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The central conceit of FX TV series The Americans is that a pair of grown-up Russian spies, having never set foot outside the Soviet Union, parachute into the United States and instantly pass for stereotypical American suburbanites.
Well, not quite instantly–they do spend their first night in the United States in a motel room, marvelling at the air conditioning, the shag carpeting, and the plentiful toilet paper. And they practice their English as though the language were a pair of KGB-issued secret transmitter-decoder shoes that need polishing and breaking-in. But in the morning–Boom!–they’re The Americans.
Folks, believe me when I tell you, it does not work like that. For at least a year after our arrival in the United States, my mother served Corn Flakes with chicken soup. My dad had studied English for most of his life, but never completely mastered the definite article.
From the moment I set foot on American soil, my goal was to pass for native. Now, 37 years later, I can fool most of the people most of the time, but it’s a daily struggle. I still can’t explain the Designated Hitter Rule. In the wake of the Battle of the Bulge, German infiltrators posing as GIs were summarily executed when they failed to identify the winner of the 1939 National League pennant. (It was the Cincinnati Reds, apparently.) I would have been shot, for sure.
Fitting in is hard, and some cultural knowledge comes only with mother’s milk. In real life, your highly-trained KGB super-moles would have given away the game the minute they served jellied tongue and pickled herring at Thanksgiving dinner. I speak from experience. That’s why, in real life, the KGB didn’t use Russian spies who pretended to be Americans; they used Americans who were secretly Russian spies. There’s a mediocre Soviet-era anekdot about this:
Q: How did British Intelligence spot the Soviet spy in London?
A: They caught him buttoning his fly after leaving the loo.
We’re used to thinking of the United States as a nation of immigrants, and thanks to relentless and fairly recent official myth-making, this is now close to the core of American identity. That manipulative term—“immigrant”—has a vise-grip on our public policy discussions. It plays to our sentiments by conjuring up grainy black-and-white images of our tired, poor, huddled great-grandparents weeping and waving the Stars and Stripes at the sight of the Statue of Liberty. It is, in other words, a useful term for those who want to obfuscate and prevent clear thinking about an important subject. But “immigrant” is a crude and clunky portmanteau that erases many interesting and possibly relevant sub-categories and distinctions: defector, displaced person, émigré, exile, expat, H1B visa lottery winner, illegal migrant, invader, KGB mole, refugee, settler, and so forth.
We have many words associated with the movement of people from one point on the globe to another because in his 200,000-year career, Homo Sapiens has rarely stayed put for very long. Only the Australian aborigines have occupied the same real estate for 40,000 years straight; most everyone else has been in near-perpetual motion. The Old Testament, for example, is a chronicle of migrations and expulsions, beginning with the first exiles–Adam, Eve, Cain–and ending with the Israelites’ escape from Egypt and conquest of Canaan. Abraham was probably the first recorded immigrant; Joseph was arguably the first expat; the Twelve Tribes, the first economic migrants.
From the time of the Mayflower, we Americans (can I say that?) have been an Old Testament people, accustomed to thinking of our country as the new Canaan. This heritage makes us well-disposed toward foreigners who come here, because we assume that they must share our vision. But it’s a mistake to view all immigration as good, per se. From the perspective of the Pharaohs, Hebrew immigration into Egypt did not work out well. (See Exodus, 7:7-13.) Hun immigration into Central Europe did not, in the long run, accrue to the benefit of Fourth-Century Romans. Mongol immigration into Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Near East was not without its occasional unpleasantness. Norman immigration into Sussex and Kent was obnoxious from the standpoint of the local Anglo-Saxon gentry. English immigration to the Plymouth Colony was on balance a net-negative development for the Wampanoag People of Massachusetts Bay. So it pays to ask ourselves exactly what kind of foreigners we should be welcoming. And let’s bring back that perfectly neutral and descriptive term–“foreigner”–just to be clear what we’re talking about.
Exiles are particularly interesting. Every true immigrant is in part a Ulysses, coming home at last. This is very different from an exile, who longs for a home from which he has been expelled. An immigrant embraces assimilation; an exile resists it or embraces it only reluctantly, never fully putting down roots in his adopted land. His valise is always near at hand. Typically, he is a gadfly and an irritant in his native land, and sufficiently prominent to have caught the eye of the local authorities. Socrates was almost exiled, but chose death instead. Other famous exiles include Dante, Casanova, Napoléon, Trotsky, and Picasso, but also, less poetically, The Rolling Stones (who are merely tax exiles).
Exiles frequently become society’s leavening agents. When Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, a stream of Greek-speaking exiles flooded into Italy, bringing with them their volumes of Plato and Aristotle. Edward Gibbon says:
… the restoration of the Greek letters in Italy was prosecuted by a series of emigrants who were destitute of fortune and endowed with learning, or at least with language. From the terror or oppression of the Turkish arms, the natives of Thessalonica and Constantinople escaped to a land of freedom, curiosity, and wealth.
