R. Joseph Hoffmann

R. Joseph Hoffmann
Boston, Massachusetts, USA
December 16
R. Joseph Hoffmann is a Boston-based entity who prefers Deer Isle, Maine, where he piddles with restoring the oldest house on the island (1806), scrapes ice from inside windows, wishes for a new furnace. Profession-wise, he's taught at Oxford, Ann Arbor and parts of the Middle East and Africa. He was scholar in residence at Goddard College and lectures in liberal arts at the New England Conservatory. More of his stuff--rants and lessons--and links to still more can be found at the New Oxonian. Email: joseph.hoffmann@keble.oxon.org


DECEMBER 3, 2009 3:49PM

Political Atheism

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I was having dinner with friends before leaving the sweltering Lahore summer to return to Maine in June.  Discussion turned to politics, as it often does in foreign parts.  Having spent most of my professional life, by choice, outside the United States, I have learned to fine–tune my discourse, even to absorb comments that betray a woeful lack of information or historical perspective on America.

The one that requires the deftest response is what I have come to call the “German question.” Every expat has heard it in one form or another:  “How is it that America continues to be strong?”  A rough translation is, “Given your Coca-Cola view of the world, your cave-dwelling masses who can’t find Europe on the map,  a national legislature whose debates we run on our comedy channels, why hasn’t your country blown itself up?”

America, as we all know, is unavoidable.  I have spent my whole life running from it.  Probably because the various movements ranging from tepid socialism to anarchism to secular humanism that try to make a dent in its demeanor and overt sense of Exceptionalism are full of Americans, they quickly become homespun, dull and remind you of church.  To avoid this curse of serial movementeering  I  joined the motley band of those who take exception to exceptionalism in the far corners of the world. 

Here we try to avoid each other and cultivate local connections by pretending we’re a lot more interesting than we really are.  The common denominator among expatriates is that each of us privately thinks the reasons he is living abroad are terribly important  and special whereas anyone else's presence abroad marks him as a misfit or a political refugee.  (In the case of missionaries, this is usually true.)

But the word “misfit” will do, especially for Americans.  I have been a misfit in Australia, where my older daughter was born, in England, where my younger daughter was born, and with wife and them in tow developed graduate skills as a misfit in three African nations, in Beirut, in Wider Europe, in Pakistan.

I knew I was at an irredeemable point in my exile when, on her return to Oxford, a teacher asked my nine-year-old daughter if she had ever lived out of the country–in this case outside the UK—and when she began to rattle off for the benefit of a dazzled group of classmates the places she had lived the teacher said, “No dear, I didn’t ask where you have gone for holiday.”



Unfortunately, the condition of being a real misfit is probably an irreversible condition.  You know this when you realize that the only place you feel really Not at Home is back in the USA.  Odd, because I always considered myself a non-extremist politically.  I do not seek the overthrow of the United States government nor predict with French hauteur that America’s ascendancy in the twentieth century was a drole act of Fate, serving as further disproof of the existence of a just God.

I do not believe America is evil.  I do not think other countries, with the exception of Iceland, are “better,” or at least not much better.  And I regard the idea that America is the “greatest nation on earth” as the kind of Barnumesqe mildew that grows on the brains of gun lobbyists, NASCAR addicts and people from Alabama, generally.  Like a pretty good novel, America has a pretty good story to tell.  It's just not very good at telling it.

My  misfitedness has now reached a critical level.  This visit home coincided with two epic events, or rather the aftermath of them:  the election of Barack Obama and the  (consequent) possibility that other countries would begin to see an aspect of “America” that corresponds to what Americans think about themselves—the “liberty and justice for all” bit.

As a believer in omens and appreciator of the British knack for getting ceremony right—especially occasions of state—I was a bit thrown off by the Inauguration—a Chief Justice who botched the only solemn component of the day, the Oath of Office, ah! and that dreadful flatulent praying and that worse poem (etc.).  But I could defend these things by saying, “Hey: we’re a seriously democratic place that takes mediocrity seriously.  Why shouldn’t awful liturgy be the appropriate paradigm for what we’re all about?”

But nine months on, my return passage is booked.  “Yes we can” has become, “Maybe not.”

Simple principles of justice, embedded in the reform of health care for this allegedly rich and powerful and compassionate nation, are turning into another fight about bogeymen—euthanizers, atheists with syringes prowling hospice corridors, putting Alzheimer's patients on ice flows and charging them for the mileage.



As the country eats more and learns less, its historical-revolutionary spirit in politics has descended to the level of a football game where policy and real issues matter far less than popularity and the opportunity to change the team at half time.  America’s brain seems to have gone to its trans-fatty butt.

Flash: Obama Poll numbers down.

Flash:  Republicans poised to take back the House in 2010.

And, of course, Flash:  Sarah Palin reveals the secrets of her rogue, maverick, not to be judged by human standards plan for America in new book.  Viable in 2012?

Never mind that literally nothing has happened to cause these numbers to change.  The point is, a game is being played.  Half time is coming up.  The paradigm for politics has been set by Wal-Mart, where store-wide Thanksgiving came in July and Christmas on Labor Day.

Is the point to get to the Apocalypse sooner?  Just to vindicate the expectations of Pentecostal Republicans?

So now I am a stranger in a strange land, where not the election but the assassination of JFK has become the seminal and defining element in a country that seemed to have taken a giant step forward last January but is better at taking bigger steps back.

I suppose America has always been an idea, more than a country.  That is why it is hated around the world.  It’s a theological dilemma isn’t it?  Just like the God who is meant to be supremely good and compassionate and merciful and fair turns out to be a rogue (sorry, Sarah), America turns out to be nothing but a disappointment, the negation of the ideal. 

You learn to doubt a God like that.  You learn to be a political atheist about a country like that.

With its gaming politics, its weird sense of what racism is or isn’t, its refusal to rise above sensationalism to its better instincts, and its stubborn refusal to put its best face forward in times of international stress, it has become (to borrow a phrase) Hollywood’s suburb, and easy to hate.  Do we really care that Team Salahi got through security to the Glam Ball.  Isn't that what it was all about? What part of glitz and celeb did they not understand?

But, like I said, I do not hate it.  I am merely a misfit, a prophet not at home in his own country.



So, I said to my friend in Lahore:  “You’re going back to Paris, but will you come back—from Paris?”  And she said, “Yes, I can only be French when I am out of France.”

And I said, “I know what you mean.”

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"Here we try to avoid each other and cultivate local connections by pretending we’re a lot more interesting than we really are. The common denominator among expatriates is that each of us privately thinks the reasons he is living abroad are terribly important and special whereas anyone else's presence abroad marks him as a misfit or a political refugee."

Well, R. Joseph, I guess you and I are the only expats who have important reasons for living abroad (although I'm not so sure about you...)

Great essay!
amusing. your children will be well placed to survive the looming 'great extinction,' if several languages and a flexible attachment to society are any help.

i left as a simple means of removing my taxes from the military industrial complex, but watching what has happened in the land of the free since then has created a certain unease: did i, and like-minded people, so reduce the national iq as to allow the 'red-necks' to come to power?
It is only the misfits and political refugees who are interesting.