Friday, May 25, 2007

Rats Flee Sinking Ship

News at Ten

The metaphor of rats deserting a sinking ship is very popular these days. Just check it out on Google to see how many times that image appears in columns, blogs, and even news stories. But despite that fact that everyone seems to be leaving the shipwreck that is George Bush (Rumsfeld and Tenet, many Republicans, the neocons, supporters of the beleagured Attorney General, anyone who once thought there were WMDs in Iraq, even Tony Blair), the President still has managed to arm-twist Congress this week into paying for his ongoing bloody war, even if it's only on the installment plan.

The metaphor was first used nearly 2000 years ago by Pliny the Elder who wrote in his Naturalis Historia that "when a building is about to fall down, all the rats desert it." And in "The Tempest," Shakespeare described the boat on which the duke and his infant daughter had been set adrift as so unseaworthy that "the very rats instinctively have quit it." The rats apparently know something that we don't.

For me, the metaphor is apt, as I am thinking of abandoning the ship of state, America, and becoming an expatriate. Today I would like to ponder the meaning of expatriation. Is it the same as exile? Or more like estrangement? Perhaps it could be similar to a pilgrimage, only longer. Does it have to be forever, or can it be temporary, like becoing a temporary monk in Thailand, the country that I hope will become my adopted home? I'd rather not be a rat. Am I leaving because I know something that you don't?

On August 5 I fly to Bangkok. And although I have a return ticket, I don't plan to use it any time soon. My journeys have taken me to Thailand three times in the last three years and I have traveled throughout the country, by bus, train, plane and boat. Although I've only been there during the dry season, I like the tropical weather, even the heat and the humidity. And I don't mind the pollution and traffic of Bangkok which I have found to be a city of excitement and adventure, not unlike other capitals of the new global society. The food is delicious, the culture strange and appealing, and the people are beautiful and friendly. What's more, even with the dollar continuing to drop in value, Thailand is affordable. I can live comfortably on my retirement income. There will be challenges, certainly, and you will hear about them all, as well as my responses, here in this space.

My first stab at becoming an expatriate was in the winter of 1962 when I dropped out of UC Berkeley and went to live with Uncle Ted, my father's gay twin brother, in Cuernavaca, Mexico. A friend of his made me a writing table and I sat outside in his walled patio under a jacaranda tree dripping purple blossoms writing poetry and short stories on my Smith Corona portable. They were pretty bad. We traveled round the south of Mexico by bus until he got sick and I headed home to become a newspaper reporter.

A year later, when my first wife and I were living in New York's Greenwich Village, we briefly considering emigrating to Australia. Kennedy had been killed, Johnson was in power, and Goldwater was on the horizon. Things did not look good. Australia was enticing emigrants with cash advances, and when we went to the consulate to get application forms, we met a couple of Australian guys who were traveling around the world. Wanting to hear their stories, we hosted a party for them in our garret apartment. One of the boys, after guzzling a beer, crushed the can against his forehead and threw it over his shoulder out the window. We heard it bounce off a car below. Peering out, we saw it was a police car. Luckily our building was secure and we ignored the ringing of the door buzzer down below until they went away. At parties in Australia, our new friends told us, the girls sat on one side of the room and the boys stood drinking on the other side, dropping their pants to moon them for fun. We decided that emigration to Australia was not in our cards.

A year later, however, we did move to London where we lived as expatriates for two years. The Vietnam war was in its early stages and I remember looking for books about this faroff country in the High Holborn library. I learned of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu and America's involvement under Kennedy beginning with the sending of "advisors" to help the corrupt South Vietnam regime block democratic elections. By then the exodus of potential draftees and AWOL soldiers to Canada had already begun. I met American expatriates in London and in Belgium, and I learned that black soldiers and jazz musicians had stayed behind in Europe following the war after discovering a racial tolerance rarely known back home.

