Friday, July 29, 2011

Leaving America: Mind the Gap!

I've been thinking a lot lately about what prompts people to emigrate from their homelands to someplace "more desirable" and yet, inevitably, alien.

As kids, most Americans were taught to be proud of our immigrant-friendly culture.  Never mind that this myth is essentially mendacious (established Americans have seldom been particularly friendly or welcoming toward newcomers).  Still, as school children, we docilely took for granted that our ancestors from Europe or Asia had wisely and successfully exchanged their native cultures for an unquestionably "better life" in America the Beautiful.

Seldom did anyone ask us to reflect upon exactly what might have impelled our ancestors to make such a momentous life change.  And it never occurred to ME, at any rate, to ask myself whether Great Grandpa Denne or Great Great Grandma Gjefle ever doubted the wisdom of their decision to migrate.  Why did they do it?  And was it worth it?

These questions resonate with me today because, quite frankly, at age 67!, I'm seriously considering leaving the America my ancestors "chose" and living out my remaining years in an alien, but more appealing, more welcoming land.

As my Norwegian and German forebears must have thought when contemplating their decision, three generations ago, to COME to America, I must now ask myself:  why would I make a comparable decision to LEAVE?  And would it be worth it?

Since neither of my grandmothers ever told me much about their family histories, I can only speculate about the motivations of all those Dennes and Hermanns and Gjefles and Kirkebys as they embarked on their steerage passage to America (the Kellys, my mother's paternal line, are even more inscrutable--they seem to have immigrated in the 18th century, perhaps even before the Revolutionary War).

And I can only conclude that my forebears were as dissatisfied with their fatherlands as I am with mine.  Whether this dissatisfaction was primarily economic, political, religious, or just psychological, I can never know.  But I cannot help but believe that they experienced a trauma equal to mine:  surely they did not look forward with unmixed enthusiasm to their departure from their native land.  But just as surely, they had concluded that ANOTHER land offered them at least the "possibility" of a happier life.  And, like me, they must have been so frustrated with their existing lot that the mere possibility of something better was sufficient to persuade them to take a frightening chance.

More frightening, in truth, than any chance I might take, since those nineteenth-century migrations tended to be irreversible:  once the Atlantic was crossed, there would be no economically feasible option but to persevere, coûte que coûte, in the New World.

I, on the other hand, am not similarly obliged to burn all my bridges.  In this, I suppose, I more closely resemble today's Mexican or Asian immigrants than yesteryear's huddled masses.  I CAN come back to America if conditions "there" turn out to be worse than I anticipate OR if conditions "here" improve in significant ways.

Well, I seem to be rambling a bit.  Let me return to the central questions that prompted me to begin this blog in the first place:  a)  WHY do I want to emigrate?  and b) Would it be WORTH it?  (i.e., is such a move likely to be successful?)

Yes, I want to leave the U.S.  Here are my reasons:

