The Melting Pot

 

I am a first-generation American.  My father’s family came here from Russia when he was two years old, in 1904 or 1905.  I never knew his parents – they died long before I was born – and didn’t know his older sister and brother well enough to ask about their lives before they emigrated.  My father did not want to talk about his life before, what little he might have remembered of it; he was an American citizen, and that was what mattered to him.

My mother’s family came from Austria; she was born in 1907 and was about thirteen when they came here, so that would’ve been around 1920.  I know a little more about my mother’s family history.  Her father was Rumanian, her mother Polish, and apparently they were distant cousins.  Her father had been in the Austrian army during the first World War.  At some point they had lived in a small town in Austria, which they escaped when the Cossacks burned it down.  In Vienna they had owned a hardware store.

When they arrived at Ellis Island, my uncles had had their heads shaved, and some of the family members had had their names changed.   The admitting authorities had apparently found some of the Yiddish names unpronounceable, so they renamed my mother “Rose” and her sister “Jeanette.”  My mother, at 13, was placed in a kindergarten class because she could not speak English and made her way up to sixth grade by the end of the year.  Though she graduated from college and earned her teaching degree, she  was not allowed to teach kindergarten until the very faint trace of her “foreign” accent that remained was erased through speech lessons.

When I was growing up, the United States was often referred to in our social studies classes as a “melting pot,”  a nation of immigrants from all over the world who had come here to build new lives in an atmosphere of freedom, who generally retained and shared their cultural heritage in terms of food, worship, celebrations, but who also participated in the larger American culture as American citizens.  Growing up in New York City, I experienced this first-hand.  My parents had started out on Manhattan’s Lower East Side but had eventually ended up in Brooklyn.  When my ex-husband and I first moved to the Lower East Side, my parents couldn’t believe it…..they had struggled to make enough money to move on and here we were, choosing to live there.  We liked it.  There was still a blend of cultures, so different foods, clothes, music were all available.  Similarly, later in the East Village, we were part of an eclectic community.  When we moved to the Midwest, I couldn’t believe how bland everything seemed.  I missed the ethnic and cultural diversity we had become accustomed to.

In the past few years the question of immigration has become such a hot button for so many people.  In thinking it out for myself, I had to rely once again on that concept of the “melting pot.”  What does that mean, exactly, and how does that apply to the United States, in the past, present, and future?  The closest analogy I could find was the process of making beef stew.   Of course, in a stew, most of the things don’t exactly melt, but bear with me and see if the analogy makes sense to you.

To make beef stew, you must first have a pot, a fairly sturdy pot that can withstand sitting on the stove for quite a while without burning the stuff inside.  There has to be a structure, a framework, within which to cook different things to make the stew.  Similarly, in our country, we have a structure: the Constitution of the United States, the guiding principles of the people who drew up that Constitution, and the government that derived from it.  We are still a relatively young country and our whole existence has been a story of immigrants and a desire for freedom.  (I am not going to get into the wrongs we’ve done here, because those are part of another story).  Without the specific American culture, however, there would have been nothing cohesive to bring all those immigrants from different places and different times into a unified whole.  There had to a be a strong pot that could itself withstand the heat of change, while allowing the ingredients inside it to change enough to contribute to the recipe.

So, we’ve got a pot on a stove, and into it we put different ingredients: carrots, potatoes, celery, beef, onions, garlic, and whatever else is available…..plus oil and salt and spices and water.  That’s the nice thing about a stew; you can put lots of different things into it, they each add their own specific taste and texture, but when you’re done, you have a finished dish, not exactly all “melted,” but all parts of a unified whole.

Similarly, each group of immigrants to the US brought their own cultures, their own specific tastes and textures, but as they assimilated into American society, they became part of the stew, not losing their cultures but adding them to the overall American culture so that it was enriched and flavored.  There were common values that held us all together and the result was a country unlike any other.

