Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Privilege of Escape

Umberto Boccioni, Quelli che Vanno, 1911

So I did it... I am comfortably resting in a nice high-rise apartment in the center of Toronto, with a new very comfortable scientist job (in many ways even better than the Californian one I had for the past ten years)... but most of all, yes, I sleep again at night after a long year of aggravated insomnia. Like many others, I escaped across the border, leaving behind a country where fascism has been growing and strangling civil society like a poisonous weed. Though everything worked out just fine in the end, the experience gave me many occasions to reflect on what I would like to call "the privilege of leaving". Leaving takes a lot of time, energy, planning, and resources, especially financial resources. You cannot just run away to another country at a moment notice. That's where things are very tricky from the start, because when do you decide it's time to plan your escape? If you do it at a time when your life is in immediate danger, as is the case for so many displaced people around the world, who are fleeing war, persecution and genocide, then you don't have the time for any planning and the likelihood of a successful escape is correspondingly very low. People who run away from immediate danger are inevitably forced to put themselves through possibly even more serious dangers in order to attempt an escape. Borders are militarized exclusion zones (some of them, of course, much more so than others) and any person on the move is the enemy they are built to defeat. Relocating across a border, even in the best of circumstances, is very hard: you need to move your job, you need the documents needed to let you seep through the walls of increasingly defensive and paranoid nation states, you need to physically move both yourself and whatever part of your belongings you deem essential, and you need the resources to shoulder the costs of all of these things. Escaping is a privilege, and the privilege starts with being able to plan ahead of the time of immediate threats. I certainly was not in an immediate danger at the time when I started planning the possibility to move away from an increasingly threatening, but not yet immediately dangerous (at least not to me personally) political situation. However, moving an academic job takes time, lots of time: in my case it took almost exactly a year from application to starting date. That was an extremely lucky case. History teaches us that the decision to leave or wait and stay put has momentous consequences, and the life trajectories of people who made that decision at different times have varied enormously: everyone knows the stories of the intellectuals of the Weimar Republic who went into exile in the US, those who had both the privilege and the hindsight to be able to plan ahead, to secure a job and a visa, and the means to travel. Many waited beyond the point where escape was still possible. Others simply did not have the privilege of securing a possible escape and were forced to stay. All those who did not leave, who could not leave for one or the other reason, are lost names, filling endless lists of victims of one of the greatest atrocities of modern history. Maybe history is not repeating itself, I am not saying that the US of today is necessarily on the verge of perpetrating  similar mass scale atrocities. I am saying, however, that in 1933 Germany many people also thought that the new cabinet was a terribly bad government that simply would not last to the next election. Others, the likes of Hannah Arendt, understood immediately that it was better to relocate as quickly as possible (and were in a sufficiently privileged position as prominent intellectuals to actually have the possibility to do so). Paradoxically, Walter Benjamin, who had left Germany already in 1932 anticipating the electoral victory of the nazis, returned to Berlin as late as 1936, when it was obviously extremely unwise to do so, allegedly because he had left his personal library there, and felt unable to work without it. He later escaped again to France, and despite having a job offer in the US, was unable to leave France. When he found the border to Spain closed to all refugees escaping the German invasion of France, he killed himself. The border, it is said, was reopened to refugees the next day. His private library in Berlin was eventually looted and destroyed by the book-burning nazis. There are many such stories from the days when European intellectuals were escaping fascism by attempting to reach the US. They show clearly how complicated a process is this "leaving", how non-obvious a decision, even when it looks like it should have been clear to those who watch from the depth of history. About half of my personal library has moved with me, the other half is still in California. Should it become like 1936 Berlin, I probably would not go back for it. Or would I? It's hard to see history emerge through the fog of future times. For now I do not know if I will be staying here in the North, returning to that place in California I have greatly enjoyed to call home for a decade, or some other likely or unlikely scenario. For now I can enjoy being able to work again, to think about science again without being constantly worrying about the daily list of looming catastrophes, I can return to writing my philosophical thoughts as an anarchist without fear of violent attacks by fascists, and generally I can live the kind of everyday life that allows you to sleep at night: that too is a privilege that I am acutely aware of.

Umberto Boccioni, Quelli che Restano, 1911