A Yankee Notebook

November 23, 2015


MONTPELIER – Almost 400 years ago a group of disgruntled religious fundamentalists, fleeing persecution in England and cultural assimilation in the Netherlands, got lost on their way west across the Atlantic Ocean. Instead of landing somewhere along the coast of what’s now Connecticut as they’d planned, they wound up instead – in late autumn, no less, and without proper documents – in the wilderness on the west shore of what was later called Cape Cod Bay.

They’d been small farmers in England, but found themselves unprepared for conditions in New England’s winter woods. Their first structure, a mud-and-wattle “common house,” was barely a shelter from the cold. They had no way of obtaining food except through hunting, which they did as best they could with the rude firearms they’d brought with them.

The longtime residents of the coastal forests visited them only occasionally and suspiciously, for which they could hardly be blamed; they’d had interactions with white people before, many of which had ended in mayhem. But when they saw that the poorly equipped newcomers were actually starving – about half of them died that first winter – they brought them wild food and showed them how to find it themselves. In the spring, one of them, who’d been a slave in Europe for some years and thus spoke good English, showed them how to fertilize their poor, bony soil to raise a crop of what the new folks called “Indian corn.”

That first summer was relatively fruitful for the ragged survivors. Around harvest-time they invited their hosts to join in (and bring the meat for) a three-day celebration of God’s largesse to them. If any of their fervently expressed gratitude extended to the agents of their Creator’s grace, I’ve read no record of it.

Four hundred years later, their descendants, along with many would-be descendants who claim ancestry among the Mayflower pilgrims, and just plain old Americans – all of whom are descended from immigrants themselves – are faced with a new wave of political refugees at least as desperate and in pain as those early pilgrims. Their reactions have been limited pretty much to only two. At this point, since I count myself a great-grandson of immigrants, I’ll switch to the first person plural, and say that our reactions have been almost exclusively bipolar.

We Americans are suckers for highfaluting rhetoric, sentimental stories, and kittens and Golden Retriever puppies. Many of us learned to declaim the Gettysburg Address in high school; we’ve wept over Dumbo’s mother’s imprisonment; we love to watch YouTube videos of little animals of different species cuddling with each other. But give us news of the most recent terrorist attack on a Paris theater and show us a video of turban-clad, muffled ISIS warriors waving assault weapons in the air and crying, “Allahu akbar!” and what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” disappear instantly into the cloud of a red rage.

The next act of this sad little scenario involves finger-pointing: Whose fault is this?  For many, the President’s measured approach to the threat of terrorism is cowardice or weakness; to those who tend to support him, this smacks of preexisting racism. For many others, a photo of smiling Bush Administration members pinpoints the culprit. Finding “who’s to blame for this mess” is useless; it’s happening, and we never seem to learn from history, anyway. Not for nothing are we sometimes called the United States of Amnesia.

What seems most important to me is how we, a nation of immigrants celebrating this week that first harvest feast of thanksgiving, react to the new pressure of present-day immigrants seeking refuge, as well as to the threat of further attacks from terrorists radicalized by events in the Middle East. I have several fairly right-wing acquaintances who regularly post tough-cookie rhetoric. One recent example: An unflattering photo of President Obama above the threat, “Dear ISIS, When we finally get rid of this poor excuse for a public servant, we’re going to be paying a few house calls on you.”  I responded by asking whether by “we” they meant themselves, or rather some young folks with no choice in the matter. No answer yet.

In our former church, during the run-up to Christmas, we used to celebrate Las Posadas. The term means “lodging.”  It’s a ritual, celebrated nowadays mostly in Mexico, in which a desperate young couple looking for shelter, knocks at several doors (in church, on the ends of pews) asking for some place to stay. They’re turned away time after time, until at the last chance, they’re told that there’s room – if they don’t mind the stable.

I’m delighted that the Governor of Vermont stepped forward so quickly to volunteer that his state would welcome Syrian refugees; I’m equally delighted that his announcement shook the bugs out of the bedding: folks who say that either we can’t afford another penny to support anyone else, or that we need to take care of our homeless veterans first, or that we’ll all be killed by the bad guys hiding among the legitimate refugees.

If you’re looking for logic or actuarial sense here, you won’t find it. Far more Americans are slain by domestic, white gunmen than have ever been killed by aliens. Playing on constituents’ irrational fears, as many of our congresspersons are at the moment, betrays ignorance of what our national rhetoric claims we are – the Statue of Liberty weeps – and ignores that all of us are descendants of intrinsic others who were once welcomed in and given a seat at the table.

Photo by Willem lange