Karen Healey writes award-winning young adult fiction (Guardian of the Dead (2010), The Shattering (2011), and the duology When We Wake (2013) and While We Run (2014)) and teaches teenagers about comma splices. She has a lot of opinions.
There’s another Karen Healey, somewhere in the USA, and sometimes people send me her email. I get quotes for lawn care, hotel reward points summaries, invitations to attend birthday parties and reminders from her prayer circle to send some love up to her God for people on the approved list. I’ve been getting these messages for years, and I deal with them far more efficiently than I do my own: I reply to the personal messages to explain the mistake, filter the corporate spam, and briefly, always, wonder how she’s doing.
I hope that the other Karen’s lawn improves and that she had a nice stay at the Indianapolis Hilton. I wish that the friends she’s praying for will recover from cancer and bankruptcy. I don’t think we’d be friends, the other Karen and I, but I’m benignly interested in these tiny glimpses of her distant life, the same way I feel vague goodwill whenever I ride a night bus past lighted windows, and see people moving within.
In mid-2015, this other Karen Healey considered supporting former neurosurgeon Ben Carson to represent Republican party in the 2016 presidential election.
Or – no, even this is uncertain, an assumption drawn at a distance. Maybe she didn’t really consider it. Maybe an unscrupulous collector sold her email address on a list. Maybe an enthusiastic volunteer asked for her email, and she was too polite to say no. Maybe an enemy (a malicious brother-in-law? A former workmate?) signed her up to support a politician she actually despised.
Whatever her real thoughts on Dr Carson, the other Karen never donated to his campaign. I know, because I got all the email begging her to give just a little. Just five dollars! Just ten dollars! Donate over just $22.16 and you get a free Ben Carson hat!
I read every email. Carson fascinates me. Here’s an undoubtedly expert former neurosurgeon who steadfastly disavows the theory of evolution. Here’s an African-American man, described the Black Lives Matter campaign, fuelled by numerous, documented cases of excessive police violence against African-Americans, as one orchestrated by “purveyors of division” that didn’t address “real problems”.
Here was someone gunning for the position of President of the United States of America, whose May 4 email declaring his candidacy included the line “I am not a politician, nor am I politically correct.” Later emails bragged about his lack of political experience and clarified that “the last thing I want to be is a politician”. (“Then why do you want to be President?” I asked my screen. It didn’t answer.) I suppose I could start my next job interview by declaring that the last thing I want to be is a teacher, but I suspect it wouldn’t get me very far.
But it got Carson a long way. His campaign committee might have been disorganised when it came to Carson’s message, but they were great at raising funds, even if they wasted a few emails on a bemused New Zealander. (“A group of liberal, atheist progressives in Ohio have filed a lawsuit attempting to remove “In God We Trust” from our nation’s currency,” one email gasped. “Good,” I said, atheistically.) The campaign raised 57.9 million dollars from grassroots donors; so much money that, later, people wondered that the campaign might have been a scam
In the beginning, though, a lot of people took Carson seriously. Many political commentators thought Trump was a joke, entering the race as a crass stunt to increase the Donald’s personal brand. (According to a former Trump staffer writing on xoJane<, they weren’t wrong. According to a Politico report, Trump has aimed at the Presidency since 2013.) Sure, Trump had an early lead and some startling numbers – but he was bound to burn out eventually, or say something so outrageously cretinous and vile that the voters would turn on him. Mild-mannered Seventh-Day Adventist Carson, who stated in a commencement address that the Egyptian pyramids were most likely erected by the Biblical Joseph in order to store grain, could appeal to the conservative evangelical wing of the Republican Party, who were less interested in establishment candidates like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush. He swore to restore the founding fathers’ ‘Judeo-Christian values’. (“Genocide and slavery?” I asked the screen.) Moreover, Carson had the highest likeability numbers of any Republican candidate – much higher than Trump’s. Carson was viewed as a genuine possibility for an outsider nominee.
And, for a while, it looked like they were right. From September 2015 Carson was a respectable distance behind Trump in the polls, but ahead of every other candidate, and gaining on Trump.
After the November 6th debate, Carson, who contributed very little to the actual debate, pulled slightly ahead of Trump in many polls. Carson’s campaign manager, Barry Bennett was jubilant. In an interview with The Atlantic journalist Molly Ball, he declared that Carson’s lack of political experience wasn’t a deterrent at all. “He’s just so much more likeable than all the other guys,” he said. “No one’s going to vote for an abrasive asshole.”
Oh, but they are. They did.
Carson’s momentary rise turned out to be only a piece of grit under the inexorable wheels of the Trump juggernaut. As his numbers crashed, my inbox got desperate: “Karen, I can’t do this without you”; “Karen, time is almost up”; “Karen, I need to shoot straight with you.” There were pleas for more money, urging me to donate “just $3 or more” and assuring me that Carson’s flagging campaign could be “bolstered by your urgent donation of $2 now.”
But he was done. On March 3rd 2016, I woke up to a declaration that Carson didn’t “see a political path forward”. “Karen,” the email began, “As one of my most dedicated supporters, I wanted you to hear this directly from me.” On March 4th, he formally declared his withdrawal from the candidacy race. On March 5th, I got the email where he gave the bad news to his followers. The email subject line was simple: “Karen, thank you.”
Don’t thank me, Dr Carson. I didn’t do a thing for your political ambitions, and I never would. But I was sad to see the emails stop. I was glad that the other Karen Healey had signed me up for the experience. It was something, to see a snapshot of what Americans have to go through every four years.
