THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
The Last Refuge
What was your immigrants' journey to America like? Did you ride in steerage in the nether regions of a rank, rocking steamship, in uncomfortably close quarters with hundreds of other passengers of all ages, some of them ill, many more of them seasick for much of the crossing? Worse, were you shackled and held in one fetid, airless space for the duration of your terrifying passage from captivity to slavery? Or perhaps you came on foot across a desert border, evading arrest a dozen times along the way, battling hunger, thirst and exhaustion every hour of every day?
And what sort of welcome did you receive upon arrival? A cold stare from immigration officials, a disdainful dismissal, perhaps a long, uncertain detention while awaiting a distant date in court? If you made it past the port, perhaps a warm embrace awaited you from family members who arrived before you — and then? A place to live not fit for an animal. Even menial jobs denied: "No Irish/Chinese/Mexican need apply." The long, slow climb from poverty, made more difficult at every turn by a tenuous grasp of language and customs. Yearning to belong but never quite feeling accepted no matter how hard you try. Your accent, your clothes, even the way you walk and gesture with your hands betray your foreign birth. And if you frequent a house of worship, one with strange rituals and peculiar odors, then you are all but permanently barred from full membership in respectable American society. You keep to your own, and consider yourself among the lucky ones who made it.
But your children: that is another story altogether. Their English is perfect, their American habits like a second skin. The public schools are an unforeseen blessing; what can the kids not accomplish with such a strong wind at their backs? Their color and creed may mark them as different, and they may never reach the heights of their native-born peers, but they have opportunities that you could never have dreamed of — you who are thankful just to be alive, to have reached these shores, to escape a near-certain early death from violence or disease. Your children will never have to know the fear that burrowed itself into your soul from an early age. The humiliations they may yet endure and the obstacles they will encounter are as nothing compared to the persecution and destitution that would have defined and constricted their lives in the old country. At least there is hope for them here.
This is why the immigrants keep coming. Faced with the unending prospect of grinding poverty, the indiscriminate murder of innocents, the knock on the door in the middle of the night, the lack of sanitation, or justice, or respect, or privacy, or any of the other basic requirements of a civilized existence, they will never stop coming.
If this was not your personal experience, then it was almost certainly the experience of your parents, grandparents or great-grandparents. Some of your forefathers or foremothers, likely very poor and entirely powerless, spent what little money they could gather and whatever energy they could muster to get here. Even the native Americans, who were living in this hemisphere long before the Europeans, themselves migrated from Asia in the distant past, a journey of unimaginable hardship. Most of the new places they found were likely empty of people, but when they did cross paths with tribes of other humans along the way, the confrontations would have almost certainly been violent. The outsider has seldom been welcome.
If by chance your more modern forebears were among the fortunate few who came in the relative comfort of an ocean liner or in the seat of a jet plane, and then simply overstayed their visas, they were still exceedingly unlikely to have been greeted with open arms. Wealth can obviously mitigate the discomforts of migration, but is not an antidote for strangeness, or a recipe for acceptance. Whatever their family story and whatever suffering they withstood to become Americans in the first place, many of those already here would, if they could, turn the newcomers away. The immigrants' reality in every era and in every place is that most of those who came before simply do not want them.
What is it that makes Americans American? The myth of exceptionalism conveniently overlooks the diversity of backgrounds that comprise the American character, and implicitly dismisses the enormous complexity of a nation whose citizens trace their origins to every other place on Earth. E pluribus unum is a descriptive phrase, not a prescriptive one. We are a nation uniquely constituted in the history of the world, but of what does our nationhood actually consist? Is there a particular quality, or set of qualities, that differentiates Americans from the people of other nations?
An author and college professor of mine named William E. Burrows once supposed that the distinguishing feature of Americans can be defined in a word: ornery. We are the human equivalent of a bucking bronco: difficult, unpredictable, and contemptuous of restraint. His reasoning was as follows: Americans are mostly descendants of people who ran away from other places. They came for different reasons: economic wretchedness; religious, political or ethnic oppression; or merely because, as Garrison Keillor once put it, they had been on the outs with a close relative for so many years that it was just easier to live in another country. Whatever their motivation for leaving, each and every one left the familiarity of the only home they had known to make a new home in an unfamiliar land. This marked them as individuals who were more inclined to strike out to terra incognita, and therefore relatively more adventurous and less fearful of change, than those who stayed behind. It also meant that they were, by and large, less comfortable with conformity, less inclined to accept conditions as they were and to just get along. They were among the minority in the towns and countries of their birth, who were more apt to speak their minds, and find themselves in hot water for doing so. In a word, they were more ornery, on average, than their compatriots.