Unfortunately, what has happened in my lifetime – I am 68, so I’ve lived through a lot of changes – is that we’ve allowed the pot itself to be damaged; we’ve allowed – nay, even encouraged – the corrosion of the structure of our country, the Constitutional pot, so that there is no longer a solid framework in which people can assimilate, and assimilation is crucial for the survival of a nation.  Remember, assimilation in the US has not in the past meant giving up one’s culture; it has always meant declaring America to have the first claim on one’s political allegiance and it also meant that most American citizens held to the same values, the Judeo-Christian values of the founders of our country.

Furthermore, every good cook knows that there are some ingredients that just don’t go together.  There are vegetables and spices that are fine in themselves but that will just not go with the stew you have made. There are also poisonous plants that you would never want to introduce into your stew…..they would make it toxic for anyone who ate it, eliminating the benefits of all the good stuff you had already put in there.

There are some people who just do not belong in our pot.  They do not hold to the values that we as Americans have traditionally espoused.  They just don’t fit, and neither they, nor we, would be comfortable with attempting to mix these values together.  Sadly, there are also those who come here intent on only damaging and ultimately destroying the pot itself, those who embed themselves in American society only in order to bring it down.  These misfits and destroyers are not always immigrants but are often those who have been born here but who don’t appreciate what we have; they want America to change to fit their political or religious ideologies.

It is so easy to make blanket statements about immigration, but that gets us nowhere.  As a country that has always sought to help the downtrodden and the exiles, we need to find a way to do this without endangering our own American culture.  There are people who have come illegally to this country who have assimilated as much as they could, who have jobs, kids in school; these people should be given a means to become legal citizens and not have to live in fear of being discovered and deported.  There are others who are here and who express hatred for Americans and everything we stand for;  these people need to be somewhere else.  I don’t claim to know how to do any of this.  It just seems to me to be common sense that if you hate America and seek to undermine her, you should be encouraged to leave.  If you love America and seek to make a life here, to be part of a country of immigrants, a melting pot, then a means should be made for you to legally stay.

Becoming an American citizen was not easy for my parents, but citizenship was something they treasured and honored all their lives.  They added their own flavor to the melting pot that is America, and their children and grandchildren have continued to be active citizens in what is still the most unique country in the world.  Let’s not lose sight of who we are.

 

 

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Ayn Rand Revisited: Some Observations

The book jacket of Atlas Shrugged has this quote from Ayn Rand: “To all the readers who discovered The Fountainhead and asked me many questions about the wider application of its ideas, I want to say that I am answering these questions in the present novel, and that The Fountainhead was only an overture to Atlas Shrugged.  I trust that no one will tell me that men such as I write about don’t exist.  That this book has been written-and published-is my proof that they do.”

A less objective defense of a philosophy would be hard to find, and for a philosophy she called “Objectivism,” it is a ludicrous statement.  I don’t claim to present anything objective here; just my own – subjective – views of her ideas as described in these two books.  That I write, and that I publish a blog, is no proof of anything, except that I can.

I first read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged years ago.  Like Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, Rand’s Atlas Shrugged offered a chillingly prophetic view of the future, but I didn’t really like her characters.  I just dismissed her books from mind until her name started popping up frequently within the last year, so I decided to read the books again. Living today in a society which has succumbed to a great extent to the laziness, mediocrity, and cronyism she described made me appreciate the accuracy of her depiction of such a society.  However, I believe that the basic assumptions she makes are not accurate, and I still find her characters to be two-dimensional.

