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A Wilderness of Salt: An American Abroad Watches US Politics

By Emily Ochoa

Lire en français (FR)

From London, where she has lived for many years, Emily Ochoa watches her country take a path that she would never have imagined.

Half-way, for one commandment broken,
        The woman made her endless halt,
And she today, a glistening token,
        Stands in the wilderness of salt.

(A.E. Housman)

 

The night of Trump’s election in 2016 was not a happy night for me. In the only photo I have of it, I’m wearing a white plastic hat with a starred-and-striped cardboard ribbon around the crown, thumbs upping the camera. A bowl of pretzels is in front of me, and early exit poll results are being sprayed out across the big screen behind. I am smiling.

When the spray turned into a wave and the wave looked to be carrying Trump into office, I decamped to the bar to buy whiskey for the table. Shortly afterwards, disgusted by the screen and too angry to be around other people, I stumbled through the streets of Midtown Manhattan, back home. 

Home was where the WhatsApp messages started to come in from friends in Europe who were just waking up. ‘Could you please tell me that I am dreaming???’ from Amsterdam. ‘Stop the world. I want to get off.’ from London. I wanted to get off too. I hated everything in the world that was trying to go on existing.

To my surprise, this dark fog lasted only a couple of months. I only started to lift my head above it when the full horror show of the Trump administration descended alongside the winter storms. When the so-called Muslim Ban was announced in late January, I joined a hastily assembled rally in Washington Square Park. On a freezing cold evening, hundreds of us showed up with kids, dogs, and signs to chant ‘No ban, no wall, New York is for all’ into the void. 

It felt great. We had been angry apart, now we could be angry together. We could understand each other, empathise with each other, and go to battle with the world with each other. It didn’t really matter that we were strangers. We all got it, and thus, we were a team. 

I’ve never been a sports person. The odd international football match or Grand Slam final will capture my attention while it’s in progress, but I lose interest as soon as the final point is played. I’ve banked a lot of leisure hours thanks to this lack of interest. But they’ve all been spent, and then some, reading and talking about politics.

I use the word ‘politics’ expansively here, because politics for me is expansive--there is nothing in this world that does not belong to it. Book clubs, dating apps, art exhibits, family drama, food choices: no topic is safe. I love looking at the world in this way, finding connections between disparate things, and tying the mundane decisions of my daily life back to the biggest issues in the world. If you’re going to have to do the laundry anyway, you might as well make it meaningful.

I know that this way of being is not universally popular. If everything has meaning, then everything —even the laundry— is worth arguing over. This has never bothered me much. Politics is my sport, or the closest thing I have to one. 

--

I don’t remember ever coveting my mom’s shoes or dresses when I was little, but I did try on her political beliefs. She shielded me from any hint of a too-mature theme in the books or TV programmes allowed in our household — I am perhaps the only American child of the 90s who to this day has never really watched The Simpsons. Paradoxically, though, she had no qualms about exposing me to the tragedies of the real world. One of the first grown-up books I remember picking up, at age 5 or 6, was her huge (or so it then seemed) copy of Four Days: The Historical Record of the Death of President Kennedy, with its two-page glossy photograph of the exact moment Lee Harvey Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby.

‘The world isn’t messing around,’ I must have thought. ‘I probably shouldn’t either.’ Time to figure out why exactly the world was so f*cked up, and what exactly the grown-ups were doing to try to fix it.

My earliest memory of this little league for self-fashioning was the 1992 election season, and like many important things, it centred on chocolate chip cookies.

My parents had taken me to a park in downtown Boise, Idaho, for a flower festival that my restless 9-year-old soul didn’t even try to feign interest in. More appealing were the two white-haired ladies sitting in the visitor centre, in between tables piled with plastic bags full of chocolate chip cookies, each tied with red or blue ribbon.

I procured some coins from my mom, gave them to one of the women, and was duly asked whether I wanted Bush cookies (red ribbon) or Clinton cookies (blue ribbon). The Bush cookies were fluffy golden clouds of oats and chocolate. The Clinton cookies were dark little saucers of sorrow. I proclaimed that I wanted the Clinton cookies.

‘I know who you’re voting for!’ she smiled as I scampered away.

Like Washington Square Park, that felt great too. The thrill of finding one’s team, bite-sized version.

I grew up, left home, and looked for cement to pour into my philosophical foundations. I’ve read Locke and Hobbes and Mill and Burke (for my university professors), Marx and Rawls (for myself), and Ayn Rand (because I think we all should). And while some of my ideas have changed, others have simply grown deeper and more nuanced. My mom and I disagree about a number of things these days, but I suspect this is more a consequence of generational drift than anything else. Maybe all my reading is just a way of sewing together the uniform I’m already wearing, and have been since the day I was born.

The mental space I inhabit now is a world of broadly left-wing ideas, allegiances, and preferred sources of information. (I make a point of reading a few conservative journalists on a regular basis, but I don’t go near Fox News for the same reason that I haven’t chosen to build a house in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.)

My belief system, like anyone’s, isn’t waterproof. There are holes one could pick at, and conversations about these holes are consistently some of the most interesting ones I have. Richard Rorty would call this system my ‘final vocabulary’ — a set of terms by which I measure my own actions and the actions of others. Like a mother penguin trying to pick out her baby by its cry, I know what’s mine and what’s not. It’s not a universal truth, but in a world short on universal truths, it’s sturdy enough to stand on.

In other words: it’s a team uniform. It’s warm and soft, and it fits me perfectly.

