Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Good Old Days

Monrovia, California

April 27, 2013

At the end of the last posting on immigration I referred, in passing, to the subject of ethnic pride.  I thought about putting another paragraph or two there, but decided instead to devote an entire piece to the subject, another of the many hobby horses I ride.

I’ve been trying all month to give this the right tone, not to take away anyone’s little satisfaction in being all or part whatever—Irish, Italian, German, English, Jewish, West African, Chinese, Mexican, Native American, you name it—but to put it into a fresh perspective.  Being a mixture of several fairly easily identifiable ethnic or national groups is more prevalent in the Americas than it is elsewhere, I think.  In the U.S. particularly, we sort of revel in having a little of this and a little of that in our bloodlines.  It ties us to some Old Country which we usually don’t remember.  We’re a nation (and a hemisphere, really) of comparatively recent immigrants, mixed often with much older immigrants.  Mexicans are frequently a mix of Spanish and local Indians or of several Indian groups (though the people who run the Mexico tend to be much closer to “pure” Spanish, and hence whiter, than the masses are).  Down in Argentina they’re a mix of Spanish, Italians, and Germans, with the Indians having been pretty well pushed out.

We’re all descended from immigrants.  “Pure” bloodlines are pure only in a narrow and historically recent sense, compared to the history of the human species.   My target audience is all immigrants (and their descendants) to what is now the United States, past and future, which means all of us, whether we call ourselves native-born Americans or even Native Americans, as if having been here for a certain period of time entitles any of us to call ourselves “native.”  In fact it seems to do just that.  There persists in the human imagination the idea that having been somewhere for a long time (even when it’s just longer than the guy next door) gives people a sort of squatter’s right to call themselves the ones to whom a place belongs.

To reinforce this belief, many groups of humans who have been in one place for a very long time, say thousands of years, actually have religious or mythic beliefs that their ancestors sprang right up from the ground they now occupy, like trees or weeds, or that God, or the gods, placed them in that exact spot on purpose.  This gives them, from their perspective, a right to be there that is superior to that of all other comparative newcomers.  So pervasive is this type of belief that it has its underpinnings in the recesses of a great many national or ethnic belief systems.  It is called “autochthony,” which derives its meaning from the Greek for “originating where found.”

One problem with the concept of autochthony is that it is simply erroneous, and though I think most people understand this at a purely logical level, they tend to behave as if they do accept it in some way when they are defending their turf, or what once was their turf and has now been taken over by others, or when revering those who have been here longer than they have. 

The history of the world, as far as we understand it at present, tends to demonstrate the very opposite of autochthony.  Overwhelmingly people who find themselves in a certain spot have migrated from somewhere else and taken over that piece of ground, either because it was empty of humans at the time or, much more frequently, because they wanted the place and were willing to conquer and kill off or assimilate with the people they found there.

Because written history is recent compared to all of human history, it’s often the case that we’ve lost the hard evidence of these waves of conquerors, so that folks in a given spot may have the sense that once upon a time they were the true and rightful inhabitants of a place.  One area where much evidence of repeated conquests exists in a tracably intact form, however, is the place we now call Great Britain.  What we seem to know about this area is that there were, many tens of thousands of years ago, people inhabiting the island.  Without a doubt they came from somewhere else and were not the first, only the first for which we have evidence.  Then in about 500 B.C. people who go by various names—Celts, Britains, Gaels, or Scots, to name a few—came from somewhere to the east and conquered and took over, raping and pillaging and looting and slaughtering as newcomers have traditionally done.  There remain traces of a pre-Celtic civilization, preserved in aspects of Celtic myths and in old ruins like Stonehenge and in ancient dug-up bones.

