October 22, 2012

The Not Evil Empire

I am back in America now and beginning to readjust.  I'm living with Natalie and Elizabeth, two fellow Uganda RPCVs.  I'm extremely fortunate in this regard as both have been incredible resources, confidants, and friends.  Readjustment isn't so bad and I feel good.  My financial situation is pretty ugly but that's because I spent half of my readjustment allowance traveling after leaving Uganda.  No regrets there.  Being in America without a job may be like being in Uganda without a mosquito net, uncomfortable in the near term and likely ruinous in the long term.  So I'm looking for a job and writing the occasional article for the Peace Corps San Diego newsletter because it makes me happy.  Here's October's.


It's the double vision of a people whose hearts don't like what their desires have created.”
-Jonathon Franzen

I found myself in a lovely pedestrian mall in Budapest on a sunny day last August. A Wednesday. I was holding a solitary pre-noon vigil at a bronze statue of Ronald Reagan. I was doing this because I was at a delightful place in life which found me both curious and unemployed. Delightful because this was still a novel thing. Unemployment and curiosity. Nothing says unemployment and curiosity quite like solitary Wednesday pre-noon vigils of bronze Ronald Reagan statues in Budapest. The route leading to this particular collision of time, person and place started with a cheap flight, a Russian Pricewaterhouse Cooper human resourcer, and a late night stroll for ice cream.

I had arrived in Budapest from, well it isn't important, via a cheap flight. That was how I was choosing the destinations for this trip. I was being put up in a gorgeous flat that was inhabited by a lovely young Russian who worked one of those jobs that requires conference calls, business casual, and the deft management of office politics. Her name was Ksenia and she was Russian. The previous nights had been filled with conversation, cold tomato soup and wine. One of those nights we had taken a stroll for ice cream and that late stroll led us eventually to the US embassy located in a busy pedestrian mall.

“I wanted you to see this,” she said to me. The embassy was quite similar to the last embassy I had been to back in Uganda. It had the same high fences, the same drab gray color scheme and the same perimeter of steel pylons. Unlike the embassy in Kampala, the steel pylons here cut through the adjacent pedestrian mall and children's park. It was a bunker surrounded by cheerful and old European architecture.

Near the embassy was a large bronze statue that was...really?...Ronald Reagan? There was an inscription that read, “A simple country boy against the evil empire.” I looked over at the evil empress that was letting me crash on her couch and feeding me cold tomato soup. “I think that means you,” I told her. But that wasn't true. Her parents had probably been a part of the evil empire, but that was probably before she was born. An eighties baby. She was just a Russian now.

The next day she went to work and I went back to the statue. I wanted to see it in the daylight. I didn't know any great Hungarians in history and was fairly certain that there were no bronze statues of them anywhere in America, busy pedestrian malls or otherwise. It seemed odd that Ronald Reagan was enshrined here and that he was accredited with the toppling of the soviet empire. I'm not sure what toppled the soviet empire. I don't think anyone really does. These things are explainable only after the fact. My feeling was that Ronald Reagan deserved a bronze statue in Budapest about as much as Barack Obama deserved the Nobel Peace prize.

If there are two competing empires and one empire is the Evil one than the other empire must be the Not Evil Empire. That would be us. But the Not Evil Empire is still an empire. An empire that needs a perimeter of steel pylons around its buildings. You see, you need a strong perimeter for all the people who don't realize that you're the Not Evil Empire. But evil or not, an empire is an empire. On the spectrum of Soviet Russia to Reagan America, it might be better to find yourself in Switzerland.

I was frustrated with the embassy in Budapest. It didn't seem to represent the America that I knew. The America that was optimistic, hopeful and open. The building was the representation of an America that was afraid, uncertain and closed. When did this happen? When did Ellis Island and Martin Luther King Jr. and the Bill of Rights turn into Guantanamo Bay, drone strikes, and Chinese debt?

I sat on that park bench in Budapest thinking these thoughts and working myself into a towering indignation. I decided to do something about all this! I decided to do something very American. I was going to write a letter and complain.

I quickly ran into a couple problems. Not the least of which was to whom does one address a letter about the troubling state of affairs in American embassies abroad? In the weeks that followed I wrote and rewrote my letter but never could think of a satisfactory recipient. Neither could I find the left-right-cross-hook-uppercut to the jaw conclusion for the letter. Without an address, or even really a point to make, the letter languished in my journal.

It wasn't until I got back to America after three years away that I realized that our embassies represent us as a country quite well. To paraphrase rapper Mos Def, sometimes it's easy to talk about our government like it's some giant living up in the hills. But we are the government. So when we ask: What is our government doing? Where is our government going? We should ask: How am I doing? Where am I going? The embassies are how they are because we are how we are.

America is a place where too many people don't know their neighbors let alone their farmers. It's a place where 24 hour cable news manages to turn debate into farce while the rest of the world grows and turns and sometimes burns. That's why I couldn't find anyone to address my letter to—there's no embassy czar in charge of all this. The embassy and it's high walls in Budapest is the sum total of the ambitions, triumphs and fears of the 300 million or so people that call America home. To change the embassy requires a change in us.

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