The immigrant ethic and the American Dream

Immigrants and the children of immigrants may be the only ones who still believe in the American Dream.

In the introduction to the Freedom From Fear Awards, announced Saturday at the Netroots Nation conference in Minneapolis, presenters Taryn Higashi and Geri Mannion both talked of being the children of immigrants. Ms. Higashi told the story of her Japanese parents’ internment during World War II, and their never failing love of the potential of this country. The awards, she said, administered by Public Interest Projects, this year celebrate those “who are standing up in their communities—sometimes at great personal risk—to make this a more just and humane society for immigrants.”

For many (but certainly not all) families who have lived here for generations, it seems the dream is a like an apple pie, sitting on a window sill, since their ancestor put it there in the nineteenth century after arriving from Liverpool and Londonderry, Rotterdam and Göteborg. They can point to its (formerly) golden crust and say, “My, but ain’t that a fine looking pie,” and they can tell stories of how crisp the air was, on the day their great-great-great-great-great Gama Olsson baked it and set it there.

Nobody, though, can tell you what it tastes like, because what they think it tastes like is always going to be much, much better than it would if they stuck a fork into the old, moldy mess and stuck it in their mouths. The American Dream, for them, is the story behind the pie, rather than the pie itself. It is a legacy they pass on, like an old vase, and proudly display. Like the lock of their ancestors’ hair in the family Bible, it’s preserved, conserved and immutable.

The bar has been set. The flag has been sewn. They are what it’s like to be an American, and they live in the fulfillment of their forebears’ dream. Any challenge to their perspective is a radical change. “They accuse us,” Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), a true progressive from the Northern Plains, told the Netroots gathering, Saturday morning, “of wanting to remake the fundamental fabric of American society, as if we are proposing to rip a few dozen stars off the flag.”

Yet it is, only and always, the opportunity for freedom that gives us the ability to change. It is why people have come to America, to sail past the Statue of Liberty, to fight and die in Antietem and Gettysburg, Normandy and Iwo Jima.

As Americans, we are given the opportunity, to create free, fair and enjoyable lives, and, as a nation, have shown a commitment to giving this same opportunity to repressed and constrained societies all over the world. We can’t want it there and not provide for it to happen here.

This is the immigrant ethic – to come to a place, to embrace, with gusto, new freedoms, and to teach others to appreciate what they have by remembering how bad things used to be. This was the voice with which my generation was mostly raised. Our parents were raised in the depression. Some, like my parents, suffered deeply in World War II. From them, we always heard, “You don’t know how good you have it.”

Maybe that testimonial of our parents, of how far up they’d been able to rise in America, sunk a little too deep into the minds of those on the Right, the ones who call themselves conservative. They’ve preserved it in a mason jar they put up when Reagan was president, and set it next to the apple pie in the window. When they look at it, and show it to their children, they mutter their lament, “You don’t know how good we had it.”

But hey, it’s yours now, so, um, good luck with it!


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