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In Part I I, I describe my reasons for leaving the US, as well as the difficult process of adapting to life in a totally new culture. I also discuss distinct political and social differences between New Zealand and the US. I also include articles about New Zealand’s working class culture, its electoral system (based on proportional representation) and its difficult relationship, as a small country with a struggling economy, with the International Monetary Fund.
October 14, 2002: The Day I Became an Expatriate
(March 6, 2011)
Vietnam, Watergate and My First Attempt to Emigrate
When I finally left the US in October 2002, I had been thinking of emigrating for many years. I had even made a prior attempt to live overseas. In June 1973, I shipped all my belongings to England, intending to start a new life there. Many Americans of my generation left the US in the early seventies, for Canada, Europe and more remote parts of the world. Most were draft-age men refusing to be sent to Vietnam. A few were women involved in illegal abortion clinics before the 1973 Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision legalized pregnancy termination. Many were artists and intellectuals like me, disillusioned by the extreme political corruption that was exposed by the Pentagon Papers and later the scandals over Watergate, CIA domestic spying and Nixon’s apparent use of US intelligence for his own political purposes.
In 1973, I myself was totally apolitical. My decision to leave the US had little to do with Vietnam or Watergate. My disillusionment stemmed more from watching rampant consumerism overtake the humanist values I had grown up with – the strong family ties, deep friendships and involvement in neighborhood and community life that were so important to my parents’ and grandparents’ generation.
During my eighteen month stay in England, it was deeply gratifying to meet people in London and Birmingham who could care less about owning “stuff” they saw advertised on TV. People who still placed much higher value on extended family, close friendships and the sense of belonging they derived from their local pubs, trade unions, neighborhood sports clubs, hobby groups, and community halls. All of these historic fixtures of American life had virtually disappeared by 1973.
The Murder that Turned My Life Upside Down
A downturn in the British economy in late 1974 forced me to return home to complete my psychiatric training. While I never abandoned my dream of living overseas, my time in Europe had politicized me. I still scanned the back pages of medical journals for foreign psychiatric vacancies. However in my spare time, I also joined grassroots community organizations seeking to improve political and social conditions in the US.
Believing Nixon was an aberration, I was naively optimistic about the ability of community organizing to thwart the corrupting influence of powerful corporations over federal, state and local government. It never occurred to me the institutions of power themselves were deeply corrupt and had been for many years.
As I in write in The Most Revolutionary Act: Memoir of an American Refugee, the truth came crashing down on me in 1987, when I joined a coalition to create a Seattle African American museum. Owing to my financial and social standing as a physician, this struck a raw nerve somewhere in the power elite. What started as a barrage of prank calls, break-ins and stalking by unsavory looking strangers, progressed to attempts on my life and an affair with an undercover agent who railroaded me into a psychiatric hospital.
The hospitalization nearly cost me my medical license. Yet it was the 1989 murder of one of my patients, an African American postal worker and union activist, that turned my world upside down. The brutal murder – the autopsy photos revealing that Oscar Manassa was beaten before being thrown from the fifth floor of the Seattle YMCA – was upsetting enough. However the event that opened my eyes to the total breakdown of the US political system was the seizure of the police evidence by a little known branch of US intelligence known as the Postal Inspectors. Their illegal actions effectively blocked a homicide investigation.
The Harassment that Preceded Oscar’s Murder
Also of special significance was that Oscar experienced the same vicious harassment I did for four years before he was killed. In fact this is why his legal team brought him to see me. He, too, complained of relentless prank calls, stalking, and anonymous calls to his wife that ultimately broke up his marriage. As a result of the harassment, he developed acute stress disorder, with severe insomnia, anxiety attacks, loss of motivation and memory and attention difficulties. His condition made it impossible for him to participate effectively in grievance hearings or his workers compensation appeal.
Unfortunately Oscar’s problems weren’t psychiatric, and my (pro-bono) professional services weren’t of much use to him. His symptoms were a natural response to genuine, life threatening stress. What ultimately helped Oscar conquer his fear and anxiety was a six month stay with his family in Alabama. The turning point, as he described shortly before his murder, was when his mother also began receiving prank calls. It was calls from two anonymous males urging her to put Oscar in a mental institution that ultimately convinced his family that he wasn’t paranoid – that real strangers were threatening him with genuine harm. As commonly occurs, his family had to fully accept the reality basis of his complaints before they could provide the emotional support he needed.
