I became an American citizen recently. It wasn't a surge of post-9/11 patriotism that made me do it. No, I decided to become an American despite many of this country's public policies and its political grandstanding over the last year. I did it because I wanted to be an ordinary American.
It didn't start out like this. Arriving from Sweden about five years ago, I carried with me the full laundry list of prejudices you would expect from a liberal European. Unsophisticated, shallow, self-congratulatory, loud, parochial--my preconceptions about Americans were not flattering.
I admit now, with some embarrassment, that they said more about me than about Americans. The United States is a curious nation, an Alice in Wonderland place where things aren't always what they seem to be.
The abortion issue is a case in point, one that has influenced my views on the U.S. in a significant and--no, it's not a typo--a positive way.
After spending the last few years working in the field of reproductive rights, I found myself frustrated by the acrimony, lack of nuance and sharp polarization of the public debate about abortion. At least as it is portrayed in the mainstream media, an impenetrable wall divides those who believe that access to safe abortion services is a fundamental right and those who believe that abortion is murder.
Is this really a fair reflection of how people in the U.S. feel and what they think? To try to answer that question, I have spent the last six months traveling, knocking on people's doors at random, asking men and women to speak, on the record, about their views on abortion. The conversations I have had--with white, black, Latino, Asian American, young, old, male and female Americans--have been remarkable.
Denny Albee, an actor in Southbury, Conn., told me: "I don't like the idea of an abortion, for my wife or any woman, but I think everybody should have the choice." When he and his wife, Laura, decided to terminate a pregnancy for medical reasons, he said, "a lot of other people thought we were wrong. It was none of their business. But they did have the right to say that. That's just the American way."
Elaine Norris, an accountant from Austin, Texas, said: "I had an abortion when I was 16. Nobody knew but my boyfriend. It was pretty horrible. Just everything about it was bad." Even so, she said, "I still don't think abortion is wrong. It's a huge moral decision, but it doesn't need to be legislated. I feel like there is not enough out there in the ambiguous camp."
The farmhand I met in Bakersfield, the physician in Manhattan, N.Y., the homeless woman on skid row in Los Angeles, the homemaker in Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J., and the goat farmer in Liberty Hill, Texas--all of these ordinary Americans were able to see and embrace the shades of gray inherent in the abortion issue. They put the protagonists in the public debate to shame.
I'm not a Pollyanna. I spent years working in disaster and war zones around the world when I was with Doctors Without Borders. I simply believe that most people, if they are given a fair chance, will resist black-and-white judgments about others. The tone of the public debate on many issues, abortion among them, is not helping Americans to be nuanced and thoughtful. All the more remarkable, then, that they are just that. It's what makes me proud to be a new American.