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Migration Revisited

February 16, 2016 Frontpage No Comments


Migration is a characteristic of the human race. Man moves, and then moves again, for a thousand reasons: floods, famine, conquest, persecution and subjugation, economic opportunity. Anthropologists tell us that the earliest traces of human activity show evidence of people coming, planting, building, and then vanishing, perhaps to some better place, taking their culture with them and leaving evidence of it behind them. Perhaps every migration is different, but the hope for something better appears common to them all.
Once over lunch in Buenos Aires I asked my host Guido Soaki Ramos, “Where are your people from?” “Tucuman,” he replied. “I know that, but everyone who is not what we call a Native American is from some European country.” “Indeed, Buenos Aires has been called the most European city in the world,” Guido replied. “I don’t know — my people have been here for over 400 years. I have a Spanish home and I speak Spanish, that ought to give you a hint.”
“But you also speak English and German,” I objected. I could have added that Soaki was also steeped in classical Greek and Roman philosophy, and conversant with modern political theory from Hobbes to John Rawls. We were bonded not only by our common philosophical outlook, but by our love of wines from his native Mendoza.
I will speak of the migration that brought my ancestors to North America in the 19th century, first on the German side. (I should mention there was no Germany at that time, only German-speaking lands — it was not until 1870 that Bismarck unified the old country.) My grandmother shared with me at an early age that the men of our family had come to America in 1804 to avoid conscription into Napoleon’s army.
In December of that year, 90 miles to the north of Vienna, Napoleon suffered around 7,000 casualties at the battle of Austerlitz, and his allied opponents about twice that. My ancestors were wise to have left.
My family put down roots in the Rhineland of America, the Ohio Valley, having come by boat from Pittsburgh. Evidence suggests that the men were from Bavaria or Austria. They came with various skills. My grandmother’s father was a pharmacist. His sister worked with the blind and became an official at the Louisville School for the Blind. Some of the men were farmers, others craftsmen. There is evidence that they came with sufficient money to buy land and to build on it. They prospered.
My father was born in Dubuque, Iowa, my mother in Louisville. In Chicago, my father managed one of the great hotels of that time, the Edgewater Beach. He never owned or drove an automobile in his life. My mother, busy raising two small children, of course needed one. I still remember her tan-colored 1932 Essex.
Perhaps I should mention that before marriage, my mother traveled the country in the art reproduction business. She was charmed by the Spanish renaissance culture of California, and I had a sister named Inez Juanita Dougherty. Some inconsistency there.
I think it likely that my ancestors were of Austrian origin. Once at the opera in Vienna, I spotted three women who looked exactly like how I remembered my mother, who died when I was seven. She would have been about 47 years old at that time, the median age of the ladies I saw at the opera.
Today as then, the migrant comes with what he has achieved. Yes, you take yourself with you wherever you go, and industry, thrift, and self-discipline are virtues that pay off in the new country or the old.
I have less information about the Irish ancestors on my father’s side, but the Irish migration to the States is well documented. The mass Irish migration occurred after 1840 and continued through the century as tens of thousands sought a better life.
Today, the U.S. is experiencing another mass migration to its shores, with millions seeking economic opportunity and escape from authoritarian rule. But there is this major difference between them. European immigrants came from a common culture. From Belfast to Naples they shared some form of Christianity. Europe itself was known as Christendom. European migration to North America resulted in more than 50 percent of the nation having some German or Irish ancestry.
That figure may no longer hold, given that immigration policy has shifted dramatically. Its aims — which have never been adequately justified in public discourse, much less put up to a referendum by the American electorate — are diversity for its own sake, with the result that we are no longer united by a common European heritage. The U.S. remains a land of opportunity for the immigrant, but the shell of Christendom has been broken.
Perhaps no one has seen more clearly the need for cultural unity than Moses Mendelssohn, grandfather of Felix Mendelssohn, the famous composer. In the 19th century, Mendelssohn urged Jews to leave the ghetto, to learn the German language and assimilate into the common culture. They did so with remarkable results, especially in the natural sciences, physics, and chemistry.
Michael Polanyi, a Hungarian Jew, immigrated to Germany and was so pleased with the reception he received that he was reluctant to leave after Hitler’s rise to power. He felt an obligation to his host country and remained there as the situation darkened, immersed in his work, even declining an offer from Cambridge.
Fortunately, Polanyi’s mother was street smart. She knew what was going on in the populace, whereas he was somewhat isolated in his laboratory. Polanyi did accept a second offer from the Midlands in England and later immigrated to the U.S. when an offer was extended by the University of Chicago. He concluded his career as a social theorist, having seen firsthand how easily a great culture could quickly succumb to alien forces.
What the future portends for the U.S. as a result of uncontrolled and unguided immigration is unknown. We know that it has had the immediate effect that the U.S. is no longer a unified nation. Yet a certain unity is necessary for community. Without allegiance to a common set of principles, community will forever remain elusive. Community is necessary for meaningful action at each level — local, state, and country. If the immigrant refuses to assimilate and prefers to live exclusively within his native culture, the prospects for the country are not too good.

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