Commentary: Revel in the beauty of America’s diversity

“There but for the grace of God go I.” This was but one of my mother’s many cautionary sayings along with “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” and “Don’t put all you’re eggs in one basket” etc., employed to bring my brother and me up short, and make us think before we acted, spouted off or cast aspersions against another.

“There but for the grace of God go I” has particular resonance for me in this current climate of xenophobic, anti-democratic discourse of absolutism. Critical thinking seems to have been displaced by the rhetoric of paranoia and hate targeted at immigrants. This tactic of fear-mongering has been used throughout the ages to scapegoat the “other,” “the least of thee,” the minority, the immigrant.

The nativist movement of the 19th century led the charge against that era’s great immigrant influx — the Irish. Called scum and depicted in cartoons as apes and criminals, the Irish were blamed for epidemics and economic destabilization. It was claimed that the founding Protestant values of America were under attack from “foreign influences.” The nativists advocated against naturalization of Irish Catholic “paupers” and “wretches.” No Irish Need Apply signs cropped up like dandelions all over the country. The pope was plotting to turn America Catholic, using the Irish as his minions who would then proceed to persecute the Protestants. There was no end to the bellicose hysteria fomented by nativist politicians., clergy and blow-hards.

Meanwhile, the Irish set to work at the hardest, dirtiest, most dangerous jobs. They built the railroads and skyscrapers, mined the coal, dug the roads, cleaned the houses, and washed the clothes. They, along with many other immigrants, hugely contributed to the building of this country.

How quickly we forget. Today’s version of the 19th century nativists call themselves white nationalists, and a great many of them are descendents of those Irish and other immigrants who were thought to be the scourge of American values. Hmmm. They seem to have stolen some pages from the playbook that was once used against their very own forefathers. They forget that in the 18th century it was bemoaned that so many non-English speaking immigrants were coming to the country — the Germans. Many Native Americans still bemoan the arrival of the white man, who in a matter of a couple of hundred years all but wiped-out a culture that had thrived on this continent for thousands of years previously.

There is no question that we must fairly regulate immigration no matter where the source, but please, no one living in this country today whose ancestors were once immigrants (and that’s all of us) has the right to cast hateful aspersions at those seeking a better way of life.  Many of them are quite frankly doing the jobs too many of us don’t want to do under conditions and at wages lower than most of us are willing to accept. Just as the Irish, Poles, Italians, Germans, Scots, Welsh, etc. did, today’s immigrants are helping to build this country and ensure its prosperity.

Sitting in a sidewalk cafe in Brooklyn on a warm, sunny spring day last April, my husband and I watched the world go by. The streets teemed with families and children of every ethnic and cultural configuration under the sun. We witnessed the present and the future of human diversity in America, reveling in its richness and beauty. It is not stoppable. Neither Hitler, nor Stalin, nor Mao nor any of the myriad sociopathic criminals who have tried over the centuries to stop it have been able to. Americans of all backgrounds fought and won WWII to ensure the rights of life, liberty and justice to all people regardless of color, creed, or nationality. We defeated the very face of xenophobic madness, and we must remain constantly vigilant lest it raise its ugly head again right under our own noses.

“There but for the grace of God go I.”

 Maggie Maloney is a Strasburg resident.

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