Friday, February 22, 2008

Isle O'View, USA

It's often said that "no man is an island". I think every American is an islander. What's your isle o'view?

Ellis Island

Ellis Island sits in New York Harbor, on the New York-New Jersey state line. Between 1892 and 1954, over twelve million immigrants passed through the processing facility there. While there were other ways for people to enter the country, Ellis Island has come to symbolize all of the people who voluntarily emigrated to the USA.

My patrilineal great grandfather was a typical Ellisian (including the fact that he came to the US before Ellis Island began processing immigrants). When Wilhelm was proclaimed Kaiser of the new German Empire, his parents decided it was a good time to head for America. When he'd lapse back into the mother tongue, they would admonish him: "No, Karl. We live in America now; we speak English." They chose to be Americans, and jumped in with both feet. No Hyphenated-American status for them.

This is not to suggest that Ellisians as a group went to the extreme of forgetting their Old Country culture altogether; many ethnic enclaves formed, with restaurants serving traditional foods, and bi-lingual residents who still spoke the language they learned as children. But the mindset of the voluntary immigrant was such that American English would be their children's first language, so that they could succeed in the New Country.

Île de Gorée

Just off the coast of Senegal, Gorée was first colonized by Portugal in 1444, and was held at various times by the Dutch and British before becoming a French possession in 1667. It served as the mirror image of Ellis Island, holding African slaves awaiting shipment to the New World colonies of whatever European power held it at the time, from the 1500s until the early 1800s, when Napoleon finally abolished slavery in France.

Exact numbers of slaves that passed through Gorée are not known, especially during the periods when clandestine slave trade continued even though officially banned, but "25 to 30 million" has been a widely-accepted estimate. Many of the slaves shipped out of Gorée went to French holdings such as Haiti or Guiana, as well as the Louisiana territory that was later sold to the United States.

While other slave markets, such as Zanzibar, may have sent more Africans into bondage in European colonies than Gorée did, the latter has (largely because of media exposure, such as Bryant Gumbel's Today visit) come to symbolize the involuntary migration to the West.

A common attitude of the Goréean was most famously expressed by Malik X. Shabazz:
We didn't land on Plymouth Rock; Plymouth Rock landed on us.
Many of the descendants of African slaves resent being forced to "act white" by speaking Standard English, abiding by (formal or informal) dress codes, etc., and rebel against the majority culture. Some of them mock, or even physically menace, others who do well in school. Voluntary immigrants to the US, such as the Jamaicans whose ancestors were (involuntarily) drawn from the same West African gene pool, may have more Ellisian attitudes, and held up to ridicule (such as in the Hey, Mon! recurring sketch on In Living Color, which had a predominantly black cast and creative staff).

Turtle Island

Many Native American tribes named the continent on which they lived "Turtle Island" (not the English words, but their equivalent in their languages). They didn't get on a boat to join the new nations being developed here by European powers; their ancestors had been here for millenia, at least since the last ice age. Increasingly, these people found themselves overwhelmed by people speaking Spanish, Portuguese, English, French, or Dutch; today those are the first languages of nearly the entire population of both Americas and nearby islands. The legal systems of the Americas are drawn from those same European powers', as are the mixture of religious sects and other cultural influences.

The various European spheres of influence ebbed and flowed, with the Anglosphere gaining much territory previously held by others. The most obvious example is the United States itself. The Dutch lost their holdings here to the British before our revolution; Louisiana was held by Spain and France before it was purchased from the latter. Florida was ceded by Spain to the United States. The Southwestern United States, from Texas to California, was transferred from Mexico either directly or indirectly (Republic of Texas).

The attitude of many of the people in that area, who identify with the Spanish-speaking Mexican culture, appears deliberately constructed as an homage to Shabazz':
We didn't cross the border; the border crossed us.
Some residents of Hawai'i, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the US Virgin Islands (as well as the continental populations of Native Americans) consider themselves in the same situation, including those who have moved to other areas inside the United States.

Even many of the people who voluntarily cross that border from Mexico seem to identify more with the culture they've chosen to leave physically, than the one they're entering. "Bilingual" education efforts encourage this.

East Germany?

The Gorée and Turtle mindsets are fundamentally the same; people who feel that they have been coerced into membership, rather than joining of their own free will. Last century, one of the more extreme demonstrations of such coercion was performed in the post-WWII Soviet occupation zone of Germany, which became the "German Democratic Republic". While Communist cant has always pretended to liberate the working class from enslavement to the property-owning class, the reality was shown to be the opposite.

