|In 1896, Albert Einstein repudiated his German citizenship (and also, incidentally, his Jewish faith) citing Germany’s “intolerable chauvinism” and shortly thereafter became a Swiss citizen. He traveled extensively between the US, Germany and Switzerland until 1932, when he left Germany for the last time. He, and a lot of perceptive, informed Germans, knew instinctively when it was time to go, and that it was no longer possible to change the country from within.
It’s time to acknowledge that last month’s election was not just a cynically manipulated campaign by neocons to hold on to power. It was won, many believe, on the strength of anti-gay (anti-minority) initiatives on the ballot in a dozen states, initiatives that drew a lot of angry, frightened people to the polls to vote against allowing civil liberties for people they don’t like, and in the process to vote for the self-avowed ‘war president’ who supported these initiatives, and other initiatives that reintroduce and re-justify discrimination against women, people of colour, the poor, and other minorities. It’s time we realize that this was not so much a referendum on the incumbent president, who even many of his supporters acknowledge is awful (never in history has a president with such low approval ratings been re-elected), as it was a referendum on the kind of America a majority of Americans want. It is a manifestation of the intense fear, paranoia and uncompromising intolerance and xenophobia of many Americans, and is reminiscent of the spirit of distrust and hate-mongering of Germans in the early 1930s.
In 1933, the burning of the German Reichstag by a self-proclaimed Dutch communist led to a massive suppression of civil liberties and a huge shift in sympathies to the Nazi party, which effectively exploited the event by introducing the Schutzhaft, a draconian law allowing arrest and incarceration without charge or disclosure, much like the Bush Patriot Act, and a new paramilitary anti-terrorist unit, the Gestapo, not terribly different in its inception and initial authority from Bush’s department of Homeland Security. There are of course differences of degree in these comparisons: The agreement of the German parliament to suspend their constitution and allow Hitler (who was never elected chancellor, and was only appointed to the post after a constitutional crisis undid his more popular predecessor) to cancel future elections and become chancellor for life. In 1933, Germany was suffering, along with the rest of the world, from an horrendous depression, so fear and desperation were relatively easy to stir up.
But my point is that the average German was largely untouched by the suppression of human rights, the xenophobia and the arbitrary and brutal treatment of minorities. It was only the more informed and perceptive members of German society — scientists and teachers and artists, who were alarmed at what was happening. Until it was too late. These informed and perceptive people left Germany in droves in the 1930s, realizing that the pendulum was not going to swing back, and that the country was ripe for dictatorship and imperialism. This year, it is the most informed and perceptive people in America who are likewise, after a lifetime of struggle to defend the values that made America great, realizing the dangers of this radical right-wing shift, and the propensity for war, imperialism, propagandizing, and the loss of liberty and democracy that comes with it.
One Christian German, Sebastien Haffner, who fled to England in the mid-1930s, wrote about Germany in the 1930s before he left:
What saved me was… my nose. I have a fairly well developed figurative sense of smell, or to put it differently, a sense of the worth (or worthlessness!) of human, moral, political views and attitudes. Most Germans unfortunately lack this sense almost completely. The cleverest of them are capable of discussing themselves stupid with their abstractions and deductions, when just using their noses would tell them that something stinks.
It is interesting to note the reaction of Americans to fellow countrymen who are fleeing to Canada. From the right, this is seen as treasonous, disgraceful behaviour. There is almost a sense that right-wingers think leaving is such a humiliation to a country that was founded as a haven for immigrants seeking freedom from other repressive tyrannies, that it should be illegal. At the very least, the message from the right is “good riddance”, and “don’t expect to be allowed back”. From the left, the exodus is seen as a betrayal, or as an act of cowardice, recklessness, or lack of perseverance. For decades, except during the Vietnam War, more Canadians have left for the US than the other way around. For the most part, Canadian emigrants are seen as following their heart, or fleeing the weather justifiably, and remain friends with those they left behind in Canada, and are welcome to return. To what should we ascribe such a difference in attitude?
