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Michael Zoosman

The 49th Parallel: A New Rubicon for Democracy

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Donald J. Trump is a sexual predator facing scores of criminal charges. He is a would-be dictator, who already instigated a deadly attempted coup in a desperate attempt to hold onto power. The fact that the United States nevertheless has permitted him to come this close to victory in his quest to regain the presidential reins reflects the perilous depths to which this once-great nation has sunk. Even an ex-Republican National Committee Chair has seen fit to call this development what it is: “an abomination.” I tried my utmost to give the benefit of the doubt to an apparatus that allowed Trump to become president in 2016. However naively, I assumed then that many who voted for him did not fully understand how his victory would jeopardize the future of American democracy. I therefore was able—at least in part—to forgive this nation for electing him eight years ago. This second time around, much more of the responsibility as I see it shifts to a political system that has allowed him to make such a comeback at all, despite the general consensus over the potentially disastrous consequences. Many recognize the phrase “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” That adage rings especially true at this critical juncture—a moment of reckoning in the endangered life of this nation. May it serve as a stark warning to all Americans in 2024: if a serial narcissist like Trump could climb this far on the leadership rungs in these United States, so too could any other tyrannical demagogue in his wake. I pray that history proves me wrong, but I cannot consciously wait around any longer to find out.

Notably, the majority of Americans are not at fault for the present calamity. An antiquated American structure of government has enabled a minority of the electorate who support Trump to maintain a stranglehold on the nation. Many Americans whom I know personally—from loved ones and dear friends to those across the political aisle—feel just as I do about the existential threat of Donald Trump. They, too, realize that outdated American methods of sociopolitical organization have granted the minority too much control over the majority. These include the Electoral College, the two-senator per state limit, pernicious gerrymandering, and districts and territories that are denied statehood, to name but a few. It would require like-minded people to hold supermajorities in nearly all branches and levels of government in order to undo this matrix. Failing that fantasy, the United States seems doomed to stay locked into an organizational framework that does not serve its constitutional function of representing the will of “we, the people.”

To be sure, most Americans want to change these fundamentally flawed structures in order to create fair governance. They grasp that while this once-novel approach was perhaps justified at the time the country was established, it is more detrimental than not these two and a half centuries later. Yet, the very system that so many voters wish to alter prevents their preferred change makers from getting elected. If those candidates do manage to gain office, this same structure keeps them from building enough support to effect lasting results. Caught in this Gordian knot, many of my countrymen feel betrayed and helpless to impact their society. It is a catch-22 that leads to apathy and, tragically, to not voting at all.

Meanwhile, Canada is far from a panacea. The job I will be assuming upon my arrival to that country illustrates its many societal problems. I will serve as a Spiritual Health Practitioner for a progressive health authority in Vancouver, British Columbia. As a multifaith chaplain on an Assertive Community Treatment team in that healthcare system, I intend to do my small part to help address the prodigious spiritual needs that have resulted from an epidemic of deaths in that vast metropolitan area. This awful situation has stemmed from a lethal combination of rampant homelessness fueled by skyrocketing housing prices in Vancouver’s increasingly gilded society, a spiraling opioid crisis, and the failed treatment of countless severely psychologically impaired individuals who have fallen between the cracks of a deinstitutionalized mental health system. This perfect storm inordinately impacts members of an indigenous Canadian population already besieged by the crippling legacy of colonialism, residential schooling, racism and intergenerational trauma. Their plight is reminiscent of that of African-Americans and other BIPOC—Black, indigenous, people of color communities—south of the Canadian border. It is not by coincidence that all of these victimized minorities are disproportionately entangled in networks of mass incarceration and prison-industrial complexes. And of course, like all countries, Canada too is not free of its own share of corrupt political leaders.

Still, even this harsh Canadian reality pales in comparison to the current hazardous inflection point in American life. The renomination of Donald Trump signals the rise of fascism and the potentially imminent failure of the “American experiment.” It is a watershed moment that unearths the breaching of the democratic values upon which that experiment was built, carrying with it the very real and present danger of the prospect of dictatorship. This is not viable. No sustainable democratic society can thrive while hovering so tenuously over such a terminal precipice and for so long. It is a recipe for catastrophe for the United States.

Putting aside for a moment this national mortal peril, significant differences already separate these two North American neighbors. Life offers no guarantees, no matter one’s chosen homeland. Nonetheless, one must follow the odds, and various factors contribute to an overall longer life expectancy for citizens of the “true north strong and free,“ versus the mean lifespan of the average American. Few would disagree that my family’s young children are far less likely to fall victim to a school shooting in a nation like Canada, which undeniably values human life more than the right to carry a firearm. As a Jewish clergyperson, husband and father, I am acutely aware that the American deification of the right to bear arms makes the recent exponential rise in antisemitic attacks that plagues both the USA and Canada much more deadly south of the border, where those incidents are—quite literally—more weaponized. The Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting notoriously demonstrated this reality. That act of terrorism also highlighted how the Trump Era and its fanning of the flames of White nationalism has given permission for some extremists to act out their antisemitic feelings and beliefs—often with lethal force.

