Friday, October 23, 2009

"Traditional" Americans

In their lifetimes, they have seen their Christian faith purged from schools their taxes paid for, and mocked in movies and on TV. . . .They have seen trillions of tax dollars go for Great Society programs, but have seen no Great Society, only rising crime, illegitimacy, drug use and dropout rates. . . .

They see Wall Street banks bailed out as they sweat their next paycheck, then read that bank profits are soaring, and the big bonuses for the brilliant bankers are back. Neither they nor their kids ever benefited from affirmative action, unlike Barack and Michelle Obama.

They see a government in Washington that cannot balance its books, win our wars or protect our borders. The government shovels out trillions to Fortune 500 corporations and banks to rescue the country from a crisis created by the government and Fortune 500 corporations and banks.

America was once their country. They sense they are losing it. And they are right.

That was Pat Buchanan recently. What some folks on the left see in this guy, I'll never know. Buchanan articulates the feelings of a lot of downwardly mobile white folk that "their" country is slipping through their fingers.

I must begin with a confession.
I am white, as white as white can get. My French ancestors probably came down from Quebec into eastern Kentucky in the early 19th century. My most recent immigrant ancestors are from Germany, refugees in 1849 from the collapse of the 1848 revolution. I have sterling WASP credentials including English ancestors who took Manhattan from the Dutch, and who fought at Saratoga in the Revolutionary War. Another was a Baptist preacher who rode the circuit between Long Island and New Jersey, and was a pioneering Abolitionist in the late 18th century. During the Revolutionary War, he was jailed because he refused to swear loyalty to the new republic because it tolerated slavery. My ancestors were all northwest European from France, Germany, England, and the Netherlands.

I do not feel particularly privileged by any of this. As far as I am concerned, these are accidents of history, biographical details of interest only to me, and not cause for any extra points. I've never felt that this was "my" America to lose. I don't feel like I'm "losing" anything these days. If anything, quite the contrary. Of course, there is that little detail of my sexuality and the experiences that come with it certainly affect how I look at things. If anything, so many of the transformations that Buchanan and his readers fear, I welcome. I've waited for so many of these changes for a lifetime. The rapid demise of legal and religious segregation against my kind, though far from complete, is already much more than I ever expected to live to see. Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite made dramatic strides in my lifetime. Why should I feel nostalgic for the days when some professions were for "women" and paid "women's wages?" Why should I miss the childhood experience of cafeterias with signs that said "We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone?" And we all knew who "anyone" meant. Why should I regret whole new populations entering into public life and history to leave their mark and to make their contribution? Segregation wasn't just wrong, it was a waste of talent. What was there to miss? That white man's paradise of the 1950s was a house built on the sands of segregation.

Was this country ever really anyone's to lose? I think we should refer that question to people like Red Cloud, Chief Joseph, Cochise, Crazy Horse, Quanah Parker, and Geronimo. They did indeed lose a country.

I've always thought it appropriate somehow that the founding myth of New York City is a real estate swindle. And who were the first people to settle in what would become New York? The Dutch, Africans (free and unfree), and Jews from Brazil fleeing the Inquisition. The Anglo Saxons didn't arrive until much later. Who were the first people to settle in Texas? They were all people like Jose Antonio Navarro.

During the first Gilded Age, the Spanish American War was fought by an all volunteer military made up primarily of immigrants. In this second Gilded Age, the two current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are being fought by an all volunteer military made up of a lot of immigrants, including non-citizens.

And who was among the first American soldiers to die in the Iraq War? From the website "Honor the Fallen":

By Martin Kasindorf
USA Today

LOS ANGELES — One of the first U.S. servicemen killed in combat in Iraq was not a citizen of the country for which he sacrificed his life.

Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez, 22, a rifleman with the Marines, died in a firefight March 21 near Umm Qasr.

Born in Guatemala, Gutierrez held permanent U.S. resident status, which he obtained in 1999.

At 14, with his parents dead, Gutierrez followed the path of 700,000 of his countrymen to California. He made the 2,000-mile journey from his Guatemala City neighborhood without entry papers. He hopped 14 freight trains to get through Mexico. U.S. immigration authorities detained him.

Fernando Castillo, Guatemala’s consul general in Los Angeles, says the United States doesn’t deport Guatemalan minors who arrive without family. Gutierrez was made a ward of Los Angeles Juvenile Court. He was placed in a series of group homes and foster families. He learned English and finished high school.

When he reached 18, he got residency documents, Castillo said.

Marcelo Mosquera, a machinist from Ecuador, and his wife, Nora, were the last couple that sheltered the lanky teenager. They cared for two younger foster children, as well, at their home in suburban Lomita, said Hector Tobar, a family friend.

Neighbors told the Los Angeles Times that Gutierrez acted as the big brother, taking the younger kids to the nearby McDonald’s.

Tobar said Gutierrez talked of becoming an architect but put college plans on hold to join the Marine Corps a year ago. Jackie Baker, the Mosqueras’ adult daughter, told Spanish-language KVEA-TV here that Gutierrez “wanted to give the United States what the United States gave to him. He came with nothing. This country gave him everything.”

The U.S. Embassy notified Gutierrez’s older sister, his only surviving relative, of his death. He will be buried in Guatemala at her request, Castillo said.

_ The Associated Press contributed to this report

My French ancestors left Quebec fleeing poverty. They certainly didn't have any immigration papers. My German ancestors were kids, barely 19 years old on a ship from Danzig, unmarried with an infant son. They arrived to hostile neighbors and the kindness of Methodist missionaries at the South Street Seaport in New York in 1849. One of my English ancestors was a ne'er-do-well fleeing gambling debts in London.

Today's immigrants from Asia, the Americas, and Africa all have similar, but even more dramatic, stories to tell about overcoming worse hardships and greater hostility (see the obituary for Jose Gutierrez above).

Let's face it fellow white folks, none of us are royalty. Our shit stinks like everyone else's. Our ancestors' stories aren't much different from theirs.


June Butler said...

Counterlight, you're white all right. I'll vouch for that. Yes, we poor Christians. Why it's almost like the Inquisition for us!

I see why Pat's words resonate with the downtrodden, but he's wrong to pit them against minorities who have been successful. I don't see why MSNBC puts up with his racism, as though its acceptable opinion for a major cable news channel.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Very moving story about the fallen Gutierrez! And sad, so sad. Remember the words on the statue of Liberty: Give me you poor, your downtrodden...