Has Oscar Handlin’s Moment Finally Come?

When Harvard scholar Oscar Handlin published, in 1951, The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People, his book won the usual praise and criticism. Unlike so many other academic headliners, though, it also won the Pulitzer Prize and repeated reissues, most recently, in 2002, by the University of Pennsylvania Press. I used to occasionally see Professor Handlin, than an emeritus who had the private study next to the emeritus for whom I happily researched. It is remarkable how little these men in their 80s could be recognized as lions of cultural commentary. Yet Handlin’s book might be more relevant today than it was in 1951. He argued that generations of alienation followed most large waves of immigration, but critics of his era rightly pointed out that the prosperity and cultural integration occasioned by World War II vitiated this problem. But now, with that prosperity and cultural integration decisively in decline, Handlin’s analysis stands up to the current spotlight: recent immigrants, from different countries and to countries other than ours, hold up well to his descriptions.

Recently I purchased this book for a close re-reading. What hit me most immediately was the poetic, almost cinematic, flow of words with which Handlin seduces as much as he persuades. Most of his evocations describe sepia-colored museum displays of Eastern European pastoral cultures that have mostly vanished from the memories of the living and do not resemble the lands vomiting forth new refugees. But his core analysis remains a solidly welded iron framework on which new surface materials easily graft.

Handlin says this:

Immigrants left behind a cohesive and interwoven, almost magically immersive, culture, and thrust themselves into a social environment where nothing was what it appeared to be. Nor. in the new realm, do verbal descriptions and prescriptions set out clear paths to success. This instills loneliness, but also confusion. Against both these sorrows, ancestral religion counterposes connection, security, and order.

Hold that thought for a moment, because I contend that it marks the place where the alienation of the nativist — the person who insists that being born in a country ought, in itself, to count for something — meets the social and religious desperation of the immigrant. Handlin’s point about religion’s tangibility closely match the psychological experience of economically marginalized nativist fundamentalists. Marine LePen has more in common with the Islamists than she has with satirists and scientists. In the Cincinnati of my young adulthood, the widespread registration of African American voters horrified the LGBT community by electing a preacher who had no doubt that all of us were going to burn in hell. Being a member of the liberal clergy, this pairing bothers me. Some of my sympathy is with those who advocate the equality of faith and reason, even as my reason and faith unite to protest either reason or faith, when they call for the death, the inequality, the marginalization of other people.

But that’s my personal quandary. What Handlin offers the present situation, with an urgency unknown since the 1920s and 1930s, is how the immigration experience — even when it succeeds economically — continues as a trauma for the second generation. Young people always want to know where they came from. They want their parents to have stature. So the second generation of immigrants, seeing the belittlement of their parents, look to the old world with some hope that going back would restore the family’s grandeur. Handlin eloquently, poignantly, describes this exploration as an unfolding of disillusionment. The photos show buildings, farms, families, even clothing and cars, that cannot compare to what the second generation now understands as home.

Here’s where Handlin jumped off the page at me:

He contends that in these circumstances, it is the second generation that works hardest to reinforce the religious or cultural heritage that proved transportable, transplantable. It is all they have left of their family stature, their elder-wisdom. And if the new country gives them no additional forms of stature, of wisdom, their need for this vestigial wealth grows all the more desperate. If they cannot make it work in their new country, and the homeland looks fluid, undefended, perhaps they can restore its old order in their time.

So now, let’s think again about these alienated Muslim young people. Their old countries are not just dirtier, less free, anarchically governed — things that might lead them to cut those ties — but most visibly, these nations have been invaded. Bombed. Despoiled by greedy outsiders. Given the comforts many of these countries enjoyed in recent memory, how easy for an unsettled young adult to blame the foreign bombers, the foreign corporations, rather than the domestic elites who invited in the plunderers and bartered the national abundance to put themselves in the global rich. There’s a movie that shows this process in action, but a young adult who hears western politicians sneer at his parents, who must remove her religious clothing under government edict, probably has no heart for damning information about people who look, who worship like her. She or he wants revenge against those who destroyed the only option that now seems most attractive: a return to the land of one’s grandparents, to relax into that magical, unified cosmos.

Perhaps this will sound like an apology for terrorism. That’s the last thing I intend. But as a religious woman, I sympathize with sisters not allowed to wear religious clothing in public. As a person with family ties to places despoiled by war (Germany, Poland, China), I know what it is to yearn for landmarks that no longer stand.

The iconoclasts of Charlie Hebdo did not deserve to die for their indiscriminate anti-religiosity. But neither do the women and men and children of the new Muslim diaspora deserve to disappear behind a haze of bullets and bombs cast by the worst members of their own communities. My own faith is Unitarian Universalism, which calls on me, today, in pain and anger, to remember the dignity and soul of people rendered marginal by outrage among their own.

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One thought on “Has Oscar Handlin’s Moment Finally Come?

  1. So powerful, and such a great distillation of wisdom. Violence engenders violence and hate engenders hate. There is a better way- we must stand up for the inherent dignity of every person on this earth and let our light shine into those dark corners. Fight against language laws, engage with communities, demand our police forces mirror the populations they serve, and reflect on the ways we can rid ourselves of the fear that breeds contempt.

    I have missed your writing! I am glad you are back, and I hope all is well with your wife. You inspire me consistently.

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