Exile

Phil Ford

S. Burns wrote an interesting comment on my last post:

I agree with everything you say bar one half-sentence. It won’t ruin her life. It will stop her going to America, which isn’t quite the same thing. Xenophobia and intransigence may deprive America of her expertise, and that of many others, but they themselves will find they can have happy lives and glittering careers without ever going near the place. Nowhere is indispensable.

Well, of course I don’t know prof. Ghuman, so I don’t really know how any of this sits with her. I just imagine myself in the same situation — if I got shipped back to Canada I’d find myself back in a familiar and civilized place, but without the woman I love, the friends I’ve made over the last couple of decades, the professional position I’ve worked for years and years to attain . . . in short, while my life in its potential entirety, my biblical span of three score and ten, is not ruined (maybe), the life I’ve made for myself for the past twenty years has been. And it’s hard for me to imagine that it’s much different for Prof. Ghuman.

The experience I’ve described is probably closest to exile, which in the ancient world was considered a punishment only slightly less harsh than death. Exile is a rather romantic condition — I’m sure that one of the reasons American academics have sentimentalized Theodor Adorno so much is because of his romantic aura of exile — but in unromantic reality, being an exile is just depressing.

Back in 2004 I spent a few weeks in the Hoover Institution archive poking through microfilms of draft dodger “underground newspapers” (i.e., countercultural papers, the grubby and eccentric forerunners to today’s alternative newsweeklies) that were published by self-exiled Americans living in Canada. The main one was AMEX, The America Exile in Canada, published in Toronto by a group of militant American draft resisters, though there were other ones. A lot of the people writing these papers were stone revolutionaries, people who had chosen exile not only out of self-preservation, but because they thought of themselves as destroying angels of the Revolution, like Castro, Lenin, or Mao, organizing revolution from a sheltered haven and biding their time. They hated the idea of the war, but they also hated the country and culture they believed the war represented: America, a technocratic death-culture, a machine that eats young men and shits soldiers (there is a cartoon published somewhere in AMEX that uses this imagery); the mad flailing of a System run out of control, perhaps for the last time; a machine that had mastered its masters; a grim Totentanz at the end of the capitalist world. To them, Canada was not only a place to hide out: it could be the new world. Leaving the United States could be a countercultural act, an opting-out of culture and not simply a change of address. And so Canada was set to disappoint.

The interesting thing, as you track the dodger’s exile experience week by week, is tracking how their euphoria and relief and feelings of unbounded possibility in their new chosen home slowly decay into low-grade grinding depression. All exceptions duly noted, of course — some American exiles never looked back — but these hard-core anti-Americans found themselves realizing, in exile, how truly American they were. Eventually, they found themselves mourning the loss of everyday homey things — baseball gets mentioned a lot. But at first, their disappointment was put in political terms. We came to Canada, they wrote, but Canada is just like the United States—they still have capitalism and exploitation! The dumb anger at things not instantly working out as hoped is a readily recognizable trait of middle-class Left radicals, but to Canadians it was also a recognizable trait of Americans. Americans were always throwing their weight around—in Vietnam, for instance—going where they’re not wanted, giving advice no-one asked for, expecting to get their own way and not understanding why the locals didn’t play along. Here were a bunch of American Left radicals who could see the arrogance of their country’s war in Vietnam but could not see the same arrogance in their own words as they lectured Canadians on their Protestant stolidity and their treatment of Indians. It’s at this time, in the early 1970s, that left-wing Canadian nationalism (with its reflexive anti-Americanism) begins to take shape, partly in reaction to the flood of Americans entering the country. So exile didn’t turn out quite as expected.

The CBC archive site has some great dodger-related clips. There’s one on the paranoid state of the exile; there’s Sammy Davis Junior in a serious mood, hosting a debate on draft resistance; there’s a fascinating clip of 1960s-style “participatory democracy” in (in)action; and there’s a spot that catches up with an American in Canada years after Jimmy Carter declared amnesty and most of the exiles went home. A bonus: one of the most notable American draft dodgers to remain in Canada, William Gibson, eventual author of Neuromancer and Pattern Recognitionshows up, obviously stoned, to guide a square CBC reporter through Toronto’s Yorkville neighborhood.

On a lighter note: one of the students in my course on film musicals showed me the South Park episode that ends up a music parody of The Wizard of Oz, with Canada as Oz and a Newfie, a Mountie, and a French guy taking the place of Dorothy’s friends. The best joke: there’s only one road in Canada. This is actually true.

Double bonus: an article I photocopied from AMEX on how to speak Canadian.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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5 Responses to Exile

  1. anonymous says:

    On the subject of musicological exiles…. First, we shouldn’t forget that American musicology, in large part, was founded by exiles from Nazi Germany. And, secondly, given how many Americans with Ph.D.s in musicology were never able to secure a suitable faculty position, it could be argued that there are a fair number of internal exiles as well.

  2. Jonathan says:

    I have some trouble considering an unemployed musicologist–and who hasn’t been *that* at one time or another?–an internal exile. People forced to leave for reasons of politics or safey, such as the refugees from Nazi Germany, of course. Were there musicologists who fled the red-baiting, that would be a similar situation. But people for whom the market did not support very specialized training…it is deeply unfortunate (and I have stared in the face of that one myself, as have many other close friends), but I don’t think the term “exile” should be used.

  3. Chris says:

    I loved the old AMEX piece on speaking Canadian. That said, a lot of Canadian English has become more Americanized, particularly here in Ontario (though we still have our extra “u” in many words, and electricity will always be hydro here). Still, back home in Nova Scotia (and I can only imagine in Newfoundland!) the older usages still exist (though maybe not thrive).
    Actually, they left out one of my “favourites”: “chesterfield” (which my parents still use) in place of “sofa.” My American wife still gives me odd looks if I blurt that one out every so often!

  4. Bob Judd says:

    Please do something for Nalini.
    There’s a form of complacency that takes shape in writing blog comments and leaving it at that — drifting on to the next nifty idea and letting the old news fall to the wayside.
    Please toggle your machine to MS Word and write a letter to your congressional representatives expressing outrage at the high-handed treatment of our fellow-musicologist. (You know, btw, this is by no means the only such problem in academe: Latin American Studies, the American Historical Association, the American Academy of Religion have all had various related problems since 9/11. It’s continuing because we in the academy are too quiet.)
    I myself have also written to Rep. Waxman of the House Oversight Committee asking him to bring Dept. of State to some accountability. The only reason DoS gets away with this is because Americans do not write the letters of outrage. Here’s a web site w/ tips for writing.
    http://www.dosomething.org/tipsheet/write_a_letter_to_an_elected_official
    The AMS has a couple suggestions as well:
    http://www.ams-net.org/from_the_president.php
    And look up the “to the editors” page of your local paper and write.

  5. rich says:

    Q: What’s worse than an uppity Canadian?
    A: ?

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