I imagine for most of my friends and family reading this, this blog is primarily a travel blog. In fact, that’s all I’ve posted about thus far. Travel is a safe and comfortable topic that you can discuss in mixed company without fear of offending anyone. People who have known me for years, however, know just how passionately I feel about politics. While writing my first post “The Journey Begins” I kept running into a wall where I would end up talking about the political reasons for my move. I didn’t want my first post in the “exploration” column to be dominated by politics, so I stripped a lot of that out. General love of travel and a desire to explore were both strong factors that pushed me to move, but it would be wrong to represent them as the primary reasons for wanting to move.
In reality, the largest factor for my move was politics. If that makes you uncomfortable, I’m sorry. You can ignore my posts under the “politics” page and stick to the “exploration” page. Despite this feeling of pressure (real or imaginary) to keep my blog focused on “nice” topics like travel, I feel it would be disingenuous for me to ignore the issues that pushed me to move in the first place. So that being said:
I’ve wanted to move out of the US since I was sixteen. My reasons for why I wanted to move, where I was going to move to, and how serious I was about it have all varied over the course of those past ten years. Growing up I was fortunate enough to have traveled outside of the US on several occasions. This helped foster a curiosity about history and other cultures. I quickly discovered that there are other societies that have different values and different priorities than the society I was born into. As I got older and I started developing a world view, I realized a lot of what I valued and felt was important didn’t always line up with what my society valued and felt was important.
I’m tempted to make a list of every little thing about American society that I disagreed with, but I’ve been politically active and writing for the past 10 years, so I don’t have the time or space here to cover every issue in this first post.
I think it’s interesting how some people might be offended by this. I think in their mind, if I disagree with a society that they identify with, I’m somehow disagreeing with them. It becomes personal in a way. For instance: Often when I tell people that I don’t want children, they immediately try to defend to me their choice of having children. I’m not attacking them by merely stating that I do not wish to have children, yet they construe my rejection of a choice they made as a rejection of them. It’s not. It has nothing to do with them. I just don’t want children. It’s much the same way with American society. If I speak ill of America or American society, I find that other Americans tend to take that as a personal offense. It’s not meant as such; it’s merely me stating that my personal views do not line up with the society as a whole.
It’s at this point that people, often those who have never left American for an extended period of time, try to tell me some variation of how America might have flaws, but that it’s the best place on earth and nowhere else do people live such healthy, productive, and free lives at such a high standard of living.
This defense always makes me angry. It’s so blissfully ignorant of the rest of the world while at the same time exceedingly narcissistic and jingoistic. But can I blame them? After all, they’re just repeating the narrative they’ve been taught to believe since birth.
Perhaps one of the most important concepts I’ve come to understand over the past ten years is the concept of narrative.
Every day in society we deal with narratives. Narratives are exceedingly powerful because they dictate how we discuss ideas and events. Narratives provide us with background information, frames of reference, and strongly suggest how things should be… according to the people who control the narrative.
Here’s a recent example:
In the US, the National Security Agency has been spying on millions of Americans and people around the world. As part of this spying, they have been collecting phone call data. Now to me, the important question to ask is whether or not the government should be doing this in the first place. However, that’s not a discussion the people in power want to have, and so they (through the use of the controlled corporate media) have framed the debate around who should keep the data: the government or private corporations. Note, it’s tacitly implicit in how the discussion is thus framed that this illegal spying is going to continue. That’s not up for debate.
Every issue you hear about in the media is subject to this type of manipulation. It ranges from discussions on national security, personal liberty, economics, environmental disasters, and even sporting events like the Olympics. There is always a narrative. Stories either fit, or are made to fit, within that narrative or they’re discarded.
(I need to point out that just because there’s always a narrative does not mean there is never any truth. That’s the difficult thing. Part of being an independent, critically thinking individual in society is sorting through what is narrative and what’s fact. It’s often extremely hard, inconvenient, uncomfortable, and tiresome, but I adamantly believe that there is intrinsic value in the truth that makes it worth it.)
The narrative in the US, about the US, is that the US is this bright and shining beacon of equality, justice, peace, and prosperity. Over the past ten years of being interested in politics, I came to see just how far removed that narrative is from reality. The level of discrepancy between that narrative and the truth, combined with the average American’s willful, sometimes adamant, ignorance to this discrepancy left me so disgusted and cynical that I had to get out.
Narratives can often blind people to reality because narratives fundamentally dictate how one sees themselves and their interactions within society. When presented with information that so radically disagrees with your narrative, a common defense is to reject or ignore this information. It doesn’t matter if the new information is correct, supported by strong evidence, or demonstrably true; what matters is if it fits with your preconceived narrative. Nothing has been more frustrating to me when talking to people about the government and technology. (Or any issue for that matter) If someone is living in a mindset where they believe their government is fundamentally good, that it is responsive to democratic processes, that they’re a free individual, and that they can generally trust their leaders; it’s an extreme shock to be told that exactly the opposite is true. It doesn’t matter how many examples you can show them. It doesn’t matter how well cited your sources are. Reality. doesn’t. matter., and that’s how powerful/dangerous narratives are.
