it in South Africa? But away from the regimented goodwill of the service industry, a bit of hostility starts to show itself. A few years ago, on visits here, I would occasionally run into someone with a bone to pick about the economic sanctions imposed on the apartheid government in 1986. Now it is a vague and far more pervasive sense of irritation at American imperialism. The war in Yugoslavia has brought this to the surface, but it is hardly difficult to find someone with an equal amount of distaste for American cultural imperialism. Coca-Colaization is a familiar term here. There is an uncomfortable sense for many people of America's lumbering bulk not only in the cruise missiles it rains down on those who fail to toe the NATO line but in the movies and pop songs and TV shows it floods the market with. This sort of criticism, however, is somewhat misplaced, mistaking global capitalism for some sort of cultural conspiracy. Surely, American corporate executives can't have the slightest care whether they sell one brand of cultural commodity or another, as long as the money changes hands. As I sometimes have to remind the person on the next barstool, "We may sell Professional Wrestling and Ally McBeal, but you buy them."
None of this begins to describe the particular strangeness for me of regularly being identified as an American. Various encounters with American racism as a child did little to instill in me a strong sense of national membership. But it was certainly my socialization by the remnants of the New Left while in college which replaced exclusion with rejection. The Old Left had always seen itself as thoroughly American. When Woody Guthrie sang "This Land is Your Land" (including, of course, the verses they never taught you in school) he meant it. The New Left imagined that it could dispense with all that the parents had wrought: war, patriarchy, and pollution; but also trade unions and the working class. Rather than moving through the values most people held to teach a different kind of politics, the New Left came to the conclusion that values, in and of themselves, were both the problem and the solution. If America was the problem, being un-American was the answer.
As I have been forced, night after night, to account for myself as an American it has become clearer to me just what was wrong with this way of posing the question. There never was one America to be accepted or rejected as a package deal. America sent the Marines to the Philippines and the Lincoln Brigade to Spain. America produced the sit-down strike and the Pinkertons, the Montgomery bus boycotts and the lunch counter sit-ins just as surely as it did Jim Crow. America armed the Guatemalan death squads and America picked coffee in Nicaragua. This can be difficult to explain to someone in a bar several thousand miles away from the vaguest notion of American history apart from smart bombs, Diet Coke, and Monica. So lately I've been trying a different approach. "Whats the matter," I say, when someone confronts me about the decadence of the West, "you don't like Duke Ellington? You don't like Jackson Pollock? I don't know anything about this other stuff, but that's America to me."
J. C. Myers is now teaching in South Africa.