Mistake: it was what my new friend, an American expatriate living in Sweden, emphasized. There was his statement that the “discovery of America by Columbus was a mistake.” There were also my own mistakes, rarely acknowledged and not as complex as my friend’s.
I should mention my friend’s statement was part of the first sentence of a history he was writing about America. When we met in Afghanistan I shared some of his feelings about our country. So his first sentence meant more to me than Columbus mistaking the West for the East. But criticisms were criticisms regardless of the content.
There was the mistake, or the ignorance on our part, of thinking that the examples of Yankee imperialism that we had seen overseas represented the predominate attitudes of Americans. These were reinforced by the war in Vietnam (including Cambodia and Laos). By then I had been introduced to anti-American demonstrations on the campus of the University of the Philippines, where I taught and had a close colleague who espoused the doctrine of Mao Zedong.
My colleague had called Americans “imperialist.” But his target was really American institutions in his country; and his starting point was the American military presence in the Philippines, specifically the bases from which America launched its war. Even Ben, my colleague, had been extremely friendly to me, an American, and, in spite of all of his anti-American sentiment, he never displayed any of that hostility towards me. There wasn’t even any of the condescension that I had experienced elsewhere. I think it is important to acknowledge here that generally in spite of the political bitterness that then existed there, Filipinos generally showed hospitality to Americans.
However, the massive, organized, and direct criticism of America could not be avoided which I honestly felt stemmed from our imperialism. And I am unrepentant. I don’t think I need to explain myself. But I think you can be a loyal American and still be critical. Where I’m critical, vocal and strident, I’m also lamenting a loss, the losses within our country as well as outside of it. My sense of loss comes from the homogenization I see around me; and I believe it is as such that America is displayed at its worse. It was a mistake on my part to cast all America in the same way, and do so very passionately. And why couldn’t I have been more like my Moist colleague and not cast all of America, Americans, in the same mold? I suspect now that it was because it had become too personal, too close to me; in the way I equated America’s encroachment throughout the world with destruction; but more painfully for me was the destruction occurring within my own country. So, in Afghanistan, when I heard a fellow American talk about his history starting with the “discovery of America was a mistake,” I thought “right on!” Garbage? No. But I’ve learned that it’s not that simple.