Once again I’m blogging in an airport upon wending my way back to Albuquerque from (yet another) conference.

These days the Sunport seems more familiar than my backyard garden, now brimming with apricots and plums ready for cooking, canning, freezing, and drying.

I’m weary. It feels like I’ve been through the Sunport at least forty times this year, though I’m hoping it hasn’t been quite that many.

(I’m afraid to count).

And that doesn’t include the other airports I’ve trekked through in the past 12 months.

To start with, there’s my other airport home, Thurgood Marshall aka BWI, which is nowhere near as homey as the Sunport, but the crab cakes are better.

For a long time, BWI was the only place you could catch a nonstop flight from the DC area to Albuquerque. Consequently, there’s a high chance of spotting politicos – local and otherwise -- on either end of that leg.

Given the news that Southwest Airlines is cutting one of the twice daily BWI-ABQ nonstops, politico sightings may become even more frequent. And empty middle seats less so. Sigh.

Of course, only political junkies recognize the current administration’s cabinet members by sight, right?

I remember once being shocked that no one else seemed to notice that Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings was right there in the third row aisle seat.

As the flight took off, I tried to figure out if it would be wise to chat her up re: my thoughts on the Spellings Commission Report on Higher Education. This decision was no small matter, given that I work for an organization that depends on Congressional funding via the U.S. Dept of Education.

I kept watching to see if anyone would beat me to the punch. Over the four and a half hour long flight, not a single person did.

It wasn’t until later when I was talking with a bunch of apolitical Burqueño buddies that I realized this was because only geeky policy nerds can identify standing cabinet members and undersecretaries by sight. Political microcelebrityhood pretty much stops once you get outside of the Beltway.

Oh.

You can learn a lot from watching politicians when they’re not the focus of attention – some shy away from any recognition, others…well…let’s just say they Let. Their. Presence. Be. Known.

But there are other (and more interesting) sights at the Sunport besides politicians disembarking the BWI-ABQ nonstop.

This time of year there are plenty of uniformed Boy Scouts and their leaders heading to the famed Philmont Ranch in northern New Mexico.

Whether returning home from the west or the east, I haven’t yet been on a flight this summer that hasn’t had at least a dozen or so Scouts setting out on their Big Summer Adventure and waiting for their first chance to climb the Tooth of Time.

For many of them, it is their first trip to the American Southwest. Their excitement is contagious and it is fun to chat them up.

And then there’s another group of passengers that can be spotted fairly often at the Sunport, though they are usually anonymous until they enter the public waiting area.

Approximately every month or two, I’ll deplane and as I exit the secure area through the revolving doors, there will be a large crowd of people festooned with yellow ribbons, helium balloons, hand lettered “Welcome Home” signs, and expectant faces standing alongside a corridor of about two dozen six foot tall American and New Mexican flags.

Regardless of your stance about the war, it is hard not to get a lump in your throat when you hear a child scream “Daddy” and run pell-mell into his arms. Or not to choke up just a little bit when a grandfather wearing a baseball cap that proudly proclaims his status as a WWII Veteran reaches out to clasp his granddaughter the soldier in his arms.

I kept these memories of returning soldiers close in mind last week as I was peppered with questions about the U.S.A. by fellow academics from all over the world. We talked about everything from the war in Iraq to the presidential election to Gitmo to global warming.

As always, I felt the tension that many Americans abroad feel when we are called to explain the actions of our government, especially if they are actions that we do not particularly support or fully understand. There's the urge to defend your country while at the same time acknowledging that it has fallen short of its ideals.

It's kind of like defending family members who have gone astray - you love them and want to help them get back on track. And at the same time you are tempted to put your head in the sand and pretend it isn't happening.

But just as we humans make mistakes, so do nations. The good ones recognize their errors and set about correcting them.

Responding to all these questions about the U.S.A was especially challenging since the reason I was in Ireland was to participate on an international panel to criticize proposed legislation in another country, the U.K.

Walking the tightrope of respecting other views while putting forth one’s own is never easy, but triply difficult when you are doing it in a language that is not your first language, in a country where you are an invited guest, and on a topic (reproductive bioethics) that is quite controversial in the country where you are speaking.

(A few years ago I learned this the hard way while talking about Nazi eugenics and bioethics in Germany – as an American used to freedom of expression, a misunderstanding/mistranslation unwittingly put me on verge of breaking German law regarding free speech! Since then I have always checked local/national law for restrictions on speech before giving a talk in another country).

As we conference attendees made our way to a local pub to close out the day, the conversation shifted away from reproductive bioethics in the U.K. to the upcoming presidential election in the U.S.A. As the only American present, I tried to carefully distinguish my personal opinions from those of my government.

One person noted the remarkable contradictions of the U.S. – a place where (these are her words, not mine) “cowboy mentality coexists with the promise of a black man as president – the root of America’s greatness is its variety of perspectives!”

These words stopped me dead in my tracks.

All too often I despair of the lack of civil discourse and disagreement in our American public spaces - from the internet to talk radio.

On more than one occasion, I’ve been known to rail against what I see as the pervasiveness of simplistic thinking, boorishness, and willful ignorance in these venues.

As an academic, I revel in measured arguments and well couched respectful disagreement.

As an American, I cherish the ideals and law that allows Americans the free and wild exchange in cyberspace and beyond, even when especially when I disagree with the content.

This afternoon, after I pick the plums and apricots that the birds and the wind have left for us, my family will all pile in the car to head over to the grandparents' home to celebrate Independence Day and my father's 70th birthday (Happy Birthday Dad!)

In between sightings of jackrabbits and perhaps a bobcat or the wild horses of Placitas, I'll sit down with an ice cold Sam Adams, pull out my dog- eared pocket copy of the Constitution and initiate a free-ranging three generation conversation about freedom, the Bill of Rights, and the upcoming general election before the fireworks begin.

It is good to be home.

Happy 4th of July, Albuquerque!

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Tags: 4th_of_July, Albuquerque, Sunport, family, freedom_of_expression, holidays, politics, travel

Comment by Carrie on July 4, 2008 at 8:37pm
Great post -- thank you for sharing your insights on your travels.

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