Oscar’s Recovery Cost Him His Life
Oscar returned to Seattle in March 1989 to reopen his workers compensation claim and file for reinstatement at the post office. I saw him once, to help him apply for temporary welfare benefits for the deposit on a new apartment. He was a totally different person – positive, confident and optimistic about his future. He had already seen his attorney to reopen his workers compensation claim and was doing casual labor through the Millionaire’s Club.
Oscar ultimately won his workers compensation claim. His attorney received notification from the Department of Labor several weeks after his death. His supporters never had doubt about the link between his recovery and his murder. If he had remained terrified and depressed, either in rural Alabama or barricaded in his Seattle apartment, the higher-ups responsible for his assassination would have left him alone.
The Assassination of Domingo and Viernes
It would be several years before I learned why postal workers were being systematically harassed – and in some cases murdered – for filing workers compensation claims. In the end, the complex political motives behind Oscar’s murder didn’t really matter. What would change my life forever was the glimpse it provided into an invisible intelligence-security operation that, like Hitler’s Brownshirts, could carry out extrajudicial murders of political opponents (Oscar, as it turned out, was merely politically inconvenient) with no fear whatsoever of legal consequences.
Extra-judicial assassination of political dissidents isn’t new in Seattle. In 1981 the FBI collaborated with Marcos agents (by infiltrating local 37 and performing surveillance on the leaders) in the assassination of Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, who were officers in the Filipino cannery workers union. All this came out in the lawsuit the Domingo family filed against Marcos, the FBI and CIA, resulting in a jury award of $32.5 million (Thomas Churchill’s 2005 Triumph Over Marcos describes the work of Domingo and Viernes and the civil trial that followed their assassination).
In my own situation, the extrajudicial murder of one of my patients demonstrated, in the most brutal way possible, that ultimate power in the US lies outside of America’s democratic institutions. That political power is concentrated in a wealthy elite who employ an invisible intelligence-security network to terrorize – and sometimes kill – dissidents and whistle blowers who threaten their interests. In addition to lending new urgency to my political work, my experiences also made me feel increasingly alienated and isolated from other progressives who hadn’t shared them. Ironically, although my liberal and progressive friends were all far more knowledgeable about the absolute control multinational corporations exerted over lawmakers and the media, they reacted very differently to this knowledge. I responded by devoting every spare moment to some form of community organizing. My friends, on the other hand, tended to withdraw from political activity to focus on their personal lives.
The Patriot Act: Repealing the Bill of Rights
In September 2001, I expected that the Patriot Act, which legalized domestic spying on American citizens, as well as revoking habeas corpus and other important constitutional rights, would be the turning point that would send progressives into the streets, as the 1999 anti-WTO protests had, to halt America’s rapid transformation into a fascist police state. It never happened. In Seattle, a small 9-11 coalition formed in October 2001 to protest Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan. Over the following year, as Bush prepared to invade Iraq, former weapons inspector Scott Ritter and others spoke to sell-out crowds about Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Yet when I left the US in October 2002, Seattle’s antiwar movement was maddeningly small and fragmented.
Sacrificing Mental Health for Global Conquest
Meanwhile the major military build-up which preceded the invasion of Iraq led to severe cutbacks in the state and federal programs that funded psychiatric services for the mentally ill. After twenty-five years of private practice, I faced the difficult choice between trying to find a salaried position in a mental health clinic, leaving medicine or going bankrupt. In the end – for moral rather than economic reasons – I rejected these options to pursue my twenty-eight year dream of returning overseas. I, like most American intellectuals with access to the international and alternative press, already knew that neither Afghanistan nor Iraq had played any role whatsoever in the 9-11 attacks. In fact, beginning in February 2002, many of us were concerned about growing evidence that the Bush administration had played some role in engineering the assault on the Twin Towers.
Nevertheless, by launching unprovoked wars of aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush was clearly guilty of war crimes under international law. And so long as I, as a US taxpayer, continued to work and pay taxes in the US, I shared some responsibility for these crimes.
