Friday, January 23, 2015

The Immigrants, Part I: The Germans

The more things change...

Growing up in Arizona, issues surrounding immigration have always been bubbling in the background - occasionally erupting onto the national stage. The arguments that get thrown around during those eruptions tend to follow familiar patterns. Any objective analysis of those arguments can see that the root cause of the controversy is always about the same thing: Fear of the Other. Whether the specific conversation is about trade, possibility of war, or even policies based in outright racism, the arguments revolve around the definition of the divide between  "Us" and "Them".

Growing up in the 1980s & 1990s, there was also an ever-present, underlying tension between two cultures living side by side and vying for the right to define who "Us" and "Them" might be. The first was the inclusive, celebratory culture of the post-1960s; these were the people who came of age during the Civil Rights era and who embraced the notion of the "melting pot". Their attitudes were evident in the school curricula I remember from early public school days and in the PBS children's programming (especially from the Children's Television Workshop) - and in my church, in the form of songs like "Jesus Loves the Little Children" and lessons about mission work in Asia and Africa.

The second culture was less noticeable in my childhood. It really came to my notice when I got to college, and saw the rise of 24-hour news cycle and growth of the talk radio media market giving a platform to people who had long existed on the fringes. These figures questioned ideas of "multiculturalism" and "diversity" that I personally had always taken for granted as a common part of American culture. They forced me to question my assumptions, and I quickly determined that they were conflating the notions of equality and fair treatment with something called "political correctness" in order to demonize those ideas. They championed the notion that rather than being a sign of common decency, celebrating different cultures was some kind of progressive plot to erode the primacy of "real" Americans.

It probably goes without saying, but this was not a new idea. It is even older than the concept of a "real American". These ideas and arguments are just a restatement of the "us vs. them" attitude that has plagued Americans since colonial times.

Words and Identity

Though the first permanent settlement in the New World was English, all of the major players in Europe began setting up colonies along the Atlantic coast. The Dutch, French, Spanish, and Germans all sent people over in the first century or two after Columbus's journey.  Whether they were sent as explorers, settlers, prisoners, refugees, governors, traders, or even as military forces, it is critical that modern readers understand that those people would not have necessarily identified themselves with a nation the way we label them today.

Not only were the boundaries between German territory and French territory (just for one major example) very fluid, but the very definition of what these territories were was evolving as the feudal system decayed. The concept of a "nation" was still new, and not broadly well understood even by those who championed it. The New World colonists who spoke German didn't identify with a concept of "Germany" - not as a national identity - and once they settled throughout the New World, tending their new homes and raising their families was their main concern. They tended to keep to themselves as much as possible as political control over their communities shifted from the French to the British and back.

There are a number of parallels between the way English colonists viewed these German people and the way modern Americans view Hispanic and Latino neighbors. The most visible divide, then as now, seemed to be along language boundaries.

Benjamin Franklin wrote of the German-speaking settlers in the Pennsylvania, after he began serving in the Pennsylvania legislative assembly:

"Few of their children in the country learn English; they import many books from Germany... The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages, and in some places only German. They begin of late to make all their bonds and other legal writings in their own language, which (though I think it ought not to be) are allowed good in our courts, where the German business so increases that there is continual need of interpreters; and I suppose in a few years they will also be necessary in the Assembly, to tell one half of our legislators what the other half say."
In other places, he wrote of the impossibility of the two cultures mixing, and contrasted the German standards of beauty for their wives against that of the English in terms which, if he were saying them about Latinos today, would have likely scuttled his political career. And yet, two things stand out to me about this:

  1. The same Ben Franklin who held and expressed these opinions, and predicted what seemed like increasing enmity within his own colony, went on to champion the fundamental idea of unity between the colonies that allowed the Continental Army and Congress to force the break with Britain and found the United States.
  2. He was wrong about the future. When Franklin writes of the "continual need of interpreters" he seems to forecast an untenable, unbridgeable split between English and German speakers - which clearly did not come to pass.
The lesson I take from this is that arguments warning of seemingly permanent, trending, and eternally intolerable differences between groups of people should not be treated with the weight that people give them. They are specious arguments that assume people aren't capable of growing, changing, or of setting aside their differences to come together for their common good when necessary.

Or, to put it another way - the words we use to identify ourselves are always just words. When it comes to how we live and how we treat each other as neighbors, words aren't what matters.

Melting Pot

As for the mixing of cultures, I think it's evident that our past (Franklin's future) demonstrates how just a few short generations can change the entire social landscape. The Germans that Franklin was writing about almost certainly included my own German ancestors. The Witters (probably originally a variation of "Weider") who came to Arizona via Kansas after the Civil War migrated from Fulton county, Pennsylvania, where they were married to Pipers (Pfeiffers), Volkman, Shrivers (Schreibers), Zollingers, Howers, and Kerschners.

As I said in "Faiths of Our Fathers", most of them were probably Lutheran. Like other communities formed around religious ideas, they struggled with finding the right balance between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. And the dismay that Franklin expressed over the character of new immigrants wasn't expressed only by Englishmen. Henry Muhlenberg, Lutheran pastor, and immigrant from Germany (arrived 1742, writing in the 1750s):

"It is almost impossible to describe how few good and how many exceptionally godless, wicked people have come into this country every year. The whole country is being flooded with ordinary, extraordinary and unprecedented wickedness and crimes... Our old residents are mere stupid children in sin when compared with the new arrivals! Oh, what a fearful thing it is to have so many thousands of unruly and brazen sinners come into this free air and unfenced country!"
But for every example of conflict and discomfort with the Other, there are also stories of acceptance and tolerance in abundance.

Take the story of my ancestor, Leopold Zindle, a Hessian soldier during the Revolutionary War who spent his four years as a prisoner of war winning friends and earning a place in his New Jersey community. The rhetoric people today throw around about being "invaded" from our neighbor to the south looks rather silly in comparison to actual soldiers sent here to subdue the rebellion - and yet Leopold was accept and honored as a citizen here.

Sadly, the story doesn't end there. American immigration problems continued as different groups "threatened" to swarm in and "overrun" the place. Happily (for me, anyway) we've never successfully fenced ourselves off from Them, or many of Us wouldn't exist!

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