Monday, October 24, 2016

Mother of Exiles

...Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles....

--From "The New Colossus," by Emma Lazarus

Monrovia, California

October 24, 2016

In a recent posting I accused Los Angeles County of being physically ugly, dirty, and overcrowded.  It is all those things. But in fairness to the place it does possess a few positives as well.  One of the most fascinating and invigorating aspects of life here is its human diversity.  Certainly there are other places where ethnic and cultural differences are the norm.  New York City comes immediately to mind, and I doubt that LA County can compare to Brooklyn or Queens.  Other big cities on earth, like Paris and London, in recent years also have become places where folks of many stripes rub elbows, however uneasily.  Then there are locales where more than one race or ethnicity or religion coexist, but where the number of different groups is limited to two or three.  Any number of US cities have large white populations and large black populations, with only a sprinkling of brown and yellow people.

There are also spots on earth where diversity barely exists, and if it does, is not prized all that much.  Whole countries, or parts of countries, or tribal lands, just love the sameness of their people, and take pleasure not only in how much alike they all are, but in how long they've occupied their particular pied a terre.  Hundreds or thousands of years is the norm with such prideful folks.  This comparative permanence in one spot, going back to before their own written history, is what leads some nations or ethnic groups to imagine that they sprang, wholly formed, from the very soil on which they currently urinate and defecate--planted there by God or the gods.  Autochthony, they call that, and of course it's the stuff of myth but not of history.  Anyway, bless their homogeneous little hearts and their shallow little gene pools.  If there is merit in staying put and not venturing forth to new places, then I congratulate them.

In this country it is taken for granted that no one has been here since the dawn of  human existence.  We understand that the pair of continents known as North and South America were once uninhabited by human beings even while Europe, Africa, and Asia were.  Nevertheless, and rather curiously, those of us in the United States who know damn well that our cultures and races didn't originate where we currently live still tend to prize the more longstanding presence of the older groups.  The people who were on this continent before Europeans came seem to us to be, like heirloom tomatoes, better and more pure and somehow stronger, in a deeply spiritual and nostalgic and nourishing sense, than we comparative newcomers are.  This, mind you, in spite of the fact that our European ancestors had the wherewithal to travel halfway around the world in a very short time and to systematically, through their tenacity and technological advantages--and yes, ruthlessness--take over.  About this latter fact we feel guilty, without ever stopping to consider where we ourselves would be if we hadn't done the dirty deeds that besmirch our continental past.  Maybe we could have settled North America more humanely, we imagine.  Maybe we could have established and spread ourselves out by more charitable degrees, leaving bigger swathes of tribal lands alone and forgoing the genocide and forced migration we perpetrated.  Maybe, we think, in our most self-effacing moments, we never should have come at all. We didn't always think this way as a nation, but in the early 21st century we tend to do so.

In truth, nobody has been in the same place for even a fraction of the entirety of human existence, except possibly for the people in a few spots in east Africa.  The rest of us, which is to say almost everyone, came from somewhere else.  Because written records don't exist before a few hundred or thousand years ago, the most that scientists and historians can do is to generalize--for example, to tell us that certain people, like the Celts, came from "somewhere east of modern Europe, perhaps from central Asia," and swept across northwestern Europe, settling in northern France and throughout the British Isles.  Here's a curious fact: as far as we know, a hell of a lot of people seem to have come from somewhere in central Asia for some reason, no matter which direction they went.  The Celts, the Huns, the Mongols, the various Germanic tribes, even the Mongolian-type people who went east across what is now the Bering Strait and down into North and South America and became our revered Native Americans.  Nobody seems to have figured out how they all got into central Asia in the first place.  But the commonality of practically all people on the planet, no matter who they are, is that they picked up and left where they were and went some place else.  Maybe a few of them went first, then let the others know it was a pretty good deal, or at least better than where they had been, and the rest came.  Maybe they skirted the coastlines, trading or raiding, and saw new places worth looking into.  Or maybe they moved en masse, killing, raping, and plundering as they went in the good old fashioned way that nomads of all colors seem prone to do.  But they moved around, following the ocean currents, the herds, the seasons, the easy victims, whatever.  And in moving, in the very process of traveling and adapting, they seem to have gained technological strength and versatility.  In traveling they adapted.  Then they traveled some more and adapted some more.  That's the thing about travel--it tends to broaden one's horizons.

Oh, and there's another common denominator in the tales of the history of peoples who moved about.  In the felicitous memory of their descendants (us) they seem often to have been kings of wherever they were, or at least very noble, and pure, and generally good, and somehow more in touch with the earth and the gods than we are today.  This despite the fact that what may have driven them from one shore to another was not success, but failure; not ease and comfort, but desperation born of privation or shortage or loss or religious nonconformity.  Irishmen like to think they're descended from Brian Boru, notwithstanding the fact that the potato famine might have been what starved their peasant ancestors into braving the Atlantic for the New World.  Every poor African American was kidnapped from a race of chieftains.   I guess fantasizing about having once been great makes people feel better about their sorry pasts and their present circumstances. But who leaves a country they're in charge of already to go to a country where they're uncertain about anything?  The majority of European Americans know better about themselves.  They are taught, correctly, that their ancestors were the dregs of their native countries, or at least outcasts for one reason or another, or political losers.  Religious nuts, younger sons who didn't inherit anything, soldiers of fortune, prisoners who were spared the gallows.

