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An Expatriate’s Apology

Since telling people that we’re soon to be back on our native continent, I’ve had many people ask (on- and offline) whether I was going to change the title of this blog. A discussion of this blog’s title has been kicking around in my head since I first started it. My varied attempts to write and post it, however, have always been derailed and my attention was then drawn to other, more immediate and worthwhile-seeming endeavours. Constant moving does that to you. All told, from Sammy’s birth to when we’ll be in our next “permanent” home in Richmond and done with this madness again for a while, we’ll have changed residences 9 times in 30 months — with 2 of those moves being trans-Atlantic. And I wonder why my hair has gone all grey…

Anyway, after nearly 2 years overseas, I’ll not just be back in a nation-state where I hold citizenship but my birth country. I suppose if anything would compel me to no longer refer to myself as an expatriate, that would be it — being nestled back into the bosom of my mother country and receiving firm yet supportive guidance from my fatherland. There are a variety of reasons why this is not the case for me, however, and why my self-identification as an expatriate and the philosophical mandate of this blog (such as it is) might even be reinforced by returning to the United States. Indulge me while I discuss them in roughly descending order of practicality.

First, I’ve lived almost all of my adult life in a country other than the United States. I imagine that fact alone would make many Americans think of me as some sort of aberration, not to mention the fact that I proudly hold another country’s citizenship in addition to my American citizenship.

Next, even if I’d never left the United States, my opinions would mark me for many as an outsider in my own country. I strive to be as non-ideological as possible, which is problematic in and of itself in the current American political culture. Further, the ideological positions towards which I err on the side (as we all must from time to time) are not exactly on the ascendant in the United States these days. I am by no stretch of the imagination a traditionally religious person, but I also am not a Richard Dawkins-style activist atheist calling for all idols to be smashed, either. I maintain a deep skepticism about the ability of government to affect positive change. Nonetheless, by no means do I think that justifies exalting greed as a virtue, letting markets have free rein to exploit the weak, or forsaking justice and fairness as the only proper core principles of our political order. (I suspect that many of my Canadian friends might perceive these statements as pretty common sense. I would suggest that perception is a sign of how much we take a particular idea of Canadian-ness for granted, and point out that last year Toronto elected Rob Ford as its mayor.)

Lastly, my status as a conventional citizen is at least partially compromised by status as a student of political philosophy. Political philosophy (in its original classical sense) works to grant one a critical evaluative perspective on the political things, including and especially one’s own. From such a perspective, all political opinions are understood as flawed and arbitrary products of their particular environments, bulwarked by blind tradition and enforced by threats of violence. At the same time, the deep insight into the human situation conveyed by political philosophy makes one realized that those opinions, flawed as they must be, are all we have and are necessary to our wellbeing. This is one of the most important lessons I’ve drawn from Plato and Aristotle’s presentation of the nature of politics and the relationship of theory and practice. As animals of finite consciousness and permanent vulnerability to our environment, we need established laws and norms to protect ourselves and help ensure our communal continuation. Our rationality and our ability to appreciate the rational character of our environment grants us that miraculous perspective from which we can judge the merit of our laws, norms and practices and tweak them as needs be and our limited agency allows. Grand sweeping reforms with theory coming to rule practice are inadvisable at best and destructive at worse. Instead, the process of improving political practice with theoretical insight must be slow, gradual and persuasive rather than imposing a new order from the top down.

In this sense, my self-definition as a “permanent expatriate” stands. I will walk down American streets conversing with fellow citizens in our mother tongue, engage in commerce with American currency and certainly be involved in American political doings both local and national. However, to paraphrase George Grant, some part of me will always hold my arms outstretched towards that further shore, seeking to take refuge from the din and madness of the political in the calm light of theory and philosophy. If I’m successful, as I describe above, then that perspective will help me be a better citizen and make my country a better place for my son. For that to happen, however, then the best part of my soul must just not be in it, but instead rest beyond the political and beyond the folly surrounding me across the theologico-political spectrum. As free as possible from what Nietzsche characteristically derided as “dirt-worship”, that part of my soul must be floating and groundless — rooted in no country but striving to see all from above.