I get nervous in the company of Americans these days, especially embassy people. It's not quite Hunter S. Thompson at the district attorneys' convention but there's a feeling of unease.
I have been joking lately about the divisions between Red America and Blue America. Maybe I shouldn't have -- now I can't stop thinking about it -- but probably it's true that cultural divisions are the greatest since Vietnam.
When a bunch of military attaches are present at a private party I have to assume that many of them are Red and that they might assume I am Red, too. I don't want to be like a Blue agent in their midst or something and carry on a pretence. It's not like there are any obvious cues that mark me as Blue, such as a headband or hippie glasses. So I feel like I should intimate clearly to the Reds that I am leaning Blue yet persuade them that I really do love my country -- both colours at the same time. When I do say something it can end up sounding quite odd.
The other night I was at a party -- about 20 of us were playing a Yahtzee-like dice game. Conversation flowed the way it does when there is some drinking and you are playing a repetitive game of chance with no money staked. There is a lot of conversational riffing. It is almost like clanging. It is uninhibited within the framework of the game.
There were a handful of American military there and for some reason, at some point the only thing in my head was 9/11. After all these years. I just couldn't help it. Someone said, about some food, "there's rice in it", and I turned around and said loudly, "Did you say there's ricin in it?!" I didn't, actually, but I came very close.
It wasn't even something partly in context and semi-pointed, as if someone mentioned the film "Resident Evil" and I had said, "But I thought the name of the film was 'President Evil' and it was a documentary about Bush."
It was like a kind of Tourette's syndome where I felt compelled to make insane terrorism-themed references. Or as if I had taken bad advice from a misguided guidebook to heart -- "Americans still take their 9/11 very seriously, and many will be touched when you venture interest in or touch on terrorism-related subjects".
After introductions, is it appropriate to put my hand on an American colonel's arm gently and say, "Think you'll finally catch him this year?" (meaning Osama)? All of a sudden, I didn't know anymore.
For all I know, Red Americans don't think about 9/11 on a daily basis or the potential gravity of Bush's crimes. Therein, I think, lies the problem. There's this huge elephant at the table. I guess I didn't really have the chance to talk about 9/11 and everything that stemmed from it with mainstream Americans when I was in the country.
And the reality is that many Red Americans, especially Midwesterners in the military, are the loveliest people in the world since Eisenhower. Their faces radiate decorum and decency and honour, even the elusive quality of gravitas. They can be likeable folks like the parents of a close friend from high school or something. And yet I realize that many probably truly believe that their country is doing the right thing. And that is what really gets me. I feel bad about saying it directly. So perhaps I hold back longer than I should.
At least I played the dice game for four hours and didn't make a single wisecrack about McCain and his gambling. But as it turned out, there were no hangups with the election. In fact two Estonian women polled everyone there. They asked all the Americans how they were voting. Got to hand it to them. Not "did you vote yet?" or "what do you think about the election" but "how are you voting?"
I gave them my standard reply -- I won't be voting for any more candidates; this is 2008 and there should be direct democracy. But yeah, that I liked Obama, because we're too far rrmoved from social democracy, and tax rates are ridiculously low compared to what they were in the 1970s.
I thought it was a good answer, but the other Americans blew me away, with measured answers that actually revealed nothing -- a clinic in diplomacy. But I noticed one referred to Obama by his first name.
A Blue agent, I thought.