“But why did you leave the United States?”
Madrileños must ask me that question at least once a week. Some sound mystified. Isn’t the United States richer than Spain? Don’t Americans get to walk the streets they know from all the big American movies, TV shows? Of course, they’ve heard of how terrible Trump is, but isn’t he a product of the “Fox News” America they’ve read about? California isn’t “Fox News” America, is it?
“It’s a long story,” I usually answer, and now often change the subject. I feel self-conscious. I didn’t really “leave,” not while retaining U.S. citizenship. Spain let me live in-country long term. I arrived less than two years ago. Not that big a deal.
But, with that said: I haven’t visited the U.S. since my Iberia one-way touched down at Madrid Barajas in 2016, and don’t plan to return. I deflect questions because I don’t know how to explain that perspective to Spaniards. I’ll try now.
* * * * *
America portrays itself. So does Spain. So must other countries. In news feeds, headlines, video clips, talk shows, advertising, comedy skits, movie trailers, in its tireless onslaught of mainstream print and broadcast media, America paints its own fluid portrait. It tells its people what it is.
Since the Dubya presidency, 9/11, the Iraq War and the Snowden revelations, I have found America’s self-portrait to be freakishly at odds with the America I see with my own lyin’ eyes. The explanation of the U.S. military’s cost and role seems especially surreal, hallucinatory.
(♦) America’s self-portrait now includes the admission that the Iraq War was a “mistake.” “Ill-advised,” a politician or a pundit might say. “If we’d known then what we know now, of course, we would have done things differently.” The admission inspires no public soul-searching; rather, it is usually granted quickly, uncomfortably, like a wager in a lost bet. A few may dare to speak of their past war support with self-deprecating humor, as one might rue payment of full list price for a washing machine the day before the half-off sale. Whoopsy Doodle! Guess we goofed. These things happen.
Consider the dimensions of the “mistake”:
The war cost a quarter to nearly a half million American and Iraqi lives — the approximate populations of Reno and Buffalo on the low side, or of Atlanta, Miami or Long Beach on the high side. I chaperoned grade schoolers on field trips to Long Beach, struggle to imagine a city peopled by only the dead: hundreds of thousands of bloody, lifeless corpses from Belmont Shore to Compton College, draped from the rails of the Queen Mary, rotting next to Shark Lagoon. Some Iraq body counts are higher still, reach into seven figures. Hundreds of thousand more suffered permanent injury, lost limbs, eyes, ears, senses.
The war also cost over three trillion dollars: an incomprehensibly vast sum, more than one and a half times the value of all farmland in the continental United States, nearly six times the value of taxable real estate in New York City and Washington D.C. combined. What if U.S. leaders had instead invested funds on behalf of their constituents, as did Norway with its surplus oil revenue? Norway’s sovereign wealth fund is today worth more than a trillion, or almost two hundred thousand dollars of saved wealth for every Norse citizen.
The absence of public responsibility for the “mistake” seems phantasmagoric, dreamlike. The national self-portrait included endless imagery of the horrors of ISIL, but little about the obvious, fundamental role of the war in ISIL’s growth. Politicians who portrayed themselves as centurions of the balance sheet in debt ceiling debates had little to say about their cheerleading for the pointless three trillion dollar invasion.
(♦) Americans consuming the national self-portrait may believe their nation to be defended by a shamefully feeble military. Oft-quoted voices suggest as much. Many Americans believe the military to be under-funded. Ted Cruz has referred to it as debilitated, tragically anemic; Marco Rubio said the military has been weakened, eviscerated. John McCain threatened to shut down the government to get more military spending. A voter may picture troops toting rusty Springfields in tattered battledress, dumpster diving for food, grimly readying rocks and spears to hurl at the freedom-hating hordes poised to invade American beaches.
How does this debilitated, anemic, weakened, eviscerated military compare with others?
The U.S. military is the largest and most powerful on the planet. By far. The U.S. military budget is three times bigger than China’s, more than thirteen times bigger than Russia’s. The U.S. military budget in a single year could pay for four TransAtlantic tunnels, or four international space stations, or four hundred Burj Khalifas. In a single year.
I’m old enough to remember the justification for this colossal tumor on the balance sheet: the Cold War. Sputnik. “We will bury you.” The Cuban Missile Crisis. But the Cold War ended more than a quarter century ago. Putin has said that the U.S. is “probably the world’s sole superpower.”
It’s hard to explain to Europeans how freakish and suffocating it felt to take in this media self-portrait while living on American soil: in the planet’s fourth biggest country, flanked by two great oceans, where only thirty percent of the citizens hold passports. 2 + 2 didn’t equal 4 anymore, couldn’t, wasn’t allowed to.
I also wasn’t supposed to feel personal shame. Collateral Murder, drone strikes on wedding parties, secret prisons, Guantanamo Bay, torture. All mistakes! Whoopsy Doodle! Just mistakes, like Iraq.
In 2016, as a sick dog will eat grass to induce nausea, America sent a deity to the White House: Shiva, Hindu god of destruction. Shiva has worked 24/7 ever since: battering institutions and alliances, debasing the presidency, firing the competent, promoting stooges. Part of the mainstream media’s self-portrait has evolved since: Everything is Shiva’s fault! If only America had elected Dubya’s brother Jeb, or Marco Rubio! All might be well again. Look! Here’s Dubya on the Ellen show! He must be a cool guy, if Ellen would interview him.
My history books tell me that the hallucinatory distortions I see in the U.S. self-portrait aren’t new, aren’t unprecedented. The Chinese press still doesn’t look honestly at the legacy of past leader Mao Zedong, who killed tens of millions in the Great Leap Forward. Beijing media also didn’t shut down in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre; post-massacre reporters must have found something safe to write and talk about, some way to look edgy and bold without stepping on the wrong toes. Stalin imprisoned biologists who opposed pseudo-scientific Lysenkoism; Nazis burned Einstein’s books, championed a nonsensical Aryan Physics alternative. Same old same old; same pattern. 2 + 2 = 4 when the evening news announces permission for the public to count on its fingers. Not before.
I left a country with important virtues. Americans — the people, not the government — are often friendly, egalitarian, self-reliant. I miss the brave optimism of many families I met as a teacher in Los Angeles’ inner city, feel only gratitude and respect for the volunteers, teachers and supporters I knew through TransitPeople and before. A too-common U.S. it’s-good-if-it-makes-money mindset may threaten the whole planet, but many American businesses also won global leadership fair and square, on their own merits. My volunteer stints in Madrid schools show strengths in the U.S. educational system. Look at world university rankings.
With that said:
I am a retired school teacher with no role or voice in American affairs. I may recognize Trump as a symptom of a sick country, but can’t heal that sickness. I feel sympathy for old friends, colleagues and students, but haven’t looked back.
My last straw may have been the 2015 U.S. airstrike against the Kunduz Doctors Without Borders hospital. If in Spain: you may complain about political corruption, bullfighting, the monarchy. Fine; you’re a voter, are entitled to your opinions.
A few questions, though: Does Madrid bomb hospitals? Does Madrid run secret prisons, kill innocents with drones at wedding parties? Does the Spanish press give ink and airtime to politicians and pundits who claim that militarism thousands of miles from the Iberian Peninsula is necessary to “protect Spanish freedoms?” Is your country globally regarded as the greatest threat to world peace? And was I really so odd for judging the U.S.’ self-portrait as frighteningly surreal, for wanting to again live in a 2 + 2 = 4 world?