Dear Mr. Ambassador,
You won't remember me. We only met once. It was at a reception at your residence, shortly after you came here. The reception was for those of us involved in cultural work here in Slovenia. You were very polite and you introduced yourself to all of us individually, and we even had a short conversation. It revolved around government funding for the arts, something we know so little about in the United States – your and my shared country of origin. You asked why ticket sales couldn't fund the preponderance of performances at major cultural institutions in Slovenia. I felt you had a good idea what the answer was going to be, before you asked, but I guess you wanted to hear the justifications face to face. Fair enough.
The second time our paths crossed – sort of – was at the annual 4th of July event put on by the U.S. Embassy in the summer of 2015. My wife and I usually make a short appearance at the shindig, and head straight to the sponsored Jack Daniels open-bar. They serve a pretty stiff drink. For some reason you weren't actually in attendance that evening, and the Ambassador's traditional 4th of July message was read on your behalf by one of your associates. The speech was a rather standard affair, recalling our nation's early struggle to establish democracy and the outlining of the different Slovenian and American “effective partnerships” and “points of cooperation.” One of which struck me very hard. Your speech singled out a particular investment by an unnamed American company in the revered Slovenian glassware manufacturer Rogaška. It is common knowledge here what company actually made that investment: TRUMP HOME, the housewares division of our current President's vast holdings. Just two weeks before he had announced his candidacy in a confused and at times hateful barrage. We know what he said. He lashed out at Mexican immigrants, stereotyping them in broad, undifferentiated strokes: “They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists.” I found it completely inappropriate – even abhorrent – that the business dealings of such a man were being extolled in any way by your speech and your diplomatic mission. We put down our plastic-cupped whiskies and headed to the exit.
Since that summer, my fuse has gotten even shorter and, as the events of the last 18 months have unfolded, my emotions have evolved from disgust and shock to anger and helplessness. And now that the ballots have been counted and the fix is in, I think what I am feeling is something akin to existential dread. I scream at the television and the computer, I follow my wife through the flat, holding my morning coffee, recounting the myriad of incursions and deceits as she prepares to go to work. I read through endless news feeds and opinion pieces searching for a crack in the armor and a whiff of spring air, but to no avail. I feel that I bore those around me with my anxiety. I bore myself with my anxiety.
And now I am writing you a letter. It does seem a bit tangential and out-of-the-box, especially since I still get riled, when I think about your 4th of July speech. But the other night I was driving by your residence, and as I passed I could see the throw of the headlights of the official embassy car, just as the gate was opening. A mile or so down the road it came to me: “Write to him. He is a fellow American who works just down the street from where you live. Get this shit off your chest. Share it with someone who is closer to the flames, who is invested daily in the way things actually work. Leave the friends and loved ones alone for a while.” I feel a bit like Herzog from Saul Bellow’s novel of the same name, writing a lengthy, rambling, argumentative, letter to someone I don’t know, a letter that will probably never be read. But I guess this is not wholly without context. I am a disgruntled American and you are the immediate face of America in this country. And this is what we do in a democracy, right? Vent, spew, cajole, hanker, argue passionately, argue openly, dissent, resist, compromise and acquiesce, all in the belief that through this stumbling process, a process that takes forever, we will arrive at better versions and visions of our institutions and of ourselves. Maybe. But I am not sure how much of that I believe anymore. I do know that I feel desperate and cut-off. One would think living abroad through all of this madness would make it easier, and it probably does, but I too am worn out and tired of all the subterfuge, incompetence and institutional panic. Blinking wildly, I am not sure where the next outrage is coming from, but I am quite sure that it is coming.
So far this is feeling like one long digression. Before I lose you completely, I best grab onto something solid. So here we go:
One burden that this disastrous election may have freed us from, is the compulsion to hold onto one of our dominant national myths: American exceptionalism. While we certainly still have exceptional wealth and military power – albeit wealth and military power that is often used for tragic ends and is by global consensus felt to be in sharp decline – the myth of American Exceptionalism as we usually play it, always includes a self-congratulatory, chest-thumping moral rectitude especially when the words Democracy, Freedom and Greatness are used in conjunction with it. One of the big applause lines of Michelle Obama’s speech at last July’s Democratic National Convention – a speech you more than likely watched – was this:
“So don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great, that somehow we need to make it great again. Because this, right now, is the greatest country in the world.”
