Wednesday, October 20, 2004

The Lifeboat and the Ark

If Bush is reelected, I expect him to do bad things. If he does bad things, what should I do to protect myself and my wife? The answer to that question is contingent. Various degrees of badness entail various degrees of panic and response.

Giving up in despair is one answer. Hypocrisy is another. I played Come to Jesus when I was a kid, and as I recall I was pretty convincing. I certainly convinced myself.

Continuing to engage in our usual political activities -- working in the Democratic party; plugging into Net-based groups like Move On; knowing what the right-wing screamers are saying and talking, not screaming back -- is another approach. Simply having faith in human nature as it expresses itself under our constitution and system of laws and riding out the evil years is another: Call it the repose of hope.

But two other responses intrigue me simply because they rise to mind for the first time in more than 30 years. How interesting that I am sufficiently concerned about Bush to entertain them. It is not too soon to begin to think about the Lifeboat and the Ark, as in Noah's Ark.

To go to the lifeboat means to leave your country, to pack up and flee, as Jews (but not only Jews) did during the rise of Nazi Germany, the goal being the saving of your life and that of your family. It is not always an obvious choice, as Philip Roth's new novel suggests, imagining an America turned fascist in 1940.

It can't happen here.


One might argue that no matter how evil events turn, the braver choice is to stay and fight and die. I believe it was the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov who refused to leave the Soviet Union to accept the Nobel Peace Prize because he did not think the Soviets would let him back in. What a fine line between cowardice and common sense, between the power of martyrdom and the futility of martyrdom. Even Victor Lazslo flew away at the end of Casablanca.

I raise the idea of the lifeboat because my wife and I have talked about moving to Canada if Bush is reelected. This is speculative. We would move under certain circumstances. Before I got a high draft number in the very first draft lottery in 1968, we talked about going to Canada for reasons of principle and of self preservation (not in that order). But the topic has not come up since, not in reaction to Nixon in 1972 or Reagan in 1980 or George Bush in 1988 or even under Bush II in 2000. That the question has arisen is significant. Just what do I imagine George Bush doing that would make me run away?

None of my "first fears" would be enough, since all of them seem correctable, and not my immediate problem, not my blood on the ground. Packing the Supreme Court and overturning Roe v. Wade would self correct, I assume: A majority of women would not accept it. Also -- and unfortunately this is an important "also" -- loss of a woman's right to choose would not affect me directly. That is true of many of the bad things Bush might do. Destroying large swaths of the environment would, one hopes, create an equally strong reaction from enough Americans -- finally. But, again, I am not a tree and I am 60 years old. There is probably oxygen enough and warmth enough to keep me going another 20 years no matter where I am.

I don't think Bush is likely to get us involved in a nuclear war with Russia. or China. Anticipating that would probably drive me into the lifeboat, the one headed for Tierra del Fuego, though I might not have courage enough to confront the apocalyptic. It takes a strong mind to see the moment when possibilities shade into probabilities and a mind stronger still to accept it and act on it. All that said, I don't think we are on the verge of general nuclear conflagration.

We probably will face a terror attack of some kind no matter who is elected, no matter what we do. It could be nuclear, it could be germs or it could be chemicals. Whichever it is, the damage will probably be confined to a big city or to a limited number of places around the country. I suppose we could move out of Oakland, to Sonoma or east Contra Costa, but I would not dignify that by calling it a retreat to the lifeboat.

The conduct of the war in Iraq won't matter. I expect it to go on for years, costing money and lives but at a moderate pace. It seems to me we have a surplus of semi-skilled working class young people if the casualties are a few thousand a year. If we get involved in other wars of comparable size -- Iran or Syria -- I won't have to go and I have no nephews or nieces 17-26.

I should have made that point earlier. (But what about all my former students of that age? Have sex, little ones. Create deferment opportunities.)

The Bush deficits at some point will lead to inflation , but I intend to keep working until I'm 70 and if I place my retirement money wisely, inflation will help, not hurt. If the world economy collapses might as well stand in the bread line here as there.

You see the purpose of this exercise. What might Bush do that would make me run? What is the worse case? If I can imagine it and imagine a proportional response, I will feel better.

Worst case would be a structural change in our democratic system: Bush might use the threat of terrorism to cancel the 2008 elections -- not this one, I'm pretty sure -- and make himself President for Life. If, as I think, he is a Theocrat, he might turn the U.S. into a fundamentalist Christian state, and suddenly as a Christian atheist -- agnostic on the idea of god in general but a disbeliever in Jesus as Christ -- I might be on somebody's list. Is that possible? Is it probable?

I know only that if Bush wins I will do a little discreet research about whether there is, in fact, any difficulty in retiring to Canada while drawing U.S. pensions.

A 21st Century Noah's Ark is an entirely different question. What is it that we dare not risk losing if Bush is not only bad but mad.? What shall we send away or bury or otherwise preserve against the possibility of some Bush madness? A stem-cell researcher of great genius might choose to leave the country to move the science forward, but is that really possible? Is the world so full of grants and facilities that our scientists would have a place to go? "Our" scientists are often their scientists come here. If we restrict certain kinds of research, fewer brains will flow our way. No Ark is needed. More to the point, given how portable knowledge is today, could any art or science or philosophy be lost if America became a totalitarian state, hostile to art and science and philosophy? Under what circumstances short of global catastrophe would a Noah's Ark of general knowledge be required?

Knowledge in the abstract, as data, may not be the issue. Perhaps, our best people in all areas should go elsewhere to strengthen other societies, helping them be a counterbalance to our misguided power. What if America becomes an international menace? Some would say we are today, but that's as romantic a view of our clumsiness and stupidity as those who believe that the Iraq adventure is an efficient approach to promoting freedom and democracy. You might say the strength of the American people, as ill-informed and emotionally susceptible as we are, is that Bush could not simply tell us that God wanted him to smite the infidel. He invented and misrepresented his way into Iraq because for a variety of reasons, some selfish and some altruistic, many of us then and a majority of us now wanted justification for going on a crusade. We were certainly willing to hurt whoever had hurt us, but we as a people -- enough of us -- are apparently capable of learning that was not the case in Iraq.

Imagine an America of "faith," where we take the President's word because it is His word. I think Bush would like to take us there. I think millions of Americans want him to lead us to such a place, to make us a Christian monolith doing God's work wherever and on whomever we choose. But in that case, what place in the world would be safe? Where is the mountaintop on which the Ark might settle?

There is no Noah's Ark, only lifeboats drifting away into the night. And if that sounds overly dramatic, god I hope so.

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