Coming in From the Cold

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Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, dir. Martin Ritt, 1965. Screenshot.

Self-Exfiltration

I can’t say exactly how or when I realized my cover was blown and that I had to leave the U.S. Perhaps it was when I couldn’t read past the headlines in the New York Times without feeling despair; or maybe it was the downcast glances from my wife and handler, Harriet; or else the long, email silences from former colleagues at Northwestern University. What could they say in such dark times? From all that, I understood I was already an exile, and it was time to pack up and prepare for my exfiltration; make haste — but surreptitiously. Don’t let our friends in Micanopy, Florida (pop. 650) know we are giving up on our sweet little village. Don’t give the MAGA spooks in town, with their Don’t Tread on Me and upside-down U.S. flags, the satisfaction of knowing we were fleeing.

The cleaning crew in overalls, arrived in their unmarked white van on a quiet weekday afternoon. They quickly checked for bugs. Next came the realtor. Her car, a silver SUV with “For Sale” signs on the backseat was a giveaway, so we met at the safehouse – a café and bakery a few blocks away. The extraction team arrived early on a Sunday. They crated up the artworks and some of the best furnishings. If anybody in town asked, I’d say I was donating some art and design to museums, which was partly correct. (Basic tradecraft: lies are easier to tell if they contain a kernel of truth.)

We needed a cover story: The summer heat in Florida had grown unbearable to my British wife, who was more used to the cool and damp of Norfolk, England. We therefore decided to spend the summer in Norwich, near her parents, the poet Sally Festing, and her husband, the research statistician Michael Festing. We’d return in October for the fall and winter seasons. That explanation would give us time to safely settle in our new flat, far from the crumbling, fretful, U.S. imperium.

The politics of exile

I can’t claim our move to the United Kingdom was solely because of Trump and the rise of American fascism. My wife is English, her parents are elderly, and she has one daughter in Wales and another in Brighton. Though she dearly loves our house and garden in Micanopy, she was ready to go home. And where she goes, I follow.

But if Trump had not been elected president in 2016 and Ron DeSantis Florida governor two years later, we’d likely have stuck around. The national and local climate have changed in the last decade, and not just because of global warming. Long simmering hatreds have boiled over, and the forces of reaction – briefly cooled after Jan. 6, 2021 – have reignited. The felonious ex-president has at least a 50% chance of resuming his praefectus interruptus while DeSantis continues his “war on woke” supported by a Republican super majority in the Florida legislature. Both men’s favorite target remains America’s most vulnerable population, immigrants. Add to them non-whites, queers, women and environmentalists and you have a map of the current imbalance of power, with Republicans pressing their advantage.

Though Biden controls the armed forces, the executive branch, and the U.S. Senate, he is the weakest president since Jimmy Carter. His vacillations are by now the stuff of legend: announce an investment plan that rivals if not exceeds the New Deal, but allow a pair of weak, Democratic senators from West Virginia and Arizona to reduce it by three quarters; invest record sums in green infrastructure and technology, but direct most of the money to Republican states intent on quashing union efforts and undermining environmental protection (all the while gaining no political benefit); preserve some wilderness areas while facilitating oil and gas extraction in others; prevent asylum seekers from entering the U.S., but offer undocumented spouses of Americans a path to citizenship; enable genocide in Gaza while demanding an Israeli ceasefire, and so on. If Biden wins re-election, it will be by default – the other guy, the fascist, deemed irremediable by just a small majority of voters.

One of the few, political bright spots for me and Harriet, has been our little village of Micanopy, notwithstanding some irredentist neighbors. Two years ago, we kicked out the white, male gerontocracy that ran the town for decades in favor of two, progressive Black women and a pair of genially woke white men. Our Town Commission meetings are now veritable models of small-town democracy – last year, we organized to halt the invasion of a Dollar General store and on the site established a nature reserve that honors the town’s Native American heritage. The town library remains uncensored, and commissioners welcome the prospect of becoming the nation’s first, self-proclaimed, Owl Friendly City.