When his so-called victory -- the capstone of the most divisive election cycle in my adult life, an anarchic circus footnoted by hate speech against women and minorities, Russian cyber hacks, the racially-targeted obstruction of voters’ rights, the anti-Bernie corruption within the DNC and the 11th hour bumbling of the FBI -- is looked at carefully, and all of these chaotic, anti-democratic interventions and obstructions, are taken into account, can this still be what Michelle really feels? This, right now, is the greatest country in the world? Can this really be what any thinking person amongst us actually feels? And certainly if we are to substitute “country” with “democracy” in Michele’s speech, a linguistic trope we are known to often employ in our political rhetoric, her statement moves from the vaguely debatable to the completely ridiculous. Because this, right now, is the greatest democracy in the world. In recent years I can’t link of a European country who has run an election so lacking in basic democratic values and credibility. Hungary? Maybe. Of course I am deeply sorry if I have insulted my Hungarian friends by comparing their experiences with our latest electoral debacle.
I travel a lot throughout Europe, and I am constantly asked to explain the epic fail of the 2016 American Presidential elections to my baffled European cohorts and friends. They ask “how can this have happened in America?” “Trump? That should have been impossible.” “Please explain to me how Hillary can get more votes and still lose?” It is not that they believe in America that much – any American who has lived in Europe for any length of time realizes, as you must have, that our countries post-WWII karmic currency was mostly squandered decades ago. Still America does persist as a reluctantly accepted mirror for contemporary Europe: it is observed, it is measured, it is used as a useful point of comparison, and a necessary point of departure – fleetingly loved, more often smirked at, softly cursed, celebrated for its cultural oddities and artistic innovators and outsiders, but also despised for its arrogance, it’s barely submerged racism, its anti-intellectual gravity and its political naiveté. But there is one universally positive thing that I do hear about our country, even if the Slovene or Brit or Frenchman telling it has never been to America: “You have amazing national parks.”
I can only imagine what you have had to go through with all of this election upheaval. The constant questions you must get from other diplomats and business leaders, from Facebook inquiries and audience questions at the many events you navigate in a week….it must be mind boggling. “How was this possible?” “Where is this all heading?” “Should we be afraid?” And I wonder how you answer such questions and more so, I wonder what you and your most trusted colleagues say to each other in those unguarded moments, after the protocol is over, when the cognac and cigars come out and the doors of the Ambassador’s residence have been shut to the world? Does anyone ever use these sorts of words? Because this, right now, is the greatest country in the world. Besides those who have blinders permanently welded to their skulls, how many Americans, of any political persuasion, can fundamentally still believe such a conceit? My feeling is that there are fewer than one thinks and the numbers are decreasing as the hate and hollow of the last election continues to echo and the bigoted chaos of his first weeks in office unfold, with all of their jagged, unpredictable consequences.
One thing for sure this greatest country in the world stuff is well past its expiration date. Both the factual and moral metrics are no longer convincing (if they ever were) and the false comfort and confidence it inspires does not serve us well at home or abroad. The deep, global interconnectedness of all things - nature, climate, technology, economy, culture, politics, human aspirations and pain -- and the problems and challenges and opportunities we all face because of this interconnectedness -- obviously requires us to nurture global conversation and common goals. Our problems cannot be solved by ourselves, no matter how exceptional and blessed we insist in believing that we are.
Doesn’t a tenable future require more humility and more collective, borderless soul-searching? We have a lot to offer to such a search, such a conversation. But we also have a lot to learn. For sure we are woefully behind the curve in alternative energy development (see Germany for that), educational innovation and results (Finland), health care access and delivery (Canada & Europe), free higher education (Slovenia) and so on.
Why are we forever unable to be a dynamic, yet collaborative voice at the table? Why do we always insist on sitting at the table’s head and owning the table, the chairs and all the other furniture in the room?
Our new President’s “America First” white nationalism – with its catch phrases inherited from our most revered home-grown Nazi, Charles Lindbergh – deftly exploits this growing abyss between our bright-eyed, sacred myths (“We are great and things are getting better all the time”) and the lived-in-truths of America’s neglected interior (post-industrial ghost towns, the working poor, opioid epidemics). His inaugural speech was resoundingly criticized by the Democratic elites and media, not so much for its hollow arrogance and lack of inclusiveness but rather for its “bleak,” “dystopian” themes and imagery. It was said to be dark and defeatist. But frankly, I thought it was exactly those parts that he got marginally correct:
“The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs and while they celebrated in our nation's capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.”
