The Good American

The Good American

This piece started out as a book review of What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s memoir of what it was like to be at the center of what I often hear referred to as “the election,” but which is typically meant as a reference to a whole series of events and emotions leading up to and following the 2016 presidential election. I read advance reviews of the book in an attempt to gauge the general reaction to it and found myself thinking, as I often did during that election, that very often a “fair” treatment of Clinton is a distinctly critical one—even as factual treatments of her opponent for the presidency are decried by him, his lackeys, and his supporters as “unfair.” I wondered what a fair assessment of Clinton’s book might look like and whether a fair assessment is equivalent to an objective assessment.

As I drafted and then redrafted in my head, I realized that I had nothing objective to say about what it was like to hopefully cast my first vote as a new American citizen for a highly competent woman for the highest office in this country that has become my home and to watch that office go instead to a uniquely incompetent man. So instead this piece is a brief description about what I have learned about what it means to be an American in the two decades that I have lived here, and how it has shaped my view of why What Happened, happened. It may or may not be fair to anyone but myself, and it will almost certainly be very subjective.

For a long time, I felt like a stranger in America, and America felt strange to me. I did not understand why Americans smiled so often or why they sometimes seemed to say things they didn’t actually mean. It seemed to me that Americans were often making vague references to plans to see each other that they never intended to keep, giving compliments too easily, saying I love you too easily. Later, when the United States had begun to feel like my home, I thought of my relationship to the States as an arranged marriage that happened to have turned out happy. I’ve realized more recently that this analogy is flawed (and perhaps not entirely culturally sensitive), because it implies a contrast of choice, but of course, most people don’t get to choose the country that will be their home. For most people that place is where they were born, for better or worse.

The more fitting analogy might be that a country is to a person much like a parent is to a child. It strikes me as I get older and enjoy more and more of the benefits of having been born and brought into a wealthy nation and raised by parents who tried to do their best by me, that both pairings are as entirely capricious as they are consequential. And just as parents attempt to impart on their children a sense of what a person should be, nations impart on their inhabitants a sense of what it means to belong to it.

These mythologies are mixed blessings. Finland, the country of my birth, used to boast one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Partially a product, no doubt, of its regard for a particularly Finnish brand of stoicism described by Finns as sisu, roughly translatable as perseverance or grit, but which contains an added flavor of something like defiance—a sneer at suffering. Finns are not without humor, but they believe in taking themselves seriously and others at their word. A casual mention of “let’s hang out sometime” to a Finn is likely to cause them to pull out their calendar. (As I’ve become more Americanized I have often thought Finns might benefit from adopting some of the more casual effusiveness of Americans.) These qualities can make Finns seem standoffish and even a bit awkward, but for better or worse, they are products of what it means to be Finnish, or at least, what Finns believe it means to be Finnish.

Here is what I have learned about what Americans believe it means to be an American: Americans play fair, Americans work hard, Americans believe in family and service, but above all, Americans are good. And Americans like to feel good. Europeans often observe that America is a country of paradoxes, dualities, dichotomies, a country of both fervent evangelism and a thriving porn industry, a country with an epidemic of obesity and a fixation with impossibly thin actresses and models. But of course there is nothing contradictory about any of that; it feels good to feel righteous just as it feels good to feel aroused. It feels good to eat calorie-rich foods just as it feels good to be admired.

Hillary Clinton’s memoir will not make you feel good, because Hillary Clinton is not in the business of making people feel good. Perhaps that among many other reasons is why she lost the election. As different as Trump and Obama’s platforms were, as disparate as the mark their presidencies will leave on history, it feels good to feel enraged just as it feels good to hope. I'm not trying to draw a parallel between President Trump and President Obama—there isn’t one. I’m merely saying that both of their presidential campaigns captured the emotions of their supporters. They made their followers feel something it felt good to feel.

Clinton’s campaign certainly made her supporters feel good, but it also asked voters more broadly to be something they are not: unemotional. It asked voters on the right to consider whether a man gifted in generating outrage was a man to bear the enormous responsibility of leading our country. It asked voters on the left to consider the practical implications of scrapping the Affordable Care Act in favor of the single-payer system Bernie Sanders campaigned for. It asked voters across the spectrum to lay down their outrage and their hopes and to consider the facts. Facts don’t make people feel good.

My husband sometimes gets frustrated when I paint in broad strokes like these (imagine a spouse pontificating on the perception of time when you’re just trying to agree on how to divvy up the holidays between your two families), and I admit that sometimes philosophizing is a really good way to miss the actual point. Surely people everywhere like to feel good, right? Sure they do, but there is something unique in American culture that tells Americans they have the right to feel good. This is directly counter to my Finnish upbringing, which has left me with the impression that suffering is the very essence of life, and that the thing is to bear it with dignity.

If you read Hillary Clinton’s book, it will not make you feel good. She makes explicit mention in the book to how not good it felt to write it—she examines her own mistakes, the years of partisan politics that made so many Americans distrust her, and the many other forces outside of her control that contributed to her ultimately losing the election—but she wrote it anyway, because for better or worse, Hillary Clinton is a person who is not afraid to contend with the facts. To me, therein lies the difference between feeling good and being good.