--

Then, two years ago, I packed up my New York apartment and moved to London. And all sorts of things changed.

The typical attitude of my London acquaintances (mainly British or European, white, university graduates) to US politics has two characteristics: intellectual curiosity and polite disdain. It’s similar to the relationship I myself have with conspiracy theories: earnest desire to learn about them and their adherents down to the last thrilling detail, but probably only so I can feel better about myself when I’m having a rough day.

First, the curiosity.

When I meet new people, we’ll usually start by pinpointing where exactly in the US I come from. I am forever ladling out the small disappointment of being from neither New York nor California, nor any other place that offers a conversational bridge to my new friend’s past holidays. From there, we might talk about American food portions. We might talk about American work culture. With men, fantasies about an American road trip are surprisingly common. These topics are inoffensive. Trump is nowhere to be seen.

With people I know better, the topic of American politics is never too far below the surface. It might peek through at the first dinner out together after a summer of travelling, after all the catching up is done. Somewhere between the starter and the main course, the question of what the hell is actually going on in the US will be raised. And then we’ll meander our way through gun rights, climate change, disenfranchisement, and Black Lives Matter. There will be many well-informed questions. There will be a lot of sighing and head shaking. But then we’ll move on to dessert.

All the understanding is there, but the emotional involvement usually isn’t. And this can be baffling. Hurtful, even. How can we move onto dessert when there are children being kept in cages on the US-Mexico border? And the President is empowering white supremacists? I’ll feel annoyed. But then I’ll go home and sleep on it, and in the morning I’ll remember that none of us can absorb all the world’s sorrow. We approach the tree and pick from the branches that are closest to us. We start where we can.

What’s more disorienting than the discovery that others aren’t impassioned by the things you’re impassioned by is the realisation that they don’t see you in anything like the way you see yourself.

And thus the second component of my social circle’s relationship to US politics: polite disdain.

When you move abroad, the question of your political affiliation in your homeland moves down the list of things people use to draw the basic sketch of who you are in their minds. It’s on a lower, less scrutable level of the eye chart. You’re not on Team Progressive American anymore. You’re on Team America.

This is harder to accept than it sounds.

What does this mean? When Americans do stupid things, even if you hate those stupid things with all your heart (see: children in cages), it’s on you, in some small but very real way. They’re all your teammates now, no matter how divided you may be back in the motherland.

Most immigrants I know feel this pain to some degree. French people will take pains to tell you how silly other French people are. Germans are the first to invoke the tired old German stereotypes. It’s an integral part of the mindset of those of us who left our home countries because we wanted to and not because we had to. We never really felt like we belonged in the places we came from.

In 2020, the American variety of this dynamic is an especially heavy one. Being an American emigrant means being an overseas ambassador to a country that has been the arrogant neighbourhood bully for at least a few generations (and possibly many, many more, depending on the cultural context you’re speaking from). And what could be more satisfying than watching an arrogant bully tear itself to pieces?

Facing this satisfaction has shown me how American I really am. In early September, on one of the final glorious days of summer, I was sharing a bottle of wine at an outdoor table with colleagues, when talk turned to the election. Once again, there was collective disbelief that any human being with half a brain could cast a vote for Trump. Once again,I found myself explaining why Americans with whole brains (and many, many of them) would want to vote for Trump. I understand them now, in a way I might never have if I had stayed in New York.

They are my teammates, after all.

--

A month ago, I woke up and made a groggy grab for my phone. One news alert from the early hours of the morning. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the progressive doyenne of the US Supreme Court, had died.

My sadness for RBG was slow-rolling. The first few hours of the morning were a flood of shock and speculation, but by the evening I had boiled everything down into one simple truth: A righteous woman was gone, and the burden was on all of us to be righteous now.

It’s not, and never was, about me against Trump. The world creates person-to-person conflicts in order to sell ads and subscriptions. What I know now, in my wiser moments, is this: the only real matchup in my political life is between me and anything that prevents me from understanding, and then standing up for, the truth.

My own personal flavour of the truth will always be something I understand in American terms. It’s a peanut butter truth. Its textures come from the facts of my life, my family, my friends, and my surroundings, as they must. Others will come and go, and I may stand alongside or against many of them in time. But I can’t forget to anchor myself in what I stand for.

--

As I write this, Joe Biden has just become the US President-elect. The present moment feels like a rainbow after a vicious storm, savoured even more deeply because more clouds are gathering in the distance. 71 million Trump voters are still very real even if they did not carry the day. Even the most optimistic of my friends harbour few illusions about America’s ability to come together and take up a mantle of moral leadership for the democractic world.

As the US wrestles with its past and present sins, I think of Sodom and Gomorrah, and of Lot’s wife. She was given a chance to flee her homeland before it was destroyed, and was told that she could not look back until she had made it safely to the hills. But her resolve wasn’t strong enough, and when she looked back, God turned her into a pillar of salt.

For a long time, I thought I could escape too. But the past is always within us, and even if the teams change, the quest for truth remains the same. I’m looking back from the desert hills now, to the valley where I came from. I hope that when someone upstairs notices, it’s The Great High Empress Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and she turns me into a pillar of peanut butter.

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About the author

Emily Headshots
Emily Ochoa

Emily is a London-based author. She is currently Chief of Staff at Eigen Technologies, a startup focused on machine learning software.
Originally from Boise, Idaho, Emily has worked in the United States, the United Kingdom and France. She holds degrees in biology and English from Stanford University and a Master's degree in English from Oxford University. Her writings have been published in the journal The American Scholar.