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Monday, March 27, 2017

Being a resident expatriate

In the 1920s, America's most important writers, artists, and thinkers left the  United States to live in other places, predominantly Paris.  Gertrude Stein is attributed for labeling these expatriates the "lost generation."  She said America was her country, but Paris was her home.  An expatriate is one who withdraws from residence in  or allegiance to his or her country.

By that definition,  I am an expatriate. I cannot bear allegiance to a country that has embraced the moral and intellectual degradation of Donald Trump.  I am by no means alone.

The expatriates of the 1920s left their country for a complex of reasons, one of which was captured in a post-World War I song "How are you going to keep them down on the farm once they've seen Paree?"  But there were more profound reasons for the sense of alienation in the United States that went beyond the experience of a less restrictive and more tolerant style of life that Paris represented. While many white Americans gathered in Europe to  pursue the arts,   the Harlem Renaissance was blossoming for African Americans in New York City and providing a beacon for those living under Jim Crow.  Art, literature, and music provide alternative ideas and the stuff out of which an alternative culture can be constructed.  The 1920s was laying the cultural foundation with which America faced the Great Depression, another world war, and the need for civil rights.  Called the Jazz Age,  the 1920s was a time when black culture was adopted by the larger culture through music.  It was a time of intense literary activity when the moral implications of the premise of the nation were under examination.  It was the time when the character of what Tom Brokaw has called The Greatest Generation was formed.  

Expatriates found that they needed a distant perspective from which to judge the values of their country.  Some did it from the vantage point of Europe; others did it through the vantage point of disengagement from American society.  I have seen a parallel movement to social disengagement at work in South Dakota.   There are many people who reside in South Dakota but find their home in other places.  A number of people I know center their "home life" in the Twin Cities.  They subscribe to the Minneapolis and St. Paul newspapers and organize their social and cultural lives around events and reources in the those cities.  And over the years, many South Dakota friends have relocated their residences when they found the opportunity.  

For many people, the dominant culture of South Dakota has nothing to offer them.  Once when  i was teaching college,  a nationally prominent person from South Dakota was in the state for a speaking engagement.  Some of we professors were able to combine our classes and have him speak to our students.  A student asked him if he ever considered returning to South Dakota to live.  The man replied that the last he thing he could do is live in a state where the ultimate activity is "to blast away at the world's dumbest bird with shotguns or sit in a boat by the world's biggest stock dams fishing for the world's dumbest fish."  The students understood that the response was humorous hyperbole, but nevertheless reflected a cultural fact of life.  

For many Americans, the nation has come to represent the kind of cultural deficiency that South Dakota had for that man.  While the nation fusses over old conservative and liberal arguments,  many people see that other nations in the world have in fact surpassed the U.S. in social progress.  The election of Donald Trump represents a giant leap backward into a world of small mindedness and petty resentments.  America is no longer the shining city on the hill. It is the cultural shanty town near the dump. 

As an Army veteran who served in Germany during the Cold War,  I find that the country I was once proud to defend no longer exists.  During that time,  our radars and intelligence gathering antennae were trained on the Soviet Union, but the battle being fought was an internal one.  In 1948, President Truman signed the order to desegregate the armed forces but that did not purge them of racist attitudes and Jim Crow practices.  We dealt with racial incidents constantly, and did not eliminate racism,  but we did make progress in seeing that racial oppression and discrimination would not be tolerated.  

The election of Barack Obama as our first black president was more than many people could bear, and dormant racial attitudes were revived.  Pundits spend much time talking about mistakes by Democrats that resulted in the election of Donald Trump, but few have the courage to admit that Jim Crow won the election.  And people who endorse Jim Crow are not people with whom there is any possible reconciliation.  Despite the fact that Trump has a record of astounding business failures, bankruptcies, and a history of ripping off people who work for him,  people keep saying that they voted for him because he's a business man and can get things done.  With his actual business record, an 18-month display of acting out like a fifth-grade bully, and his anti-science, anti-fact, anti-decency agenda,  supporters still insist that they voted for change.  The change they voted for was to halt and reverse all the progress the country has made in extending the benefits of freedom, equality, justice, and over all health and well-being to the nation.  These are people who cannot be engaged in fact-based reasoning.  And so, there is a nation of expatriates.  The expatriates are that majority who voted for someone else.  

The expatriates step back and take a long view and visualize what a genuine America looks like.  And think about where it can be built.  

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States