Anyway, back to LA County, my home for the time being, nomad that I am.  Here we have a fascinating welter of different people from different backgrounds.  The largest single group, with a plurality that is rapidly approaching a majority, is Latinos.  The common denominator of most Latinos is that they speak Spanish as their first or second language.  The bulk of them hereabouts are of Mexican heritage, but increasingly they come from South and Central America as well.  But Latinos aren't all of the same stripe.  Some are far whiter than others, some identify as descendants of the Aztecs, some claim to have come from the Mayan culture, but most just think of themselves as Latinos.  Some appear to be almost pure pre-Colombian Indian, looking like they just stepped out of a tropical jungle or desert, and some evince a great deal of Spanish or other European blood in their veins.  In the regions south of our border, as here in the US, the lighter your skin color the more likely you are to be better off financially and politically, and hence the less likely you are to feel the need to move elsewhere.

But there are lots of other non-European groups as well.  Asians probably constitute the second-largest segment of these people, and they're far more diverse than the Latinos are, speaking many different languages.  They are Chinese, Koreans, Cambodians, Vietnamese, Japanese, Indonesians, Filipinos (who can claim to be either Asians or Latinos as they choose because of the former Spanish colonial presence in their native country), and also South Asians, from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other nearby places.  We also have a good number of Middle Easterners, from Israel, Palestine, Iran (who prefer to be called Persians), and various Arabian countries.  In the Glendale and Burbank areas, in particular, there are large settlements of Armenians--a perpetually pissed-off bunch on the whole.  They of course are Caucasian, because they come from the Caucasus region, with a language and alphabet they regard as practically timeless and greatly superior to all others.  They're brimming over with resentment toward Turks and naked hatred of Russians, of whom we have a fair number as well.  Many of the Russians are Jewish, and in any event are generally thought to be mobbed up.  And of course there are African Americans, always present and always occupying the bottom rung of the social ladder, no matter who arrives next, forever held down by the color of their skin and their slave past and forever complaining about it--with absolute justification.  I'm sure I'm forgetting a few prominent groups, but that gives you a fair sampling of the diversity of the region.  Amid all these folks are people of non-Spanish Western European heritage--Jewish and gentile--who make up at most a third of the total population, though a much greater percentage of the financially and politically powerful.  They're called Anglos.

As with any area that brings together people of many recently-abandoned nationalities, people here tend to complain about each other, to mistrust others outside their own families or ethnic groups, and to consider themselves innately superior to, if not everybody else, then at least someone else.  That's standard human behavior, it seems.  Cubans look down on Mexicans and Mexicans look down on Central Americans; Chinese and Japanese look down on Vietnamese and Cambodians; European immigrants look down on Latinos and Asians of all kinds; blacks from Africa or the Caribbean, as well as just about everyone from anywhere else, look down on African Americans; Israelis and Persians and Anglos look down on everybody.

Newcomers, from whichever direction they have arrived here, also tend to believe that they should probably have been the last persons allowed to come into the United States, and that the doors should henceforth be shut to any more latecomers.  This has been going on in the US for a long time, going back to when the original white Anglo-Saxon Protestants were beset by influxes of Irish, Chinese, and then Southern and Eastern Europeans.  It is amazing how quickly this desire to exclude others begins to prevail among new immigrants and their children.  Identification with, and aspiration to belong to, the dominant elements of social and economic power in the country tends to trump (pardon the pun) any leftover sympathy and identification with our sad histories in whatever old countries we traveled from, leaving only nostalgia for grandma's cooking and for grandpa's folk songs.  America is, above all, a land of new birth.

All of which leads to one basic point.  This is no country for old men or old ideas.  We are a land that has been forever populated by newcomers, almost always looking for a better deal than whatever deal we left behind.  No one who came here came on a winning streak.  Some, perhaps, would have preferred to stay put but for the fact that they weren't wanted, or couldn't make a decent living, or couldn't be free, or hated the government, or were hated by it.  But they had to leave.

First, thousands of years ago, it was the central Asians who were driven through Siberia and into our land for reasons that have become obscure.  But we know one thing: they didn't want to, or couldn't, stay where they were.  Then, half a millennium ago, people came from the other direction for all those reasons.  Not because they were fat and happy and secure and in charge where they were, but because they weren't any of those things.  Today, they come from all directions at once.  But always for the same reasons.  This phenomenon isn't new, and we can't pretend that it is, nor should we.  Other countries may have the dubious luxury of identifying themselves with their ancient and mythological pasts, but we do not.  The Western Hemisphere was been populated by wanderers and escapees, not by persons chosen by God to live here.  Today the US exists as a nation because many other parts of the world are worse places to live.  Having moved here out of necessity or opportunism, we can't decide that the necessity and opportunity no longer exist for others. We have tried to lock the gates, but have never permanently succeeded in doing so.  Immigration quotas have existed and still do exist, biased in favor of the whiter and less foreign-looking and grubby of our world neighbors, but they will always be subject to challenge and will be brought back into line by the better angels of our national nature.

And there is no better way to round out this sentiment than with the sestet of the sonnet with which we began--both a rebuke to the European feudalism and intolerance of that time and an exhortation not to fall back into the same intolerance on this side of the ocean:

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips.  "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.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

The golden door, indeed.  In part, of course, Ms. Lazarus was referring to the often-cited belief by some that the streets of America were paved with gold.  Silly, but idealistic and tempting.  Paved they were, back in the late nineteenth century, but in horse shit and sewage, just like in the cities of the Old World.  In a metaphorical sense they were paved in the gold of opportunity, as rough and tumble as it was.  Work your ass off and you might, just might, get a little ahead, and out of perpetual peonage.  And if not you, then your children, or their children, which was a better hope than what you left behind.  Almost a century and a half later this is still what many folks hope for.  It's not a hell of a lot to want, but it is worth wanting for them.  The thing we have going for us isn't that life will necessarily be good for the immigrant, but that life will be a little better for the immigrant's children, and that the rest of us will be better for that.  If we shut the golden door now, we shut it on ourselves as well as those on the other side.  We lose our lifeblood and begin our decay.

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