Stay and Resist, or Go into Exile?
You sustain Lucid with your financial and other contributions, and today's post is one of a series that answers questions posed by Lucid subscribers. The US has long been a preferred destination for people fleeing repressive regimes of all types. But now, as the Republican assault against US democracy has intensified, some Americans have started to think about leaving. "How do you know when it's time to move to a country where democracy is more stable?" they ask.
Timing is everything in life, and history is full of stories of people who did not leave their countries in time to escape persecution. There are good reasons for this. Going into exile requires money and other things that many individuals do not have: a job offer, the right connections, entry papers, or a place to stay abroad. It also requires a clear-sighted view of the state of things that attachment to one's country, ingrained beliefs that "it can't happen here," or reluctance to leave loved ones behind can cloud.
The Jewish linguist Victor Klemperer, who kept a diary of his life during Hitler's rule, was not in denial: far from it. He stayed in Nazi Germany because he could not find a university position abroad. “Don’t think about it, live one’s life, bury oneself in the most private matters!" he wrote in late September 1938, summarizing how German Jews who stayed put coped, hoping that each new round of persecution would be the last. "Fine resolution, but so difficult to keep.”
Going into exile is always a deeply personal decision, and who you are, who you work for, and how you are seen by the authorities determines the degree of danger you are in. Certain groups have always been persecuted by illiberal states: nomadic and indigenous peoples; LBGTQ+ people; and religious minorities such as Jews, Muslims, and Jehovah's Witnesses, these last persecuted by both Hitler and Putin.
In America, we are likely to see internal migrations, as people leave states where reproductive, gay, and other rights are being extinguished. There's a long history of moving from regional police states to survive in this country, and viewing America through the lens of global authoritarianism gives us the language to describe it.
As Cornell William Brooks states, "And what were these Black Southerners who came to New York and Chicago and Detroit? They were refugees; they were fleeing terrorism. And so Black folk are the descendants of these refugees, as well as of enslaved people."
The hand of the US government and its enforcers will become heavier if the Republicans do well enough in the 2022 midterms to take control of the House and the Senate. Things could accelerate after that.
Anyone in public education, from kindergarten through advanced degree institutions, is fair game in red states. South Carolina is considering a bill to abolish tenure at public colleges and universities. It will also be increasingly dangerous, no matter where you live, to be a transgender person.
So, one answer would be: start exploring your options now if you are in a threatened category of people, as are many of those who write to me. "Better exile than prison," wrote former Italian Prime Minister Francesco Nitti to King Victor Emmanuel III in 1925, explaining why he'd left Italy when the Fascists took power. Nitti worked from abroad to counter authoritarian propaganda about what was happening in his native country, as exiles from Hong Kong, Myanmar, and other places do today.
It’s unlikely that Republican rule would mean mass imprisonment for political opponents, the way there is in Erdogan's Turkey. Viktor Orbán, darling of the GOP, has not gone that route. And it's a shame to lose capable people when they are most needed at home -- which would be the situation in the USA if Republicans gain more power and if they retake the White House in 2024.
Numbers matter for the success of nonviolent protests, for compensating at the ballot box for manipulated elections, and for constructing the kind of broad-based democracy movement America desperately needs, in which everyone finds their own way of working to protect our freedoms - or regain those we might lose.
Each person acts for their own reasons, and each situation is unique. But there is one constant in the history of exile. It means watching from afar the travails of your country, and, for those who desire to return, entering into a state of suspension: waiting for things to get better, waiting for the tyrant to die, waiting for freedoms to be restored.
This was the story of Iván Jaksic, who fled his native Chile for Argentina and then the US after the 1973 coup. He returned to Chile—people often return home, for economic or other reasons, before leaving again--only to be tried by a military court. It took another period in the US and Sweden for him to accept that he had gone "from a situation of exile into an experience of immigration."
Jaksic became a professor at Notre Dame University and Stanford University, and a US citizen. He has the last word as we think about what can happen in America and what our situation, and our priorities, might be. Exile saved Jaksic from serving in Pinochet's murderous military, and gave him a new start. Yet he never stopped missing his home.
Years later, he still longed for "a certain texture of air, and light, and tones of voice and fragrances of sea, mountains and food, from which you are, perhaps permanently, removed. There is also the longing for the life that could have been…. the desire to have lived a life without catastrophic breaks, a life in the place it was meant to be."
Viktor Klemperer. I Will Bear Witness. A Diary of the Nazi Years 1933-1941, trans. Martin Chalmers (New York, 1999), entry of September 20, 1938, p. 268.
Francesco Saverio Nitti, Scritti politici, vol. VI: Rivelazioni - Meditazioni e ricordi, a cura di Giampiero Carocci (Bari: 1963), letter of March 5, 1925, p. 584.
Iván Jakisc, in Thomas Wright and Rody Oñate, Flight from Chile. Voices from Exile (Alburquerque, 1998), p.122. Also Iván Jaksic, “In Search of Safe Haven: Exile, Immigration, and Identity,” in Rina Benmayor and Andor Skotnes, eds., Migration and Identity (London and New York, 2004), 19-34.