The Unbearable Lightness of Leaving

Wendy McElroy
Activist Post

Memories are a movable feast.

The thought occurred to me last week while I was walking my dog down the gravel road at the end of my driveway. The trees were a festival of color, the air was crisp, the road was idyllically quiet. I tried to memorize the scene and the feeling.

When I move to the Newer World, I will miss aspects of Canada. My willingness to say goodbye is an indication of how deeply I believe North America has become a careening danger to the freedom and well-being of those who dissent.

And, yet, it doesn’t seem that way. Yesterday, I watched the first snow flutter onto my fields, making everything the same white and clean as it has been for winter after winter. It seemed impossible to believe my life has changed dramatically. Especially since the change comes from intangible things like the rule of law and the protections of due process that have changed so dramatically. But they have. Since 9/11, America has raced to become a police state and Canada is being pulled along with it.

I realized a key reason why people did not leave Germany in the 1930s, but chose to ignore the warning signs instead. They didn’t believe the warnings. Not in their hearts. Not in the gut. They were like me, watching the snow dance on the wind.

They woke up in their own homes under familiar blankets, they ate the same cereal for breakfast, and drove down well known streets to the job at which they’d worked for years. Everything was as it had always been. The fact that the legal structure, political protections, and other institutions that guarded freedom were going, going, gone was not as real to them as their daily routines. As trite as it may sounds, many people simply did not notice the erosion of freedom on a daily basis. Germans in the early Nazi years were like current Americans.

There is a remarkable memoir entitled Defying Hitler. It was written by the journalist Sebastian Haffner (a pseudonym) after he emigrated from Germany to England with his Jewish wife in 1938. In it, Haffner explores how a highly cultured and civilized nation could slip so quickly into barbaric totalitarianism. The book parallels my own amazement at a nation like America with a track record of freedom could slip so quickly into a police state. In a 2002 review of Defying Hitler, Steven Martinovich commented, “The process [of statism] was so slow that one could almost understand how one day Germans walked the street as members of a shaky democracy and the next were prisoners.… Between those two days, the Germany [Haffner] grew up in both figuratively and literally disappeared.”

From one day to the next, North America is disappearing. Even to me, it sometimes seems to be the same place in which I grew up because everything is so familiar. But the political and institutional framework that supported rights and enabled peaceful individuals to simply live their lives is gone. Freedom of speech has been replaced by political correctness. Privacy is non-existent even for the most personal of communications. Due process has been gutted by an administration that executes Americans without trial and promotes torture. The militarized police are indistinguishable from regular armed forces who occupy their own nation as though it were a conquered one. The school system is a blatant propaganda machine with buildings that look like penitentiaries. Rights have become state-granted privileges with the basic human right to travel becoming more restrictive at every step.

Institutions either work to maintain freedom or to establish tyranny. Why? Because human beings are not born good or evil; they are born with a capacity for both. Social institutions exert a powerful influence on which tendency prevails.

Those who fear that human nature is prone to evil often argue that state control is necessary to ensure a peaceful society. But the state causes the worst aspects of man to flourish because it richly rewards the criminal within man while discouraging what’s peaceful and harmonious. The state is a thief and an arrogant bully who is given free rein to steal from productive people and punish anyone for the slightest disobedience of unreasonable laws, even for having a disobedient attitude. The state becomes a “legitimized” vehicle for criminals to impose organized force upon a society that would otherwise function through trade or other voluntary exchange.

The state nurtures what is bad within man. The more powerful the state, the worse the human beings. Friedrich Hayek explained, “Advancement within a totalitarian group depends largely on a willingness to do immoral things.” The economist Frank H. Knight added, “The probability of the people in power being individuals who would dislike the possession and exercise of power is on a level with the probability that an extremely tenderhearted person would get the job of whipping master in a slave plantation.”

The institutions in America which promote the best within man, such as the free market, have been replaced by those that promote immoral criminality. In Defying Hitler, Haffner noted how the rise of the total state began to change the very nature of the individuals in society. The best of human characteristics became less common even within people who were not connected to the state.

Neighbors were more likely to report each other to authorities, sometimes to settle a petty grudge; people did not speak freely in public places like restaurants and hushed companions who did so; strangers suspected and watched each other. In short, the state changed the character of the people, of the nation itself. A cultured people like the Germans descended into barbarism. A free people like the Americans are being reduced to chattel slavery. And as the process occurs, the nature of the American people will change.

I have no quarrel with those who believe the sound institutions and character of North America can be restored. I wish them well. But there is a point when the Haffner solution of walking away may be necessary. It is the unbearable lightness of leaving. “Unbearable” because so much is being left behind that it can feel like abandoning your life. “Lightness” because a great weight falls away and possibilities fill a new future.

Wendy McElroy is moving to Galt’s Gulch Chile. For more information click here.

Wendy McElroy is a renowned individualist anarchist and individualist feminist. She was a co-founder along with Carl Watner and George H. Smith of The Voluntaryist in 1982, and is the author/editor of twelve books, the latest of which is “The Art of Being Free”. Follow her work at

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