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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Captivities at Sixty — and Releases

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel! And ransom captive Israel…”

So far this Advent I haven’t been called to join formal worship, but this song — and the prophecies of Isaiah — ring strong in my heart and soul. My life, as I turn sixty, has so many worldly captivities, but my soul finds freedom at this rickety old computer, where I connect with kindred spirits on Facebook and blog rolls, where I read newspaper articles, even where I yesterday had a pleasant day managing recent photos. No, my body may be trapped by my partner’s illness, but my soul is rooted, a firm, strong tree lifting wider and wider branches to greet the snow.

So why was this phrase coming to me? The captivities that bother me are those that bothered Isaiah: the poor, the disabled, the encumbered, all suffering rejection from those whose assets — financial, physical, social — could make them whole. No, those whom God has given the means to provide completion have instead diverted these gifts into a system for grotesque self-fattening. I get angrier and angrier about this; I hope Isaiah is right.

But at sixty, I’m well aware that I cannot save the world. All I can do is turn my waning talents to strengthen my own group of assets toward the stewardship for which God intended them. At sixty, I have put aside the lifelong demon of curiosity. My next transition will not be a new career, a new home, but, as this one has been, to deeper zones of soul, higher zones of relationship. 

The tree, in other words, has finally found its patch of ground. My crown will reach up to higher suns, but my roots with thirst or thrive with their current ground. That ground might not be physical, but rather, the family, the friends, even the congregations and cultures, that turn out to have been my succor these closing decades already.

So last year’s experimental abandonment of The New Yorker and The New York Times were failures; nothing replaced them, despite my good faith efforts to graft and fertilize. My research and writing will stick with polity, history, civil religion, and Unitarian Universalism. My centerpiece remains Christianity, although my branches have spread far past it now.

It is telling that when I sat down to plan the spiritual and social observances of this season, which for me now begins with Canadian Thanksgiving and reaches to Epiphany’s opened light, I could see themes for the first month — friendships — and the second one — closing the garden and changing over the fall clothes to deep winter warmers. And then I stopped. What comes next?

It was a Homer Simpson moment. Doh! 

That third month is December. Its focus is Advent.

And so, despite so many and eclectic faith sources, the trunk declares its species. 

The leaves trust in the warmth beyond the snow. We will all be free. 

I Know It When I See It

It’s 9:15 a.m. on the East Coast of the USA. While drinking my morning tea, as always, I caught up on the day’s headlines. All the news today all over the world stems from pretty much the same issue: cyber-bullying. And the front page of the http://www.NYTimes.com shows that I’m not the only one who thinks so: various articles explore the limits — once again –of freedom of speech. Personally, I still think Justice Holmes had it right so long ago. That’s because the mother of a friend of mine was a survivor of a real fire in a crowded theater — and 135 other people were not:

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Unregulated speech on the internet seems to be getting people killed. But no one wants to shut down the Free Market of Ideas.

My first thought is, let’s look at the dynamics of speech. It seems so simple to identify legally protected hate speech, the kind that  expresses a personal opinion.  And everybody feels hatred — it’s part of the inner mix.  If you think you’re against racism, take a look at the memes you’re sharing about The Tea Party and GOP. You think you’re among friends.

Are  you egging each other on?

 

Do you really know everyone who’s reading and sharing your post?

And what about when you express your contempt in such a way. and in such a forum, that reasonable minds might anticipate someone with less social discretion and personal self-control than yourself will see it and respond with explosive vengeance?

Would it matter if they believed they were acting in self-defense?

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Not hard to be against.

But what is it?

I asked my dictionary and thesaurus.

Is it poking?

Here are two kinds of poking.

The physical action is exactly the same.

Should we ignore the race and gender of the people involved?

If race was the first thing you noticed, the answer is no.

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Are the intentions the same?

How can you tell?

Do the likely outcomes matter?

If you can guess what they are, the answer is yes.

But really, in most cases, how CAN you guess the likely outcome?

Here is a summary of some other explorations of poking, using Poking on Facebook as a focus device.

Did You Just Poke Me?

And here’s an interesting caution about overreacting to a poke.

Poking Someone on Facebook Can Land You in Jail

And what about third-party placements that deny they intend to poke someone?

One sympathizes with Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, as she and Prince William sue to stop unauthorized photos of a private unclothed moment going public. But really, is this not somewhat trivial, in a world that’s on fire for other reasons?

What if she’s a four-year old girl whose photo has been lifted from a Facebook birthday party shot — and now has been redone for people who like to masturbate using pictures of very small children to get themselves off?

Why do these publishers really think people want to buy bare-breasted pictures of a woman famous for her public dignity? Do you think it’s any different from these folks buying baby nudes for hundreds of dollars and putting them out there?

I’m not posting photos for this group of questions, but if you want to, I’m sure you can easily find them.

Again with Facebook, one of my favorite ways of staying in touch with people.

Facebook Is Filled with Third Party Aps.

And apparently now you also have to specify to Facebook that you don’t want it to share your “Likes” of products or services in advertising you might not be aware of.

