Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part II. FIVE STEPS
On November 3, 2004, the New Zealand immigration service received 10,300 hits from the United States on its website—more than four times its daily average—while calls and e-mails from Americans inquiring about immigration skyrocketed from an average of seven a day to three hundred.
One of those inquiries was from me.
For the first four years of the Bush administration, we were blameless. After all, we hadn’t technically elected the president. And back then we had no idea that he would lead us into an unnecessary war, bring the budget from a $236 billion surplus to the highest deficit in U.S. history, strip away civil liberties in the name of national security, and disregard international treaties, the United Nations, and the Constitution.
After the 2004 election, however, everything was different. This time, Bush had actually been voted into office. And the message that sent to every other country in the world was that the people of America condoned his actions. Thus, it was no longer Bush who was stupid in the eyes of the rest of the world, it was us.
The cover of Britain’s Daily Mirror said it all: “How Can 59,054,087 People Be So DUMB?” (It failed to mention the more than 79 million Americans who were even dumber and, though eligible to vote, didn’t.)
For historical-precedent-obsessed Americans like me, though, this was about more than George W. Bush. Just as the attacks of 9/11, though they were far from traditional warfare, showed Americans that war could happen here, the national security clampdown of the Bush administration—though far from actual authoritarianism—showed Americans that fascism could happen here. After all, to make an extreme comparison, even Mussolini and Hitler came to power legally in democratic governments.
And so I lay on my bed that afternoon, stared at the white plaster ceiling, and thought about what I could do. I’d had my chance during the 2000 election: the thirty-five days between the end of polling and the final announcement of the victory were one of those pivotal moments in American history where a single person could have made a difference. And I had a better opportunity than many. As a reporter for the Times, all I had to do was fly to Florida, find the right story, and expose it before a decision was made. Instead, like most other Americans, I watched TV and waited for someone else to do it.
Despite my disillusionment, I didn’t believe that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld were incarnations of evil, looking to create martial law or a police state. But they were so zealously pursuing such a narrow set of priorities that they were doing more harm than good.
Whatever store of cultural or political goodwill we had acquired over the years was mostly squandered in Iraq. In 2000, 75 percent of Indonesians—the country with the world’s largest Muslim population—viewed Americans favorably. After the invasion of Iraq, that number dropped to 15 percent, with 81 percent of the population saying they feared a U.S. attack. Even South Koreans, who once considered North Korea their biggest threat, were now more afraid of the United States. And across Europe, South America, and the rest of the world, leaders who openly collaborated with our government lost popularity and elections.
The day the results of the 2004 election were announced was the first time I seriously considered leaving America. I felt alienated from the majority of the country, worried about the damage four more years of the same administration would do, and concerned about a backlash from the rest of the world.
Recently, I’d left the New York Times, hoping to move on to bigger and better things. But those things hadn’t come. And now, more than ever, I doubted myself. At the newspaper I’d been thought of as the young guy, with my finger on the pulse of popular culture. But the election had proven that my finger wasn’t on the pulse. I was just feeling the surface of the skin and imagining a heartbeat that wasn’t actually there.
In 1990, before the Internet, e-mail, cell phones, and laptop computers were mainstream, Jacques Attali, an adviser to the French president, wrote a book called Millennium, in which he predicted that human beings would evolve into technological nomads. Because technology was making work and communication possible in any location, he elaborated, we’d no longer need to stay in one place.
Perhaps my disillusionment was also an opportunity to pick up my laptop and cell phone, leave the rat race, and become a technological nomad. So that night, with my conversation with Jane in Australia echoing in my head, I checked the immigration websites for Australia and New Zealand.
They required foreigners to live there two to three years before granting them citizenship. That didn’t sound unbearable. They also offered citizenships to people in “exceptional circumstances” who will provide “some advantage or benefit” to the country. Unfortunately, my credentials—writing books with drug-addicted rock and porn stars—seemed more likely to hurt than help.
Then again, the governor of my home state was a former bodybuilder who’d admitted to using anabolic steroids, attending orgies, and smoking marijuana (in his words, “that is not a drug—it’s a leaf”). So maybe there was a chance.
But when all the buildings around you are still standing; when you can flip on the TV at any hour and watch a reality show; when you can go out at night and drink and dance and flirt and eat a cheeseburger in a diner as the sun rises, it’s hard to imagine that anything has really changed or ever will.
The price of my hesitation would be high. By the time I was ready to take action, New Zealand had changed its citizenship requirement from three years of residency to five and Australia had increased its minimum from two years to four. I should have paid better attention to the lesson I’d learned from Mrs. Kaufman: the more people want to leave, the harder it becomes to get out.
I realized then why the Jews in Nazi Germany had stayed: They had hope, which can sustain us in the worst of times but can also be the cruelest of human emotions in uncertain times. And I clung to the hope that we were America and if anything happened, our government would protect us.