But if the slogan “think global, act local” remains valid, it must be tempered with realism. Micanopy is a tiny town in a liberal county (Alachua, home of the University of Florida) in an increasingly far-right state. It’s unlikely to trigger a tidal wave of progressivism elsewhere. In fact, I fear for our town if the MAGA barbarians in Tallahassee and Washington prevail in November. For them, no liberal inroad is too small to be smashed; no toleration too generous to be crushed. The “home rule” provision of the Florida constitution has increasingly been challenged by the state legislature and courts to deny sanctuary to immigrants and civil rights to traduced minorities, prevent local regulation of the oil and gas industries, and undermine environmental protections. It wasn’t always thus.

Florida migrations, past and present

I first got to know Florida in 1983. That’s when my parents, Bert and Grace Eisenman, bought a new condominium in a retirement community called Golden Lakes Village in West Palm Beach, Florida. It cost $50,000 and had everything a Queens (NYC) couple could want: 2 bedrooms and a patio, a pool across the street, a clubhouse for shuffleboard, card games, and lunch, plus a synagogue. The latter was requisite, in those days, for South Florida adult communities.

Between 1970 and 2006, nearly 400,000 Jews moved from the Northeast, mostly New York City, to Florida, to join the approximately 250,000 already there. My parents left the city in the worst of times. New York’s murder rate peaked in the 1980s, averaging over 2,000 per year. (Last year there were 386). The local economy, barely recovered from the near default of 1975, was pounded by recession (1981-3) and Reaganomics, a federal policy of tax cuts for the rich and bupkis for the poor. In fact, New York in 1983 little resembled the city Bert and Grace knew when they married in 1947. To stave off bankruptcy, Mayor Abe Beame – corrupt product of a sclerotic Democratic party machine – colluded with Republican state and federal officials to hand financial authority over to a cabal of bankers, real estate moguls (including Fred Trump), and financiers. Together, they cut corporate and stock-transfer taxes, curbed the power of labor unions, laid off city workers, reduced public sector salaries and undermined city services. Bus and subway fares rose, free tuition was ended at city universities, and investment in parks, museums, and other urban amenities was reduced or eliminated. What was once a city that opened doors of opportunity and recreation to the working class, was now one that closed them. Where art and culture were once available freely (or at least cheaply) to all, now it was a luxury available mostly to the few.

So, it’s an irony that the very privatization and urban decay that undermined the life chances of working-class New Yorkers, enabled my parents to move to Florida. First, when their rent-controlled apartment complex in Forest Hills was allowed to “go-condo,” the developers were required to offer current residents either a reduced price, or a modest, cash buy-out. Bert and Grace took the money. Second, when my mother tripped and fell and broke her leg while walking across a section of poorly maintained – cracked and buckled — public sidewalk. She sued the city and settled for an award of $20,000 for her pain and suffering. (It didn’t matter that she was a klutz.) The payouts allowed them to finally retire and move to West Palm Beach. Two years later, in 1985, Donald Trump followed them, in a sense, also migrating from Queens to Florida, but in his case to toney, gentile Palm Beach, not declassee West Palm.

In Golden Lake Village, liberal Jews like my parents met like-minded people, or even long-lost friends. My mother discovered that her childhood friend Marion from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, whom she hadn’t seen in 60 years, lived just a few blocks away. Her brother and sister-in-law, Harold and Trudy, lived a few miles distant in another retirement complex in Boca Raton. Election day in Florida usually meant the installation of Democratic governors: Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles; and (switching roles) Democratic senators Lawton Chiles and Bob Graham. Bill Nelson served as Democratic senator for almost 20 years, from 2001-19. That streak of liberal politics – which produced, among other things, a stellar university system and an archipelago of state parks that rival national refuges in their floral and faunal abundance and diversity – was brought to an end by the election of Jeb Bush in 1999 and a succession of other Republicans, culminating in the deplorable DeSantis.