  • A political climate that despises the notion of community and social responsibility.  Greed and selfishness prevail almost exclusively in today's America. With breathtaking impunity, the moneyed class scorns and exploits the disadvantaged.
  • A religious climate that supports and nurtures the politics of greed and hate.  Religious fundamentalism so dominates all American culture that even those who do not go to church seem to find it necessary to proclaim themselves "spiritual" or "believers in something transcendental."  Atheists, agnostics and humanists are either hated or shunned.  Such God-crazed fanaticism inflames believers to condone both physical and emotional violence toward "outsiders."  Thus, we are little better than the Islamic religious nuts we so piously denounce.
  • An economic system (mostly unregulated, survival-of-the-fittest capitalism) that forces everyone to be afraid, every day, of losing his/her livelihood.
  • A willful failure to ensure health care for all.  And precious little compassion for the ill and suffering, whom the privileged classes disdain as a mere financial "burden."
  • An indifference to education that beggars belief.  Many Americans are actually proud of knowing nothing. People who think, on the other hand, incite suspicion and are denounced as "pinheads" (as opposed to know-nothing "patriots").
  • A totally unjustified arrogance about American "superiority" and "exceptionalism."
  • An unconscionable passion for weapons of all kinds and a willingness, even an enthusiasm, for violence and bloodshed as a legitimate means of "getting one's way," "getting ahead," or "solving problems."
  • A deep-rooted racism that prevents us from creating the just society that we hypocritically pledge allegiance to.
  • A narrow-minded parochialism:  a purblind refusal to cooperate with other peoples and/or to try to understand and sympathize with other cultures.
  • A political system that no longer "works" (if, indeed, it ever did) for the good of ordinary people.  The wealthy have established a banana-republic plutocracy which serves only to further enrich the few at the expense of the many.  And the many accept this as God's will.
  • A tendency toward dangerous fascism.  Some readers (if there ARE any readers) may find this concern ridiculously overstated or melodramatic.  But in the Tea Party movement, in politicians like Michele Bachmann, Jim DeMint, Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, Virginia Foxx, in the pledges and pronouncements of the vocal right wing, I find distinct echoes of early Nazism:  a populist rhetoric; rousingly cheerful and unabashed demonizing of subgroups; completely irrational and willful denial of reality and fundamental truths; in short--delusions, demagoguery, damnation.  These people harbor dangerous ideas--and they have no qualms about threatening violence ("reloading") to implement their mad schemes.
So I want to emigrate.  But since American Medicare will not cover me outside of the U.S., and since it would be foolhardy for a man of my age and medical history to consider any move that would deprive me of health care, I  find that my options for a new homeland are rather limited.  As a Francophile and former teacher of French, I would quite naturally prefer to live out my remaining years in France--which has always been my "pays de prédilection".  But alas, French health care for retired foreigners has recently become an incomprehensible tangle that seems to grow ever more byzantine with each passing year. And private insurance, for anyone with pre-existing conditions, appears to be either unaffordable or entirely unobtainable.  Similar impediments apply for most other European countries and Canada (though I haven't investigated Australia).  Only Britain, with its much-maligned, but still available (to "residents") NHS, remains an option.  (The big "if" here, I gather, is whether I would qualify for the UK's retiree visa--which is granted on a one-year renewable basis to non-workers who can demonstrate 25,000 pounds income per year and a "connection" to the UK--pretty subjective.  The NHS is currently requiring that mere tourists and temporary visitors pay for their non-emergency medical services.)

The United Kingdom, then, provided I qualify for "permission to enter" visa status?  Should I join that stream of Americans who have "returned" to Mother England?  Ah, here's where the second question obtains:  would exchanging the US for the UK "be worth it"?  Would the gains outweigh the losses?  What WOULD I gain?

  • Health care--as I already mentioned and with the provisos discussed above.  A sane national consensus about caring for the sick.
  • A fairly rational and straightforward political system:  the party in power actually makes laws and enforces policies without perpetual deadlock.
  • A general indifference to religion and a marked distaste for religious fanaticism.  I am especially attracted to this feature of British life, since it suggests that the British make their life decisions based on practical realities rather than on metaphysical fantasies / delusions.
  • A respect for honesty in interpersonal relationships.  I may be sentimentalizing a bit, but I've always found that the British have a low tolerance for bullshit and euphemism.  I think I'd enjoy that.  I'm pretty fed up with American hypocrisy and faux niceness.
  • No particular attachment to guns or firearms or explosives.  No knee-jerk belief that the best solution to any problem is to "shoot the bastards."
  • Decent (albeit expensive and inferior-to-French) public transportation. I like red buses.
  • Better universities than any other non-American option.
  • They speak English, though oddly, and occasionally and always in certain places, ludicrously.
  • TV is pretty good; so is theatre; so are movies.  
  • Though not immune to free-market and lame-brained trickle-down economics, the UK still provides a less cutthroat, more compassionate economic environment than the US.  The COMMONWEAL still matters.
  • The British constitution is conveniently unwritten and can thus evolve gradually to meet the needs of an evolving society.  The US constitution, on the other hand, is an ossified document whose 18th century mechanisms increasingly PREVENT us from evolving as a republic.
  • London is cool.  And everywhere is close to London.

