March 2008 Reflection

“The American in Europe is everywhere confronted with the question of his identity, and this may be taken as the key to all the contradictions one encounters when attempting to discuss him…If the American found in Europe only confusion, it would obviously be infinitely wiser for him to remain at home. Hidden, however, in the heart of the confusion he encounters here is that which he came so blindly seeking: the terms on which he is related to his country, and to the world.”

– James Baldwin, “A Question of Identity”

In his essay on the American student colony in Paris, Baldwin explores the American student’s introduction to the modes and methods of Parisians, and he concludes that while the American may come to Europe seeking indifference and irresponsibility, his American passport invests him with a kind of public power. It is an essay with great relevance for any student who travels abroad for further study. Baldwin argues that the American student is forced to become acutely and uncomfortably conscious of his American-ness: “What the European, in a thoroughly exasperating innocence, assumes is that the American cannot, of course, be divorced from the so diverse phenomena which make up his country, and that he is willing, and able, to clarify the American conundrum.” Little has changed since Baldwin’s time: the American student in Europe is still asked to serve as his country’s mouthpiece, even if he feels himself inadequate to the task.

Baldwin notes that the American student, confronted with hard questions about his homeland, begins to resent his new surroundings and “cannot wait, it seems, to look again on his native land—the virtues of which, if not less crude, have also become, abruptly, simple, and vital.” This feeling—a renewed patriotism in the face of criticism—has changed, but the difference is one of degree and not kind. European criticism is sharper, and more specific, and so the American’s retreat into love of country and things familiar becomes all the more acute. I defend America in Ireland with more patriotic zeal than I thought myself capable, an experience which, among the Mitchell scholars, seems to be more common than one might have expected. And I often find myself parrying attacks on America’s diminished military strength, economic security, or moral authority like a boxer on the ropes, unable to throw a decent punch in the opposite direction.

But the prognosis isn’t all negative. When I probe the comments of my Irish friends, what I find is that they understand, for the most part, that America can and ought to play an active and constructive role in the world. They believe us to be primer inter pares, first among equals, but they sense that we have forgotten the back half of that dictum. I think they might be right, and perhaps their feelings contain the greatest wisdom I’ll take back from the year: arrogance stings worst when your friends still believe in your good intentions and your power to do right.

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