Though I disagree wholesale with the hypocritical, discriminatory and authoritarian plans of action he fashions out these sorts of narratives (they used to call it Fascism), and I am well aware that yes, he too believes in American Exceptionalism, himself being the appointed exceptional American who will “Make America Great Again” -- I also find his statement above to be more factually supportable and in empathetic hands, more pragmatically useful than Michelle Obama’s dead-end, desperate insistence that This, right now, is the greatest country in the world. For all his “alternative facts” and cloudy grammar, there are parts of his inaugural speech tragically confirmed in the actual experience of millions of “forgotten” Americans of all races and creeds (widening income inequality, perpetual war fought with unequal sacrifice and so on) and thus, in the right hands (clearly not his) the raw fiber of such words could be a starting point for real action and renewal. Bernie Sanders certainly understood that there are constructive and forward looking remedies available to address this historical neglect.
But Michelle’s convention statement, despite its “good intentions” and fuzzy embrace feels like pure nostalgia, lifted from a 1940’s Jimmy Stewart movie, faded and sentimental, unnecessary and counterproductive. A blind obligation to a dead mythology. Of course I am not talking about the moral equivalency of these two individuals and their overall belief systems. I think it’s pretty obvious where I would stand on that. In fact, I actually feel silly having to write that last sentence, but in these times where one has to be very careful. We flash fast and hot and misunderstandings abound. Some of our ideological statements and factual observations are starting points and some are certain endings and in times like these it is essential we investigate which are which, even when spoken by individuals we abhor, who ascribe to conclusions that we patently reject.
And speaking of misunderstandings and flashing hot. Remember that recent interview that he gave, where he struggled to morally condemn Putin? He was attacked from all sides for that one. But as much as it pains me to say it, doesn’t our nation’s relentless history of war, orchestrated coups, “surgical strikes,” drone assassinations, and Black Ops leave us little choice but to nod in reluctant agreement when he says: "We have a lot of killers. You think our country's so innocent?” In spite of his narcissism and vulgarity, he is of course also more or less correct on this point. We are not innocent. Our avowed exceptionalisms do not negate our profound mistakes, some of which have been heinous, unforgivable crimes. When this is recognized, it of course upends our bland acceptance of things and leaves many of us reeling. But the hard lesson is, we believed too many of the wrong things, for far too long. Things that were not only factually unsupported but also morally unsupportable. He gets that and he sees the vulnerabilities that it creates and he wields full-scale havoc with all of it.
So what does a man like yourself, in a position such as the one you have, do in a time like this when the American myths you are asked to represent are in full meltdown? What are your real options? I am not here to realistically counsel. I don’t expect that you much care what I have to say, nevertheless there are things I feel compelled to say, if only for my own sanity. I believe that dissent and contradiction and negation are essential and warranted even in the best of times. And these times are far from that. And as lofty as that all sounds, at the moment I only want to offer one small suggestion, or more accurately one point of encouragement, a point that comes from directly observing what has been going at your place of work these past weeks.
I checked out your embassy’s Facebook feed. Since the Inauguration on January 20th, there has been only been one picture and mention of him. And that was on the 20th itself. The man who has dominated the news cycles of not only America, but most countries in the world, over the past month is a veritable ghost figure on your robust and active social media site. While we swim daily in a barrage of pictures and text and monologues analyzing his every word, tick, slur, insult and tweet, as far as the U.S Embassy in Ljubljana goes, he appears to be a persona non grata. This is an especially odd state of affairs, if one takes into account the fact that his wife is from Slovenia something that would offer you an unprecedented human interest angle to exploit.
Yet, this neglect and silence I would assume is not an accident. We all know that social media for institutions such as yours is highly scripted and purposeful. And so I wonder, what has actually motivated this decision? Is it mere embarrassment as the man’s twittering governance spirals into a public relations disaster for your Embassy and most others in the world? Or is it something deeper, a subtle, yet orchestrated act of dissent and defiance?
While I am not hopeful, I would obviously like to believe that it is the latter. It would definitely lessen my sense of dread and isolation, if I was to know, that even in a small way the officialdom of America in Slovenia were quietly obstructing the current president from being our nation’s ever-present, official face.
If democracy is ever to be renewed, this will happen only through direct social action, and through the dedication and bravery of gritty individuals and rouge institutions that make clear stands against authoritarianism, injustice and myth. All other options have now completely vanished. And while we are often known abroad as a country who has rigged elections (including our own), deposed elected leaders and used our economic and military power to grab resources and bomb civilian neighborhoods, there are of course other powerful American narratives and narrators. In the cracks of our geo-political monolith, we can find a long and inspiring history of dissent and dissenters.
Revolutionists, Abolitionists, Wobblies, Women’s voting rights activists, Civil Rights campaigners, LGBT visionaries, Freedom Riders, Black Panthers, Anti-Vietnam War demonstrators, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Feminists, The Chicago Seven, The Seattle Seven, AIM (American Indian Movement), Occupy Wall Street (OWS), Snowden, Standing Rock, marches on Washington in 1963 (Civil Rights), 1969 (War in Vietnam) and 2017 (Women + allies).