Everyone looks for a hero to worship.  In Ayn Rand’s books, the heroes are like Nazi Germany’s Ubermenschen; they see themselves as so far above the common man that they become their own justification for their actions.  Not content with actions, however, even though they claim that these actions are more important than words,  philosophical speeches abound…..I had to skip over much of John Galt’s message to the populace because it went on… and on… and on.  The idea is that these few people really live up to their potential as human beings, while everyone else just exists or is a parasite.  These people are the dreamers who work to make their dreams reality, usually with little help from any one else, the artists and architects whose vision of the future shakes off the clinging tendrils of the outmoded past, the inventors, producers, engineers, and manufacturers who create, produce, manufacture, and run those material things that underpin a technological society and lead it to higher levels of growth and productivity.  Yes, they are hard workers, singleminded, driven workers.  They are brilliant overachievers who accomplish great things.  They believe that they should enjoy the fruits of their labor and not be required to share it.  They are happy to be considered selfish, because they believe that their self-interest produces good.

The philosophy teacher and mentor of the hero in Atlas Shrugged tells Dagny:

“All work is an act of philosophy.  And when men will learn to consider productive work – and that which is its source – as the standard of their moral values, they will reach that state of perfection which is the birthright they lost…The source of work?  Man’s mind, Miss Taggart, man’s reasoning mind.” (p 738)

John Galt, the hero, takes up the subject, expounding on it:

“…the man of the mind….was the man of extravagant energy – and reckless generosity – who knew that stagnation is not man’s fate, that impotence is not his nature, that the ingenuity of his mine is his noblest and most joyous power – and in service to that love of existence he was alone to feel, he went on working, working at any price, working for his despoilers, for his jailers, for his torturers, paying with his life for the privilege of saving theirs…..The tragic joke of human history is that on any of the altars men erected, it was always man whom they immolated and the animal whom they enshrined.  It was always the animal’s attributes, not man’s, that humanity worshipped:  the idol of instinct and the idol of force – the mystics and the kings…” (p 739)

He goes on to add that the mystics’ claim that feelings were superior to reason enabled them to enslave people to blind obedience, while the kings, desiring power to control men’s bodies, ruled by conquest.  Both, he says, were united against the mind.

Touting reason as the highest of human abilities and exalting the singleminded work ethic to the level of a god, Rand, against all reason, denies that only the greatest reason of all, exhibiting the most creative acts of work, could produce people capable of reasoning and working.  Only the greatest intelligence could produce man, a being whose “state of perfection” is a lost “birthright.”  Only one whose own “extravagant energy” and “reckless generosity” was in existence first could have created man in his own image to possess these qualities.  How is it reasonable to believe that man, Ayn Rand’s god, so infinitely complex and beautiful, could be the product of mindless evolution?  Rand wants to claim the high place man occupies in creation without acknowledging the creator who made him and put him there.  Neither does she understand that it was man’s own selfishness, his worship of himself, that led him to take the steps away from the only one to whom rightful obedience is due, steps leading to the debased condition of humanity that she observes so well.

John Galt states that he hates Robin Hood and everything he stands for.  He sees him as one who robs from the deserving, productive rich to give to the undeserving, parasitic poor.  In the stories I read, Robin took from the parasitic, corrupt rich to return to the helpless poor that which had been unjustly taken from them.  Obviously we have different interpretations of the Robin Hood legends.  Yet one of Galt’s best friends becomes a pirate to use violence for his own idea of income redistribution. It is not the violence that is a problem for Galt; it is the way it is used, and that, it seems to me, is not objective at all.  Furthermore, when a train wreck kills many people due to negligence and mismanagement, the glimpses of some of the people on the train before the crash make it seem like Rand deems them deserving of death, as a punishment, not just a consequence, of unproductive behavior.

Speaking of violence, the relationships between the heroes and heroines is often a violent one.  In The Fountainhead,  Howard Roark rapes Dominique.  In most of the sexual relationships – and each heroine has three separate involvements – sex is a means by which the hero demonstrates his conquest of the heroine; it is often violent and a means to humiliate a woman who is seen as a strong and worthy opponent.  Yet each of her heroines, Dominique and Dagny, must suffer and grow before they can come up to the level of their men.  All of this makes me wonder what exactly Ayn Rand thought about women.  I found this description telling:

