Thank you, Sen. Santorum

Now I remember -- without the rosy post-9/11 patriotism coloring my view -- why I had to leave the United States.

Published April 29, 2003 5:12PM (EDT)

I want to thank Sen. Rick Santorum and President Bush for doing me a great personal service. Let me explain, if I may.

I'm an American, and glad to be one. On my mother's side I'm descended from men who fought in the Revolutionary War to secure for their posterity the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. On my father's side I'm the grandchild of a couple who escaped the poverty and perils of World War I-era Eastern Europe and who never stopped being grateful for all that America gave them. I cherish the ideals of freedom on which America was founded -- ideals that have inspired people around the world, and whose defenders, in the last century, vanquished both Nazi and Communist totalitarianism.

Yet proud though I am to be an American, I moved to Norway five years ago and still live here. Why? Part of the reason is that I'd always wanted to live abroad: How could I know what it really meant to be American, after all, until I knew what it was like to live somewhere else? Yet the simple answer is that I had to move -- I had fallen in love with a Norwegian. If we were a heterosexual couple, of course, we could marry and live together in the U.S. But as a gay American, I have no legal right to live in my own country with my life partner. America is indeed freedom's home, but for gay people, alas, it's less free than an increasing number of other countries, which provide gay marriage (or something close to it) and allow their citizens' same-sex spouses to become residents. Fortunately for me, Norway is one of those countries. Soon after I moved here in 1999, my partner and I were married in the Oslo courthouse; a few weeks later, I was granted Norwegian residency.

Then came 9/11. On my TV in Oslo, I watched the second plane hit and saw both towers fall. The attack stirred my patriotism. So did the smug attitudes of Europeans who felt that the U.S. had "asked for it." With the Afghanistan war, anti-Americanism here began climbing -- and hasn't stopped yet. In the weeks before the Iraq war, a poster near my home proclaimed: "U.S./Iraq: Two Babylons. Don't Take Sides!" To me, such moral equivalency was, well, immoral; yet it's the default position in the European press, which tends to view "freedom" not as something real and precious but as an empty and fatuous American slogan. I thrilled to the sight of Iraqis celebrating the downfall of Saddam; the European media, in large part, did its best to portray it as an imperial takeover, an oil grab, a humanitarian disaster -- anything but a liberation from tyranny. Never have I felt more American, and more irked at Europe.

Then along came Sen. Rick Santorum, who snapped me right out of it. In an interview last week, Santorum strongly rejected the concept of a right to privacy, defending sodomy laws and identifying homosexuality -- along with adultery, polygamy, the sexual abuse of children, and (as he so elegantly put it) "man on dog" sex -- as a threat to the proper order of things. Though his remarks were largely incoherent, he made it clear enough that, in his view, the government had the right -- perhaps even the obligation -- to police bedrooms for activities other than reproductive marital intercourse. "You say, well, it's my individual freedom," explained Santorum, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate. "Yes, but it destroys the basic unit of our society because it condones behavior that's antithetical to strong, healthy families."

For Santorum, then, the essence of America is not individual freedom but the institution of the family -- a certain kind of family, that is. "Behavior that's antithetical" to that kind of family, moreover, is for him not a matter of indifference but a serious threat. Thus extraordinary measures are called for -- up to and including the criminalization of consensual sexual activity between gay adults, or, for that matter, unmarried straight adults -- in order to defend the family. It's not enough for Santorum, in short, that binational gay couples like me and my partner have no place in America; if he had his way, all same-sex couples in the U.S., along with other dire social menaces, would live in constant danger of arrest. We're that threatening. Alarmingly, only a few of Santorum's fellow Republicans have offered even mild public criticism of his position. Asked for President Bush's take on all this, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Friday that "the president believes the senator is an inclusive man." Most Republican senators echoed this line.

Sept. 11 was a wake-up call. So is the Santorum episode. Sept. 11 put so-called social issues on the back burner; since then, the stream of GOP oratory about the export of American liberty to Afghanistan and Iraq has made it easy to forget that many Republicans' enthusiasm for liberty has strict and disturbingly narrow limits. Santorum and Bush have given us a salutary reminder of where those limits lie. Santorum's remarks conveyed a staggering disdain not only for homosexuals but for America's founding ideals. And Bush, after swathing two wars in the language of liberty, effectively endorsed a definition of American values that has less in common with the Declaration of Independence than with the restrictionist rhetoric of the Taliban. I didn't vote for Bush myself, but 25 percent of gay Americans did, surely because Dick Cheney's remarks about his lesbian daughter and civil unions made the ticket seem gay-friendly; thanks to the Santorum affair, next year's figure may well be far lower.

And how does all this look from Norway? My recurring complaint about the land of the fjords is its excessive statism -- the social-democratic assumption that your rulers know what's best for you and should, as they see fit, forbid, tax, circumscribe or (alternatively) subsidize activities that are, in my view, none of their damn business. But Santorum's insistence on the state's right to police bedrooms is big-government moralism on a scale beyond the imagining of even the busiest far-left busybodies in the Norwegian Parliament. Santorum's remarks betray an utter indifference to the idea of American liberty. He has spit in the face of every coalition soldier who went to Iraq to fight for freedom, and at every Eastern European who reveres America as the symbolic antithesis of Soviet-era tyranny. And he has confirmed, to a depressing extent, the condescending cartoon version of America that has repeatedly been on display in the European media these past months -- the America that is not about freedom at all but about power, pure and simple.

Which is why I owe Santorum and Bush a debt of gratitude. They've snapped me out of my post-9/11 distraction from "social issues." They've reminded me why I'm an exile. They've reminded me how outrageous it is that the nation whose founders articulated the ideals of liberty for all time, and for all humankind, compels citizens to move abroad in order to be free to share their lives with the ones they love. They've helped me to appreciate all over again how fortunate I am to be living in Norway, a country that officially perceives my relationship with my partner not as representing a threat to the family but as constituting a family itself. Finally, Santorum and Bush have underscored for me the fact that many of the leaders who insist most loudly and incessantly on their own devotion to fundamental American values are in fact enemies of those values -- and that it is vital that the American public recognize this, and stand up for those values, if the republic is ever, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., to "live out the true meaning of its creed."

So thanks very much, Messrs. Santorum and Bush, for the wake-up call. I needed that.

By Bruce Bawer

Bruce Bawer is a poet and literary critic whose work appears regularly in "The Hudson Review." He lives in Oslo, Norway.

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