These stories are for this time and of this time. These are tendrils of American experience that can give still give instruction and solace and hope. They are credible and have yielded tangible results. They are of course imperfect, but quite often they have revealed the best of who we are and who we want to be. They harbor a deep streak of no-bullshit American swagger; insisting that respect is earned, that laws are not forever and that “God-given” authority should always be under suspicion. These are the sort of stories we should be sharing and underlining. Not as alternative tales of our exceptionalism, but as shared voices in an unfinished fight to build fair and nurturing societies, not just for ourselves, but throughout this absurdly small planet. Societies that are without disclaimers reading: “the necessary solutions were determined to be unrealistic.”
"This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will... limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress."
--Frederick Douglass, African-American Abolitionist
In the spring of 2003, in the anxious days before the U.S. invasion of Iraq there was a march in Ljubljana. As we know this is a small city, but there were still several thousand people in the streets that day. Of course my wife and I were part of the crowd. I was experiencing the same sort of existential dread I have now, the same pain in my stomach, the same raw anger, the same swings between helplessness and reasoned conviction. It was announced in advance that the desired march route, which would have included a symbolic passing of the U.S. Embassy, had been cancelled – apparently at the behest of the Embassy itself - and that we were to remain caged and static in Zvezda Park. But as the crowd built in numbers and boldness, this didn’t last and we were soon on the streets. The police were caught off guard but reacted quickly and moved to the front and started to lead us down Slovenska Cesta, the main drag of Ljubljana. But the crowd had its own plan and we all took a left turn, past the Parliament building towards the crossing with Prešernova, the street where of course the U.S. Embassy sits. The police gained “control” of the situation and blocked our way forward to the Embassy. There were shouts of “let us march!” and things grew tense, but in the end there was no way through and after an hour or so the crowd began to filter away. I remember thinking, “now I finally understand, how infinitely pervasive the throw of American power is.” A small, quiet nation in Central Europe is instructed by a foreign government on how to regulate a march of its citizens, exercising their protected democratic rights. Democracy is always treated as an absolute, until it becomes inconvenient.
And why am I reminiscing about this? Recently we have all heard the news, and you of course know much more than we do. The Slovenian government is lobbying hard to have the first “summit” meeting between him and Putin here in Slovenia. Putin himself has said he would be interested, and while so far America seems to be officially quiet, I imagine there is plenty of information and speculation flying around behind the scenes. The significance of such a meeting in real terms is probably limited – the scripts are written in advance – but the symbolic resonance of such a meeting will be large. Two extremely powerful and bitter authoritarians meeting in the suburban pastures of a small country with a so-called “emerging” democratic tradition. Shouldn’t we be asking why such a charade should happen here at all? Possibly in the sealed rooms of diplomacy the deal has already been cut, and such questions are already moot.
But if this game is on and the meeting is actually happening here in Ljubljana, there is one thing that can be assured. There will be marches, there will open dissent. There are elements of Slovenian society that will not roll over and let this happen without making noise and naming names. I would even go so far as to guess, that there will be solidarity protesters arriving from abroad, eager to condemn everything that such a meeting represents.
And while I have shamelessly wandered throughout this letter, I think now I have finally found a central point. I would like to ask you for something, as one expatriated American to another. It is clear and simple. Let them march. Let us march. Allow the crowd to walk down Prešernova, past the embassy, past the guardhouse, allow slogans to be shouted and their democratic rights to be paraded. Show me, show us that the institutions of American democracy (and democracy in general) are not as rusted, battered and irrelevant as we fear they are. In spite of the thin-skin and fascist leanings of our 45th President, show that we can handle this. Show that we need to handle this. Show that dissent is our lifeblood, one of our most essential narratives, not an inconvenience or more frighteningly a virus to be purged. Better yet, join us. I know that sounds completely absurd, but these are absurd times and we will need bold acts equal to that absurdity to battle back. We will need bold acts to merely hold on.
I am sure I have over-stepped into self-indulgence, or at the very least have tested your patience with this letter. More likely or not you stopped reading long ago, or didn’t read it all. But I do feel better, a bit lighter. I definitely got some things off my chest. There is value in that – a deep exhaling, a slow uptake before the vertigo starts again. I am pretty sure that the feelings of dread and exhaustion will creep back very soon. And possibly they will never fully go away.
But I am going to keep doing what I can. I don’t know what else there is to do. I hope you will continue to do the same.
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”