Since I’ve started throwing out and packing my possessions to prepare for my move overseas, I’ve been thinking a lot of my Grandparents.
They came from the desirable countries. From Denmark and Russia. Neither side had any grasp of English before they first set foot on American soil. Neither side had anything other than pluck and their trades and a small bit of savings tucked away to make their way in the New World. They adapted to their environs, raised families and by most accounts flourished – but does that mean that they ever really became Americans?
By mere merit of my birth within territorial borders, does that really make me an American or is there something else that I should look to? I’d venture yes, I’m an American, but not for the reasons you think.
Despite excitement of days off school, the grandeur of fireworks, and the pleasant fictions told to children about: Independence; Noble Savages living in Peace with Entrepreneurial White Settlers; Supremely Ethical Founding Fathers; Dead soldiers fighting Worthy Wars abroad and Dead Leaders fighting Worthy Wars at home – my fondest memories as a boy never revolved around National Holidays and their accompanying spectacles of obeisance and foods that encourage obeseness. Instead I remember with vivid precision the energy and joy the different brought to religions and cultural costumes and practices of my Grandparents.
Though I can’t speak Danish or Yiddish, hearing my grandparents speak bilingually and participating in these ceremonies as a child deeply affected me. Joy, of course. But also alienation. On both sides, I felt like I’d lost something that had been for a long line unbroken in my family. I felt like it weighted on me. All the more so as I was the fruit of a union between what once were families of award winning pig farming Epicureans and solemn Orthodox Rabbis.
I remember their warm laps and doting attention to the millions of questions I had about their stories, their struggles. Each side shared stories about outbreaks of state-sponsored violence around them. They weren’t happy as it was some long-time dream to sever ties with all that one’s ever known and go to a strange land with better opportunities, but because the conditions which for generations had once allowed their forebears to sustain family life and line so deteriorated.
Now joining the demographic pool of the 8.5 million people born in American living abroad, I can’t help but think of my grandparents own voyage to a new world.
Their struggles are on my mind as while the forces which motivated them to pack up their things and leave is quite different in tenor, the violence of primitive dispossession is similar in effect to that enacted in the various markets in which people make their day to day way in the world. The opportunities for “good living” in the United States are rapidly disappearing and will continue to deteriorate further.
I say this not to invoke the rhetoric of disaster now popular because the most apt embodiment of the venality and corruption that is the American Ruling Class sits in the White House. No, Trump is but a symbol, a symptom of a deeper systemic illness rather than some special case. I say this as I’ve reviewed the metrics and can reasonably foresee that to have the family life like my grandparents aspired to, I would have to work myself to death so many of my compatriots do.
If America was once great for letting my grandparents in – those that were fleeing from violence – then it’s not now. In fact it’s reasonable to say that America is the opposite of great since its actions and those of its allies forcefully displace millions.
Defining America’s greatness as the people and energy that composed it – the courageousness of some to brave the acclimation process to a foreign culture, a foreign language, foreign business environments – then the Great Land that was once America is now outside its borders. In fact it’s reasonable to say that America is the opposite of great since those which direct the state openly display xenophobia and ahistorical cultural chauvinism – the same trends in different form which helped form my Grandparents decision to leave.
Were we to look to the ability of people to raise family and enough capital to live a good life as the basis for greatness, we’d see that the conditions today are quite different from then. The institutional embodiment of America, the political organization of the ruling class, Federal and State governments since the 70s have worked to erase the human face of what was always an oligarchy.
As I think about leaving the land that is America to live what I see as the noble ethos of America – meaning bravery to place oneself in uncomfortable situations to personally and professional develop and not the flipside of that spirit, the ignoble ethos which dispossessed natives, engaged in the slave economy and constructed a legal system and press thatjustified these and other injustices – I also cannot help but think of the life and work of Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. It is January 15th, after all, and while it wasn’t my intention to leave on such a date it does seem appropriate.
A year to the day before his assassination, King said something that had his contemporaries listened to and acted upon would have drastically changed the current shape of America:
“Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”
Had the people of King’s time been more attuned to the long-term truth and acted with vigor to excise these qualities from the economy, from society, from the culture rather than fighting for their minor advantages I might feel better about staying. But they did not, and so I do not, and so I go – just like my amazingly brave Grandparents, on to greener pastures.