Last week, I went to the US embassy here in Gaborone to renew my passport.
Back in college, my roommate Gabriel came up with a running gag. It’s an action movie fantasy sequence: you’re stranded in the capital of some foreign country, the government has collapsed, and everything is falling apart. Explosions, burning cars, the whole bit – and you’re sprinting through the carnage toward the US embassy.
You’re waving your passport in the air and yelling, “I’M AN AMERICAN!!!!” (If you know Gabe, you can hear his voice at this moment). The Marines fight through the chaos to grab you and push you through the gate. You’ve made it, and the Blackhawk helicopter touches down to take you away to safety.
Any time Gabe would randomly yell “I’M AN AMERICAN!!!” in the dorm, we’d all crack up.
Embassies, in reality, are mundane and bureaucratic places, and Botswana is probably the safest and most stable country in Africa. But I can’t help replaying this gag in my head every time I go down to the embassy. It’s all I can do to keep myself from re-enacting it.
In the Consular waiting room they have a big flatscreen that plays inspirational (propaganda?) films that feature all the things that make America so amazing. New Orleans jazz, the best universities in the world, NASA, the Constitution, etc.
I’m no nationalist, but when the video that featured people jumping into mountain lakes in the Colorado Rockies and hiking the Highline trail at Glacier National Park, and bison trudging through the snow in a Yellowstone winter, I’m not afraid to admit I was a little emotional.
It’s a funny thing to feel that unique pull back to your home when you’re very far away. I was buoyed by the kindness and efficiency that our State Department showed to the other people in the room: Batswana, Indians, and Zambians who were applying for visas to travel to my country. Some for business, some for family.
We joked together about the very weird-looking American Bison there in the waiting room as the films played on a loop. I explained to my Motswana neighbor that it’s just as dangerous as a Cape Buffalo if provoked. Since the embassy security staff confiscates our phones at the gate, we made our own entertainment, we talked to one another – citizens and foreigners alike on a little patch of America abroad.
I have this amazing privilege – there’s no other word for it. That passport I’m waving over my head in the original fantasy? It takes me nearly everywhere, without a single question. It’s the Golden Ticket. No questions asked, “Go right through, sir. America is the best land of freedom!”, as a Botswana border official told me three years ago.
The good will and the good nature our fundamentally good nation (I believe it!) has engendered around the globe stuns me sometimes. The USA, as far as my experience around this wide world, is still – despite it all – a harbor of hope for something better.
I worry that we’re throwing it away.
We’re throwing it away as we sell off the public lands featured in those very embassy videos.
We throw it away when we lock up children in camps.
We throw it away when we allow our “allies” to murder journalists.
We throw it away when we turn our faces away, when we openly endorse hate, racism, and jingoism.
We’re throwing it away.
We are better than that. With the mid-term election on November 6, I am exercising my vote against corruption, against racism, against xenophobia, against violence, against fear, against cynicism. I’m voting for open spaces and public lands, and fairness and transparency in our judicial system, for public education, for the generosity and magnanimity that America has shown the world in the past, and I know can show again in the future.
I’m voting for the ideals and principles that are wrapped up in that passport, that lay the foundations for my privilege to be an American. This nation of ours is not perfect, and we can always do better. Voting is your opportunity, my opportunity – our privilege – to do better.
Remember to vote on November 6!