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Entries in ethics (2)

Tuesday
Nov262013

Thanksgiving is for immigrants

Thanksgiving is a holiday that all immigrants, both legal and undocumented, should embrace as their own custom.

This suggestion will doubtless stick in the craw of the nativist element within our nation; the Tea Party tools who finger thrust at the “scourge” of undocumented immigrants living among us; especially those who are taking crucial jobs found in the valet kiosks, sun-scorched fields and rank restrooms all across the country.

The prevailing discussions and imagery that Thanksgiving summons each year remind us of the Pilgrims who unwittingly initiated the tradition in 1621. The only reminder worth noting, however, is that this nation’s spiritual ancestors—the Puritans of Plymouth, England—arrived at this continent uninvited and without papers. Somehow no one else has any use for this truth, so it is a legacy that undocumented immigrants inherit by the mere fact of arriving and surviving in this country.

It so happens this year that Thanksgiving overlaps with the first day of Chanukah—a minor Jewish holiday. It commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem that followed a successful revolt against the empire armies of Antiochus IV over two thousand years ago. There having been only a one-day supply of olive oil available to keep the Temple’s seven-branch candelabra lit, the oil miraculously lasted eight days.

Given the coinciding of these two holidays and the nativist hostility toward immigrants, the only relevance that merits mention is the Jewish ethic of treating outsiders with consideration—codified in the Torah as a commandment to love or respect the stranger. The sacred text reiterates the imperative no less than 36 times (more frequently than the command to love God), often appended with the rationale “for you were strangers in Egypt”. This refers to the children of Israel’s captivity and servitude in Egypt. In the West, this social obligation represents the founding of the Golden Rule.

Somehow this is an ethic that Bible-thumping nativists have no use for. Moreover, it would be stroke inducing for them to accept that the transgression of mistreating strangers earned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah their destruction.

Here’s the twisted irony: through Thanksgiving we celebrate the good fortune we enjoy as families and as a nation, but shun the challenge of benevolence toward the stranger—especially the immigrant—within our own communities.

Without the constant influx of immigrants, born-citizens would easily lull themselves into the conviction that they have earned the good life they are supposed to be thankful for on the fourth Thursday of November each year. Immigrants are a vital reminder of the born citizen’s legacy in this nation—a descendent of strangers who were willing to hazard immense risk to leave their countries and cast their lot with our nation. Without a contemporary immigrant community, born citizens would be excused to view the privilege of living in the US as a blessing they are entitled to.

It should be considered a national shame how anti-immigrant antipathy has characterized a meaningful amount of the political discourse over immigration reform. The vitriol betrays an arrogance on the part of nativists—let Thanksgiving be damned.

Immigrants, however, embracing the Thanksgiving tradition as their own, serve as a living emblem of foreigners in past generations, as well as ‘original’ outsiders like the Pilgrims. Our culture enjoys constant renewal because they’ve chosen our nation as their destination for their dreams and ideas. Even more crucial is that we benefit from a living illustration of our collective immigrant past.

Tuesday
Jan102012

As we lay dying: terminal illness as a national metaphor

Earl Shorris is dying. A cancer survivor, he endures the near failure of organs, shuffling among hospitals and a kaleidescope of attending doctors. All the while he muses about death and suffering, by turns elegaic and rhapsodic.

His essay, "American Vespers: The ebbing of the body politic", featured in Harper's Dec. 2011 issue, is a memoir in diptych; a view of terminal illness as an individual and as a metaphor for a waning nation. What a compelling read for the end of a troubled 2011.

The pivotal passage between both frames reads: "I lie alongside my country, patriot of my body and my home, dying from an enemy within. Everything had come for me as it had come for America. How similarly we failed!"

For Earl Shorris, Paul Valéry stands at the terminus of a string of writers known as "decadent"--those who criticized the French middle class for their materialism made possible by the output the Industrial Revolution. The decadents considered the national decline as a loss of vitality. Though Shorris does not state this specifically, their art making emphasized passion and beauty in abundance--proportional to the excess of accumilating products.

Because of the bourgeois fixation on accumilation, decadents saw a nation in decline; a loss of vitality. Though Shorris does not state this specifically, their art making emphasized passion and beauty in abundance--a revolt proportional to the excess of middle class materialism.

A nation endures only so much consumption before illness sets in. In Shorris's view, Ronald Reagan introduced the pathogen--a deficiency of ethics--that now afflicts the United States. To emphasize the point by contrast, Shorris refers to Scottish Enlightenment thinker Frances Hutcheson, who argued that the greatest good is the happiness of others. The heirs of Reagan's ethics legacy--Kristol, Cheney, Bush, Podhoretz, Falwell, Strauss and Bloom--said otherwise through their policy decisions.

The writer takes certain liberties interpreting the impact of Ronald Reagan's candidacy and presidency. There is the first speech Reagan gave after wrapping up the Republican presidential nomination in Aug. 1980. At a county fair in Mississippi, not far from where three civil rights workers were slain in 1964, Reagan asserted "states' rights" in an address to a Southern audience--considered at best an insensitive gesture toward the victims of intolerance. "States rights" is well known among Southerners as a polite reference to turning back the clock on civil rights and racial integration. Additionally, Shorris recalls the time Reagan met with the Republican black caucus and could not recall the name of a single member of the group.

The infirmity that now sickens this nation sprouted without being recognized. "The cell that multiplies, the killing thing," Shorris writes, "lies beneath the observable world." Indeed, the pestilent agent lies out of sight because we, as a nation, are far more complicit than we are capable of acknowledging.

With the ascendancy of a figure like Reagan or George Walker Bush, one might point out that such figures simply reflect a prevailing quality or character already at work within a nation's citizenry.

A Reagan or Bush manifests simply because enough of us--void of curiosity, brazen and shadow projecting louts--have summoned such leaders.

In a medical case such as ours the undeniable message is, "Sick nation, heal thyself."