PARIS -- "So, where are you from?" I was asked. The banquet table of late-thirtysomething American expatriate men and their younger Slavic girlfriends looked up at me. It was the night before a wedding, and I didn't really know any of them.
"Los Angeles," I answered. The room erupted in laughter.
"Los ANGELES??!!" they shouted in unified horror, before launching into a gleeful 10-minute tirade against everything that plagued my fair city ... back in 1993. You know, dirt-brown pollution, terrible public transit, economic collapse, semi-annual natural catastrophes, runaway strip-mall development, Hollywood Blvd. sleaze, explosive racial tension....
I tried to get a corrective word in edgewise -- about our much clearer blue skies, shiny new metro, vigorously diversified economy, revitalized Hollywood and downtown (at the expense of passe suburban shopping malls), repudiation of race-baiting politicians, etc. -- but the conversation had moved on to a series of risque racist jokes ... posed as bravely liberated responses to that other early-'90s scourge, political correctness.
"Damn," I thought. "This used to be me."
I experienced the Gulf War, and most everything else between 1990-97, as an expatriate. One of my strongest memories of those alienating months in early 1991 is of a conversation with an elfin expat English-teacher friend, in which we marveled at how the Americans around us seemed to run about 90% against the war, compared to those frightening 90% bomb-hell-out-of-Iraq polls from back home.
Our conclusion? Americans were crazy, of course, except for those enlightened few clever enough to escape.
I don't recall it occuring to us then that we might be wrong about the war, (which we just knew was only about oil, against an "enemy" of Washington's creation, and easily avoidable). Nor did we have any second thoughts about our crude assessment of domestic opinion. Like most every isolated feedback-loop of a community, ours was confident enough of the broad policy agreements that debate was not really all that necessary; time was better spent consoling together and clucking at the Babbittry back home busy running the country into the ground.
Living out in the world is an experience I can never recommend highly enough. But inevitably, as months turn into years, most expatriates end up defining themselves in opposition to the last frightful thing they remember about living in the mother country. Stumble around a beatiful downtown square swigging an open bottle of delicious wine, and you tend to reflect how your hometown is architecturally bland and legally puritanical. If you left at a time of recession, or during a period of particularly nasty politics, that image tends to become frozen in time, as if the U.S. was as static as, well, Europe.
This already distorted notion is further solidified by whatever horrifying bits of corroboration seep through the International Herald Tribune ... school shootings, O.J. Simpson, race riots, Dan Quayle, whatever. On my first day in Paris this winter I read an atrocious story about deranged football fans in Cleveland pelting players and officials with beer bottles, and felt that old reflex (what a f***ed-up country!) kick into gear.
Ironically, expats can be some of the brightest, most open-minded people you'll ever meet (and the IHT is the best newspaper in the world, in my biased opinion). But conversations reveal sudden gaps in understanding. One friend recently told me that the general impression from reading the Herald-Trib over here is that Americans have been continuously nasty to their Arab and Muslim fellow citizens since Sept. 11. Another, a guy who once flirted with Reptile Republicanism, told me before the massacre that the Bush-Florida election mess was a "coup" that will "ruin the country," and that I should therefore feel ashamed of how I criticized Al Gore during the campaign.
Of course, the concept of expatria is not limited to Americans, nor is it unfamiliar inside our own borders. A French friend of mine who has lived all over the world the past decade, told me the other night that A) the Osama bin Laden confession tape was obviously doctored, B) there is "no reason" to trust Dubya one iota more than ObL, C) the war is primarily about oil, D) the bombing has "achieved nothing," E) there's no reason for westerners to feel more "fortunate" than, say, Nicaraguan peasants, because we "sit on our asses and watch TV all day." None of these statements drew a murmur of dissent from the dinner party.
Within the U.S., such sentiments are common enough in internal-expat havens like Berkeley, Madison, Eugene, Santa Cruz, Santa Monica and Seattle. These "liberal enclaves," as they have been sneeringly dismissed since Sept. 11, have taken a rhetorical shellacking already; I'll only add that it is possible there to experience the same phenomena one can find among Americans and other foreigners in Paris, Prague and elsewhere: a counter-intuitive lack of political "diversity" among people who otherwise rally around the word.
But before you write off the deepest of the bluest counties on that famous electoral map of the U.S., keep in mind that intellectual conformity within like-minded groups is a distinctly non-partisan phenomenon. The same people who have skewered the anti-war Left while seeing their own battlefield predictions come more or less true could just as easily get it dead wrong next time, if they choose to gloat and preen instead of rigorously challenging their own assumptions.
And let us not forget why these enclaves were carved out in the first place -- as a reaction against the most stifling of Red America's culture and misuse of power. Trash Berkeley and Frisco all you want (and I've wanted to a lot these past months), but I'll continue to happily visit those two kooky cities several times a year for as long as I'm anywhere near. Good bookstores, restaurants, redwoods and history still tickle my brain more than any Wal-Mart or Waffle House ever did.
But the kind of closed systems you'll find there almost always end up blocking out new ideas. If there are any positive outcomes from this season of enclave-bashing, surely one of them must be that the feedback loops on the Left have been forever infiltrated by thousands of new thinkers who aren't easily dismissed as water-carriers for the Empire. Another, hopefully, will be the rejection of bullshit ideas that have for too long received a political bye from progressives who know better. All in all, it's a grand opportunity for healthier debate to win out over wound-licking alienation.
Meanwhile, those throwing barbs at Berkeley had best beware: too much back-slapping among like-minded quasi-pundits on a hot streak can lead to the same distorted groupthink you criticize today. If you dismiss all noises coming from your left as the sound of crazy people, you'll be missing out on some valuable intelligence. Here's hoping the expat enclaves will rise to the occasion.