It’s difficult to talk to people about moving to another country when your reasons are political. It’s not a polite topic of conversation, especially with someone you just met or only interact with minimally. When still in America, if someone asked me why I’m moving to Berlin, I’d have to tell them because it’s a fun city, I want a change in my life, and I’d like to explore. These are all true, but I couldn’t very well say “Because I’m disgusted with American politics and society.” That would have come off way too strong and rude, and I’d sound like some kind of nut-job.
I’m finding it equally difficult in Europe to explain why I’m here. America doesn’t have the best image around the world. (Perhaps it’s how we have a tendency to unilaterally exercise our military force in other countries, how we meddle in elections, spy on our allies, destabilize local economies at the behest of our corporations, and just generally act as if we rule the world.) I was really worried about telling people that I was an American. My fear was that they would see me as an extension of my government and thus automatically dislike me. I asked a German with similar political views about this dilemma. He suggested that I tell people I was an American refugee. This seemed strange to me. It was true that I was leaving my country for political reasons, but there’s something about the meaning of the word refugee that implies fleeing from an active threat. While I look at the US as a dystopian state the likes old sci-fi authors could not have dreamed of, I didn’t feel my immediate person was in danger. (My freedom yes, but nobody was about to come into my house at night and kill my family) When I landed in Germany and met people from Syria, my ill-ease at using the term “refugee’ to describe myself was further cemented. Political dissident yes, refugee, not really.
Yet this still leaves me with the issue of how to describe myself to people and why I’m here. Again I find myself focusing on the “nice” reasons for being here: travel, exploration, personal growth. I usually throw in that I’m not a “normal American.” Normal Americans aren’t disgusted with their society to the point that they leave. If people press me on this, I just tell them that I don’t really agree with what my government is doing around the world and so I left. I don’t go into much more detail, but after telling people this I sometimes notice their demeanor towards me change to something more positive. This is not to imply that they were automatically negative towards me in the first place, but once they know that I’m just me, and not an extension of the US government, it makes it easier for us to be friends.
I learned quickly to just leave it at this brief and non-descriptive “I disagree with my government” because I initially tried to elaborate and received a wide variety of reactions. I naively thought people would be following the news much more closely here and would be outraged by the US spying on Germans and their politicians. While I find that a lot more people are interested in the news here than in the US, there are still a lot of people who don’t pay attention. Reactions ranged from eye rolling, to keen interest, to the look as if they’re at a zoo observing a strange animal. As such, I keep it short and sweet now. If someone wants to go into more detail about it with me, I’ll be happy to. I was actually once told by a Libyan who did press me on it that he wasn’t surprised and that I was in fact “normal” with the other Americans abroad that he’s met. He told me that, contrary to my assumptions about his assumptions, he finds that most Americans he meets abroad are very critical of their government. This selection bias seems pretty obvious if you think about it: Americans who agree with their government, or who don’t care what it does, don’t quit the country in disgust. As such, the Americans abroad are more likely to be self-selected and critical of the government.
As I mentioned at the start of this post, I’ve been wanting to leave the US for ten years for a variety of ever changing reasons. For a long time my reasons were religious. Being an atheist in the Christian fundamentalist south is not an enjoyable experience. Yes I could move to another less religious region of the country and my day to day life would be more enjoyable, but then I’d still be living in a country where being religious is seen as a prerequisite for holding public office; where the nonreligious are routinely demonized, and anti-intellectualism, superstition, and historical revisionism are strong forces in daily public life. I wanted to experience what life was like being in the majority for once. (Or at least not a demonized minority)
When I started to foster a passion for politics and technology, my reasons for wanting to leave began to shift. Yes the religious reasons were still there, but now I was also concerned about issues like the loss of individual liberties, government wiretapping of innocent citizens, the extrajudicial executions of Americans by the president, the death of journalism to the god of corporate money and ratings, unilateral military intervention in foreign countries, government corruption, rouge intelligence agencies, and the apparent inability of our political processes to correct these issues.
Add on top of that a whole host of cultural issues: societal expectations with gender rolls, the demonization of sexuality and the glorification of violence, the glorification of unhealthy work/life balances, the promotion of sports figures as roll models over scientists, doctors, and aid workers, and I had a buffet of reasons to want to leave.
So far I’m very happy with my choice to go. Life is most certainly different here, and while it takes some getting used to, I’m enjoying it. I can also see immediately that priorities are different. People are more relaxed about drugs, alcohol, sexuality, work, and a host of other things and yet the sky hasn’t fallen down and a mythical man in the sky hasn’t sunk the continent into the sea. I’ve had many people try and warn me that “the grass always looks greener on the other side” and that I was sure to find out that things were just as bad, if not worse, elsewhere. I often wonder what their logic was behind telling me this. To me it seems like it’s clearly an attempt to dissuade me from going. It’s most certainly not a positive remark about my moving. I think it’s them projecting their own fears onto me. When I hear someone say this, what I really think they’re saying is: “I’m to afraid/comfortable with the status quo to move to another country, so I’m going to imagine that it’s not any better over there than it is here, even though I have no way of knowing, because if I entertain the possibility that it is better, then I might realize that I’m missing out on what life has to offer and settling for a lesser existence.”