Read an Excerpt
50 FACTS THAT SHOULD CHANGE THE USA
By Stephen Fender
The Disinformation Company Ltd.Copyright © 2008 Stephen Fender
All rights reserved.
Americans aren't born; they are made.
An English friend spending a visiting year in California recalled his son's first day in the local elementary school. Celebrating their multi-ethnic entry, which included children from Hispanic and South Korean families, the teachers asked all the new pupils about their countries of origin. One question was: "In what year was your country founded?" My friend's son was stumped. When had England been "founded"?
Later we adults tried out all sorts of answers to that question. True, you could say that Great Britain was established by the Act of Union between England and Scotland (1707), and that another such Act in 1800 forged the United Kingdom out of England, Scotland and Ireland. But England? Or Ireland, Scotland, Wales? Were they ever "founded"? And if so, who were their founding fathers? That was another question put to the incoming school pupils.
But America was founded. It's not alone in this fact. Many other excolonies, or nations reborn after cataclysmic revolutions—France, for example or, just to mention two of the countries from which the families of those California pupils were drawn, Mexico and South Korea—can trace their modern origins to specific dates and historical figures.
Fittingly, considering how good we were to become at the practice, we Americans announced our founding in the form of an advertisement, written mainly by the Virginia country gentleman Thomas Jefferson and signed by 56 lawyers, doctors, clergymen and businessmen, including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson himself. It was called the Declaration of Independence.
The Declaration announced to the world that the United States was open for business. No longer would customers for the country's raw materials have to go through Great Britain or ship their goods out in British sailing vessels. More to the point, given the conflict that the Declaration would soon provoke, friendly countries could now form alliances directly with the new nation, sending troops and weapons to aid in the fight for liberty.
In due course the advert was followed by a legal instrument, the Constitution of the United States, designed to codify the relationship between the federal administration and the various state governments. As the poet Walt Whitman put it: "the Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem." He meant that literally. Americans—even ordinary Americans—were poetic because together they had come up with the greatest artifact of the collective imagination, the complex Constitution and polity of the country itself.
What this means is that America is as much a contract as a country. Immigrants sign up to the idea of America, and must take a test in its laws and traditions before they can qualify as citizens. Anybody who buys into the idea becomes an American, wherever she or he was born.
By the same token, birth in the United States confers no special privileges. You can break the contract just as well as assent to it. During the protests against the Vietnam War, self-styled patriots sported a bumper sticker saying: "America: Love it or Leave It!" This didn't mean go back to where you came from. It meant: whoever you are, whatever your background—native or immigrant, old money or new money, city-dweller or hayseed, black or white—put your money where your mouth is and get out if you don't like the mutual contract between government and governed. It was all there in the title of the House (of Representatives) Un-American Activities Committee. You could be, or become, un-American by breaking the agreement.
Would the Houses of Parliament ever establish an Un-British Activities Committee? In 1940 they tried to outlaw the British Communist Party, which had come out officially against the Second World War, then being fought by the British with their backs to the wall. But Winston Churchill argued against the ban, saying that the Communists were Englishmen, and he didn't fear Englishmen. He couldn't imagine anyone born in Britain being un-British. That's because he was thinking of Britain as a natural evolution, an organic process, of which birth was a part. You couldn't go back and decide to be born somewhere else.
The British publisher Robert Maxwell, who was born in a peasant village in Czechoslovakia, volunteered for service in the British Army in the thick of the Second World War and took part in a number of dangerous engagements, gaining promotion from corporal to captain. When he won the Military Cross for gallantry, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery himself pinned the medal to his breast. Becoming a British citizen, Maxwell educated his children in England, and ran his business from there. In 1964 he was elected to the House of Commons as the Labour Member of Parliament for Buckingham.
When he died in November 1991, some time before the full discovery of his financial irregularities, his obituaries were generally favorable apart from one fact, which ran through them as a common theme. Try as he might, they said, he could never quite pass himself off as British. "Robert Maxwell loved England," wrote Anthony Delano in the London Daily Mail, "but never learned to understand what it meant to be an Englishman."
A psychoanalytically more up-market comment along the same lines came from Laurence Marks in the London Observer, who wondered whether the "ease with which he assumed social camouflage" had "eroded his sense of identity." Marks called Maxwell "a fantasist" whose "most fantastic invention was Robert Maxwell," reworked "from peasant youth to British Army infantry officer, and thence to publisher of recondite journals, Buckinghamshire MP and international financier."
Maxwell himself was painfully aware of the difference. He "used to stand up at public functions and announce: 'All of us here are Englishmen together.'" "The difference," he would continue, "is that you are Englishmen by accident. I am an Englishman by choice." Far from being a fantasist, he never felt completely assimilated in his adopted country. "Because I'm a foreigner and successful," he once remarked, "people say there must be some mystery or there must be some fraud. Neither is so. I am just successful."
