Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Immigrants: Excluded or Melted Down

The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born.
Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.
— Leviticus 19.34 (New International Version)

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me […]" —
"And we'll send 'em right back, we'll send 'em right back,
we'll send 'em right back to you!"
— Quoting from memory, Mad Magazine, 1960s or so,
 and "The Critical Mom" website

            My father's father came to the US a couple steps ahead of the Czar's secret police. He, my grandfather had killed a Cossack. The family story is that my grandfather killed the Cossack while the Cossack was raping my grandfather's sister during a pogrom. That's our story, and I'm sticking with it, but if my grandfather had waited a couple days to kill the rapist, or had killed the Cossack as a servant of the Czar in an unfortunately premature burst of revolutionary zeal — that would be okay with me.
            The Cossacks are among the groups who suffered under Stalin, and that suffering should be respected, but at the beginning of the 20th century many Cossacks served the Russian Empire, and for all of my dedication to nonviolence I won't speak badly of killing a Czarist rapist.
            From a US immigration point of view, however, my grandfather was a wanted criminal, and I assume he'd have been stopped at Ellis Island and returned to Russia if he'd given his right name and explained the reasons for his emigration.
            We can be sure my grandfather did not give his full story at Immigration and that far, which is pretty darn far, was an "illegal."
            Alternatively, in terms of interpretation, not facts, he was a refugee from an openly autocratic regime — "Autocrat" was part of the Czar's title — an openly if not always effectively autocratic regime that use pogroms and rape to keep down restive populations, e.g., the Jews.
* * *
            In its edition for 4 February 2017, The Ventura County Star ran an excellent column by Jerry Schwartz, titled and arguing that the "US has [a] long history of barring immigrants," and the 247 words above in black constitute my initial reaction. I ended up e-mailing a different response, since I kind of wanted the headnotes for this one, and because what I wanted to say took more than 250 words.
            There's more to US problems on this issue than Right-wing (usually) exclusion of us undesirables; there are also less deadly but still significant Lefty attitudes toward us "wretched refuse." Now refuse as a noun, the Oxford Learner's Dictionary tells advanced students means "waste material that has been thrown away," and is that sense is almost neutral: many were indeed cast off, "thrown away." However, the Oxford folk inform those advanced students of English that "refuse (noun)" has as synonyms in N. American English "garbage" and "trash" and among the Brits "rubbish."
            So the more progressive sorts sincerely and usually compassionately wanted to de-trashify our late-19th and early 20th-century ancestors — and later, too — by getting us to lose them there hyphens ("Irish-American," "Italian-American," "Jewish-American") and assimilate. Note the word: not "integrate" but assimilate, with the image of assimilation the great melting pot, which you should picture.
            It's a nicer image than trash collection — nowadays maybe recycling — but we foreign metals were to be thrown into a pot, subjected to heat sufficient that the metals liquefy, with individuals if not in the physics/chemistry sense definitely in the sociological sense atomized, and these radically individual individuals combined into a complex alloy: American. Except the alloy would be basically Anglo-Saxon WASP, at least in Yankee theory.
            And to a great extent this happened: if not in the first or maybe even second generation, most of the "Unmeltable Ethnics" melted at least a bit, assimilating into one or another of what Colin Woodard counts as "[…] The Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. To some extent, the immigrant cultures and individuals changed the surrounding culture, but for the most part we were assimilated to them.
            And this assimilation isn't so bad a thing insofar as a good deal is necessary for a nonBalkanized country, and a fair number of immigrant cultures have aspects we can just as well do without — sexism, for example, some tribalism, disrespect for education — but, then, so do some of our regional cultures (sexism, racism, clannishness, xenophobia, macho violence, privilege, puritanical snobbery, elitism, anti-intellectualism (that stuff).
            Still, the ideal probably should be integration, not assimilation, and the image a well-made quilt, or, to get less artsy-craftsy, chop suey: that great American-Chinese hodge-podge of leftovers to simmer and sell to people who don't know high-class Chinese cuisine.
            Also, assimilation "to a great extent" has not meant total assimilation, and things can get complicated in an area such as "El Norte" in Woodard's dividing up the map: an area covering large parts of south-western US and the north of Mexico. And things can get complicated where different regional cultures, meet and overlap, places where there have been some important recent waves of migration: places where I have lived pretty much my entire life.
            I was born in Terre Haute, Indiana; grew up in the Lake View District of Chicago — where politics were largely ethnic politics — attended college in central Illinois, where the Midwest meets "Greater Appalachia"; spent a year at Cornell University in radically rural Ithaca, NY, living with guys from "The City" of New York; taught for 35 years in S.W. Ohio, in the non-Kentucky area J. D. Vance talks about in Hillbilly Elegy, but at very much up-scale, largely Roman Catholic Miami University at Oxford, OH (with occasional trips to and gigs at our campuses in Hamilton and Middletown). And I now live in southernmost Ventura County, where Woodard's El Norte meets "The Left Coast," but in a town where more than half the people are not Hispanic but ¡Por Dios Mexicanos y Americanos!, and often here a long time before the gringos showed up.

So: The United States has a very mixed record meeting immigrants and in treating like immigrants or worse people here first — including Native Americans, whom I haven't discussed here, not to mention Africans who didn't immigrate but were kidnapped and enslaved. And this record didn't improve all that much in the 20th century when our behavior — usually that's "our" in quotation marks, for our predecessors — when "our" behavior was frequently, well, despicable: when we let fear and bigotry over-rule our feelings of compassion and knowledge of basic ethics.
            We can do better. This time around, let us be of good courage, show some decency, and do better.

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