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Monday, August 18 2014

The Lonely Self-Exile

Of all actions that proclaim the supremacy of individual will, there is none braver than leaving behind the culture of your birth and childhood in order to pursue freedom. Soviet defectors, Vietnamese "boat people", Cuban exiles—in just about every case, one finds a person choosing the hardships of liberating himself or herself from the shackles of an oppressive regime. The significance of this act cannot be overstated. It represents, in stark terms, the essence of the conflict between individualism and collectivism.

Ayn Rand understood this when she wrote her classic dystopian novel  Anthem. Ira Levin understood it when he wrote This Perfect Day. From The Hunger Games to Divergent, and now The Giver... American popular culture is rife with stories of individuals who rise up to break free of the claustrophobic hold of totalitarianish societies.

And why shouldn't it be? If there's anything consistent about American culture, it's our admiration for the individual who chooses, by force of will, to stand up and out, and to emerge from the background of limitations and constraints. Individualism is our greatest national virtue, and there is none who pays as profound tribute to that virtue than the Self-Exile. Self-Exiles are the children of tyrannical regimes who willingly divorce those parents, and cast their fate out onto the open, unknown waters of freedom. Freedom, after all, is not so much a thing as the absence of a thing: the absence of constraints, of externally-imposed rules, of guaranteed outcomes.

Freedom is nothing more and nothing less than a void which the individual may choose to fill with the product of their own hopes, dreams, and will. There are no guarantees in freedom; there is only Possibility.

 And that very aspect of freedom can be terrifying.

These truths came to mind this past week in the wake of two Williamses: actor Robin Williams, who passed away, and Colorado Libertarian candidate Lily Tang Williams, who kindly gave me an interview for my podcast.

As so often happens with the death of a beloved celebrity, news of Robin Williams' passing prompted a great many reminiscences of favorite roles, including the inspirational English teacher in The Dead Poets Society, Genie in Aladdin, and the bereft, widowed husband in What Dreams May Come. As I wrote in a previous piece this week, the film that leapt immediately to mind for me was 1984's Moscow On the Hudson, in which Williams played a Russian circus musician who, on a tour of the United States, makes a spur of the moment decision to defect from the Soviet Union.  Terrified, sweating, comically huddling behind sales displays in Macy's Department store, he can barely bring himself to whisper, to a brusque store security guard, his heart's wish: "I defect."

The scene is played for laughs, but thinking back on it now, I am struck by the poignancy of it. Imagine growing up in a society in which every action is scrutinized, and in which every person you meet is potentially an informer who will pass your deepest secrets on to the authorities. In such a society, where any private action or sentiment is suspect, and to be suspected is to be ruined, one holds secrets very close, and only a great fool trusts a stranger.  Yet Williams' Vladimir does choose to trust, and finds himself suddenly a resident of the United States, and an exile from the only home he has ever known, cut off (perhaps forever) from the friends and family he knew.

Why? All because he made a choice that he could no longer live as a man constrained, a man living life at the pleasure and under the thumb of others.

The rest of the story plays out as Vladimir seeks to find his place in an alien world, among a colony of fellow expatriates, including immigration lawyer Orlando, a refugee from Cuba, and Vladimir's girlfriend Lucia. The dominant theme here is alienation—the deeper and more profound price that he pays, every day, to be free. Critics of Western classical liberalism frequently point out the disconnection from traditional communities that extreme liberty implies. While this sentiment has its flaws, there's something to the idea that a stand taken for Individualism can be a lonely stand; the story of the immigrant Self-Exile here can stand as both literal example and stark metaphor.

In the emotional climax of the movie, Vladimir confronts the reality that perhaps freedom doesn't mean exactly what he thought it would:

It's a powerful scene. And it reminds us not only that liberty can be seen (in some ways) to be a mixed blessing, but also that forgoing a community you're born into can simply mean becoming a part of another community, one chosen by you. It's just that the transition can be intensely disorienting.

I don't imagine that anyone of my acquaintance knows this truth better than Lily Tang Williams, who came to the United States in 1988, a willing Self-Exile from her home of China. I interviewed Lily for my podcast last week, and that interview can be found here. I won't belabor the details of her story, which is both amazing and amazingly commonplace: amazing in how foreign it must be to those like me who have never lived under totalitarian rule, and commonplace, in how many others in the United States must have similar stories.

As of 2010, there were over 1.8 million immigrants from China living here. Add to that 1.2 million Cuban immigrants in Miami alone as of 2012, 1.1 million from Vietnam, and it becomes clear that there must be many people in this country who can tell similar stories of escape from tyrannical rule.

What is most striking about Lily's account of life in the days of Mao's Cultural Revolution is not the tremendous grinding poverty, nor even the propaganda that she and her people were fed, even amid the miserable living conditions, that they lived better than 2/3 of the planet. What stands out most is the object lesson that Lily herself carried forward from those days: that collectivism demands that the hammer come down on anyone who stands out. Lily talks about the myriad ways in which a person could be perceived by The Powers That Be to be "capitalistic", or too proud, or too self-involved. Listening to her, it is impossible to escape the understanding that any collectivist society, by definition, has to ruthlessly eliminate any vestiges of individualism. The two philosophies are simply incompatible. And so, to any individual determined to listen most to their own reason, passion, and understanding of the world around them, the only options left to them, ultimately, are either destruction or escape.

The act of self-exile is a confident assertion, in the most undeniable terms, that perpetual submission is untenable; it will not stand. The self-exile proclaims by their actions that they will no longer submit their judgment to the judgment of others; they will sacrifice every other comfort and connection on that altar.  I cannot imagine any clearer understanding of what Individualism is about than that. I cannot imagine that anyone could contemplate that understanding, or that modern America consists of thousands if not millions of just such courageous individuals, and not find considerable hope for the future.

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