American Refugee Visits His Native Parallel Universe: Beauty and Horror

It’s one thing to read about the United States in the news every day, or hear about the growing sociopolitical insanity from friends via the Internet. It is another thing altogether to come back to the land of one’s birth and citizenship for a few weeks, and to observe it all directly. That comfortable feeling of safe distance that some of us who live in calmer countries (calmer on the surface, at least) cherish and hold dear is, after only eight or nine hours in an airplane, gone. There is an uneasy feeling that anything could happen – even out in the thinly-populated Northern Neck region of Virginia, on a small waterway which winds through woods and farms to the juncture of the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay, one is far too close (three hours) to Washington DC and the psycho-vortex which seems to swallow, corrupt, and transform all clear thought into greedy self-interest and imperial cynicism.

It does not seem impossible that stormtroopers clad in Darth Vaderish armor could roll up in front of my elderly mother’s house to haul a Socialist and atheist who has no use for nationalism off to some grim dungeon and brand him a supporter of “terrorism”, whatever that means this week – after all, such things are happening daily in countries allied to the United States, such as Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia, not to even mention those listed by the US government on the latest edition of the Axis of Evil.

After three days of communing with nature, walking, observing bald eagles, herons, deer and wild turkeys, and watching the warm October sunlight play on the water from the dock, I made – as usual – the mistake of turning on the radio to National Public Radio (NPR), one of the few things one can hear with a clear non-digital radio signal out here, hoping to get a little of what passes for news without inducing one of the anger attacks that often follows such a simple twist of the radio knob in this part of the world. I should have known better.

One topic dominated the coverage in the American mainstream media that day, including NPR, which at one time was a media institution with a relatively progressive outlook. That topic was the death of four US soldiers in the African country of Niger, and the resulting furor. After too many minutes of listening to breathless questions from NPR’s deeply unpleasant and prissy moderator Ari Shapiro to such paragons of official truth as former US Secretary of Defense and CIA Director Leon Panetta — breathless questions about how this attack against foreign soldiers in Niger could possibly have happened?! — I grew increasingly angry.

According to sources such as AirWars, several thousand civilians have died under US bombs in places like Iraq, Syria and Yemen this year alone. I rarely see any coverage whatsoever of these deaths in the mainstream media, either here in the USA or in Germany where I live. Americans are, in general, not concerned about foreign deaths as a result of US imperial military action. Many of us in my online group of political allies tried for the entire duration of the 2016 election campaign to get liberals to deal with those deaths and to include American military madness among their criteria for Presidential political decisions … without success.

But when four US soldiers die overseas, the shock and the sense of crisis take control of the US corporate mainstream media for days, even weeks.

This, in a country which maintains more than 800 military bases worldwide and sends many hundreds of thousands of soldiers into war zones, often in contravention of international law.

There were also accompanying stories about the widows of the dead soldiers and the allegedly improper manner in which the President had spoken to them on the telephone, after calling to console them. Clearly, these lives are far, far more important than those of the thousands of dead persons in the Middle East and elsewhere, at least in the minds of a vast segment of the American public.

I was, and continue to be, outraged and dumbfounded. I am back in the parallel universe of my birth.

The bewildering dichotomy between some aspects of everyday life here in the USA, and the political and social madness which so many Americans either support unquestioningly and vehemently, or bemoan as regrettable but unavoidable, puzzles me again on this trip. Here in beautiful rural Virginia the people one encounters on the street, in a bookstore or supermarket, are so much friendlier and immediately likeable than in similar encounters in Europe. After a total of 18 years as a resident of Germany I still struggle with the tendency of the majority of Europeans to avoid eye contact, and to look at me with suspicion or mistrust if I say hello. Once one gets to know them they are usually fine people, and very often I have more in common with them than with the friendly and acknowledging Americans.

But the social tradition in public there is utterly different, and it always makes me happy to be among these warm, open Virginians and Georgians and Tennesseans – although if we were to discuss politics or religion, my views would most likely horrify them. For a few weeks it’s enough to eat Mexican food or barbecue or crab cakes and oysters with them, buy beautiful big homegrown tomatoes at their vegetable stands, and listen to them play fabulous bluegrass music, with heartfelt gospel lyrics which often nostalgically move my atheist heart.

But the contradictions are myriad and mind-boggling. In a country full of mentally disturbed and often strongly drugged people with deadly weapons, a status mostly sanctioned by law, there is a constant obsession with safety in daily life. The majority appears to consider the laws in question logical and correct.

Many other things are startling to those of us who live elsewhere, even those like myself who come from this country. The number of enormously, hideously obese people one sees here cannot be compared with any other country on the planet, in my experience. Many of these people appear quite comfortable with their astonishing girth, wearing tight clothes that emphasize it rather than rendering it a bit more fashionable or less obvious.

One need not come here in person to experience the flag worship and military worship: we read about “taking a knee” and such matters in our own press, where the media find such matters fascinating. But for a visitor, the sheer number of American flags flying visibly here is sometimes overwhelming. I sometimes think that, since they are mostly on display for other Americans, this patriotism contest may have more to do, in some cases at least, with confused people reminding themselves where they are.

The tone, sheer volume, and vulgarity of much advertising in the USA is shocking to those who are unfamiliar with it. Although I am an American, I undergo major culture shock myself every time I see and hear it around me once again after a longer interval. While I generally avoid the commercial corporate media where the stuff is unavoidable, you cannot escape it here for long. I am always amazed at how accustomed and inured to it even sophisticated Americans of my acquaintance are. To me it is like a hard slap in the face, followed by revulsion and loathing. I live in Germany, which is a capitalist country with plenty of advertising. But in Germany it is possible, even on commercial TV channels and radio stations, to listen or watch for 15 or 20 minutes, sometimes even an hour, without being attacked by vulgar advertising. The short programming intervals between commercial content here in the US never cease to amaze me, on the rare occasions when I indulge in a bit of exploration through my mother’s hundreds of television channels.

Still, life here on the Chesapeake Bay is similar enough in many ways to life during my youth in Tennessee to be quite enjoyable, provided that I studiously avoid the aforementioned horrors. Things still move pretty slowly here, and the main street of the small nearby hub city is still quaint and peaceful enough to evoke pleasant memories and sensations. The autumn sky is bright blue, the air appears quite clear in this industry-free region, at night the stars shine with fiery brilliance.

It will be different next week when my partner and I take to the interstate highways to visit friends in other states. One sprawling and ugly subdivision, suburb, and shopping center after another, huge parking lots everywhere, the same corporate logos on the same franchised restaurants, giant billboards along the highways (forbidden in most of Europe). No practical alternative to traveling by car, no comfortable European trains.

Most refugees flee from hunger, war, and poverty. I, on the other hand, will gain 10 pounds or so eating favorite southern dishes here in the land of my birth, which are mostly unavailable or much more expensive at home in Europe. It will be time for a serious diet when we return home after Thanksgiving.

Gregory Barrett is an American translator, writer and musician living in Germany. His essays have appeared in Counterpunch, The Greanville Post, Socialist Factor, Off-Guardian and other publications.

Read other articles by Gregory.