For people over fifty, starting over in a new country is like dropping a lab rat in a complex maze. Like the rat, you suddenly find yourself in a totally unknown environment that constantly confronts you were new decisions and dilemmas. For example, learning to use a new phone system. It took me months to figure out the Christchurch phone book. I also had to learn to dial 111 for emergencies, 1 for an outside line and 0 if I wanted to call a cellphone or long distance number. And not to waste hours redialing when I got a "fast busy" signal -- which means the number has been disconnected.
It helped a lot to meet other American expatriates struggling with the same problems. It was also extremely gratifying to realize I was not alone in my absolute repudiation of Bush's wars of aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq. As I would later learn, tens of thousands of American progressives and liberals left the US during the Bush years. In November 2003, expatriate Americans led the London demonstrations protesting Bush's London visit and the war in Iraq (see www.independent.co.uk/"/american-expatriates--to-lead-the-protests-against-bush-735836.html). American expatriates also formed major voting blocs for Kerry in 2004 and for Obama in 2008 (see http://www.wordhcmc.com/insider/160-general/662-democrats-abroad?tmpl=component&print=1&page).
My Struggle With American Exceptionalism
Ironically the biggest hurdle I had to overcome was my own lack of objectivity regarding my native country. For some reason, no matter how strongly Americans consciously reject America's immoral and corrupt political system, we all unconsciously buy into the American exceptionalism that is pounded into us in school and via the mainstream media. The belief that the US is not only the foremost military and economic power, but also the most productive, efficient, cleanest, healthiest, transparent, just and scientifically advanced.
This is an extremely rude awakening for many Americans. It certainly was for me. In my case, Kiwi colleagues confronted me for my attitude that the US was more advanced in medical research. As I look back, I am both mystified and embarrassed that I took this position. I have known for at least two decades that US medical research is mainly funded by drug companies. I also know that Big Pharma has a well-earned reputation for buying and publishing research that promotes profits at the expense of scientific objectivity (I have written a number of articles about this for OpEdNews).
During my 8 1/2 years in New Zealand, I have come to understand that citizens in all great military empires are under enormous pressure to hold and express patriotic and exceptionalist beliefs. In Nazi Germany, you could be shot on the street for unpatriotic statements. The British public was under similar pressure when the UK was the world's greatest empire. In Victorian England, women were expected to engage in marital sex as a patriotic duty. As in, "Just close your eyes and think of England."
American Ambivalence Towards Empire
Moreover, as with many American expatriates, it took leaving the country to realize how completely US militarism overshadows all aspects of American life. Again I have known for decades that the US government spends more than half their budget on the military -- that they do so to guarantee US corporations access to cheap natural resources and sweat shop labor, as well as markets for their cheap agricultural exports. However it took moving overseas for it to sink in that Americans owe their high standard of living to "economic imperialism," to US military domination of third world resources.
As a long time progressive, I tended to place the entire blame for the bloated US military budget on the US military-industrial complex and the immense power defense contractors wield via their campaign contributions and ownership of US media outlets. I didn't fully understand the financial consequences of world military domination for ordinary Americans -- mainly a lower price for most consumer goods. It took the daily of experience of living in a smaller, poorer, non military nation and paying a lot more for gasoline, books, meat, fish and other products -- on a much lower income -- to fully understand this.
Americans Love Cheap Gasoline, Coffee and Sugar
I think the American public, for the most part, is profoundly ambivalent about the concept of empire. In public opinion polls, Americans consistently oppose foreign wars, except where "US interests" are at stake. However policy makers and the mainstream media are deliberately vague in defining "US interests." Prior to 1980, a threat to American interests meant a clear threat to America's democratic system of government or the lives of individual Americans. With the current wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, "US interests" have clearly expanded to include the billions of gallons of cheap foreign oil required for the health of the American economy. Americans love their cheap gasoline, coffee, sugar and chocolate. And most aren't consciously aware that they owe these cheap luxuries to US military conquests in the third world. If pollsters actually posed the question "Would you give up cheap imported consumer goods to end foreign military aggression?" -- I believe the percentage supporting war would rise significantly.
What Americans Sacrifice for Military Empire
At the same time, Americans make immense sacrifices for their cheap gasoline and consumer goods. Again, something I only fully recognized after moving to a country that doesn't feel compelled to invade and occupy other nations. The most obvious sacrifice involves a range of domestic programs that other developed countries take for granted. These include publicly financed universal health care (in all industrialized countries except the US) and a range of education, jobs and social programs enacted under Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, which were systematically eliminated to expand military spending. With the current War on Terror on eight fronts (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, the Philippines, Africa and Columbia), even state and local tax funding sources are being diverted to military spending. In state after state there is no money to repair decrepit roads and bridges or provide adequate street lighting and policing. While dozens of clinics, libraries and homeless shelters shut their doors and teachers, cops and other state and local employees get laid off.
Sacrificing Democratic Rights and Civil Liberties
Americans also make enormous non-financial sacrifices -- especially around democratic rights and civil liberties -- as citizens of the world's greatest military power. This, too, only became clear once I became an expatriate. Civilized society is innately repelled by the wholesale carnage of war, especially where there is a high risk of losing friends or loved ones. In fact, the majority of women, who comprise more than fifty percent of the population, consistently oppose any military tactics that kill large numbers of enemy civilians. There is also an increasing number of men who expect their tax dollars to be spent on public programs that directly benefit them, rather than Wall Street banks and corporate war profiteers. Thus genuine democracy -- in which Americans are allowed genuine input into the decision to spend more than half their tax dollars on weapons and war -- is totally incompatible with military empire. This was the main reason Roman leaders abandoned their democracy when they set about invading Europe.