In Canada, my daughters will live in a country that ascribes greater merit to the notion that they can choose what they wish to do with their own bodies as they grow into adulthood rather than have the government legislate their decisions. Of related corporeal concerns, life in Canada will offer them more affordable and accessible health care, regardless of their future income. As Canadians, they likewise will not be living under a federal government whose immoral policy is to employ Nazi-inspired execution methods, even against the innocent. The United States, of course, kills its citizens against their will in just this manner under the fallacious banners of deterrence and “justice.” This sanitized collective bloodlust that is the death penalty permeates across American culture, stripping its citizens of their most fundamental human right—that of life itself.

The menace of Trump’s 2024 presidential nomination serves as a resounding exclamation point punctuating all of the above. For many years, those truths had led me to seriously ponder immigrating to Canada. I was fortunate enough to have been able to experience many of these differences first-hand while serving over a decade ago as a congregational cantor and prison chaplain in British Columbia. It was then that I earned my Canadian permanent residency status and met and married a dual citizen in the process. I returned stateside in 2012. Trump’s election in 2016 quite nearly sparked my departure once again to Canada. At that time, however, my family did not have children whose futures to consider. Given this—and the benefit of the doubt I gave to American voters—the decision was made to continue the fight for democracy within the States. Trump’s mind-boggling renomination now—when the lives of my young daughters are at the forefront of my mind—has become the last straw for this once doggedly patriotic New Englander. Hence, I am leaving my wonderful current job as a hospital chaplain in Maryland for the unique privilege of living and working legally in Canada, where I aim to transform my residency status into citizenship. In balance, my ethical obligation to provide the best possible lives for my children trumps any understandable regret—and even guilt—I feel by taking full advantage of these opportunities.

I fully am cognizant as a Connecticut native son that some might label me a “Benedict Arnold,” referring to the treachery of the Constitution State’s Revolutionary War general who became a turncoat. As General Arnold sided with the British centuries ago, so too am I now turning to British Columbia. Yet, quite unlike my Loyalist Connecticut compatriot, in making this move I firmly believe that I am pursuing the same kind of anti-authoritarian values for which Americans took up arms in 1776. Ultimately, in contrast to Arnold, who spied against his country, I will still be advocating for the betterment of the United States, albeit from a distance.

Trump’s proverbial resurrection in 2024 underscores the ever-widening gap between the lands flanking the 49th parallel. With each passing day, that vast boundary progressively resembles a new veritable Rubicon for democracy. I cross that threshold in the direction of a more functioning government, for the sake of those I hold most dear. I do so now before they become infected by the ominous cancer of steadily encroaching authoritarianism that metastasizes across my native land.

It is well-known that the 49th latitude in the western hemisphere constitutes the largest undefended border on Earth. Adhering to this model, I pledge to peacefully defend the United States’ seemingly moribund democratic institutions by remaining a dedicated social activist regarding the issues that lead me to traverse that thin red line. Canadian shores, while not perfect, ultimately are safer for my loved ones, and follow a saner, healthier and more spiritually sound trajectory for humanity. I pray that my efforts from afar will help the United States return to a similar course for all Americans, and for all the free world for which it hopes to serve as an ostensible beacon for human rights.

Reflecting on my pending immigration, I cannot help but recall an illuminating, decades-old family encounter with Donald Trump. My late cousin Larry Shapiro—a successful executive producer on Canadian television—once told me about a conference of prominent personalities that he hosted at a hotel in the 1970s/80s. A much younger Trump happened to be staying at the same venue at the time. He approached Larry, demanding to be allowed into the event. When my cousin respectfully declined and reminded Trump that he was not on the guest list, the future US president characteristically threatened Larry, saying something to the effect of  “I can make your life very hard if you say no … ” To his tremendous credit, my Canadian cousin held his ground and did not permit Trump entry into the affair. I like to think that my dear cousin Larry, of blessed memory, would approve of my following his example by effectively saying “no” to Trump and to the systemic failure he symbolizes. May the United States speedily learn to do the same by not enabling the likes of Donald J. Trump to crash its political party yet again, heralding the assured ruin of the entire “American experiment.”

L’chaim – “to Life!

– Cantor Michael J. Zoosman, MSM

Board Certified Chaplain –  Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains

Co-Founder – “L’chaim: Jews Against the Death Penalty”

Advisory Committee Member –  Death Penalty Action

 

Note: This article first appeared in the Jurist on May 21, 2024
About the Author
Cantor Michael Zoosman is a Board Certified Chaplain with Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains (NAJC) and received his cantorial investiture from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 2008. He sits as an Advisory Committee Member at Death Penalty Action and is the co-founder of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty.” Michael is a former Jewish prison chaplain and psychiatric hospital chaplain. Currently, he is a multi-faith hospital chaplain at a federal research hospital, the National Institutes of Health - Clinical Center. His comments here represent his own opinions.
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