Upon arrival in America, then, immigrants found themselves among like-minded people who, despite their considerable differences and frequently mutual contempt, valued their freedom and individual prerogatives above the preferences of the larger herd. Beginning with the English colonials who first put down roots here, Americans have been an irascible bunch: argumentative, impatient, complaining. We just don't like being told what to do. Over the centuries, our culture has accrued from the continual arrival of more people just like us. Each successive wave is different from the last in how they look, speak and worship. But we share the common desire to be ourselves and make our own way, and in this unlikely crucible of opportunity the ornery of the Earth have forged a nation.
That's the theory, anyway. Like all generalizations, it tends towards oversimplification. But if you watch "Little America", the series currently streaming on Apple, you will find it increasingly compelling. Each of the eight episodes is a dramatization about an actual immigrant or family of immigrants, each from a different country. Almost all of these new Americans came here originally decades ago, so the series is not specifically about the current bitter political disagreements over immigration policy. It isn't an argument in favor or letting in everyone who wants to come here, or limiting immigration to certain kinds of people. The stories depict the trials common to every immigrant generation: the struggle to fit it, to navigate officialdom, to live comfortably, to make things better for one's children. Not all of them succeed, or find happiness in their adopted country. Some of the stories are uplifting, others are heartbreaking. Just like life in general.
The obvious truth of the series is that America has long been the very best refuge for the downtrodden of the world. Historically, for all of the unnecessary misery inflicted on generations of the recently arrived, and despite the home-grown bigotry and streak of xenophobia that runs through the populace, providing hope is something America has done better than any other country. For what other nation could Emma Lazarus's indelible words at the Statue of Liberty have been written? Who else but Americans are moved to tears upon hearing them:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Why would be want to stop being that America?
What happens to an immigrant country when we are no longer the ornery crowd we once were?
Until quite recently, a defining aspect of exceptionalism was our hostility to tyranny. We looked askance at other countries that fell victim to authoritarianism, and assumed a superior attitude toward the mere dictatorships of the world. There must be something inherently wrong with those people if they are willing to follow a demagogue to the precipice of ruin, and to surrender their liberties for the sake of a self-declared emperor. Americans are different, we told ourselves: our ancestors came here to rid themselves of such tendencies. It can't happen here.
What if the professor's concept is correct, and that orneriness is precisely what made us different? And what if, after generations of being rooted in one place, we have reverted to form and become just like all of the other benighted nations of the Earth? Perhaps we have begun to lose our orneriness, and, like the relatives our ancestors left behind in the old country, we have become just another complacent, unquestioning mob, capable of atrocities that we formerly consigned to less enlightened nations. If our definition of freedom has shifted, from building a land of opportunity for all to closing the door on everyone not already inside, then our disputatious spirit, still so very much in evidence, is now in service to a narrowing set of objectives. We still claim to defend democracy, liberty and justice, but only for those we selectively define as "us".
The venomous anti-immigrant sentiment of recent years is perhaps as much a blueprint as a symptom: the fewer immigrants we allow in, the farther the country recedes from its ornery past, and the more acquiescent we become to the evils we witness around the world. Thus the terrain is ripe for a kind of creeping despotism. The traditional left-right divisions of our body politic, which once allowed room for mutual if grudging respect, are self-evidently becoming obsolete. Some who call themselves conservatives are increasingly reactionary, not seeking to conserve an existing paradigm but to return to a mythical past of ethnic and religious purity. We are therefore obliged to distinguish orneriness from mere obstinacy. The former embodies a spirit of inquiry and constructive dissension, while the latter is plain self-defense devoid of principle.
Those who are disposed to question authority, and who define citizenship inclusively, may still comprise the majority of Americans, but those who are prone to salute without reflection, and cannot separate nationhood from heredity, have never been louder or more threatening. The foot soldier who gripes is an American archetype, no less patriotic than the one who does not. The one who follows orders without question is not a citizen but a mule. If the mules win and the gates are closed, the last best hope of Earth will be just another filthy barnyard.
February 20, 2020
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