The result of this mixing of Greek learning and Italian “freedom, curiosity, and wealth” was the Renaissance. The Jews, who were a nation in exile for 2,000 years, have occasionally played a similar socially catalytic role.
Like Renaissance Italy, the United States benefited beyond measure from a torrent of exiles and refugees fleeing a Europe that had set itself on fire. In 1933, a group of prominent New York scholars and philanthropists, including a young Edward R. Murrow, formed the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars in order to put German refugees to work, and later, to place other European refugee scholars in American institutions. Thousands of displaced scholars and prominent professionals sought aid from the Committee, and several hundred were given assistance in the form of fellowships and grants to US institutions. A few became Nobel Laureates, including Thomas Mann (literature), Max Delbrück (medicine) and Felix Bloch (physics). The New York Public Library maintains an archive of the Committee’s correspondence, an untapped treasure trove for some enterprising writer to exploit.
The exiled European intelligentsia of the 1930s and 40s were Hitler’s gift to America–a gift that keeps on giving. In their second and third generations they have produced, among others, Jerry Springer, Charles Krauthammer, and Ricochet’s own Claire Berlinski, as well as her estimable dad, David.
Although perhaps it would have been better if some of these refugees had gone elsewhere. True, we did get Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, John Von Neumann, Henry Kissinger, and Leo Strauss. But we also got Herbert Marcuse, godfather of the Hippies and the 1960s New Left. In fact, for our sins, we got the entire Frankfurt School–intellectuals who escaped the Nazis by the skin of their teeth, settled in nice places like Manhattan and Southern California, and ungratefully proceeded to chip away at the foundations of American society, ultimately bringing us the trickle-down Cultural Marxism of today’s ruling class. So when it comes to exiles, you get baby and bathwater.
(Incidentally, on the strength of John Von Neumann, Edward Teller, Leó Szilárd, Sir Georg Solti, Andy Grove, and Zsa Zsa Gabor, the US Constitution should be amended to grant unconditional automatic citizenship to any Hungarian who asks for it.)
Expats, the opposite of exiles, are another interesting group. America has usually been a destination for exiles and immigrants. Expats flow in the opposite direction. There are a number of advantages to being an expat. The first is glamour and romance. Some expats are rich, beautiful, and talented people like Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Some, like the aforementioned Claire Berlinski, are not quite so glamorous, beautiful, and romantic; and not rich whatsoever, but clever at camouflaging cat barf stains with a decorative throw-pillow. [Author’s note: This paragraph has obviously been significantly, umm… “improved” from the original by Ricochet.]
Second, to be an expat is to assert easy mastery over one’s fate. Unlike immigrants or persons displaced by war, revolution, famine or other calamity, becoming an expat is often a choice freely exercised, usually from among a menu of other attractive alternatives.
Third, to become an expat is to escape the burdens of civic responsibility. Though an expat may settle in a country that is just as corrupt and dysfunctional as one’s own, if not more so, the corruption and dysfunction belong to the locals, and an expat has no responsibility to become emotionally invested in them. That is, unless she’s the above-mentioned Claire Berlinski, in which case she becomes hopelessly over-invested in them. For the others, perhaps, the dysfunction and corruption can be a charming part of the local color in a way that is impossible at home. It makes me angry that my own country looks and feels increasingly like a squalid, corrupt, bankrupt socialist sinkhole. But if HGTV’s House Hunters International is any indication, moving to an actual corrupt socialist sinkhole would be quite emotionally liberating. [Editor’s note: Don’t bet on that.]
Fourth, becoming an expat is generally liberating. In particular, it is a liberation from social constraints. An expat exists fully outside of the local social matrix, and therefore takes no part in the complicated petty dramas of jockeying for status that are at the heart of any animal society. An expat is not judged by the same standards as everyone else. He stands apart, viewing his temporary home with a bemused anthropologist’s eye. [Editor’s note: Don’t bet on that, either.]
Finally, to be an expat is to embrace the “citizen of the world” idea. My sense is that the upper reaches of our social strata are composed increasingly of such world citizens–a class of peripatetic trans-nationals who hold a passport of convenience (or three), and drift along from New York to Singapore to London to Dubai to San Francisco, equally at home in each, without much permanent attachment to any particular one.
I am ashamed to admit that in the last seven years, the thought of becoming an expat has crossed my mind more than a few times. These days, US citizens are second-class citizens, which puts a strain on my America-right-or-wrong inclinations and makes Uruguay look more and more attractive. The trouble is that unlike me, my kids are fully American, and I hesitate to uproot them.
Besides, you can never escape the long arm of the IRS, no matter where you go.