Why I Left-Why I Stayed

Why I Left (Jamie K. Donaldson) –
Why I Stayed (Alan Rhodes)

Our rich Quaker history includes the encounter, probably apocryphal, between William Penn and George Fox regarding the former’s donning a sword as part of his attire, as was customary for a man of his station. Supposedly Penn acknowledged the sword as un-Friendly whereas Fox exhorted Penn to "wear it as long as thou canst." At a subsequent meeting, Penn was sans sword. He had worn it as long as he could. When I first heard this story, I adopted it as a shorthand way to describe to Friends my anguished decision to leave the United States. (I’m still working on a thoughtful but abbreviated explanation for non-Friends. Right wing ideologues will have to wait, but they’re unlikely to ask.)

I, too, have worn my sword as long as I can. I laid it down to emigrate to Canada where swords, while present, do not wield the influence on history, culture, and politics that they do in the United States. The trek up north is a well-worn path for Friends. And perhaps surprisingly, my decision to make the journey was not based solely on the policies of the current administration—though these were contributing factors, especially the revelations of torture, extraordinary rendition, and domestic spying. Rather, the decision was the result of an uneasy truce in my "war within."

For me, this inner war is centered on the obligation of people of faith and conscience who are citizens of arguably one of the most violent nations on Earth. This inner war grows from the painful acknowledgment that the history of the United States, from its very founding, is based on violence and conquest. It is fed by the contradiction that the people of the United States generally view our country as supremely benevolent and just, at home and abroad.

My first experience with outer war, and a decade before the inner war became manifest, was Vietnam. Without understanding the conflict I was against it, and it sparked my first peace activism. Better knowledge of the chasm between the United States’ vision of itself and its actions in the world (along with greater unease) came after living in Guatemala in the mid-1970s. I learned about my country’s role in overthrowing the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in the year of my birth, 1954, because he nationalized—with compensation—lands belonging to the United Fruit Company. This subversion of democracy in Guatemala set the stage for the horrific violence, military rule, and civil war that has characterized much of that country’s modern history.

The role of the United States in Central America hit home hard when several Guatemalan friends of mine were tortured and murdered by the military, which had received aid, training, and armaments from the United States, ostensibly because it was "anticommunist." In Seattle, Washington, several friends and I started a Guatemalan solidarity organization to help educate the U.S. public about conditions in Guatemala. We hosted indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchu (later, in 1992, named a Nobel Peace Laureate), who stayed with me in my home for a week or so. She taught me a lot, as did my then boyfriend, a political refugee from Chile who had also been tortured. From him and in my university studies I learned about the U.S. involvement in overthrowing the presidency of Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973. I became involved in the growing sanctuary movement in the Pacific Northwest, and I joined a solidarity organization focused on El Salvador, which was embroiled in a bloody civil war, with the military and death squads supported by the U.S. My activism led to a job opportunity as state co-coordinator for the Central America Peace Campaign, an organizing and educational effort based in Washington, D.C., to raise awareness about nonmilitary solutions to the conflicts in Central America. The Reagan administration had waged the Contra war against the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, and I was profoundly opposed to that terrible, immoral war. What my country did to Nicaragua haunts and shames me to this day.

For a good many years, I could mollify myself through my peace and justice activism and by hearing Latin Americans say that they genuinely liked folks from the United States, and that they could separate us from the actions of our government. I heard this from Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, Colombians, and, surprisingly, from Cubans as well. But as the inner war welled inside me, I became less generous than the Latin Americans in drawing the distinction between populace and policy. For me, there was no getting around the truth that I was complicit in the deeds of my country.

Following a leading, and with the loving support of my meeting, I helped establish the Whatcom Peace and Justice Center in Bellingham, Washington, in 2002. Working full-time for peace enabled me to put off awhile longer what was looming as inevitable. After the invasion of Iraq, I went through a very dark time, pressing friends and Friends (including my co-author, Alan) about how they dealt with their personal complicity in war despite our activism for peace and nonviolence. I was haunted by the quote attributed to former Secretary of State Alexander Haig: "Let them march all they want as long as they pay their taxes." Suddenly the television shots of millions of people in the streets protesting the start of war lost their inspiration for me, and I wallowed in our powerlessness to prevent it.