It seems that a lot of Americans would be happy to swap with me. Every election cycle, thousands of them declare that if the wrong person wins, they’re leaving. It’s almost a ritual; Americans unhappy with the threat an opposing candidate presents to their desired direction for the nation turn to Twitter or Facebook and say, “If [presumed worst presidential candidate in the history of the country] wins, I’m gone.” They used to say it on mailing lists and IRC in the nineties, on Usenet boards in the eighties. In 2000, a number of Hollywood luminaries very allegedly pledged to relocate to France if Bush won. (He did. They didn’t.) In 2012, voters threatened to move to Canada if Romney won. And also if Obama won.
The latter prompted both amusement and scorn. Why would avowed Republicans head to Canada, widely hailed among more liberal circles for its free healthcare and equal marriage rights? It didn’t seem to matter to the disenchanted, who had declared themselves disenfranchised. Their desire was for anywhere but home, because home threatened to betray them.
The same thing is happening now: thousands of people hyperbolically – or perhaps not – declaring that if Trump/Clinton/Sanders is elected President, they’ll be on the next plane out. It’s Trump that prompts the strongest responses. After Trump’s Super Tuesday wins, Google Trends reported a stunning increase in searches for “Move to Canada”. According to a recent poll reported on by The Guardian, 14% of the 2000 registered voters interviewed declared themselves “very likely” to leave if Trump won.
(Don’t read the comments.
Just don’t read any of the comments.)
The majority of those would-be American expatriates are not planning to head for Aotearoa New Zealand. According to a Luminoso study crunching Twitter opinions, those presumptively fleeing Trump would prefer to move to Mexico, Canada, England, Australia or… Alaska. Still, concerns about geography education aside, a sizeable number are interested in packing up and heading to the bottom of the South Pacific if the wrong candidate wins. Listicles on Many Many Adventures and Slant rank New Zealand as a viable retreat. In a recent column, the Chicago Tribune writer Phil Rosenthal advises people to consider New Zealand before Canada, touting our work-life balance.
But why do Americans – of any political stripe – think they can just move here? And what do they think they’ll find?
Even the most elastic interpretation of Aotearoa’s refugee claimant requirements won’t allow the discontented to apply for political asylum – especially when John Key needed outcry from the nation to add 600 Syrian refugees to the embarrassingly tiny 750 person annual quota. Americans working in engineering, medicine, forestry, construction and IT would have a better chance at acquiring permanent residency, through the Skilled Workers list. Immigration New Zealand has even refurbished its website to appeal to these much needed professions. But Americans who work in positions not on that list, or those over 55, or people with disabilities, are much less viable candidates for permanent residency – unless, of course, they have millions, and are willing to invest them. The wealthy are always welcome.
One American friend told me that most of these protesters have only a vague idea of the difficulties involved in emigrating. “My guess is that they think it’s like moving to a new state,” she said. “So they think oh, it’s a hassle. There are different laws and new paperwork to get used to. But they have no idea of all the legal hoops they’d have to go through.” So, leave it aside. Most haven’t considered the ramifications and it may be unfair to expect such consideration from these 140-character cries of despair, whether they’re pure hyperbole or entirely sincere. That may be part of why Canada and Mexico are such popular choices – these are names that come easily to mind, countries that share borders with their own.
But if these would-be migrants say they want to move to New Zealand, specifically, why? What do they think is here? Have they visited? Do they have friends or family here? Or did they catch The Piano, or Whale Rider (or, please, oh please, the best documentary ever made about Wellington, What We Do In The Shadows)?
Did they see a documentary, or read a travel writer’s effusive article, or hear a friend enthuse about their gap year working in cafes or vineyards and think, yes, there? If ever I need refuge, there I’ll go.
Look at how we are sold to them. There are actual New Zealanders in this Pure New Zealand ad, but they’re not what these tourist avatars really want to see. Kiwis guide visitors up mountains, hand out the kai for ten seconds, and hide in the silver city that is flown over, but never entered. They play second fiddle to an overwhelming impression of a vast and welcoming emptiness: wide blue ocean; tall green trees; a white expanse of snow. “Our land will whisper your name and tell you stories from long ago,” the narrator drones. Why wait for stories to be told? Clearly, this is Terra Rasa. On so blank a page you could write your own narrative.
Some look at all that lush country, inhale the air of frontier freedom, and apply their own understanding of national values. There’s a conversation that plays out on Reddit every now and then (often enough to be a trolling target). An American would-be expat wants to move here; it seems nice. What advice do people have for them? And can they bring their guns? “Meaning hunting rifles and handguns, not the ridiculous submachine guns and automatic rifles that you can get your hands on in the States,” Stevemode helpfully clarifies. The responses are a friendly education in what different cultures regard as ridiculous. Redditors are less kind to 18bfriendzonest, who asks, “Do you think the average New Zealander would have a problem with me being constantly armed?” She edits her original question several times as the definite responses roll in. One edit: “Fucking liberals”. Another begins, “Ok obviously I have reconsidered”.
It may be impossible to avoid assumption. Those who say they want to leave write their expectations on us – socialist paradise, or freedom-loving wilderness – as I write mine on the American Karen Healey. There she is, far away, tending her lawn and her faith, less a person than a collage constructed out of email scraps. I see her with a tidy bob and the wedding ring her husband’s mother donated to their union. I imagine her working in a bank – I figure she’s a vice-president of something – with colleagues who respect and like her. I pretend she’s a practical home cook who occasionally dares herself to try something different, and a keen reader of Christian romance novels.
It’s all fantasy, much stronger than lies. After all, it could be true.
Does the other Karen Healey think about me? If she does, then I’m the other one, the distant one, a stranger in a strange land. If her own country strays too far from the expectations she’s inscribed upon it, perhaps she’ll proclaim her intent to seek refuge in the land of her shadow-self.
I might, if it were me.
First published takahe 87