My American Crossroads
How a poor immigrant from Lebanon became an American patriot
Long before I arrived at the east coast of the Promised Land in the summer of 1972—indeed, even long before I learned English—I was infatuated with America’s popular culture, with its dazzling cinema and rapturous music,. Coming of age in Beirut, the most liberal Arab city, in the 1960s meant being exposed to the highs and lows of American civilization; America permeated our politics, culture, and society. Everyone had a strong opinion about America, the nation that beguiled some and horrified others. Some managed to endlessly oscillate between both views.
I saw Citizen Kane and attended my first jazz ensemble for free at the American cultural center affiliated with the U.S. embassy in Beirut. For this poor teenager, this was like dying and going to heaven. We could not get enough of the plethora of Westerns and gangster movies offered by the cheap movie theatres in the poor neighborhoods we roamed at night. We loved American cars and memorized their names, and we enjoyed American soda—we were the Lebanese generation of Coca-Cola. Those of us who smoked brandished our Marlboro packets with pride channeling the image of the rugged Marlboro man in the famous commercials.
Watching the grainy footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, I was mesmerized by America’s scientific marvels. I also had a hint of American literature reading Arabic translations of abridged works by Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. I read Gone with the Wind in Arabic—and I still don’t know which is worse, the original English or the Arabic translation. Exploring the sublime and exacting geography of the pages written by Herman Melville, Cormac McCarthy, and particularly those of William Faulkner would have to wait for many years to come.
The few English words I picked up then were from movies and the songs we heard on the radio. We loved Elvis’ voice and imitated his hairdo. We heard a lot of rock and roll songs, soul and hythm and blues, particularly the Motown sound, and some country. My discovery of the blues, the mother of almost all modern American music, had to wait until my future crossing of the Atlantic—although unbeknownst to me then, Ray Charles and the young Elvis brought me closer to the dissonant harmonies, syncopation, and call and response that characterize the blues.
I vaguely sensed then, long before I read the U.S. Constitution and the other foundational documents of the American experience or understood the American system of government and before I was directly exposed to America’s civil society, that there was a unique combination of social dynamism and audacious cultural vitality and an intellectual devotion to the production of knowledge that set America apart. I felt instinctively that there was no way the Soviet Union, which was idolized by many Lebanese and Arab intellectuals then, could prevail in the contest with the United States.
But there was another unattractive America lurking in the background, fighting ugly wars in Asia, toppling legitimate democratic governments, adopting Israel—the rising regional superpower after the 1967 war—at the expense of the Palestinian people, and supporting a growing confederacy of vicious Middle Eastern autocrats and dictators maintaining power through coercion, all while waiving the banner of anti-communism. Those of my generation who saw this one-dimensional America only were easily hypnotized by the sirens of anti-Americanism and were lost forever.
I escaped the allure of these sirens, not by following Odysseus’ instructions to his sailors to plug their ears with beeswax, but by keeping my ears open: listening to America’s enchanting music, and by trying to inhabit the fascinatingly conflicting worlds that Hollywood constantly kept creating. Instead of being alienated by America’s contradictions and paradoxes, I was fascinated by them; instead of fearing America’s endless vistas and crossroads, I yearned to explore them—and as I did, I came to love the nation that embodied them.
America constantly stands at that crossroads, always faces a choice between what President Abraham Lincoln famously called “the better angels of our nature” and the darker side. That’s as true today as it was when I first arrived in the United States in the early 1970s.
Coming to America in the 1970s
Working mostly with poor whites, blacks, and immigrants in a variety of manual jobs that ranged from shining the floor at a Sears store to an assembly line at a Zenith television factory at the outskirts of Philadelphia, I witnessed the raw tension that was still lingering on from the violence of the race riots of the late 1960s. My familiarity with America’s popular culture, and relative knowledge of the civil rights and the anti-war movements, and my sympathies with their goals, helped me understand the travail of that crossroads. Growing up in a decidedly leftist milieu in Beirut I became familiar with Martin Luther King, Jr. Malcolm X, and other activists such as Angela Davis, whom we celebrated for her struggles at the University of California at Los Angeles.
I was pleasantly surprised that I did not experience overt discrimination at work or at Villanova University, as I initially feared. America was indeed welcoming to this foreign student who wanted to see the continent, learn English, and hopefully get a bachelor’s degree in philosophy or art history, then go back home. I don’t recall anyone making fun of my English accent or my bad grammar; people gladly corrected my mistakes.
There were also some hilarious moments in my early Americanization while encountering urban black English. My black co-workers spoke in their own slang, then known as “jive”: a “bad” movie meant a good one, and to “dig” the Middle East meant I like it. “Mama” was not your loving mother, but your hot lover. The “Man” meant the law; “duchess” meant a girl. “Groovy” meant fine and “murder” meant something terrific. A “cool cat” remains a chill fashionable person. “Signify”—widely used in blues songs—meant to boast.