A few hundred years after the Celts took over the British Isles, the Romans invaded and ran the place.  Then some Germanic folks (who had also come from somewhere far to the east) calling themselves Angles, Saxons, and Jutes went over, in the 4th century A.D. or thereabouts, and supplanted the Celts, pushing them into outlying areas--Wales, Scotland, and Cornwall--where Celts continued to hold on and speak versions of the languages they’d brought with them from wherever they came, while the Germanic conquerors began to develop what later became known as the English language.  Then people called Danes, or Norsemen, or Vikings (themselves Germanic cousins of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes), began to spread out from northern Europe into the south, going as far as Russia to the east and France to the west, and the Mediterranean to the south.  They of course had originated somewhere else, too.  Eventually some of those same folks also came up into Great Britain from what is now France.  They were by then known as the Normans, which of course means Norsemen, and were assimilated with the mixture of Celtic, Germanic (Frankish), and Roman people who had been there before the Norman conquest of France.  There were no “pure” Frenchmen, any more than there were or are “pure” Englishmen.  As for their neighbors the Spanish, they too are quite a mix in comparatively recent history.  The Celts, Romans, Goths, and Arabs all spent time there, and to greet them were earlier folks like the Basques.

After that the successful invasions of Great Britain more or less stopped, and for a thousand years things have been allowed to just evolve slowly, with distinct differences being recognized between, let’s say, the Welsh and the Scots on the one hand, and English on the other, who seem to be a mixture of Anglo-Saxon Germanic people and the Frenchified Vikings.  This bit of history imparts an idea of how complicated the question of national or ethnic origin can be, and how it tends to go back only so far in human memory.  For instance, if you’re a Scot you perhaps believe your own ancestors were not Anglo-Saxon but rather Celtic, but you don’t remember, on a collective ethnic basis, that those same Celtic ancestors of yours are comparative newcomers, being only about 2500 years old as inhabitants of an area where humans have lived for dozens of millennia.

Overlaying all this is the knowledge that all the white humans who ever occupied Great Britain, including the Neolithic folks, the Druids, the Celts, the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, and the Normans, migrated up out of Africa at some very early point in human history, becoming partially albinized and physically changed in other ways for reasons having to do with climate adaptation (probably in order to absorb more nutrients from the comparatively less strong sunlight of the north and to survive in the cold better).

Now let’s come back home to the U.S.  Here we know that people came from Asia between about 12 and 20 thousand years ago, probably in a long series of migrations, and stopped at various points along the western edge of the Pacific, all up and down the coasts of North and South America, while the middle of North America was still covered by glaciers.  They migrated throughout the two American continents, squatting, settling, conquering, and slaughtering.  (And eating one another: ritual and vindictive cannibalism are characteristic of a surprisingly large number of early civilizations all over the globe.)  Then about five hundred years ago a bunch of Europeans—Spanish, French, and English mostly (and we all know how diverse they were, in terms of their own ethnic histories)—began coming to the western hemisphere and slaughtering, displacing, and in some cases assimilating with the people they found there (but, whether not to their credit, devouring very few of them or of each other, except out of nutritional necessity).  These Europeans captured people from West Africa and brought them over as slaves, too, continuing a tradition of enslaving comparatively defenseless people that was practically universal among both their own ancestors and those of the Native Americans they found on this continent.  Eventually, about 250 years ago, the English established political dominance in what is now Canada and the eastern United States, and the Spanish and Portuguese ran the show everywhere else in the hemisphere, the French having been relegated to small portions of eastern Canada and Louisiana. 

Well, what of it?  Here’s what.  For one thing, no matter where you came from or which group of migrants your ancestors were part of, you can be pretty well assured that your people at some point practiced slaughter, mutilation, enslavement, and cannibalism.  There’s no getting around it.  They did it in under the banner of their own sense of superiority over those they persecuted, whether it was in the name of the Pax Romana, Manifest Destiny, or just to betray their neighbors and get their land.  Nevertheless, people just love to take pride in what they see as their ethnic origins.  And a good many of them do so at the expense of those around them, politically or emotionally or morally speaking.  Ethnic pride. 

No one loves to take the moral high ground on the issue of ethnicity more than two groups in particular—those who think they’ve been here the longest and those who have arrived most recently.