Haig’s cynical remark exemplified my inner struggle as well as a wrenching and age-old moral dilemma for all Friends. Some bear it as a cross, enabling them to continue the Lamb’s War on behalf of love, truth, and justice. Could I, too? Alas, the contradiction of working for peace while paying for war, of being complicit by mere participation in the U.S. "system," became untenable and intolerable. I explored war tax resistance, but rejected it because I hold the assets of my incapacitated mother and could not allow the government to garnish money for her care to recuperate my taxes withheld.

Before exploring self-exile, I engaged in a dutiful process of reviewing the "ledger," so to speak, of my country’s behavioral pros and cons over time. Could its numerous virtues—those that make most so proud of our country and draw so many to our shores seeking a better way of life—redeem it in my heart vis-à-vis my long list of national shames? This latter list included not only my personal knowledge of U.S. actions in Latin America, but also the treatment of indigenous people from the get-go, slavery, capital punishment, countless imperialist exploits, nuclear proliferation, human rights violations, etc. Achingly, I concluded that on balance, I was not proud to be a U.S. citizen. Furthermore, I felt completely alienated by the yellow ribbon magnets, Hummers, camouflage clothing, and gun worship all around me.

Perhaps the most difficult part of making the decision to leave the United States was grappling with my sense of obligation to continue working to make it better. After all, I’d spent most of my life working, professionally and as a volunteer, in peace and justice activism. How could I possibly leave? After much prayerful self-examination, I was led to conclude that I’d held on to my sword as long as I could. For this Friend, living an authentic life according to my own measure of Light meant leaving the country of my birth. The inner war, which will never be resolved, is at least tolerable up here in Canada.

I was a young man in the 1960s, and the person I am today was shaped by that turbulent era. Vietnam opened my eyes to much that was wrong with the United States, and Martin Luther King Jr. showed me much of what was right.

From my early awareness of our presence in Vietnam, I sensed that something was wrong with going halfway around the world to rain down death and destruction on a small country that had not threatened us or its neighbors. I began reading everything I could find on the subject. One especially helpful book (I don’t recall its title) was published by American Friends Service Committee, and this volume might have been the genesis of my decision years later to join the Religious Society of Friends. My study of Vietnam quickly revealed that my country was the aggressor and we were being lied to by the government on a daily basis. What other lies had we been told?

During my education through high school, what I experienced was typical of the 1950s: a blend of the super-patriotism prevalent after World War II and the anticommunist paranoia that pervaded that era. Our nation’s glories were celebrated, while its sins were ignored or denied.

Radicalized by Vietnam, I reread our history: genocide against Native Americans, slavery, imperialist aggression, segregation, oppression of minorities, racism, ruthless capitalist excess, McCarthyism—it was a catalog of heinous misdeeds. It was enough to turn an idealistic young man angry—and it did, for a while. I might have succumbed to the violent rage that surfaced on the fringes of the left in the ’60s, had it not been for Dr. King.

As I became involved in the civil rights movement, I looked to Dr. King for direction. Many African American activists of this period had expatriated, and others stayed behind to advocate a separate black society within the larger society. But King saw the greatness inherent in the country, its potential to live up to its highest ideals. This country was worth fighting for—nonviolently, he insisted.

I felt empowered by King’s message, and a good part of my life since then has been devoted to causes that will hopefully lead the United States closer to its promises and potential. To a considerable extent, progress has been made. The legalized segregation I grew up with is gone, women have pushed open doors to education and employment that once were closed to them, and gays and lesbians have stepped out of the closet and are demanding their full rights.

While I have been dismayed by many of the actions of my government over the decades, the idea that things were getting so bad that I would have to leave had never entered my mind—until recently. The reign of George W. Bush has constituted the worst era I have personally experienced, with its naked aggression in Iraq, its assault on the Constitution at home, its cavalier attitude toward torture and indefinite detention, and its contempt for the planet that sustains us.

