»  The Straggler, No. 42

May 8th, 2006

  The Future Comes Apace


Watching those demonstrations for "immigrant rights," it occurred to me that we are the fools of the world. Americans labored and fought to create the freest, richest, most generous society that ever existed. Having done so, we threw open the doors and said to the rest of humanity: "Come on in and join the party!" In they duly came. We supposed that they'd be grateful for our generosity. Some of them were; many others laughed at our foolishness. We supposed that, seeing what a splendid thing Americans had made, they would want to absorb themselves in that thing, to become part of it. Some did; many others preferred the customs and language they were used to. Since they were so many, and we had adopted an ethos of "equal respect for all cultures" and "celebrating diversity," they found it easy to maintain their ways while ignoring ours.

We reacted to these negative responses in the way we have taught ourselves to react to any negative developments in our society that touch on matters of culture: by burying our heads in sentimental myths and feel-good platitudes, and by blaming ourselves for not being kind enough. They are hard-working people! They are doing jobs we won't do! Enriching our national fabric! We are a nation of immigrants! Remember Ellis Island! All human beings everywhere wish for the same things! Family values don't stop at the Rio Grande! Anyone who dissents from this script is turned on savagely, read out of the society of decent people, and consigned to the place of wailing and gnashing of teeth. Bigot! Nativist! Racist!

If logic had any place in this situation, and words were being used in their dictionary meanings, I ought to have been pleased by the marches — been out there marching, in fact. Weren't the marchers agitating for "immigrant rights"? Yes, they were, according to our major media outlets. And am I not myself an immigrant? Yes, I am. So what's the matter with me? Don't I want to have any rights? But of course, the marches were not about "immigrant rights" at all. I have lived in this nation as a citizen, as a resident alien, and even as an illegal immigrant, and, call me obtuse, but in all these years it never occurred to me that I was being denied any rights.

What were the demonstrations really about? Here in New York, where the demonstrators included many South and East Asians, as well as Latin Americans and blacks from Africa and the Caribbean, and a scattering of Irish, it was an appeal for illegal immigrants to be given residency — the fabulous Green Card (it is actually pink), leading to citizenship. That was also the major element elsewhere; but in the South and West the marchers seemed — I am judging from the TV coverage — to be much more solidly Latin American, and there was a much stronger feeling of racial solidarity about the marches. As well there might have been, seeing that a principal organizer of the events was the Hispanic group called La Raza, which means "the race." Many Americans watching must have had the thought I had: That this nation already has a race problem, the one it was born with, and that we must ever strive to do our best to solve; but that we would be fools to import a second one. Such fools we apparently are.

The striking characteristics of Americans, to the rest of the world, are our niceness, and our desire that our country be admired as much as we ourselves admire it. Bertrand Russell, traveling in America for the first time in 1896, noted with amusement how Americans would ask: "How do you like our country?" To his old-world ears, Russell said, it was as if someone were to ask: "How do you like my wife?" No English (or French, or Chinese) person cares whether or not foreigners like England (or France, or China); but there is something in the national character of the U.S.A. hungry for approval, for acceptance, for admiration, for love. Immigration plays right into this. What greater compliment can you pay to a nation than to uproot yourself in order to go live there? Some Americans, watching those demonstrations, saw a hundred thousand insults to our sovereignty and laws. Some other Americans saw a hundred thousand compliments. "You like me, you really like me!"

Shakespeare wrote a play called Timon of Athens, about a wealthy man who was exceedingly generous with his wealth. This generosity naturally attracted a lot of worthless hangers-on. Timon basked in their flattery. At last his generosity bankrupted him, and he fell into debt. The first news of the disaster is brought to Timon by his steward. Timon has some trouble grasping the fact.

Timon   Let all my land be sold.
Steward   'Tis all engaged, some forfeited and gone;
And what remains will hardly stop the mouth
Of present dues. The future comes apace;
What shall defend the interim? and at length
How goes our reck'ning?
Timon   To Lacedaemon did my land extend.
Steward   O my good lord, the world is but a word;
Were it all yours to give it in a breath,
How quickly were it gone!

Timon gets the point. Still, he is confident he can save the situation by borrowing from all those friends he made with his lavish gifts, arguing that they must surely remember his high-minded generosity.

Unwisely, not ignobly, have I given.

Of course, when they learn of his situation, his "friends" all shun him. Nobody will lend him a dime. His nobility of spirit counts for nothing. Timon turns misanthrope, and goes off to live in a cave in the woods, raging against humanity.

Unwisely, not ignobly, have we given. Perhaps, if we can spare a little time from congratulating ourselves on our nobility, and basking in the flattery of streets full of foreigners waving our country's flag, we might try to acquire some wisdom.