So, more than ten years after the idea was originally presented to me, I'm applying to the United States Foreign Service. There's an exam, which I'm studying for and expect to ace, and a personal narrative at the entryway to a months-long process of interviews and background checks.
This move will come as a shock to some, and with good reason. The tenor of my writings has veered several times in directions that could easily be construed as anti-American. I didn't become an Eagle Scout because I refused to get the required Citizenship in the Nation merit badge on principle.
As I understand it, the keystone of the personal narrative is explaining why I want to work for the Foreign Service, and the challenge for me will be to be clear and honest without sounding like a liability or a crazy person. This post is sort of a rough draft/thinking out loud for that, and an explanation to my friends and family about why I would consider working for The Government and supporting policies I may personally disagree with. (If anyone is visiting as part of my background check/security clearance process, thanks for reading!)
I firmly and sincerely believe that in all important respects, all humans are basically equal, and have essentially the same wants, needs, and problems, and deserve the same rights and privileges. As such, I consider patriotism, nationalism, and exceptionalism deeply problematic if not actively harmful ideas. Patriotism is one flower saying to another, "I'm sure glad I was planted in this pot of dirt and not that pot of dirt." Nationalism is the idea that some white dudes can draw some lines on a map, and if your ancestors were inside those lines by arbitrary date x, you are entitled to participate in a meritocracy, no questions asked, but if they weren't, you can't without jumping through a special set of hoops. Exceptionalism is no less than valuing the lives, jobs, values, and rights of Americans as greater than those of other peoples. In an age of globalization and interconnectivity, the idea of the nation-state as a meaningful construct worthy of loyalty is starting to show its age.
But the flip side of this is that if America isn't God's Favorite Country, it's also not the Great Satan. Main idea: America is not particularly special. It has good things and bad things, just like every other country. The most 'patriotic' thing I can say with any conviction is that I think America at present is probably significantly less evil than average in most regards.
So here's how I can reconcile my beliefs with a job that, on paper, looks like projecting American will and protecting American interests: "American interests" don't exist. There are only human interests. All non-coercive relationships and exchanges we [humans] enter into, we enter into because they're mutually beneficial. A move that benefits America also benefits the other party. Opening up country x to be a marketplace for American businesses also opens them up as a marketplace for every other country's businesses. America didn't just walk in and take Iraq's oil, though it probably could have. America [through less than ideal means and under questionable pretenses] created an atmosphere in which Americans could trade dollars for oil without ignoring institutional human rights violations, and Iraqis could turn around and trade those dollars for things they need, like food, because, last time I checked, Iraqis can't eat petroleum.
I'm not suggesting that everything is awesome always, and I'm not trying to excuse the bad things that people do/have done to other people in all countries throughout history. A lot of our relationships and exchanges are coercive, exploitative, and adversarial, but that kind of goes with the territory known as 'the real world' in which people on both sides are in the wrong and in which, again, America is not particularly exceptional. America threatening to brandish a stick differs only in degree from Canada threatening to withdraw a carrot, if certain conditions are not met.
So much for 'Why Mark needn't avoid working for the Foreign Service.' Why do I want to work for the Foreign Service, as opposed to teaching or any of the other jobs I theoretically could get. And not just, 'They'll pay me money to use skills that I have, and also fly me around the world.' And why should they want to hire me with all of my baggage when there are more traditionally 'Rah, rah, America!' applicants to be had?
I believe in internationalism (well, maybe technically postnationalism, or something). Globalization is not without its downsides, but I think in the final sum it's a net benefit for everyone. Encouraging and simplifying the flow and exchange of people, ideas, and capital across national boundaries enriches everyone and promotes peace more often than not. Whether I become a Foreign Service Officer or not, I'm not in a good position to create foreign policy. But I can be a damn good gear in the system.
I don't know what background most prospective Foreign Service Officers come from. I imagine most apply straight out of college (even though a degree isn't technically required). I've worked overseas. I've applied for visas. I've registered the birth of a child abroad. I've tried to get documents notarized in a foreign language. I know what a pain it can be. I'm not just a language nerd with mad customer service skills, I'm a language nerd with mad customer service skills who has been on the other side of the system and can empathize with the people I'm serving. Not to be blasphemous, but I have descended below a lot of things that I may know how to succor my people.
I may not have the power to reduce the amount of paperwork people have to do, but I am highly motivated to go out of my way to help ease people through the process, not just dismiss things as "not my department", because I believe that by making it easier for people to travel and do business around the world, even if only on an emotional level, I am doing a small service to all of humanity. And that's something I can really get behind.
Can I enforce policies I don't agree with? If my track record at GEM School and Walmart are any indication, yes. Don't I have a moral obligation to do what I think is right, no matter what? Well, I also have a moral obligation to provide for my family and not lose my job over this if I think I can do more good for more people in the long run by working inside the system than fighting against it. Because I have the bad combination of compulsive honesty and a vivid imagination, I can get tripped up by questions like, "Can you think of any reason you might try to circumvent protocol and issue a visa against regulation?" Yes. Yes, I can. But that would be in a Schindler's List-level situation. I am currently working on a mathematical formula to express the stakes and circumstances under which I'll break rules, and it's just not coming together. Suffice it to say that I don't break any rules without careful consideration (or ignorance!), and only when the risks to myself and others are negligible or the potential benefit overwhelmingly outweighs the risk.