“On the slopes around them, the tall, dark pyramids of firs stood immovably straight, in masculine simplicity, like sculpture reduced to an essential form, and they clashed with the complex, feminine, over detailed lace-work of the birch leaves trembling in the sun.” (p 704)

It seems to me that she perceives the feminine as something of less value than the masculine.
Her heroines, like her heroes, are tall and thin, almost masculine.  They engage in battles of wills and resources, competing against men.  The mothers of the characters are either dead or interferingly obnoxious.  There is only one mother portrayed positively, as are her children, who are growing up free from the constraints of a corrupted society.  The most important creative act of life, the birthing and raising of children, is not a part of any of the main characters’ lives.  They want to make their mark on the world producing material things, but don’t seem to realize that even those will fade and be destroyed.  The only lasting legacy humans can have on this earth is their children and their children’s children…..souls that will live on when the material is gone.  Children are the supreme production of the human race.  It is interesting to me that children, and a healthy family unit, are largely missing from these books.  I suspect because, in that family unit, the theories of objectivism break down.  Parenting is impossible without the willingness to make and accept sacrifices.  A healthy family unit, the basis of a healthy society, cannot exist on the basis of these philosophical statements:

“Productiveness is your acceptance of morality, your recognition of the fact that you choose to live-”

“Pride is the recognition that you are your own highest value,” and

the “symbol of all relationships among such men [“men who neither make sacrifices nor accept them”], the moral symbol of respect for human beings, is the trader.” (pp 1020-1022)

Ayn Rand had some very accurate descriptions of the political situation in the world today, but her basic understanding of humanity and creation was, I believe, flawed.

“To force a man to drop his own mind and to accept your will as a substitute, with a gun in place of a syllogism, with terror in place of proof, and death as the final argument – is to attempt to exist in defiance of reality.” (p 1023)

This situation IS a reality for many in this world, as radical Islam and terrorists are forcing people to make this choice.  Yet what gives people the courage to stand up for the truth, to retain control of their minds, and accept death rather than give in, in most cases is not the objectivist philosophy, but rather their faith.  Faith in the God who created us and gave us value, faith in the moral universe he gave to us, and faith in the one Man who sacrificed all for those willing to accept that sacrifice.  I’m sorry that Ayn Rand did not have this faith; she might have attained to the happiness she sought had she worshipped God rather than man.

Note:  Quotations are taken from the 35th Anniversary Edition, hardback, of Atlas Shrugged, Dutton, 1992.


What’s Going on Here?

In an online magazine article, a blog writer told of her experience shopping with her three young children in a crowded store.  She expressed her opinion that children are not valued in our society.  I was amazed at the number of negative comments she received, most polite, but some resorting to name-calling.  The one that stuck in my head, though, was that of someone who ended his remarks by telling her not to waste people’s time by publishing her thoughts in a public forum.  I wanted to reply, “Who forced you to read it? Why should she be blamed for your choice to read and comment on what she wrote, her freedom of expression curtailed because you felt you wasted your time?”

Seems like it makes no sense, right?  But it reminded me of another incident that “stuck in my craw” even more.  Some months ago my daughter and I were hanging out in an ambulatory care waiting room, there to support a friend who was having surgery and to drive her home afterward.  Being a people watcher, I studied some of the other occupants.  There was a man there alone, waiting for his wife.  There were two sets of grandparents and a set of parents waiting for a child.  There was a woman on her cellphone, calling for reinforcements as she needed to be somewhere else,  Eventually an older woman joined her; they both spent some time there, and then the first woman left.  The TV was on and one news item was the upcoming local visit of President Obama to some rally or event.  One of the grandpas remarked that he’d heard on the news earlier that they weren’t expecting many people to show up. There was an implication, perhaps, of the declining popularity of the president.  Mind you, these were just six people sitting in a waiting room, facing each other and making conversation to pass the time.

The older woman, sitting on the outside of this family circle and apparently preparing to leave, said angrily, “You need to watch what you’re saying in public.”

