Who controls the narrative for future of our nations?
PUBLISHED: 11:00 24 August 2018
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What happens next in both the UK and the US could be pivotal. BONNIE GREER reflects on the story of the two countries and asks who will write the next chapter
From time to time, I look at my American passport. I have it tucked away in a special place, in its own special wallet. I can remember how excited I was to own one, a rarity among most Americans even today.
A passport indicated to others that I had plans, designs. In those early days, I could show it off like some exotic specimen, an extension of me that was secret. Hidden.
Now, what was perplexing me is why I had not taken the time to renew it.
My passport expired last year. I have been planning to go and get a picture to begin the process of renewal. I had even begun to think about whether I was going to go to the new embassy in Battersea, to the building that Trump hates, just to see it.
I can remember when I got my first passport, four decades ago. This was before I started university. I put my baptismal name’s first initial on it, a stupid affectation I realise now because that initial does not appear on my birth certificate. These days that could get me stopped at the US border. For falsification. Or worse.
Last year after I had gotten an emergency passport to see my mother for what turned out to be the last time, the man at the border in Chicago was very strict with me. He told me that I had to get a proper passport and implied that I might be in trouble next time if I entered with the one I had.
I remember how outraged I felt at the man’s stern tone, how he seemed to threaten me somehow. My imagination saw this special room for American ex-pats who arrive with temporary passports.
In it, maybe we will be told to take a special oath of allegiance because we live abroad and therefore might not be Americans in our hearts and minds. Standing there, listening to the border official reprimand me about my temporary passport, I thought that I could see two policemen eyeing me suspiciously. Would they summon me over? Ask me why I had made an allegiance to what is called in the US “a foreign Prince,” something Americans could never do until that barrier was abolished by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
How would I explain to the police, if such a room existed, that the United Kingdom offered me a freedom that I did not have in the US. A freedom to live and work in other countries, learn something of myself through foreign eyes, become a better person. Would they care about this, about my becoming a better American by living in Britain? Would that make sense to them, even matter?
A British expat in the US, a dual national like me, has recently written about her return to London. She has lived in New York City as long as I have lived in London. She calls returning to the UK trading psychosis for depression. She writes that she dreads Brexit, but that atmosphere is far better than living in the madness that is Donald Trump’s America. Through her piece, I realise what I have suspected: that, to a certain extent, Trump is making a large portion of the American public physically and mentally ill.
There is a group of mental health professionals called Duty To Warn who have been tweeting since before the 2016 election, that Donald Trump is a dangerous man. His own state of mind can trigger like minds, they warn – minds not reined in, like Trump’s could be, by the constant scrutiny of the press.
People in the US are genuinely frightened now, and I ask myself if this is the time to let my passport stay in the drawer.
At those times, I think of my ancestors, all of those who struggled for the right for me to be an American citizen. But right now the US feels hazardous and toxic. Is it always this way at the time of great national crises?
About once a week I talk an individual or two out of leaving the United Kingdom altogether. The British are quicker to express shame than Americans. A sense of shame is the overriding reason for some Brits heading elsewhere. And I have to say that I don’t like people saying that they are ashamed of this country.
So, while sympathetic, I talk them down.
A nation is a living entity, a thing constantly being made by and through and with its citizens. So to express shame of one’s country is, in some sense, to express shame of oneself.
I feel no shame of America, for example.
It is difficult to keep in mind, that the US is an experiment, an experiment in the coming together of different peoples. The question America always poses is: Can this work?
Now the republic faces its biggest crisis since the Civil War. I believe that it will prevail. My very belief in this is the hallmark of being an American. We are people who believe.
America is deeply personal to each American, it resides in the mind and in the heart and is never dormant.
The US is a narrative-nation, the first of its kind. And as the 21st century becomes the century of The Narrative and who controls it, America’s very survival will be one of the new century’s issues.
Trump presents a counter-narrative of a nation besieged by The Other, taken apart by outside forces. The United Kingdom, also a narrative-nation, especially since the end of the Second World War, is following in the footsteps of the US.
The question for both nations: who and what will shape the narrative going forward?
The New York City I left in the mid ’80s no longer exists. The London that the British writer left in the mid ’80s no longer exists.
This may be progress, the way forward. But it leaves us with few touchstones, fewer places that we can reconnect with, know, understand.
My expired passport in the drawer is not a harbinger of my future, but of my past. People have literally died to have a US passport and I feel that I owe it to them, at least, to not be casual about it all. I can summon up patriotic music in my head as I gaze at the cover and keep in mind the great things about the US.
Trump will be gone sooner or later, and then the cleaning will start, the taking back. But I understand what that British writer is feeling, because for all of her fine words, she is fleeing.
Yet as I renew my passport, I will keep in mind not only those who have gone before me, not only those who will come after me.
But I will keep in mind, that a nation exists in the realm of possibilities. A nation is never finished. It is never completed.