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Friday, June 16, 2017

Idealism, Illusion, And Image–Spoiled Americans And The Sane Realism Of Immigrants

Italians who migrated to the United States in the late 1800s had lived as serfs on arid, unproductive land in the Mezzogiorno. There was neither myth nor fantasy in that existence; nothing but hard untillable land, exacting landlords, a punitive social system, and an unforgiving Church.  It was no wonder they sailed to America, for anything had to be better than this.

Those who came from Abruzzi, Puglia, and Calabria and sailed from Naples on the long crossing to New York had hopes but little fantasy.  At best America offered opportunity, but the stories coming from relatives already there were ones of tenements, factories, and cold.  Still this was enough.  The factory floor was an improvement over the plow and mule; and tenements far better than the feudal villages far behind the reforms of the Risorgimento.

It is difficult for Americans today to imagine the conditions of Southern Italy in the late 19th century, nor that of the Atlantic passage, nor the sense of dislocation and loss when immigrants realized that the Lower East Side – cold, crowded, dirty, and indifferent – would be their home forever.  As harsh as life in Abruzzi might have been, at least there was family, community, and the church.

Adaptation – survival – depended on clan and region.  Like found like.  New Haven became the home for Italians from Sorrento.  Arthur Avenue, Mulberry Street, Bensonhurst, and Pleasant Avenue in New York became sub-regional neighborhoods organized by native origin (Calabria, Puglia, and Abruzzi).  The Church and social clubs provided community; the Mafia offered protection, loans, and favors. 

Mulberry Street, New York CityPhotograph by Jacob A. Riis, Mulberry Street, Detroit Publishing Company

Everyone in an immigrant family worked.  Young boys swept barbershop floors; girls helped with sewing and laundry.  Older siblings worked in factories, warehouses, or shipyards as laborers.  Few immigrants left the ghetto, and only few first generation men.  Yet by the second generation, Italian Americans were by-and-large assimilated, and no different in profession, residence, or preferences than any Anglo-Saxon.

Immigrants today – recent campaign rhetoric notwithstanding – are no different.  The civil chaos, war, and social disruption in El Salvador, Nicaragua, or Guatemala was far worse than anything in Southern Italy in the 1880s.  Migrants fled for their lives not just for a better life.  Feeling lucky to have escaped the violence and slaughter of civil war, they happily took low-wage jobs that native Americans were unwilling to take - agricultural laborers, domestics, gardeners, construction workers, and dishwashers.

Image result for images salvadoran civil war

The economies of Washington, DC, Houston, Dallas, New York, and Los Angeles would collapse without them.

Whether Italians from Puglia or Salvadorans from San Miguel, immigrants to America had no illusions about what awaited them.  ‘Streets paved with gold’ was a romantic Hollywood version of the immigrant expectations.  Italians and Salvadorans knew that any life had to be better than the one they were leaving; that life everywhere for the poor is always short, nasty, and brutish; but that life in America offered opportunity.  The match between ambition and possibility was perfect.  It took courage, risk, fearlessness, and desire to leave home forever.

If there is any common nature of new immigrants to America or  any shared value it is this - ambition, discipline, hard work, optimism, and principle.

Which is why it is surprising that American society seems to have drifted so far from these foundational ideas.  How the culture of entitlement bred and encouraged by paternalism and facilitated by government interventionism every took hold is a mystery for those whose memory of their immigrant ancestors is still very much alive.

Somehow the hope, optimism, enterprise, and ambition of the old Italians or newer Salvadoran refugees  have largely disappeared.  Whether in children from privileged white upper-middle class families or those from the inner-city ghetto, unrealistic assumptions persist.  Their rise or fall has to do less with their own enterprise, ability, and responsibility than it does with that of others.  White children are obsessively raised, idealistically judged, and nurtured within a highly-selective, culturally homogeneous environment.  Black children are taught that racism, white privilege, and elitism are the causes of persistent poverty and social dysfunction.

Most culturally telling, however, is the free-form fantasy of modern America.  We have become ignorant of what the old Italians knew was historical imperative – the permanent fixtures of life.  They might have fled the Mezzogiorno, but knew exactly what awaited them in America.  No matter how successful, they understood that no one can ever be totally loosed from human nature or free from the demands of family, society, and country. Nothing is ever given, much is taken, and survival is no different than it ever was.

Hollywood, Las Vegas, arm candy, and making it big are still – despite the evidence to the contrary – not only American dreams but American reality.   The spectacular rise of Donald Trump is the most recent expression of this idealistic optimism. 

Image result for images las vegas by night

Trump is a vaudevillian, a carny barker, an outsized caricature of American success.  Because of  his glamour, beautiful women, yachts, planes, and mansion – not his political savvy, principles, policies, or experience -  he had to become president.  Ordinary Americans who persistently dismiss the notion of permanence, caste, and the irrevocable Italian sense of fate and destiny, really believed that a man of glitzy image, outrage, and good old American bluster could actually change things.

Myths are self-serving and –perpetuating.  It doesn’t take long for immigrants, no matter how cynical about human nature and society, to quickly join the mainstream.  Fluidity, impossible optimism, and the power of image, speech and social posture become their by-words.  Life is not as they had thought back in Italy – circumscribed, universally harsh and unremitting – but surprisingly diverse.
Membership in American clans – LGBT, ethnic, progressive, environmental, charismatic, socially engaged – and celebration of their community defer the obvious, unavoidable, reality of fixed place and time.  However limited we may be in social mobility, intelligence, or economic potential, we are at full throttle among equally idealistic peers.

Image result for images lgbt flag

America was always an attraction for Europeans who, while enthusiastically endorsing traditional culture, civilization, and high art, really wanted to be free from the demands of the Old World, things done a certain way, doing what is expected, universal respect for lineage, family, and intellectual privilege.  Freedom in America had little to do with speech, assembly, and religion, but doing whatever. 

This old guard found that such loosed moorings came at a price.  With no anchor in something absolute – philosophy, religion, morality – or no purpose other than freewheeling what was the point?
Much has been made of the divisions within American society today.  While true enough on the surface, the reality beneath is far different.  We are all one, deeply American, and unchanged since our ancestors stepped off the boat.  Despite our cries for individual identity, we are insubstantial.  We neither have the determinist philosophy of the immigrant nor the aristocrat’s belief in a higher order of things. 

At best we are Optimists; but optimism without a realistic foundation from which to progress is fantastical idealism.

Let ‘em in!  Immigrants provide us with sanity, realism, and principle we desperately need.

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