When they’ve been here for thousands of years like the Native Americans, well, they really love ethnic pride.  Partly, I'll grant you, that's because the English-speaking dominant group tried to systematically suppress and eliminate that ethnic pride.  Their religions and customs, often animistic, are cast as more righteous than the monotheism of the west, suggesting a quiet symbiosis with the land and their reverence for the trees and mountains and all that.  The vast differences between their many separate groups, from nomads to hunter gatherers to seafaring to agriculturally stable societies, are swept aside.  In reality they all killed to eat and killed to compete and killed to defeat, but that’s okay because it happened a long time ago.  The viciousness with which they slaughtered, enslaved, mutilated, and often ate their neighbors is quietly forgotten.  Why?  Because of the passage of time and because, most importantly, they themselves were later slaughtered by other, equally vicious and technologically more advanced, people.  New slaughter is always worse than ancient slaughter, which time has a tendency mostly to forgive and forget.  So it is on the American continents and so it was on the European and Asian and African continents from which our various peoples came.

Then there’s the ethnic pride of the newcomers.  That’s based principally on nostalgia imparted by the living to their children and grandchildren.  “Nostalgia” comes from two Greek words and means, literally, “aching for homecoming.”  The term was coined only a few centuries ago, and nostalgia was considered a medical condition or a mental illness associated with depression.  Today it has lost this more scientific meaning and has taken on a deceptively benign connotation.  When people have only been here for a generation or so, they are filled with nostalgia for the Old Country, where things were, by God, the way they should be.  Irish pride. Italian pride. African pride. Mexican pride. Asian pride. German pride.  Their ancestors might have lived like cattle, labored under the thumbs of feudal overlords, been driven out because of their beliefs, been sold into slavery by their neighbors, been starved, beaten, or eaten.  Or they might well have done that to others.  But there was some nobility to it, or so they think.  Drinking and drug-taking celebrations, chicken slaughtering rituals, female circumcision—ah, the good old days.  Sometimes nostalgia is incorporated into religious celebrations.  The Jewish bas and bar mitzvahs, for instance, celebrate a time when twelve-year-old girls and thirteen-year-old boys were considered old enough to marry, because, what the hell, life was pretty short, so why waste time.  Similarly the quinceaƱera, widely practiced among Latin Americans, signifies that at the age of fifteen a girl is ready to become a bride.  In these and many other traditionally agrarian societies it was important for a girl to become some man’s property and begin propagating early, lest, like Ellie Mae Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies, she become an old maid at the age of eighteen.  Cute and quaint. 

Well, to hell with ethnic pride.  In some religious traditions pride is considered a sin, and I think I can see why. Whether it’s for the old civilizations or the comparatively recent ones, for your race or mine, it’s the most useless force in this country today, and has kept more people in perpetual ignorance than any other force, however well-meaning it might seem.  More people have been killed, self-righteously, in this country in over issues of race and heritage than for any other reason I can think of. 

If the Statue of Liberty and Emma Lazarus’s New Colossus poem stand for anything at all, it’s that we come here to start a new life, one dedicated in principal at least to the equality of the sexes and races, the liberty to make one’s own life decisions, the right of a female to survive infancy, the right to obtain an education and develop a sense of worth based on something beyond the ability to reproduce and work for someone else.  And above all, respect for the rule of law over the rule of religion and ethnic tradition and vendetta.  Many of these ideals were missing in whole or in part from the places from which the immigrants came.  The fact that my readers might react cynically to this recitation of ideals means only that we haven’t achieved them yet, but still believe they are worth working for.

I don’t care whether your ancestors were Aztec warriors or Irish kings or English adventurers or African chieftains (notice that nobody’s ancestors seem to have been just plain folks).  If Ireland, under the thumb of priests, had been that great, you wouldn’t be here.  If Mexico, controlled and benighted by bureaucratic corruption and drug lords, had been that great, you wouldn’t be here.  If China’s wise politburo had been that far-seeing and humane, you wouldn’t be here.  If Bulgaria, or Vietnam, or India had been paradise on earth, you wouldn’t be here.  Forget all that.  Just bring your best food and music and leave the good old days back in the old country.  If they’d been that good you wouldn’t be here.

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