February 5, 2018
MONTPELIER – I was reflecting the other evening, as I watched the Superbowl game with a bunch of friends, upon the names that popped up as Tom Brady tried in vain to pass his way out of a tough situation. Cooks, Amendola, Gronkowski, Hogan, and two others no longer out there, Edelman and Welker. It’s a regular United Nations in Patriots Receiverland – what our grade-school textbooks used to call, not without pride, “a melting pot.” It was impossible for me not to reflect further on the receptions that many of those players’ ancestors encountered when they arrived here. We children of immigrants – meaning all of us – have from the earliest days of our sojourn here been generally unwelcoming, hostile, and even murderous to others attempting to follow in our ancestors’ footsteps. We seem to have an image of a person we label “us,” and often resist efforts to incorporate folks who arrive here from foreign countries, speak languages we don’t, are of a different skin color, and follow different religions.
Native Americans, themselves immigrants, though of a much earlier time, were ultimately powerless against the European newcomers seeking freedom from monarchy, castes, oppression, conscription, and religious establishment. Even as the new immigrants murdered and pushed the natives into ever smaller enclaves, those freedom-seekers codified proper behavior, punished those who rebelled, and found ways to profit by the exercise of their authority. Ever wonder why Quebec, a fairly uniformly Francophonic province, has so many Anglican churches and English speakers in its Eastern Townships? The Anglophones are the descendants of American Loyalists whose property was taken or destroyed by patriots during the American Revolution, and who fled north for their lives. Their church went with them, and is still there. The property they were forced to leave was awarded to worthy revolutionaries and profiteers. In the words of a much later Tammany Hall pol, “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.”
Immigration wasn’t a problem for most Americans until the mid-1800s, the increasingly stressful and contentious period leading up to the Civil War. Ireland was struck suddenly, in 1845, by a devastating potato blight complicated by oppressive English laws and exploitation. Over one million Irish starved to death, and a million more emigrated, mostly to the United States. By coincidence, that was the era in which railroads were expanding, eclipsing canals, and there was lots of hard and low-paying work available. The Irish, Roman Catholics almost to a man, were restricted to poor parts of whatever towns in which they settled. There are stories of help-wanted handbills reading, “No Irish Need Apply.” Tip O’Neill and Ted Kennedy both claimed to have seen them, but there’s no evidence they existed. The Irish, meantime, left us songs we sang in summer camp 100 years later, “Patsy Ory Ory Aye” and “I Been Workin’ on the Railroad.” They became policemen, judges, politicians, and finally, when the stigma of Catholicism had been somewhat muted, even a president.
My folks came over a bit later, but still before federal immigration laws had been enacted. My older daughter’s been browsing sites I can’t imagine opening. She’s come up with: Wilhelm August Lange was born on August 10, 1859. He had three sons with Anna Johanna Brendel between 1882 and 1887. He died as a young father on March 19, 1887, at the age of 27. He probably left from Hamburg, Germany. His widow was our nanny in the 1930s, and his son, a gentle, loving Christian, nevertheless bore in his heart a deep animus toward Catholics, Irishmen, and Democrats. To him they were Popist Johnny-come-latelies.
Other waves of immigrants have faced the same opprobrium. In May of 1889 a sporting club earth dam broke near Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The resulting flood destroyed the town and killed over 2200 people. I have a contemporary account in newsprint, once my mother’s and now delicate as tissue, which describes the cleanup of the damage: “In the river the rescuers are busy, and so are the Hungarians and native born thieves....The people, aroused by repeated outrages, are bitterly hounding the Hungarians...”
Xenophobia is, sadly, as common as cabbage; but in the current climate of devastating population displacement by escalating natural disasters and brutal civil wars, it is especially misbegotten. The United States symbol most famous around the world is the Statue of Liberty, with its promise engraved upon its base. But both our president and many of our representatives, with names to match those of the Patriots’ receiving corps, have chosen instead to play upon the worst instincts of the fearful among us.
The nation that so prides itself as the Land of the Free seems to have forgotten it’s also the Home of the Brave. Our military budget and passion for security and walls betray our true nature: Many of us are huddlers and haters, kicking at people trying to climb into our uncrowded lifeboat. The photograph of Vice-President Pence and his lily-white interns makes my skin crawl; while two hundred and some miles to our north, another leader declares, “Our strength is in our diversity.” So is ours, if only we’d realize it.