An immigrant living through American decline

Turns out I’m a “saved” immigrant who’s not content with American society. And that’s not an immigrant story that anyone in America really wants to hear.

This is the third and final installment of my intro to The Soviet Jew: A Weaponized Immigrant’s Tale. Read the previous segment: “The Personal is Political.”

A few weeks ago it was the Fourth of July. We didn’t do anything special — no BBQs, no going up to Griffith Park to watch the fireworks. So I spent the day in our apartment, packing up some stuff for our move and thinking about this book.

To kill some time, I opened up Facebook and saw that my old immigrant friends from San Francisco were in full-on patriot mode. They had their grills fired up, their American flag t-shirts and sweatpants on, their jet skis and motorboats on the water — they were waving American flags and filling their feeds with proclamations about how much they love America. “Grateful to this country and all the opportunities it’s given our family!” posted someone I had a crush on in high school, above a photo of her entire family — her daughters, her husband. They were all wearing clothes with giant American flag prints and were posing next to a golf cart from a vacation property on some lake in California. I haven’t seen or spoken to her in probably over twenty years. But I’m sure she is grateful — grateful and, from the looks of it, successful. She came to America as a kid like me. We went Washington High School together in the late 1990s, and I used to let her copy my chemistry home work. Now she sells McMansions in an hot new upscale suburb a few hours away from San Francisco.

Fourth of July is probably the most immigrant of American holidays, a day when we’re supposed to wave the stars and stripes and take part in traditional American activities — like ripping up a lake somewhere on speedboat and grilling ridiculous amounts of Costco-bought meat — and loudly proclaim our love for America, the best country on earth! We’re supposed to be grateful for being rescued and for being given an opportunity at a better life. That’s what my parents have always said, and that’s what all the immigrants I grew up with in San Francisco say. The message has been drilled into my head. And Fourth of July is a theatrical reenactment for what people like me are supposed to do every day: You gotta prostrate yourself, kiss the ground, proclaim your loyalty to this regime. We’re here to remind Americans that theirs is the only good system in the world, and that there can be no alternative.

This immigrant patriotic routine that I’m supposed to repeat like some kind of prayer has never made much sense to me. And it makes even less sense as I get older.

No matter how people’s life turned out here — whether they’ve been successful as new Americans or are struggling to fit in and make ends meet — let’s be honest: the fact is that this society didn’t let in Soviet Jews like us out of kindness or out of some kind of universal love of all oppressed people. We were let in as part of a Cold War project. We were given special “it” victim status because we were useful to interests of American Empire.

But my annoyance with this naive immigrant patriotism that’s expected from people like me is about more than just the cynical imperial aspects of our immigration story. It has to do with my slow but steady realization that whatever the positive aspects of this society, it is at a fundamental level a miserable, work-obsessed technophilic death cult. It’s a society that’s focused on stripping all life from this planet, all in the name of accumulating ersatz wealth and cheap luxuries — luxuries that very quickly end up in a landfall. And this death cult is in a mode of frightening acceleration and denial.

It’s been thirty one years since we came to America — when our Pam Am Boeing 747 lifted off from Rome and touched down at the John F. Kennedy International Airport. And I gotta say that these three decades have not been kind to the notion that America is the pinnacle of civilizational progress. In the time we’ve been here, just about everything’s gotten worse — more oligarchs, more poverty, more pollution, more environmental collapse, bigger financial bubbles, more never-ending wars, more school shootings, more heat, more fires, much much more homelessness, and less and less democracy. With every year it feels like the pitch of America’s decline gets steeper and steeper. There’s systemic failure and stagnation and corruption on every level, papered-over with lies and self-deception — and no alternative in sight. I mean, California — the avant-garde of America’s innovative spirit — can’t build a simple high speed public train and depends on prison slave labor to fight forest fires. Meanwhile, a couple of billionaires duke it out for who’ll be the first asshole in space on their own private oligarch rocket.

As an immigrant kid who grew up in San Francisco and went to college to be a programmer, my path to success meant working hard for a giant tech company and making a bunch of billionaire investors even richer. In return for my labor, I’d get a good salary and be able to afford a nice, overpriced place somewhere in the city. If I really hit the jackpot, I would have sold my startup to some tech monopoly and made a bunch of oligarch VCs even more money. Or I could have been like B, the first immigrant friend that I made in San Francisco. He started working for Lyft when it was just an unknown startup. Now Lyft is a global taxi corp second only to Uber. He’s got a nice house somewhere in the Oakland hills. He worries about crime, while his company runs a high-tech business that provides serfs-on-demand and spends ridiculous amounts of money and energy to make sure the serfs have no rights. This is the pinnacle of the American Dream for someone like me. I don’t blame the immigrants themselves. They did not create this world. This is what’s on offer here.

So I look around and think: America today might be the land of opportunity for some. But it’s a total fucking disaster for a lot more people. And it’s a total disaster for everything else that’s alive on our planet. The high-energy hyper-industrial consumerist society that America pioneered and then spread around the world as a Pinnacle of Civilization and Freedom is killing everything in its path. Even the supposedly invigorated socialist left that’s appeared on the scene in the last five years is very much a part of the problem. From what I can tell it dreams of salvaging this consumerist high-tech death cult — but in a “fair” and “nationalized” way.

Even independent journalism — the idealistic American profession that I had been pursuing for most of my adult life — to me feels like an effort in futility. The idea of the press is built into the political fabric of American society — a democracy requires an informed citizenry and all that. But there is no real democracy in America today and no organized democratic movement that flexes any real power. And so the indie journalism stuff is now only good for little more than political entertainment, an outrage machine that gets people’s blood boiling as the world burns. And all of it ultimately drives profits to the same tech and financial oligarchy that I tried to escape by not becoming a programmer. Hell, even this Substack platform is backed by Silicon Valley VC cash. That’s just the reality of life here in America: no one can escape the oligarchy, nor the materialistic death cult that rules here — no matter how hard you try.

So it’s been strange for a Soviet immigrant like me to realize how rotten everything is around here. My story should have been about a bright young man being saved from a grim fate under Soviet authoritarianism, living out his life in a dynamic and prosperous free society. There should have been a classic happy Hollywood ending. But the script has taken a different turn. The fact is that my family fled one failed society only to end up in a society that was just beginning to enter into an accelerated phase of stagnation and failure. And this time, there’s nowhere to run — the American Way has conquered the world.

So yeah, turns out I’m a “saved” immigrant who’s not content with American society. And that’s not an immigrant story that anyone in America wants to hear.

—Yasha Levine

To be continued…

This is the third and final installment of my intro to The Soviet Jew: A Weaponized Immigrant’s Tale.