When being ‘American’ gets in the way
“Where do you come from?” A Libyan asked me, his face still skeptical of me and my recorder. I could feel my chance slipping away.
“Me? Where do I come from?” I asked, hoping the question would be dropped, as we stood awkwardly in the center of the Swiss border town of Chiasso.
My business with this man, and another fellow, was to interview them about uncomfortable topics: asylum and racism.
The men had traveled north from Italy, and entered the Swiss asylum process by way of the Dublin accord; Italy granted them temporary permits, so they could travel anywhere in Western Europe, even to apply for asylum.
“Yeah.” The man said.
It had taken me a few minutes of showing my business card from my radio outlet, letting them see in my bag to be sure I wasn’t filming them, and telling them what the local government thought about refugees, before they even spoke with me.
And now they wanted to know my nationality. And I didn’t want to ruin what fragile dialogue we had.
“Canada,” I said.
I am not normally a liar, but in that moment I wasn’t sure what honesty would garner. If I were to tell a Libyan that I was American, in the midst of a NATO mission to ensure a “no-fly zone” while trying to overthrow the country’s long-time leader, what would happen?
I was alone, far from my safety net.
“I could tell, you are not from here, Europe,” he said. He didn’t seem to care where I was from, just that I wasn’t Swiss, or Italian, or any other nationality with which he has grievances.
The interview was quickly finished, and no more of my story was told aside the white lie. But I felt guilty, and would apologize, and do, if ever I could.
One thing an American journalist, in theory, can be without fear is an American; a civic-minded, well-informed citizen.
Again, in theory, journalists need not fear having patriotic tendencies, or overall pride in one’s community. That pride or patriotism doesn’t prevent cynicism, skepticism, or displeasure with that same community, of course.
In my opinion that mixture of pride and skepticism is what helps fill a journalist-sized hole in society — we are the ones who see the darkest souls and brightest angels our communities nurture or neglect, and we are the ones who can shine a brighter light on the virtue and vice.
Young journalists are warned to be careful of their associations before they’ve sharpened their first pencils for their first scoops. The reason is straight-forward enough: a journalist shouldn’t associate in a way which might question the integrity of his or her journalism.
Even the perception of bias could corrupt the public view of all subsequent coverage by that reporter, with justification or without.
Being an American, though, well that’s just okay.
So what happens when an American reporter can’t be “American” without hesitation? What happens when a journalist has to tread lightly with one’s patriotism?
I like to stand by and for what I say, and let others know I am an honorable person. In most circumstances I wouldn’t hesitate to say who I am, what I do, and where I come from. Transparency is most often the best remedy for society.
But if a journalist’s work is to tell stories, or explore society, is it okay to evade or fib so that the journalism is not hampered or corrupted? Is this more than an American backpacking through Europe with a Canadian flag patch?
It feels different.
The Cairo Example
Our taxi driver weaved in and out of mystifying traffic jams, and made small-talk in Arabic with Hamed, while I sat gazing out the window soaking in Egypt for the first time.
“He wants to know where you’re from,” Hamed said, meaning my nationality.
“Oh yeah? Um…just tell him I work for Swiss public radio,” I answered.
Hamed knew I’m American, and although I told the truth about my employer, he gave me a puzzled look at first. But then he understood.
“Ah, you’re probably right, that’s best.”
It’s not that there was a great danger identifying my nationality, but it’s a calculation of how much of a risk did I want to take for a long conversation about American foreign policy, especially as it related to the Middle East.
I’ve had many of those conversations, and I try to build bridges and inform people best I can.
But sometimes those conversations derail the interaction or experience I was hoping for, or needed to get to do my job.
Patriotic or Neurotic?
Melodramatic it may be, but I believe there is such a thing as healthy civic-pride.
My time in the Boy Scouts of America (as an Eagle Scout, and later as a staffer and leader); years of involvement in civic programs, and groups; time interviewing civic leaders; I certainly feel invested in America.
Patriotism is often hijacked for political gain, to the detriment of genuine civic engagement, in my opinion. Also many journalists develop more of that cynicism I mentioned before, and disregard or ignore the responsibility of a free press to safeguard and make better the democratic process through information.
But me? I value civic pride and responsibility.
I have to think that a risk to one’s self is grounds for keeping personal details concealed, but I can’t say for sure this was my motivation with the Libyan fellow.
Perhaps another reason was my worry a tentative, fragile, anonymous interview would implode with mention of the United States. It’s the same in the Cairo cab — am I ready to, through a translator, offer perspective on foreign policy or political rhetoric?
The story I was working on was not about me, nor about the USA, and I wanted to keep it that way.
Still, I felt bad for selling out Uncle Sam. Even if my family did come down from Canada just a few generations ago, and even if I lived not so far from the Canadian border, there was only one answer to where I come from: the United States of America.
Citizenship can sometimes be like a stereotype, flavoring interactions with new acquaintances before you’ve built your own unique relationship.
I’ve met people who, upon learning I am American, only wanted to hear my thoughts on Palestinian statehood, or why George W. Bush did xyz, or what Barack Obama really meant when…or why Donald Trump…
Some of those conversations I pursue.
But other times they can sour and prevent connections, or exploration of someone else’s experiences…outside the context of global affairs.
We hold identities and talents beyond our citizenship. And those human interactions are sometimes needed most.
Tony Ganzer is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster. He’s reported from Oslo, to Cairo, to Cleveland, with bylines for NPR, Deutsche Welle, Swissinfo, and more. Find more: http://www.anthonyganzer.com