How would you like this LATIMES Columnist in your Peace Corps Site?
[The views of this woman tells us why we still need a Peace Corps]
Daum: The Amanda Knox moral –
there’s no place like home
Relief at her return is due at least partly to Americans’ fear of travel in foreign lands.
By Meghan Daum
October 6, 2011
I didn’t have a huge investment in the fate of Amanda Knox, the 24-year-old American whose conviction for killing her roommate four years ago in Italy was overturned Monday. I was generally too put off and confused by the media circus surrounding the case to try to figure out the whole story. Still, in the moments before the appeals decision was announced, I found myself on the edge of my seat, constantly refreshing my Internet browser until the word “acquit” flashed across the screen. Then I exhaled, a far bigger sigh of relief than I thought I had in me.
The new outcome doesn’t solve the mysteries surrounding Amanda Knox. There are so many strange things about the case, from the elaborate conspiracy theories of the prosecutor (satanic orgies!) to Knox’s erratic behavior, that it seems unlikely anyone will ever fit all the pieces together. But I think I have figured out why I was so relieved about the outcome of a situation I hadn’t thought about much to begin with. It’s because Knox embodies a certain American anxiety about venturing onto foreign soil. I was relieved for us all that she was coming home.
In other words, Knox is a poster child for staying put. She’s proof that the world outside our borders is so depraved that a simple junior year abroad can lead to a 26-year prison sentence.
Parochial as that sounds, it’s not far off from the sentiments directed at Knox by her fellow Americans, many of whom seemed to feel that, her guilt or innocence notwithstanding, she just shouldn’t have been in Italy in the first place. “Nobody in their right mind should ever visit that backward nation” went one particularly disheartening comment on a Times story about the case this week.
Though “backward” probably isn’t the adjective most people would apply to the country that brought us the Renaissance (not to mention Dante, Fellini and Prada), many of us, sadly, are at least a little receptive to this kind of paranoia. I know I am. I may not worry about being charged with murder in Tuscany, but I do have a long-standing, largely irrational fear of being thrown in a Third World prison or getting gravely sick or injured in some remote jungle. And considering Hollywood’s interest in this genre – two words: “Midnight Express” – I suspect I’m not alone. I also suspect these fears explain why we can be so quick to cast aspersions when our fellow Americans find themselves in tight spots overseas. In trying to assure ourselves that such a fate would never befall us, we look for ways to see them not as adventurers but as fools.
Or, worse yet, as traitors. With the American hikers jailed on espionage charges in Iran, and with the Current TV journalists who were detained in North Korea after accidentally crossing the border in 2009, the willingness of some segments of the American public to suggest that these travelers deserve their fate goes beyond fear of leaving home or even run-of-the-mill Internet meanness. It’s the result of a culture so uninterested in the outside world that anyone who dares to venture into that world is regarded as odd and untrustworthy. It’s worth asking ourselves this: Did Americans find Knox suspicious because she was charged with a crime, or acted strangely according to videos, or got her reputation destroyed in the tabloids? Or did the fact that she went to Italy at all, that she was a foreign language major, that she wanted to experience life somewhere other than the United States, stack the deck against her in our minds?
Knox’s situation doesn’t equate with that of the hikers or the Current TV journalists. I know that Perugia is far from Tehran and Pyongyang. I also know that the prison where she was held, and allowed to study and play guitar, is anything but Third World (and while we’re at it, I know that the politically correct term is “developing world”). Nonetheless, you don’t have to believe in Knox’s innocence to feel relieved that she’s home safe. You just need to be a person who, no matter how many stamps are on your passport, is always just a teeny bit terrified of the rest of the world – in other words, an American.
Meghan Daum is the author of the essay collection My Misspent Youth (Open City, 2001) and the novel The Quality of Life Report (Viking, 2003.) Known for her provocative and insightful observations about cultural and social issues, Meghan has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, Harper’s, GQ, and Vogue. Her essays have appeared in countless anthologies and are taught in many college classrooms. She has also contributed features to The Los Angeles Times calendar section.
Meghan’s voice has been heard in commentaries and features on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, This American Life, and Marketplace. A frequent reader and lecturer at venues around the country, Meghan has taught nonfiction writing at New York University and at California Institute for the Arts, where she was a visiting artist in 2004.
After living for several years in New York City, Meghan moved to Nebraska in 1999, where she lived on a farm and wrote The Quality of Life Report. In 2003, she moved to Los Angeles, where she wrote the screenplay adaptation of that novel and continued to write essays. More information can be found at www.meghandaum.com.
7 CommentsLeave a comment
Did this get taken from the Salem Gazette circa 1653? God.
Thanks for posting this, John. I’m still reeling from when I first read it before I forwarded it to you. It’s shameful of that the LA Times published such a xenophobic piece. Instead of celebrating the wealth of insights and experience that work, travel and volunteering abroad offers, Ms. Daum’s essay only serves to fuel fear of travel and other non-U.S. cultures. I have traveled and worked all over the world – first, just after finishing college, and, later as a PC trainer and staff. As the wife of a Turkish man, I visit Turkey each year – note to Ms. Daum: there’s more to Turkey and Turkish culture than what’s depicted in the 30-year-old Midnight Express film. As for feeling safer “at home” in the U.S., I wonder what Amadou Diallo, Rodney King or other people who had run-ins with our flawed law enforcement and judicial system would say about Ms. Daum’s piece. I challenge Ms. Daum to visit a PCV in the field. I think it would be a very eye-opening and, I suspect, life-changing experience for her.
Although I have probably worn out more passports than she has socks (to praphrase an old USMC saying) I fear Daum does reflect the feelings of far more Americans than we would wish. Living in western Kentucky — where crossiing the Ohio River into Indiana is considered ‘travel’ — I could easily find people who react the way she describes in her article. Those of us who escaped being American ‘provincials’ can consider ourselves blessed. And, for many, it was the Peace Corps that provided the blessing.
She’s not doing the airlines, and travel business any favors and probably giving the “study abroad deans” a scare. However, PC profiles show PCV’s are made of the “right stuff” and not put off by such musings. However, one can always be in the wrong place at the right time, such as the PCV’s remembered at Arlington during the 50th celebrations.
In Denver, if you live on the East side of the Platte River, you never cross to the Northside “where there be monsters.” I have friends who have traveled the world, but never really left home mentally and would never go to North Denver, either. They and the lady writer above have my sympathy.
Lighten up, people. Ms. Daum doesn’t seem to me to be advocating xenophobia. Rather she is describing attitudes we all know are alive and well in the USA. Repeat these words after me:
House of Representatives.
And she’s doing it with a great deal of honesty, admitting that such attitudes are not completely “foreign” to her own self.
As a member of the Republican Party with friends who are Tea Party members I object vigorously to Patrick Breslin’s specious and tendencious accusations that these two groups are, as is apparently Ms Daum, xenophobes. Such comments only fuel the fires of political animosity and lead to further impasse in the political process.
I have lived in 17 countries and visited over 100 more. A word to the wise, don’t commit a crime in any country and don’t mess with the police, especially the LAPD.