Towards A Good Samaritan World

Monday, July 04, 2005

FOURTH OF JULY WEEKEND

My wife and I rented a car this weekend and traveled a bit around Washington, DC in the mid-Atlantic states.

The first day we took with us a Russian, a Hungarian and a Spaniard. All of them are here on an exchange program, working in a Girl Scout camp in western Virginia. They spend their weeks at canoeing, archery, singing camp songs, and so forth. It sounds fun. (My wife was jealous.) All of them speak English adequately, but none of them really well. It leaves me reflecting on how splendid is labor mobility. Why does the Girl Scout camp bring in foreigners? No doubt it's because it's hard to find enough Americans to fill the job-- even though it sounds like a fairly fun job. For the camp, it's cheap labor; for the foreigners, it's a chance to travel, improve their English, broaden their life experiences; for the girls, it's a fun few days in the wild; and for the parents, it's a couple of days off from parenting and at the same time a way to express parental love. I was struck by how remarkable and wonderful the whole situation is, that we have a chance to benefit others by benefiting ourselves. And to think that some people look askance at the whole situation, wanting to close the borders?

Patriotism for me is tied to the melting pot, the Statue of Liberty, and immigration. When people oppose immigration in the name of patriotism, of course, you wonder whether they really love their own country or merely hate other countries, which is not patriotism; but I'll go further than that. I think that either it is impossible both to be a patriot and to oppose immigration and that those who claim they are and do are lying (perhaps to themselves); or at any rate that how patriotism and opposition to immigration are compatible is a mystery which I have little interest in understanding.

If you love this country, if you think this country is great, if you're excited about this country, wouldn't you want to spread the word, and to let others see it and experience it? If you see a great film, you tell your friends to go see it too? It's the same with my country: I want to spread the word! I think it was great to spend Fourth of July weekend in the car with four foreigners (my wife is Russian) seeing the American land with fresh eyes, their minds filling up with impressions that will color the word "America" for the rest of their lives.

And never forget that America is at least in one respect what the Pilgrims hoped it would become: we are a city on a hill, the whole world is watching, more than ever. Our movies, TV and popular music are watched and heard worldwide. I've heard American music played over radios from Africa to China to Moscow almost to Mongolia. But now, what with the global currency of the English language and the internet and the blogosphere, people are exposed to our culture through the written word as well, in a more diverse, abundant, and immediate fashion than ever before. We may justly take pride in that, but it also means more people want to come here. Pilgrimage, the desire to stand upon the soil where great things have been said and done, is an impulse natural to the human condition. Would Islam have maintained its hold on the hearts and minds of people from Jakarta to Casablanca, from Kazan to Djibouti, for so many centuries, if the rulers of Arabia had blocked the pilgrimage to Mecca? Nor should we expect the faith of liberal-democratic modernity to maintain its sway if we slam the door in the faces of those who would pay us homage. It's no coincidence that the history's bloodiest war, and the most dangerous moment for America, came two decades after the illiberal Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which restricted immigration from any country to 3% of those already living here.

Of course, you might love this country and fear it cannot survive an influx of immigrants. But if you believe this country is so weak that the arrival of a few million willing workers will somehow cause it to collapse, is that patriotism? To be a patriot is to love this country, yes, but also to believe in it. A patriot believes that our ideals are persuasive enough, our culture magnetic and rich enough, our economy robust and resilient enough, that immigrants will willingly learn and absorb American culture, that their children will become Americans with their blessing. And this hardly requires a leap of faith, for history resoundingly reaffirms it: already tens of generations bear witness to America's ability to assimilate immigrants. All around him the linguistically sophisticated patriot recognizes German, Slavic, and Italian surnames, etymological evidence of an awesome historical event-- the creation of Americans from foreigners, usually in one generation or less, on a massive scale, unprecedented in all the history of mankind-- for which there is no evidence in speech, dress, musical taste, often even in religion, but only in the consonants and vowels of the surname. Indeed, nowadays, the guardians of cultures beyond the sea are frightened that their youngsters will assimilate to the American way even without immigrating! The nativist who hears Spanish spoken in the grocery store and pays credence to grim prophecies about unassimilated minorities spoiling the national culture falls short in understanding history, but above all, he falls short in understanding America. Opponents of immigration like Pat Buchanan and Samuel Huntingdon want to protect America because they believe America is in decline. The only way these men will turn out to be right is in the manner of self-fulfilling prophecies.