The old man, taken aback, answered, “I’m just repeating what I heard.”

“Well, you need to watch what you say because not everyone agrees with you, ” she retorted, and then she marched out of there.

The rest of us looked at each other in surprise, commented about the inappropriate nature of the woman’s statements, and let it go….except that I couldn’t.  It kept coming to mind and irritating me.  What right did this woman have to tell someone to be quiet because she didn’t want to hear what he was saying?  He wasn’t being loud or rude or uttering profanity; he was just expressing an opinion.  This incident came to mind again when I read that comment on the article; apparently that commentator also felt he had the right to tell the blogger not to write what he didn’t want to read.

What’s going on here?

This used to be a country where the free exchange of ideas was encouraged.  No longer.  Our freedoms to express our opinions verbally, in writing, or through media have been seriously curtailed.  There will always be someone who takes offense, someone who will then express his dissatisfaction by attacking the perceived offender, and it seems that in these days the political system is on his side.  The ability to have a rational discussion of different opinions with the goal of understanding one another’s point of view is something we are fast losing.

Are we going to allow ourselves to be muzzled?  Or are we going to continue to speak, write, and portray what we think despite those whose loud opposition to free expression is the real “hate speech.”


Writing 101: A Room with a View

IMG_0107I am 66 years old, yet the most lasting experience of freedom I have ever had was during the summers I spent as a child in the Catskill Mountains of New York, in a place with the unlikely name of Muldavinville.  To the uninitiated, it was just a summer place, a “bungalow colony,” with a funny name.  To our parents, it was a place to relax, swim, play Scrabble, and enjoy the summer vacation (many parents were teachers) in an environment that kept the kids busy, happy, and generally safe.  I’m not sure if the other kids I grew up with during the almost ten summers I spent there really felt as strongly about the place as I did.  But I was a very shy, introverted, and fearful youngest child back home in Brooklyn; it wasn’t until college that I was able to be drawn out of my shell.  I lived for the summers, when I became a different person, active in sports, popular, a tomboy who was comfortable being myself.

Neither of my parents drove when I was a child, so we didn’t own a car.  To get to Muldavinville, we had to take a train from Grand Central Station to Liberty, NY, where we were picked up by Melvin Muldavin, who with his mother, Matilda, owned and ran the place.  I remember the paneled station wagon that he picked us up in, and the drive through the winding country roads bordered by trees,  climbing up the mountains, my anticipation increasing with each turn, until we finally pulled into the graveled driveway and up the hill.

On the left side of the graveled drive and parking area were two large white frame houses, one belonging to Matilda and Melvin and the other for a summer guest.  Across a footbridge to the right, however, were a number of smaller, more rustic cottages.  The first one, the only one on the left, was where we spent my first years in Muldavinville.  The cottages consisted of covered but not screened porches, two bedrooms, a dining area and kitchen, and a bathroom with sink and toilet only.  Attached to this first cottage were the rooms housing the coal stove and the two showers whose water the stove heated.  What I remember most about living in this cottage was the noise made by the coal being shoveled into the stove to heat the water.  What I remember most about the showers was the time my older brothers and their friends tried to peek in the high windows while some of the teenage girls were showering.

The other cottages were more or less in a line across the field which was the baseball field on the weekends when the working men came up from the city.  Some were single, and some were attached. We spent most of my summers in one of the attached ones; my friend Saul and his family stayed next door.  Saul and his family, like ours and several others, were regulars; other families came and went. My sister came with her husband and my nieces one year; my younger niece and I traded tonsillitis back and forth, and I spent a good deal of my time set out on a cot to receive the healing rays of the sun.

Up on the hill was a large building called the casino, in which we held dances, parties, and the final spaghetti dinner of the summer.    There was an open section between the casino and the field with metal barrels for our sorted trash: papers to burn, glass, tin cans (no aluminum back then).  The food waste was set aside to give to the farmer to feed his pigs.  There was a campfire ring where we had campfires.  Down where the cottages ended, right before the woods, was a pingpong table and volleyball court.