Expatriation in Europe was a learning experience for members of the "Lost Generation" in the 1920s between the wars: Hemmingway, Gertrude Stein, Fitzgerald. Even earlier, writers Henry James and T.S. Eliot had forsaken the states to practice their craft abroad. James Joyce left Ireland for Italy, Henry Miller traded Brooklyn for Paris, and James Baldwin turned his back on racism in America to live in France. Even the painter Gauguin had emigrated from Paris to Tahiti. Marcus Garvey's Back to Africa movement inspired radical Stokely Carmichael's move to South Africa. A number of willing and unwilling radicals, from John Reed to Emma Goldman and Lee Harvey Oswald, moved to the Soviet Union. And today there is a generation of backpackers from every western country who are permanently on the road. I've met them in many countries and they are a breed apart. These are only the cultural highpoints of an ongoing migration of people that began in the Stone Age and continues today. So what's wrong with jumping ship?

Our first son was born in London where we were for the most part quite happy despite the weather. But after two years in England we grew homesick for things American and eventually returned to California where I had three more children and a second wife, and spent four decades in the workplace and in Academia. Now the wives are gone, the children are independent and reasonably self-sufficient, and I am a retired gentleman of leisure. It's time to think again about the wisdom of going or staying.

One source reports that six million U.S. citizens live overseas. Many of them are Democrats and they vote (see the web sites, and Another source, Getting Out: Your Guide to Leaving America by Mark Ehrman, says that over 300,000 Americans emigrate each year, and more than a million go to foreign lands for lengthy stays. Over ten years ago, Roger Gallo self-published Escape from America, and now there is a web site, EscapeArtist, with articles and tips, and even a magazine. Another source is a web site set up by consultant John Schroeder which features his article, "The New Expatriate of the 21st Century" and a monthly newsletter. Gallo and Schroeder seem more concerned with paying fewer taxes than with protesting the global Empire established by the Bush imperial presidency. An article which appeared six months ago in the New York Times, "Tax Leads Americans Abroad to Renounce U.S.," reported that over 500 Americans had turned in their passports during 2006. But this is low compared to the 1970s when about 2,000 renounced their citizenship beause of Vietnam. Other countries base their taxation on residency, not citizenship, which leads to tax expatriation by wealthy U.S. citizens living abroad who dislike double taxation.

This, however, is not a problem for me. Last year my income from Social Security and a small pension from UC was under the minimum and I legally did not have to file. Unlike the tax evaders, I've always felt the benefits of citizenship entailed the responsibility of paying for it. In the 1980s, however, I was an income tax resister as my way of saying no to the funds budgeted for the military. But as a state employee, I was easily discovered and eventually had to pay my share for the military hardware that slaughters innocents around the globe in our name.

Here it would be appropriate to rant and rave about Bush and the holes he has poked in the ship of state. But some of that would only be justification for a decision I have already made. Yes, I have problems with the political and economic motivations of the current administration (and I didn't much care for Clinton either), I hate the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that are killing and maiming young men and women, and I am critical of our culture of selfish individualism and our wasteful use of an unfair share of the world's natural resources. But I'm sure it is probably possible to take these adversarial positions without moving away.

Expatriation, I believe, can be more of a going to than a leaving from. During the last few years, I have gone on a number of spiritual pilgrimages, to India, to Vietnam, and to visit cathedrals in England as well as religious sites in Italy. Abraham, the father of both the Jewish and Christian religious traditions, was an exile from his homeland, a "wandering Aramean." There is a sense in which exile and expatration, a going away from old habits and petrified perspectives, are necessary if we want to keep growing. Old age might be the result of stasis, of giving up movement, when the job is over and the children are gone. If you stand still too long, moss will grow.

So I choose not to escape but to embark on a new adventure, one that will take me to strange lands where I will live among a people not my own. My plane leaves the same week that alumni from my high school in Pasadena will meet to celebrate our graduating class's 50th anniversary. I will not be there because I would rather look forward than backwards. I have other places to see and things to do in my alotted time left.

I do not want to be a rat scuttling off this ship we're on. I would rather be a shark or a whale or an albatross flying over the waves.

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