And to the extent that they, deliberately or not, maintain some of their culture and traditions and resist assimilation in some ways, they will add to the rich tapestry of sub-cultures that makes up American life. Which brings me to the Amish. My wife and I and the three foreigners drove left DC and set sail on America's mighty highways, gradually extricated ourselves from the city, and after a while we found ourselves drifting through the alternating cornfields and forests of south-eastern Pennsylvania. Our destination was Lancaster County, home of the Amish. We bought potato roles and tomatoes and went on a horse-and-buggy ride through a farm, and the driver told us about the country.

"95% of the farms around here are Amish," he told us. He explained that the Amish make their money from milk, and the corn we saw growing around us was feed for the animals. "You'd go broke" if you just raised and sold corn, he explained in answer to my question. "The Amish are just like everyone else except their religion tells them certain things they can't do. Technologies came along and the Amish had to say yes or no. Some they said yes, some no." They can use engines on a plough, for example, if it's pulled by a horse. "Cars were seen as too individualistic. They can ride public transit because you're with other people, there's accountability..." (no doubt I paraphrase slightly...)

Our driver was raised as an Amish himself. He left when he was fifteen, because he came to believe that "salvation is a free gift," as opposed to the Amish, who try to achieve salvation through a way of life that helps them avoid sin. How many leave, we asked. "10%," he said. And he had more stories about that. "A lot of Amish boys-- not the girls-- will get together and party [in their teens]... Some will own a car, and they'll drive on the weekends. Their parents let them because if they tell Johnny he can't, he'll leave, and be lost. Sooner or later he'll fall in love with an Amish girl, and leave all that behind." Amish youth also congregate in Florida during spring break. "They'll all go to one place, from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illionis, Indiana, Missouri. And sometimes a boy and a girl will meet and marry, and lead a normal [Amish] life, and you'll never know..."

What's strange is that while the Amish are almost the paradigm case of an unassimilated immigrant group, still speaking a dialect of German at home-- and since they use High Geman in church services they actually use three languages-- they embody a hatful of American traditions. Like the Pilgrims, like the Quakers, they came here to practice their religion. To practice their religion in community, please note, and this should color the traditional statement that people came here for "religious freedom." "The Old Order Amish are the only ones that are growing," our driver explained. "They've doubled over the last twenty years. They're growing because they shun. The New Order Amish don't shun, so their children leave. Shunning just means they can't eat at table with you. They won't disown you." But apparently that's enough. This is religious freedom; but it is not exactly religious tolerance; rather, it is non-violence, the doctrine of "no coercion in religion," and, more than that, no coercion whatsoever.

And yet the Amish no doubt sell their milk to the nearby Hershey company, and we eat it in our chocolate bars. "Be ye separate," the Amish believe, and yet they are bound up in this great country, America.

Hershey, Pennsylvania was where we went next. We learned about Milton Hershey.

Milton Hershey turned Swiss milk chocolate, then a luxury item, into a good for mass consumption. Democratic capitalism in America does not mean merely that a democratic form of government is affixed to a capitalist economy. Capitalism itself is deeply, potently democratic. John Kerry boasts that he will give you a health care plan as good as what your senator enjoys. If elected to do so, he would have made the health system grotesquely expensive, ballooned the federal budget, cause widespread rationing in the health system, raised taxes, etc. But Milton Hershey says, "I'll give the common man chocolate as good as what the plutocrats eat," and then he does it. Indeed, maybe there's another connection to the Amish here, besides that he's buying their milk; like an ambitious Democratic senatorial windbag, Hershey wanted to deliver to the common man something that only the well-off then enjoyed, but he wanted to deliver it without resorting to coercion.

Hmm. Must return rental car. Patriotic travelogue will have to wait...

3 Comments:

  • A great post, Lancelot, and a superb fit for the occasion.

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