Sunday, January 22, 2017

First They Came for the Mexicans...

This weekend, while many of the more thoughtful people in the world were gathering in their millions to demonstrate their commitment to the principles of equality and freedom, I was planting seeds in my garden in the hope that they would germinate into manifestations of hope that would sustain me through the confusion of the next few months.

Bill Bramhall - Cartoon in response to Trump's announcement that he would deny entrance to Muslim immigrants - New York Daily News, December 7, 2015

As I worked the soil, I was pondering something Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in 1938 to the Daughters of the American Revolution, a nativist group of women who trace their ancestry to the founding fathers. Today it seems particularly apropos: "Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists."

Thomas Nast - "The Chinese Question" - Harper's Weekly, 1871

If I investigate my family tree, I guess I have as much right to be a belligerent nativist as any white American. I have at least one direct ancestor (Francis Cooke) who arrived with the Pilgrims on the famously cramped and miserable voyage of the Mayflower in 1620, not to mention John Winthrop, who became Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629, and Pieter Claesen Wyckoff, a 12-year-old indentured laborer who arrived in 1637 and later became one of the founders of Brooklyn (his house still stands on Clarendon Road in Flatbush, the oldest surviving structure in New York City).

Fred Packer - Cartoon about the turning away of 900 Jewish refugees on the SS St. Louis - New York Daily News, 1939

Over the years, these early birds in my genealogy were joined by a slew of unpopular German and English Protestants (who intermarried occasionally with French or Polish heretics of one stripe or another) looking for a place where they could be free, prosper and procreate. Finally, the Irish Catholics and Swedish Lutherans showed up to the party, fleeing famine and oppression on a perilous journey to our shores in the late 1800s.

Thomas Nast - "Every Dog (No Distinction of Color) Has His Day" - Harper's Weekly, 1879
The truth is that unless we can identify as Native Americans, whose ancestors crossed the Bering Land Bridge and adapted to the demands of this continent 20,000 years before the Europeans arrived to virtually exterminate them, we are all immigrants. Who are we to judge the imperiled migrants who arrive on our shores, regardless of their religion or circumstances? Our ancestors were just like them, considered dirty, ignorant, heretical and dangerous by the people who happened to arrive here before them. Many of them were debtors or criminals, and a vast number of them were forced to come here against their will. Nearly every wave of new immigrants was greeted with fear and derision, as evidenced by these political cartoons.

Thomas Nast - "The Chinese Question" (detail) - Harper's Weekly, 1882
Even our newly installed Dear Leader is the son of an impoverished foreign worker named Mary Ann Macleod, who arrived here from Scotland in 1930 with $50 in her pocket, hoping to find work as a servant, and the grandson of Friedrich Trump, who came from Germany to seek his fortune in 1885 at the age of 16—though he pretended to be Swedish throughout his life to avoid negative stereotypes about Germans that might impact his business. Young Trump found work in Manhattan as a barber before venturing west to seek his fortune during the Gold Rush, cleverly choosing to separate prospectors from their gold in various mercantile enterprises, including a few brothels. Seems like the apple doesn't fall far from the tree! One might also say that the tree's roots are only a few inches deep.

George Keller - "The Chinese Must Go, But Who Keeps Them?" - The Wasp, 1878
So united we must stand, because that is literally the bedrock of our society. We are a nation of hardscrabble, down-on-their-luck immigrants, built on the tenet that every human being has the right to strive for success, regardless of their background or beliefs. That's all anyone coming to our shores is asking for—a fair chance to make their way in the world on their own terms. Our nation must continue to be a beacon of hope to the world, a "shining city on a hill," to quote Very-Great Granddad John Winthrop (via President Reagan, using the phrase in his farewell address), who wrote those words aboard the Arbella en route to the New World, envisioning the society he would build there. As a nation, we have often fallen short of that mark, but it remains the aspiration and foundation of this great American experiment.

Thomas Nast - "Which Color Is To Be Tabooed Next?" - Harper's Weekly, 1882

So never forget that your ancestors were a bunch of badass, devil-may-care, stick-it-to-the-man rabble-rousers, dissenters and revolutionaries who were prepared to lay everything they had on the line for a chance at liberty and opportunity. The least we can do is stand as a bulwark against the erosion of the principles that made that freedom possible. 

"First they came for the Socialists, 
and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Socialist. 
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, 
and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist. 
Then they came for the Jews, 
and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Jew. 
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak for me."
-- Martin Niemöller

Thomas Nast - "The Union as it Was" - Harper's Weekly, 1874

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