And now, the drawbacks:

  • Distance from my family.  I'm not willing to cut myself off definitively.  I value my connection to my siblings and I wonder how they would react to a possible move on my part.  Would I cause great distress?
  • The house.  I'm half owner of this condo and I thus have financial obligations here in the US.  I couldn't just "unload" my half of the house without causing both economic and emotional hardship for my sister.  So I would never make such an attempt.  But could I then afford to move?  Could I guarantee the 25,000 pounds income?
  • Possible loneliness.  I know no one in the UK--and I don't make friends easily.  I suppose my timidity and reserve would be even harder to overcome in a foreign environment.
  • Unfamiliarity and uncertain legal status.  I love London and Southeast England, but I really don't know the entire country, nor do I understand how things "work." Moreover, unless I lived long enough to take out British citizenship, I would always remain an "alien," subject to politically or economically motivated alterations in legal status.
  • Money/income/cost of living.  This would/will be a problem whatever I choose to do:  the Great Recessions has wiped out a substantial amount of my little 401K.  If our current Congress brings about a default, I could stand to lose still more of my nest egg.  If CalStrs goes under and my pension dries up, I'll have no money to live ANYWHERE.  In any event, England--and particularly London--are very, very expensive for Americans living on a fixed income paid in dollars of dwindling value.
  • Additional health insurance.  Even with the NHS, I would probably need a supplement.  This must be investigated further.
  • Boredom and depression.  Would probably be the same anywhere.

There.  At least I've gotten this all on paper (or on a web server somewhere).  Now I can re-read and re-work it.  Perhaps the mere act of listing pros and cons will help me make a responsible decision about the rest of my life.  I must, after all, mind the gap!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Humpty-Dumpty Words

Blab, blab.  "We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect ordain and establish this Constitution..."

Blab, blab, blab.  It sometimes "becomes  necessary for one People to dissolve the political bands which have connected them to other..."

Blab, blab, blab, blab.  Ours is a government "of the People, by the People and for the People."

I have very little patience with all these People--or at least, with the way in which these three "sacred texts" employ the term.  That's because "People" is a Humpty-Dumpty word--a word that, as the great Wall-Sitter himself observed, can mean whatever a particular speaker chooses it to mean--and, this, with no particular regard for (or perhaps a cynical disregard for) what the eventual audience might think it means.

Years ago when I was in college, I read a book by Stuart Chase entitled The Tyranny of Words.  As I recall, Chase was some kind of an engineer by training, but he dabbled in economics, politics and linguistics--just the kind of writer to appeal to someone of MY easygoing, not-overly-specialized intellectual habits.  Yet this unpretentious little volume made such a deep impression on me that, even today, when baffled by mind-numbing TV debates or inane dinner conversations, I sometimes catch myself muttering under my breath Chase's cardinal precept:  "find the referent, find the referent."  Because, as Alice pointed out to Humpty Dumpty, one simply can't be so arbitrary with words and still hope to convey meaning.  If each spoken or written symbol (word) does not have a commonly-accepted referent--i.e., if it does not refer to something real that both the speaker and the hearer agree upon, then minds cannot meet and communication is impeded rather than facilitated.

Of course, that's precisely what Humpty-Dumpty, at least, was seeking:  "Impenetrability!  That's what say."

Chase goes on to note that such verbal neglect of referents can have a number of causes, the most common of which is simple carelessness or laziness (i.e., words are employed heedlessly, tossed about with mindless abandon, often with amusing, embarrassing or even--sometimes-- dangerous consequences).  But words may also be carefully chosen for their  "fluff" quotient--precisely because they have acquired so many various, even conflicting, referents that they have been rendered functionally useless for actual communication.  Thus, like Humpty Dumpty, a speaker may deliberately choose such a word in order to be impenetrable, in order to give the illusion of conveying information while effectively uttering a semantic blank--blab blab.  More malignantly even, a speaker may also select a particular word precisely because its very lack of a referent has packed it with an emotional power directly proportional to its substantive vacuousness. And thus a kind of mental tyranny is imposed by Humpty-Dumpty words.