Today, the few, regulatory brakes that once slowed suburban sprawl and environmental destruction have been removed, and what remains of natural Florida is being paved. (The parks are so-far protected.) New roads and housing developments for the luxury market are proliferating, despite the risk of rising seas, debilitating heat and diminishing or contaminated water supplies. Migration to the most at-risk parts of the state, including Miami, Sarasota, and the Palm Beaches is still rising, while out migration remains low. New York and New Jersey continue to produce the highest number of migrants, but now Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania contribute a lot too. The majority of these newcomers register Republican (by a margin of 2 to 1). Even the Jewish transplants are Republican; my parent’s generation of leftist and liberal Jews is dead, their baby-boomer children are scattered and diminishing, and the new Jewish migrants from New York and New Jersey are mostly Orthodox or Hasidic and politically conservative. Rising seas and the growing home insurance crisis may soon change the pattern of migration, but state politics will likely remain far-right for years to come. If Trump returns to power, Mar-a-Lago, in Palm Beach Florida will be his Berchtesgaden.

British horizons

The immediate political prospects for the U.K. are better than in the U.S., but not much. The Labor party will almost certainly achieve a majority in the commons, come the July 4 elections, and anoint the mendacious and charisma-challenged Keir Starmer prime minister. But the party has lurched so far to the right, that it’s electoral platform (they call them “manifestos” here) is hard to distinguish from the Tory one. Both pledge improvements to the beleaguered National Health Service, but provide no way to pay for them, apart from curbing “waste and inefficiency” – a mythical beast trotted out every election. Predictably, the conservatives also pledged to cut welfare programs, just when they are most needed. Britons are 20 per cent poorer than Germans and 9 percent less well-off than French, and with a weaker social safety net. Outside London, the country is arguably poorer than Mississippi.

Voters want change from the past 14 years of Tory austerity and cronyism but are unlikely to get it. Labor has renounced so many of its former, progressive pledges – rail nationalization, expansion of the NHS, increased corporate taxes, a wealth tax, advances in green energy, improved school infrastructure – that they will have little governing to do, once they get in. Brexit remains the order of the day, though most Brits now think it was a mistake. Unless Labor changes its tune and shifts left – raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy, nationalizing industries, and investing in the NHS — I’d be surprised if they lasted a full, five-year term. And after them, the deluge: Nigel Farage and the Trumpist Reform Party.

Still, for me, Britain will be a haven. The U.K. is not now, and never will be again, a global hegemon, though some of its leaders imagine otherwise. Instead, it’s a small, middle-income monarchy with a glorious tradition of literature (Shakespeare!) and popular music (Beatles, Stones, Kinks!). It periodically dishonors itself by acting as lapdog to the Americans, but that may change as the U.S. continues its global decline, a retrogression I will cheer from our flat overlooking the cathedral town of Norwich.

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Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg, “Nordovicum” (Norwich), Civitates Orbus Terrarum, 1581.

Norwich has 57 churches (most of them redundant), 70 cafes, and 152 pubs. It also has a long and distinguished history worth retelling. Here, I’ll only mention Kett’s Rebellion, a revolt of peasants who in July 1549, briefly took control of the city. Though they were soon defeated, the memory of the rising led to the creation of the first English system of compulsory payments for poor relief, the basis of the Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1597-98, which the Tories have been trying to repeal ever since.

The city consistently votes Labor, and was a strong supporter of the former, much calumnied Jeremy Corbyn. There’s a fine, central market with friendly green grocers, a decent library, and an excellent art museum — the Sainsbury Center for the Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia. From our living-room window, we can see the 315-foot-tall spire of Norwich Cathedral (constructed 1096-1145), near the top of which nest Peregrine falcons who reliably produce new chicks every year. (One just fledged – the live feed likely had higher ratings than the European Football Championships.) If I sound like a booster, it’s probably just the freshness of a new infatuation that will quickly fade. But for now, I feel I have come in from the cold, with hope of gaining a fresh perspective on a world with many terrors and fragile promise.

Stephen F. Eisenman is emeritus professor at Northwestern University. His latest book, with Sue Coe, is titled “The Young Person’s Guide to American Fascism,” and is forthcoming from OR Books. He can be reached at s-eisenman@northwestern.edu