But the broader meaning of “signifying” which is saying one thing but meaning another is a linguistic tool used by African-Americans in blues lingo as well as in Church and other facets of life as a way of preserving identity and a special way to communicate, outside the official, prevailing language of those wielding power.
Civil Wars, Nationalism, and Extremism
By 1976, when I moved to Virginia, a civil war was consuming Lebanon—and I have been fascinated with civil wars ever since. What makes them the most passionate and destructive of wars? Why are they framed mostly in absolutist, existential terms? Why is it that the people of a town, after living together peacefully since time immemorial, all of a sudden start killing each other with abandon? I began to read about the Spanish civil war, drawn to it because the whole European continent had torn itself apart on Spanish soil in the 1930s as a prelude to the unspeakable slaughter of the Second World War—and because many great literary figures (one witty observer quipped “everybody was there except Shakespeare”) either fought there on the side of leftist Republic or covered the war as journalists.
One day I realized that I live in Virginia, whose beautiful city of Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, and that I reside approximately 90 minutes away from Antietam, the now-bucolic site of the bloodiest day in American history. That was the beginning of my second American passion after the blues: the Civil War.
Through these two passions I explored American history. That was my introduction to Abraham Lincoln, the man I consider my secular saint and the most eloquent of all American political figures. I often wondered how envious Shakespeare would feel if he was miraculously awakened and given copies of the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address to read.
The Civil War and the blues forced me to confront America’s entire history in stark black and white, with its crossroads and its dizzying paradoxes, its promising seductions and breathtaking possibilities. How could my fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson, for instance, be a brilliant man obsessed with freedom and yet own a colony of slaves? It took me years to realize that being an American patriot is to embark on an endless journey with countless Caravanserais where you encounter different fellow travelers who, like you and me, hold certain truths to be self-evident, who would like to experience these ideas and ideals on the long and winding roads, knowing in advance that we will never reach the ultimate Caravanserai—but we nonetheless continue to yearn for that elusive perfect Caravanserai.
With each passing year, my American roots ran deeper and stronger. After I acquired a small farm in the Shenandoah Valley, in the heart of Virginia, the mother of all states, the state even atheists call God’s country, I discovered that I have finally arrived home, and home is where you are free. There was a correlation between my growing alienation from the chaotic world I left behind and my deepening Americanization. My embrace of America as my new home and last refuge was entrenched and final.
Many times I would find myself engaged in arguments with friends and acquaintances from the Middle East and Europe about the inherent pitfalls and dangers of exclusive nationalism. Maybe national identity and solidarity was a necessary phase during the era of decolonization, but political mobilization would easily turn nationalism and chauvinism—as we clearly see today in some societies in the Middle East and around the world. Although “blood and soil” became the rallying cry of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s, it has been mutating ever since as a concept in various forms in faraway locals.
I would gleefully tell my friends that in America we celebrate patriotism, in its basic meaning: the love of country, because our foundational principles and diversity preclude celebrating exclusivist nationalism. I would explain that although I am a naturalized citizen who did not hail from a European society, I could partake in celebrating American patriotism because it is creedal—that is, I’m a patriot if I accept and believe in the ideals, values and principles that undergirds American democracy and are enshrined in the foundational documents of the American Republic. Little did I know then, that there will come a day when a man and a movement will attempt to manufacture a noxious American nationalism of blood and soil, where I will not be welcomed.
The recrudescence of exclusionary nationalism and extreme identity politics
It is true that Americans at one time or another dabbled with restrictive ethnic and religious nationalisms that excluded non-whites and non-Protestant Christians, practices that led to a civil war that devoured 750,000 soldiers and remains the single most pivotal event in American history. But from the beginning of the Republic the founding brothers planted the seeds of the American Creed, a liberal polity, or as Abraham Lincoln alluded to an American civic nationalism emanating from the Declaration of Independence:
If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote the Declaration, and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.
An ill wind swept the land, beginning in the 1990s that led to the creation of a harsh breed of “new conservatives” projecting themselves as “anti-globalist” in the name of defending American sovereignty. These conservatives reject globalization and its discontents and abhor corporate America’s role in its emergence, and blame it for marginalizing millions of Americans. They are distrustful of traditional Republican tenets such as free trade and exhibiting a strong belief in the value of tariffs and protective industrial policies. They oppose a strong American international military role, and are lukewarm towards the military alliances that the U.S. created after World War II such as NATO.