Woods were all around, and the path to the lake was through the woods.  The farmer’s chicken coops and ranging chickens were not far from the lake, and we used to watch the chicken hawks sailing in the sky above us as we swam, played in the sand, mud and lake clay, or rowed the single rowboat.  I will never forget the horribly squishy feeling of frogs eggs under my feet, the coolness of the mud plastered all over my body to insure I could go in the water just one more time, the pain of the first sunburn we endured to start our tans, or the fear of drowning that I got when I was pushed under an inner tube that everyone was submerging.

After some years, our cottages were updated with showers and hot water, and the coal stove and community showers were gone.  Several years before we left for good, a man built a large chicken house not far from Muldavinville;  the chickens were caged, and when the wind shifted, the stench was awful.  I’m not sure why we stopped going when I turned fourteen, but nothing has been able to replace it for me.  Having lived in several different apartments and neighborhoods growing up, for me Muldavinville was the most stable part of my life, the place where I really belonged.  Going to the Rexall store in Jeffersonville and picking out a new paperback book, sitting in the rowboat with my friend Ruth in the middle of the lake, savoring the newness of our books before reading them, walking the mile down the road to the tiny town of Calicoon, waiting with my allowance for the truck with baked goods and candy which came twice a week, learning to folk dance…..memories flood back.

There was a time, after the Muldavins sold out and left, that the property that had been Muldavinville came up for sale.  My brothers and my brother-in-law, I think, considered buying it, but on examination, decided it had been changed too much.  I’m glad I didn’t get to see the changes; now I can keep the memories as they are, as much a part of who I am as they have ever been.


Some Old Unfinished Thoughts About New Names

For some reason, the words of songs from the musical Don Quixote have been running through my head.  The book itself I read several times, but long ago.  The musical, of course, departs from the book quite a bit, but its message rings true.  Don Quixote, a mentally unstable old man with a love of stories of chivalry, imagines himself to be a knight, cons a local into being his squire, and rides off in search of adventure.  What I have been pondering upon is how his illusions became real for some people, changing their lives for the better.  The most significant, I feel, is the story of Dulcinea.  Don Quixote, searching for the epitome of womanhood who will inspire his feats of courage, meets a prostitute at an inn and believes her to be his Dulcinea.  My old brain does not remember her real name, but that is not important, because as the play ends, the woman has begun to be Dulcinea; by treating her with the chaste love and respect of a knight, by seeing her for who she can be rather than who she has been, he inspires and empowers her to accept that new name as her real one.  The song she sings of her life and her past, a song of being rejected, betrayed and used, is powerful, harsh, and strident.  The song she sings with Don Quixote at the end, as he lies dying, is his song of belief in his “Impossible Dream,” sung with sweetness and hope. This pitiful old man, who had fantastic dreams of chilvalry and honor and dared to try to make them reality, despite being mocked and ridiculed, did not change any major history in the world.  What he accomplished, at least, was to change one person, freeing her from her past.

I have been rereading the first three books in Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance cycle, because the last one was recently published, and I’d forgotten much of the earlier three books.  Perhaps that is what got me started thinking about names, because in the stories, a fantasy series about dragons and their riders, the main character, Eragon, learns of the importance of knowing one’s true name.  Your true name embodies who you are, and you must discover it for yourself.  If someone else can figure out your true name, he would have the power to enslave you.  The significant thing Eragon learns, however, is that your true name can change as you change and grow.  Your name defines your essence but does not limit it.

This is as far as I got with this one, almost a year and a half ago.  I have long since finished reading the final book in the Inheritance Cycle,  I haven’t been humming Don Quixote songs lately, and I no longer remember where I was going with this blog……I know that I still am having a hard time figuring out how to actually post things, so maybe I was done and just never got it up on the board.  Here it is…..