My sister left the United States many years ago, became a Canadian citizen, and now lives just a few miles across the border from my Bellingham, Washington, home. As she has watched the abuses of the Bush administration, the complicity of the media and the willful ignorance of the U.S. public, she has asked me more than once: "Why do you stay?" More recently my co-author asked me the same question as she was agonizing over her own decision to stay or go.

As I pondered her question, another question formed in my mind. What would have happened if Martin Luther King Jr. had left? And Rosa Parks? And Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Susan B. Anthony, César Chàvez, Dave Dellinger, William Sloane Coffin, Daniel Ellsberg, Howard Zinn, and Amy Goodman? How would history be different if Henry David Thoreau and Congressman Abraham Lincoln had expatriated in anger over the Mexican-American War, which they so passionately opposed?

What would have happened as well if all the unknown followers of these heroic figures had left: the anonymous heroes supporting the underground railroad, the kids who sat in at lunch counters or registered voters in the deep South, the hundreds of thousands of citizens across the nation who marched against the Vietnam war?

Those of us, both famous and obscure, who love what this country can be in its finest hours, cannot leave it in the hands of those who would remake it in their own twisted, power-mad image. This is a land that has offered hope and comfort to many, and it’s worth saving.

I realize there are those, like Friend Jamie, who feel their pain so deeply and their inner conflict rages so furiously that they cannot stay. I would never question or condemn any thoughtful person’s decision to leave. We must do what is authentic for each of us. Even though I’m a pacifist I have a combative nature, and, for me, authenticity means staying and carrying on the struggle.

But there is more to it than my contentious personality. The fact is, I love this complex, paradoxical, and often infuriating nation. I love its literature, its history, its music, and its breathtaking physical beauty. In my youth I read Whitman, Emerson, Twain, and Thoreau, and their ideas are woven into my perceptions of the life around me. I study U.S. history almost daily, walking through the bustle of early Philadelphia with Franklin or strolling the grounds of Monticello with Jefferson, absorbing their ideas, reflecting on their thoughts about this extraordinary country. Jazz, America’s great contribution to world music, plays in my home almost constantly, a background to my life and work; in John Coltrane’s soulful explorations and Charles Mingus’ gospel-infused celebrations I feel the rhythms of this robust nation. And my most spiritual moments have been quiet times in the natural places of this vast land: looking out over Zion Canyon blanketed in snow, watching a lightning storm over Monument Valley, or walking reverently through the old-growth forests of the Olympic Peninsula.

I am, it seems, incurably a U.S. citizen. I have absorbed our history and geography in my bones. I love the generosity people in this country can demonstrate in their best moments. I love our humor and exuberance. While there are other countries that I enjoy and admire, I think I would always be just a little out of place there. This is, quite simply, my home. I am embarrassed by much of our past, and I am appalled by what we have let happen to us since September 11, 2001. But I will not walk away and let George Bush and Dick Cheney destroy my home.

Last summer I was at a folk music concert in a neighborhood park. The grass was covered with picnicking families; dogs and children romped happily. When the final song of the evening began, everyone joined in on Woody Guthrie’s classic "This Land is Your Land." As I sang the chorus with my fellow townspeople in that idyllic and nostalgic setting, I thought to myself, "Yes, this land does belong to you and me." This land is my land, and I won’t let anybody drive me away.

Jamie Donaldson

Jamie K. Donaldson and Alan Rhodes are good friends and members of Bellingham (Wash.) Meeting. Jamie now attends Nelson Worship Group, which is under the care of Argenta (B.C.) Meeting. Jamie has worked in community development, higher education, and legal services, and she now hosts a bilingual Spanish/English radio program on cooperative radio in Nelson, B.C. Alan writes a humor and politics column for the Cascadia Weekly and is a regular commentator on The Chuckanut Radio Hour, a local variety program.