Domestically they claim to be the voice of that voiceless stratum of Americans who see the caravan of the globalized world leaving them behind. They oppose immigration, particularly from non-European countries, and they reject what they see as the Democratic Party’s infatuation with identity politics (some self-proclaimed progressives are unfortunately only happy to provide them with free ammunition). These new radical conservatives see any large corporation weighing in on a major public issue, particularly if it is seen as a “progressive” cause as toxic “woke capitalism,” a term coined by conservative columnist Ross Douthat.
America’s crossing from the twentieth to the twenty-first century was fraught with cultural wars, brought about by the deliberate poisoning of the political language, and the framing of political differences in absolutist or even existential terms. This is the new “take no prisoners” politics, and the “scorched earth” approach to governance, championed by the gurus of this resentful tribe, harsh unsentimental men like Newt Gingrich and Patrick Buchanan.
This war was fought on many fronts: abortion, gay rights, same sex marriage, religion in public schools and recently, the two most toxic and passionate ones: unrestricted gun ownership and race relations, which began to fray further with the elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. The political and social polarizations of the last thirty years; the demonization of opponents, the blurring of the lines between the cultural wars and actual violence, and the fraying of the center, signaling that things are beginning to fall apart, is eerily reminiscent of the political and cultural milieu that dominated America’s slide on the road to perdition in the late 1850s.
The election of President Obama brought the best and the worst in America. Tens of millions of us voted for the character and the views of the man who appeared to be the antidote of the ill wind still sweeping the land. But there were also the other tens of millions of our fellow Americans who recoiled, some literally, at the thought of a black man at the White House. Some flocked to the “Tea Party,” others saw in Sarah Palin their new minted American Amazon woman. Then came Donald Trump.
The once and future fight for real patriotism in America
I have never thought even in my bleakest moments that an American president would praise white supremacists and anti-Semites howling publicly “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us.” A president who would unabashedly flirt with despots, peddle overt xenophobia and stoke naked nativism, while basking in the adoration of tens of millions of our fellow Americans; our neighbors, co-workers and members of our extended families.
What has become of us? I repeatedly asked. It was painful to think that in the twilight of my life, in my little country in the wider country, my patriotism would be suspect, only because I sprouted from a different soil and a different blood runs through my veins. I never thought that I would ever doubt what I used to call “that moment of bliss” when I decided to embrace America as my new home and last refuge. But I have to admit that there were moments where I teetered on that sharp edge, when home seemed less warm, less free, less welcoming, and when home came close to being unrecognizable.
We are approaching a crucial crossroads in 2024, and we are still trying to protect ourselves from the dust bowl that Trump and his movement have kept lingering over our heads. We have to admit that many Trump supporters, implicitly or explicitly, do not subscribe to that audacious, if not fully realized proposition that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This group of Americans has alienated itself from the sublime quest of forming “a more perfect Union” where we would “secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” These Americans have already reduced the Constitution to the Second Amendment.
Marching towards that crossroads, our battle cry of renewed American freedom should be the revival of liberal inclusive patriotism, in sharp contrast with their resentful and exclusive nationalism.
Looking back at the political and cultural carnage Trump bequeathed us, I still have good reasons to believe in the resilience of American democracy. Since the Second World War, American democracy was repeatedly tested by foreign and domestic enemies; two costly land wars in Korea and Vietnam, the backlash of McCarthyism, and the violence that accompanied the Civil Rights and the anti-war movements, and the political assassinations of the 1960s. During my American life, American democracy withstood the blows of Watergate and the resignation of the first president in American history. Finally, these foreign and domestic travails did not prevent America from ending the twentieth century with a resounding victory in the Cold War against the Soviet Union.
The new century shook the foundations of the Republic when atavistic hatreds were married to modern technology and brought us closer to the apocalypse on that fine morning of September 11, 2001, which eventually dragged America to the longest two wars in its history in Afghanistan and Iraq. And yet, with all the tumult, the tragic losses, wrenching self-doubt, exaggerated initial responses and the occasional hubris, the shaken center of American governance held and things did not fall apart.
In blues mythology, Tommy Johnson (1896-1956) a Mississippi Delta bluesman, sold his soul to the Devil around midnight at the crossroads of Highways 49 and 61 in exchange for incredible music talent and the mastery of guitar playing. (The myth of the crossroads is widely associated with the more famous Robert Johnson, 1911–1938 and no relation to Tommy, who sang “Cross Road Blues.” However, blues music historians believe that Tommy was the first to make that particular bargain.)
At the crossroads of 2024, America will be tested and tempted in a similar fashion, to sell its democratic soul to a diabolical force in exchange for a well-regulated dystopian future. The time is now to summon the modern liberal minutemen to prevent that deadly bargain.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and the Washington correspondent for Radio Monte Carlo in Paris, France.