Why I Chose New Zealand
I chose New Zealand out of pure expedience: it was an English speaking country and had the least stringent requirements for credentialing foreign psychiatrists. I was aware, through friends in the UK, that British society had changed drastically under Margaret Thatcher, with rampant consumerism totally supplanting the humanist, socially engaged culture I had observed in the early seventies. This stemmed in part from Thatcher’s twelve year attack on unions and the working class. However increasing corporate control over the British media (as occurred in the US) was a much bigger factor. The result, as in most of the developed world, is continuous exposure to American movies, TV reruns and American-style advertising and public relations techniques. The latter steadily bombards the British public with the same powerful messages promoting individualism, competitiveness and consumption as their American counterparts (I have several articles in Part IV that discuss media and ideological messaging in more detail).
I had no reason to believe New Zealand would be any different. As a long time anti-globalization activist, I knew perfectly well that no country on earth escapes the corrupting influence of multinational corporations. Moreover psychiatric colleagues who had worked in New Zealand had warned me that American movies, sit-coms and pop culture had replaced much of traditional New Zealand identity and culture.
At the same time I believed that specific political features protected New Zealand from the absolute corporate control of government and public information that plagues the US. These include New Zealand’s parliamentary system of government, its electoral system based on proportional representation, its commitment to universal health care through its National Health Service, and its absolute ban on nuclear power or weapons (which includes a prohibition against US naval ships docking in any New Zealand harbor).
My New Expatriate Identity
(March 11, 2011)
For people over fifty, starting over in a new country is like dropping a lab rat in a complex maze. Like the rat, you suddenly find yourself in a totally unknown environment that constantly confronts you with new decisions and dilemmas. For example, learning to use a new phone system. It took me months to learn how to find phone numbers in the Christchurch phone book. I also had to learn to dial 111 for emergencies, 1 for an outside line and 0 to call a cellphone or long distance number. And not to waste time redialing when I got a “fast busy” signal – which means the number has been disconnected.
It helped a lot to meet other American expatriates struggling with the same problems. It was also extremely gratifying to realize I was not alone in my absolute repudiation of Bush’s wars of aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq. As I would later learn, tens of thousands of American progressives and liberals left the US during the Bush years. In November 2003, expatriate Americans led the London demonstrations protesting Bush’s London visit and the war in Iraq. Americans also formed major voting blocs for Kerry in 2004 and for Obama in 2008.
My Struggle with American Exceptionalism
Ironically the biggest hurdle I had to overcome was my own lack of objectivity regarding my native country. For some reason, no matter how strongly progressive Americans reject our immoral and corrupt political system, we all unconsciously buy into the American exceptionalism that is pounded into us in school and via the mainstream media. The belief that the US is not only the foremost military and economic power, but also the most productive, efficient, cleanest, healthiest, transparent, just and scientifically advanced.
This is an extremely rude awakening for many Americans. It certainly was for me. It took less than a month for Kiwi colleagues to confront me about my attitude that the US was more advanced in medical research. As I look back, I am both mystified and embarrassed that I took this position. I have known for at least two decades that US medical research is mainly funded by drug companies. I also know that Big Pharma has a well-earned reputation for buying and publishing research that promotes profits at the expense of scientific objectivity (I write about this in “The Corporatization of Health Care” in Part III).
During my 8 ½ years in New Zealand, I have come to understand that citizens in all great military empires are under enormous pressure to hold and express patriotic and exceptionalist beliefs. In Nazi Germany, you could be shot instantly for unpatriotic statements. The British public was under similar pressure when the U.K. was the world’s greatest empire. In Victorian England, women were instructed to engage in marital sex as a patriotic duty: “Just lay back and think of England.”
American Ambivalence Towards Empire
Moreover, as with many American expatriates, it took leaving the country to recognize how completely US militarism overshadows all aspects of American life. Again I have known for decades that the US government spends more than half their budget on the military – that they do so to guarantee US corporations access to cheap natural resources and sweat shop labor, as well as markets for their cheap agricultural exports. However it took moving overseas for it to sink in that Americans owe their high standard of living to “economic imperialism,” i.e. US military domination of third world resources.
As a long time progressive, I tended to place the entire blame for the bloated US military budget on the US military-industrial complex and the immense power defense contractors wield via their campaign contributions and ownership of US media outlets. I didn’t fully understand the financial consequences of world military domination for ordinary Americans – namely extremely low cost consumer goods. It took the day-to-day of experience of living in a smaller, poorer, non military nation and shelling out a lot more for gasoline, books, meat, fish and numerous other items – on a much lower income – to fully understand this.
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