Things happen for a reason. The chart above shows the wide divergences of values between Americans and Canadians, a rift that is growing much wider very quickly. Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, a self-avowed moderate, yesterday expressed his pleasure with the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision that the entrenchment of the right of gays and lesbians to equal marriage rights as heterosexual Canadians, in wholly consistent with Canada’s constitution. The fact that this decision came a week after Bush’s carefully staged visit to Canada is no coincidence. There is no doubt that Bush, who sideswiped Martin during his visit by publicly asking for Canada’s support for its space weapons plans (which Martin immediately repudiated), had expressed to Martin his displeasure both with Canada’s rights for gays and lesbians, and its plans to decriminalize possession of marijuana. Both measures are fast-tracked in Canada’s parliament. Martin is clearly worried about what is happening in the US, and has put a line in the sand declaring Canada’s political sovereignty and its collective repugnance of draconian American laws that directly impinge on civil liberties.
In a radio program yesterday on CBC, a representative of the Canadian government put it starkly:
In a liberal democracy like Canada, it is not appropriate to use a referendum to put decisions about minority rights to a majority vote.
The government, she explained, has a responsibility to protect the constitution, to stand up to the tyranny of the majority for the rights of the dispossessed, disadvantaged and outnumbered. While the gay and lesbian marriage bill will be a “free vote”, Martin made it clear that he would see, and thinks citizens would see, a no vote as an abrogation of that responsibility.
Contrast this with the cynicism in the US, where the government, either unaware or uncaring of the responsibility of government to stand up for the rights of minorities in a liberal democracy, routinely puts anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-women’s rights and other racist and discriminatory initiatives on referendum ballots to pander to intolerant voters, knowing full well that the judiciary will step in and justifiably rule them unconstitutional. The politicians can then callowly say “we tried, it’s the court’s fault ‘family values’ weren’t upheld”. This disgraceful, dishonest, ignorant and dangerous behaviour now threatens to push the US to the point where, like 1930s Germany, the courts get stacked with similarly dishonest, disgraceful and dangerous judges who have no qualms about trampling or even suspending the constitution, wackos like Scalia and Thomas that Bush promises to introduce more of until they are in a majority. What astonishes me in the light of this terrifying eventuality is that so few Americans are fleeing to other countries before that happens.
Even the astute NYT seems to be naive about the dangers of this ‘gaming’ of the system. On Wednesday they lauded Bush for earmarking $45 million to prosecute black-market gun crimes, and chastized the Republican congress for removing the funding in its latest ‘omnibus’ bill. Perhaps it simply didn’t occur to the NYT that Bush deliberately earmarked these funds knowing that the congress would delete the funding, so he could get a few liberal kudos while continuing to pander to the American gun nuts who overwhelmingly support and help finance him.
I have predicted that by the end of this century our world will be racked by a cascading series of catastrophes, but these will build to a crescendo slowly, almost imperceptibly, until it’s too late to respond to them in a rational, coordinated, planned way. An imperialist America, under increasingly oppressive rule, where all efforts are focused on military adventures to access scarce resources and where the needs of the rest of the world are ignored, might be the early warning sign, exactly the kind of distraction that will prevent the world from addressing the real global problems of our planet before they begin to cascade in an endless series of crises, and become insoluble.
So, Americans, please do not be cowed or intimidated by those who would call you names for thinking of getting out while the getting is good. We need a lot of great minds working on some massive and intractable human problems now. As long as you remain in the US trying to bring about regime change, and even cultural change, there in the country you have called home, you will be endlessly distracted by people and governments who are on a dangerous and probably inexorable track. No one would have thought ill of you for leaving Germany in the 1930s, or even before. Those that left that country then might have even saved the world from annihilation. Those brave souls who are leaving America now, and moving to Canada or other countries, could play a no less important role in our struggling planet’s future.