Admittedly, this is pesky rather than dangerous. I get annoyed when I have to delete posts telling me who shopped where over the weekend. 

But is it only a nuisance? Since Facebook started using unauthorized third party “likes,” I have started instinctively wondering, when I see a “like” from other people, whether they really hit a button to recommend this product. Part of me worries that a moment of exuberance on their timeline just got raided.

The integrity of their name has been diluted, even with someone like me, who checks in with them several times daily.

Would it be unreasonable to guess that cutting into the value of what someone says to their friends would make them mad?

Which brings me back to my primary question:

What is the difference between playful pokes (some people say there’s no such thing) and the taunting, goading speech and gestures whose easily-anticipated outcome is violence by the recipient against the party they blame for jabbing them?

And if your only reason to feel safe from a violent response is that you believe this target to be too physically far away, or highly restrained in their character and actions, have you done anything different from taunting, goading, poking other folks with known propensities to violence?

Isn’t this why the Israeli right insists on a massive military response to every threat of violence to their homeland: so no one will ever again mistake the Jews for people who will let themselves be victims?

If so, this suggests that all of us ought to be willing to sometimes respond to goads and taunts not with pacifism, but with violence.

The other alternatives are, setting and enforcing regulations on all forms of free speech — or accepting that the nicest folks will always be the ones who get attacked.

Where Did Catholic Nuns Come From?

Many of us are watching with high emotion as the Leadership Conference of Roman Catholic nuns does battle with the Roman Catholic bishops. I happened to run across a description of where Roman Catholic nuns came from while reading Norman Cantor’s Civilization of the Middle Ages, and it wasn’t what I thought. It’s probably not what anyone thought, so here we go…

I thought, probably not unlike many others, that individual women of privilege took up the veil in order to avoid marriages or other patriarchal impositions. I thought that other women — probably with personal gumption but probably without social connections pressing down on them — joined in. I saw it as personal decisions by individual women standing up against their culture.

Cantor agrees that Benedictine convents were founded by women of privilege trying to escape marriages they didn’t want. But here’s the trick: their culture was all in favor of it. Their culture was not Roman-heritage Italian, but Franco-Germanic, that is, the invaders who took over as the Roman Empire crumbled. Germanic society was organized on a more collegial and ad-hoc basis, with electoral offices even for kings, and smaller groups entering and leaving confederations according to what worked. In these societies, women had much more individual stature. Unlike the Roman imperial culture to their west, these Ostrogoths held to Arian rather than Constantinian Christianity.

The Ostrogoths made confederations with Romans along the imperial border, by which they increased their wealth through trade and a few new industrial skills. These relatively peaceful strategies generated enough largesse to pass among their own allies further to the east, from whom, in return the border Ostrogoths collected certain taxes. As the Roman state collapsed, the Ostrogoths took over northern Italy — Milan, Ravenna, Venice. As with today’s liberals,  these “conquerors” (not to be confused with a later group, the Vandals, who were not Arian and not nice) declined to impose their culture on the Roman aristocracy (which was neo-Platonic pagan), refused to confiscate enough of the old estates to cripple their power — and thereby were themselves quickly overrun by the much more numerous Franks from their immediate north.

Ah, the French… well, not quite yet. These Franks were a Germanic heritage tribe whose primary distinction was a desire to colonize (take over land for themselves and their families), but whose political culture was still Germanic. (Come to think of it, France still has a pretty strong emphasis on regional pride and powerful women…)

But there still were Italians in Italy, so the Franks needed a strategy to pacify them. The Italians, however, had given up on secular government (apparently still do) and cast their lot with the rapidly-bureaucratizing Roman Catholic Church.  This worked pretty well for Frankish men, who could easily get baptized and go to mass. For free-minded Frankish women, however, the Church was a problem.  As it built itself according to the dictates of Pope Leo I and Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, theological consolidation rejected any gnostic or heretical sect which accepted the stature of women as equally worthy of bearing God’s message to humanity.  There were men as well as women who believed in human spiritual equality, and I doubt all their conversions were joyous occasions.

And what about their womenfolk?

Here’s where I nearly shot out of my chair: Cantor says Frankish families of wealth worked as one — women and the men who loved them — to set up convent culture.  The men wanted their women to have the choice of female-led, service-focused lives.  It was not a rebellion by individual women against their fathers, uncles and brothers, but by well-beloved women enjoying support from their fathers, uncles and brothers. The Frankish men freely funded the work for which we love these women still: housing the homeless, sheltering the friendless, feeding the hungry, nursing the sick, educating children, teaching and modeling a covenant of community care for everyone.

So when we, today, admire Roman Catholic women standing up against the bishops, we join their long-ago families and friends in a well-documented cultural practice. Conversely, when the bishops attempt to shut these women down, they are also perpetuating only one side in a long-standing war theological war. Leo, Ambrose and Gregory, along with their successors, call out one interpretation of the long-ago controversial scripture (“This is Peter”); Roman Catholic women — proto-Protestants in this case — for just about as long, have been reading the Bible differently.

There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since the 5th and 6th centuries of the Common Era, but some of it, apparently, still tastes of its original springs.