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Once you cross the ocean, you’re always on the wrong side

8m Americans live abroad. Will COVID misgovernment and impoverishment increase emigration?

From a land of immigrants to emigrants?

This is not the only article I’ve seen by young Americans thinking of emigrating: https://medium.com/discourse/maybe-leaving-the-united-states-is-a-good-idea-350f82db771c . It won’t be the last. I’ve taught several university history courses in Latvia, a country deeply scarred by its history. Here are some thoughts from a multi-country expat on emigration through history’s cycles.

If you’re thinking of leaving the USA, listen to a Uruguayan exile I knew who had fled that country’s 1971 military coup. When we met in Barcelona in 1980 I asked in Spanish if she got along with the Catalans and had adapted. She replied in perfect, unaccented English: “once you cross the ocean, you’re always on the wrong side.” Multilinguals adapt more easily.

I now live in the same country my maternal grandmother sailed to NY from in 1906. My former Latvian lawyer is a US citizen and now lives near a South Carolina beach married to an ex-marine and Vietnam vet. Now formerly fascist Uruguay and Spain and formerly communist Latvia are better governed democracies than the United States. I’ve told my friends in Berlin that seventy eight years after the US launched the operation to save Germany from itself, our countries’ roles are exactly reversed. Surely Angela Merkel never imagined this would be included in the German chancellor’s job description.

If you had told me when I went to demos against the Vietnam War and South African apartheid as a college student that in 45 years there would be a white nationalist Republican in the White House who was Russia’s useful idiot and that the American left was supporting the FBI and the CIA, I’d have asked you, “what are you smoking and can I have some.”

As you contemplate emigration, consider where the trend is toward populist alternative facts, alpha male misgovernment and where you’ll find societies governed by evidenced-based leaders (and healthcare). Among the former: Poland, Hungary, England, Brazil, Australia, Israel, Mexico. Among the latter: Germany, New Zealand, Canada, Taiwan, South Korea, Slovakia, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland. Almost all the well-governed states are geopolitical lightweights, while almost all the geopolitical giants are misgoverned. This divorced between competent governance and geopolitical weight makes anywhere you might live less safe. As I’ve said to my history students, “history is fascinating, but stay out of the way.” As you decide where to live, be aware of the historical cycle you’re in: one of humanity’s periodic stupid seasons. The previous one: 1914–45.

“La vie est un cycle (life is a cycle)” — what the general manager of the Ritz Carlton Hotel, Saigon told me on a hobie cat we shared in Bali in 1989. His father ran the same hotel in the 1930s).

History outdoes fiction in its ability to offer unimaginable real events that turn the world on its head, completely reversing what we thought we knew about where we live and the place we’ve left behind.


Once you cross the ocean, you’re always on the wrong side was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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