Thursday, November 29, 2007

Understanding the American Mind

(My column from the Saipan Tribune, Nov 30)

America is a nation of immigrants. Almost everyone who lives on American soil traces their roots back to some poor foreigner who arrived on American shores, often with little more than a desire to purse a dream and a new life. Some, like my father, came with skills; many came with only determination. Most did not speak English. They came in waves, from around the world, and they continue to come. America became the great melting pot, each culture contributed its share to the culture of a new nation, while giving up parts of themselves to be a part of the new creation called America – a creation that continues.

The American Dream – that idea of limitless possibilities – of being able to succeed based on your own individual merit and effort – is a sacred idea in the American mind. It’s the story of the underdog, who against all odds, makes it: the guy who shows up at the dock day after day, to find work, doing anything, loading cargo, and who one day becomes the owner of the shipping line; the domestic cleaner who saves and invests her meager earnings, and before her death gives a gift of millions to a university; the kid from the ghetto who studies hard and becomes a brilliant scientist; the peanut farmer who becomes President.

These two ideas – a nation open to immigrants, and a land of dreams built by little people through hard work -- are intertwined, and deeply ingrained upon the American conscience. Any idea or act that somehow goes against these concepts strike a deep visceral chord. We cannot even begin to understand the federal policy makers until we understand these two concepts and their place in the American mind. The ideas have a history hundreds of years old in the American consciousness.

On the other hand, these two ideas are not so deeply ingrained here. In fact, in our recent history, the very ideas themselves are foreign to us. We have not had any significant immigration. Sure, we have contract workers, but not immigration in the sense of allowing people to put down roots and build for generations and to be a part of our society and government and culture. Unlike for most Americans, immigration is not part of our personal heritage.

Although life in the private sector rewards effort with success, the single largest employer – the government – relies to a large extent on a system of “who you know” rather than “what you know.” There are ceilings on advancement. And a new person in power can result in a complete change in your situation that has nothing to do with your merit. It’s the relationships that matter more. The icon of the immigrant who beats all odds to succeed, is not a dominant part of our family histories.

Thus the bewilderment with the federal perspective. We do everything we believe is required to protect our culture, which itself is not a dominant value of the ever-morphing American culture. We allow workers to enter, but not to immigrate. We pass laws that favor the hiring of our own ethnic group over others. We “reform” our labor laws, requiring aliens to exit periodically, for the expressly stated purpose of preventing them from growing roots and becoming part of the political landscape, the power base. It all makes perfect sense, and resonates with our core value of cultural preservation. We don't want to become politically alienated. We strive to protect our ethnic control over the institutions of power. But the American value and the local value smack hard against one another.

Never mind that in many ways, America is conflicted about immigration and race. The inconsistency does not negate the deep pride that many feel in having come from humble immigrant roots. And never mind that the aliens that are here didn’t arrive with promises of immigration. They have contributed greatly, and the American values seeks to find a home for them.

This is all worth bearing in mind when we sit at a table discussing issues with the representatives of the federal government. They are the sons and daughters of those immigrants who were once disenfranchised workers coming from a foreign land, and who entered America, whether literally or figuratively, beneath the lamp of the Statue of Liberty, on whose pedestal are carved these words:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”


The Saipan Blogger アンジェロ・ビラゴメズ said...

Well said.

I had a very similar conversation with Walt yesterday.

Basically, although we've decided on paper that we are to be a part of American, we still haven't decided in our hearts or minds.

Sean said...

While I agree with your conclusions about our national legacy of immigration, I think our country has at the same time had a rather conflicted relationship with immigrants. We've generally lionized the immigrants of the past (who are generally our own forebears) while looking with suspicion on the new arrivals. It goes all the way back to the Nativists and Know-Nothings of the mid-19th century, the Chinese Exclusion Acts, and is still present in todays loaded debates over the Mexican border.

In that sense I don't find the CNMI so different from the Mainland. The attitudes towards the alien workers here is virtually identical to the attitudes one sees towards Mexican migrant workers in the U.S.