Since it wasn't geographically an island, people were leaving it in droves. In order to keep those workers in their alleged paradise, the government had to metaphorically turn it into one. They built walls, manned with snipers ordered to shoot anyone who approached in an attempt to escape. The physical walls were built only along East Germany's borders with West Germany and Austria; travel out of other Warsaw Pact nations was already highly restricted. After three decades of this arrangment, Hungary started allowing East Germans to travel into Austria. There they could hop a train for West Germany, where they were guaranteed citizenship under its constitution. The game was up: in a span of a few weeks, the East German government had agreed to reconstitute the Länder, and allow them to claim their reserved places in the Bundesrepublik.

In contrast, two walls that are often rhetorically conflated with the "Berlin Wall" serve the opposite purpose. The US border fence will keep illegal immigrants out. The Israeli security fence keeps Palestinian suicide bombers out; Israelis, whether Jew, Arab or Druze, and people in the US, have the right to leave.

Parris Island

Other than during World War II, everyone who joined the Marine Corps was a volunteer (some may have volunteered for the Corps after receiving a draft notice that would have sent them to the Army). Without disparaging the other branches of the armed forces, I think it's fair to say the Corps has earned a reputation as an elite force, to a significant extent as a result of its ability to take only the best of those who volunteer. Since 1972, there has been no conscription into any of our armed forces, but the Selective Service registration system remains in place in case there is a need for massive mobilization on the scale of WWII. The overwhelming consensus among military leaders is that the all-volunteer forces are vastly superior to conscripts. Every one of the men and women in the US armed forces today consciously chose to be there. And quite a few Ellisians who took the Oath of Citizenship also took an oath in becoming servicemen. I believe there's something to that....

I'll Land

Of course, most people live in the nation of their birth. The descendants of voluntary immigrants, as well as those who came to be in the US unwillingly, are equal in this respect. We all unconsciously choose to be Americans every day by default; simply by not moving elsewhere. The Dred Scot decision has been long repealed by the Emancipation Proclamation, Grant v. Lee at the Appomattox Court House, and the Thirteenth Amendment. No chains or armed overseers prevent emigration to those who choose it. There's a classic bumper sticker that tries to make the choice explicit: "America: love it or leave it". The nuanced leftist response is that such slogans are simplistic, to which I'll agree. Anything that can fit on a bumper sticker is probably over-simplified. Take "No blood for oil", or "Visualize World Peace". Please.

But individual choice is powerful. When people are free to choose their situation, they can't be oppressed; they can join a community where they're treated decently. The essence of the American Dream is that people have that liberty to find a better life (however they personally define "better", not some nanny-state politician's definition of what's best "for their own good").

I think that we need to perform triage on our population.

For those people who claim that America is a horrible police state... For those who think our nation is cruel beyond measure for not giving everyone within her borders "free" health care, as "every other country" does... For those who insist that their religion must be enforced by law upon others... For those who would prefer a government with the power to forbid expression of distasteful views... I would happily pay my share of the taxes to cover this Special One-Time Offer: Not only are you free to "leave it" in the sense of "free" that means "freedom", we'll make it "free" in the sense of "no cost (to you)" as well. The US government should pay for a first-class ticket to any country willing to accept a US citizen willing to sign away that citizenship. If you can't be an Ellisian here, be an Ellisian somewhere else. That will make you an engaged, productive citizen somewhere in the world, and the world needs as many of them as it can get. Consciously choose the country that you think best fits your values, and may you live a long, healthy, and prosperous life there.

For those who can't find a better country to live in, simply staying here is still an unconscious choice. We require something of our naturalized citizens other than achieving the age of 18 before they're allowed to vote; I can think of no reason why we shouldn't apply the same rules to those who are fortunate enough to claim US citizenship as their birthright. Before anyone may vote in any election for any government office under the United States, any individual state, territory, or district therein, they should have to raise their hand before witnesses, and take the same oath of citizenship as naturalized citizens. In English. And they should know what the words mean.

Those who won't take that oath aren't committing themselves to this country. I don't think they should be deported, nor taxed at a discriminatory rate, or otherwise have a different status in our legal system. But the minimum standard for participation in our government's decision making should be a bit more than having a pulse for 18 years.[Click on the title above, or date stamp below, to see the full post.]


  1. Please remember that "Goreens" weren't allowed to become "Ellisians" until the 60s. And as for loving it or leaving it, see Marcus Garvey. I understand where you're coming from but the "Goreen" attitudes didn't just pop up out of nowhere.

  2. I love your recommendation at the end there. I think that is a cause worth championing, and I will give it some serious thought. Why shouldn't all citizens be required to make a commitment to the nation before directing its course? When I shared this with her, the Oyster Wife actually recommended that each person have this administered at the polling place before casting their vote. I don't know how feasible such a thing would be logistically, but the thought is appealing. Oyster out.

  3. This is what I get for allowing comments forever.

    Baldi, I didn't say that the GoreƩan attitude came from nowhere. I thought I explained exactly why people feel differently about being forced into something, as compared to those who choose it voluntarily.


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