So it is with the term "People" as used by those great "communicators" Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln--and almost every other politician (as we call OUR leaders) or demagogue (as we call THEIR leaders--you know, the guys that run the planet's sundry Peoples' Republics).  Lacking any common referent, the term "People"--in all of our hallowed canonized documents--and in the mouths of most of ruling officials everywhere--is little more than blab, blab.

We the blab, blab of the United States...; it becomes necessary for one blab, blab, to dissolve the political bands...; government of the blab blab, by the blab blab and for the blab blab...

Oh, I know.  Someone will object that, of course, all of these magnificent thinkers were clearly referring to the "majority" of American citizens.  Such nonsense!  Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration--with a little help--on behalf of a tiny bunch of wealthy merchants and planters who called themselves the Continental Congress.  He may have thought that this exclusive body somehow "knew" the will of some mythical "People," but we can be quite sure that it would never have occurred to Jefferson to ask the tinker or the tailor what they thought about dissolving political bands.  Likewise, the Constitution was drafted (with input from many writers, but especially Madison and Hamilton) by a dubiously extra-legal Grand Convention (whose only legitimate "charge" was to propose modifications to the Articles of Confederation).  Were the delegates to this Convention elected by the "People"?  Surely you jest.  And when the Constitution was voted upon--was it by the "People"?  Only if, by this term, you understand the white, rich, male elite that sat in state legislatures.  Finally, what WAS Lincoln talking about in the Gettysburg Address?  His use of the term "People" borders on mystical incoherence--like most of the speech, this word is lacking any concrete referent--it is blab blab--clearly intended to bypass reason and logic in order to trigger an immediate emotional response of pure patriotic fervor.

Don't misunderstand me.  I am not criticizing the efficacy or the poetic qualities of Mr. Lincoln's speech.  Nor, certainly, am I criticizing Jeffersonian/Madisonian "rule by the elite"--not, at least, if we mean an elected meritocracy of qualified, educated individuals.  Indeed, as I suggested at the outset, I deeply distrust popular democracy (Lord save us from government OF the people and BY the people).  No, though I am pleased that the franchise has been expanded to include citizens of all races and both genders, I am quite content with representative democracy.  Legislation is too important to be effected by referendum--groups of elected "specialists" (our Congressmen and Senators) should deliberate, reflect, question and, in the end, make the decisions that the (small "p") people have too little time and too little training to do rationally and fairly by direct popular vote.  Surely my point is attested to by the unhappy example of California--with its debilitating, regressive and--let's be honest, just plain stupid--popularly-voted propositions about everything from lotteries to real estate taxes to saving the family from homosexuals.

But what I am objecting to is the tyranny of words.  I do not approve of the way in which the word "People" has been used and misused--whether carelessly or deliberately--by luminaries (Lincoln) as well as loons (Michele Bachmann).  No, saying absolutely nothing meaningful (blab blab) while simultaneously striving to generate politically useful emotion (sob sob) is both reprehensible and, as Chase made so clear, tyrannical. 

So please, people (!)--don't allow yourselves to be jerked around by politicos and their blab blab about People.  Insist upon "finding the referent" when you hear such talk.  And if, as I suspect, no such commonly agreed-upon referent exists, just dismiss this statement as another example of  either witless or willful Humpty-Dumptyism.  Alternatively, if you simply must have your fix of People, run out to the newstand and buy an issue of the eponymous magazine!  Then, as you reflect leisurely upon the mysterious bond between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, take a long slug of soda and ask yourself:  say, aren't THEY the PEOPLE who should be trying to form a More Perfect Union?