So what about Henry Kissinger? Born in Germany just fourteen days before Robert Maxwell, Kissinger never felt the need, as Maxwell did, to smooth out his gravelly European accent. Does he still feel like an outsider in America? Whatever they may hold against him for his foreign policy, will his memorialists say that he never learned to understand what it meant to be an American? You only have to ask the questions to understand the American difference. How absurd it would be to expect anything remotely similar being said and written by and about Henry Kissinger. He became fullyfledged as an American when he was naturalized as a United States citizen on June 19, 1943. Since then, he has been at the center of the American establishment, even serving as the country's senior official representative to the rest of the world, as secretary of state. As an American, he was made, not born.CHAPTER 2
Throughout history around one third of all immigrants to America have returned home.
There's a photograph by Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) frequently reproduced in exhibitions and coffee-table books about American life. It is called "The Steerage" and shows a scene on a transatlantic steamer. Jauntily dressed women and men look down on a cargo well crowded with women in shawls, balancing children on their hips, amidst laundry hung out to dry over the rigging. Invariably this picture is seen as documenting poor peasants on their way to America, weary and bemused after a long voyage, but grimly determined to endure the landing at Ellis Island and to make good in the New World.
In fact, they were on their way back to where they came from—and so were the people looking down on them. Stieglitz took the picture on his first trip to Europe in 1907. Why has that picture been read so often the wrong way round? Because back migration has been the untold chapter in the great American story about itself. We like to think that people of other countries have been so desperate to come here that we now suffer a crisis of illegal immigration. In fact, averaged out over the country's history, around a third of migrants to America have gone back. Sometimes departures actually exceeded arrivals, as in the year 1931–1932, the worst of the Great Depression, when only 2,155 British aliens entered the U.S., while 12,311 left it.
Why this surprisingly large backwash? Some were turned back at Ellis Island after failing one or more health checks. Others were deported even after long years of residence in the country, as is now happening to illegal immigrants from Mexico when they are caught. Others again failed in their enterprise, having used up all their savings without finding a job or house for their families. Charles Dickens offers a harrowing portrait of some failed immigrants glimpsed in steerage on his own return voyage from America in American Notes for General Circulation (1842).
Some of them had been in America but three days, some but three months.... Others had sold their clothes to raise the passage-money, and had hardly rags to cover them; others had no food ... but the bones and scraps of fat ... from the plates used in the after-cabin dinner.
These unfortunates were forced back by the law or bad luck. It comes as more of a surprise, though, that quite a few migrants returned home because they wanted to. Some, like Frances Trollope, mother of Anthony Trollope, the novelist, and author of the highly critical Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), came out as migrants but turned themselves into tourists before returning home to write up their experiences. Others, perhaps like the better dressed figures in the Stieglitz photo, never intended to stay for good, but just to work hard for a few years to build up a nest egg to allow them to marry and settle back home. Nowadays, most of these would arrive holding one of the twenty-eight kinds of non-immigrant visas; so their return wouldn't be classified as back migration at all.
The reason why back migration occupies such a small place in the American public consciousness can be traced back to the psychology of migration itself. America is a country of immigrants. So strong is the psychology of migration that it doesn't really matter if we are newly arrived or the offspring of families ten or more generations in the country. This way of thinking has been handed down from parent to child, has become part of the national narrative. To understand this mentality is to understand part of what makes America distinctive.
Emigration was and remains a shock to the emotions. Typically a young married couple would be leaving their extended families, their friends, all the social, political and geographical landmarks of their town, county and country. Before the last quarter of the twentieth century, they would have had little expectation of seeing their friends and family again. Their life in the new country would be uncertain, even hazardous. There would be housing and work to find, new friends to make, an unfamiliar social and economic environment in which to plan a future. For many, all this would have to be done in a foreign language.
Given this trauma, the new arrivals had to convince both those left back home—and of course themselves—that they had made the right decision. Letters home to the extended family described the move as an ordeal heroically and triumphantly overcome. Often they spoke of material promise: cheap prices, fruit literally falling off the trees and given away in season, improved health, low rents or even free land, good prospects for jobs. Good news had to be sent back at all costs, bad news suppressed.
Letters often came right out with this connection between writing and good fortune. In her first letter home, two years after she and her husband emigrated from Lancashire, Kate Bond wrote, "Dear Mother,—I would have wrote before this, but could not write you pleasant news, as Stephen has been so unhappy in a strange country." John Rowlandson spoke for nearly all of them when he wrote to his wife from New York in 1852, "If I am successful you will soon hear from me again." And if not?
Another tactic for making the break bearable was to forget about the old home, even to disparage it. The past was past; there was no point in mooning over it. Sometimes this attitude took the extreme form of refusing to believe that the old country had a future at all. Migrants would be astonished, often even strangely disappointed, to hear that some progress—whether political, economic or material—had actually been made back home. "I see that the Reform [of the franchise] Bill has had a second reading in the House of Lords," wrote John Fisher to his brothers in 1832. "I am afraid it will not pass." But it did.
Excerpted from 50 FACTS THAT SHOULD CHANGE THE USA by Stephen Fender. Copyright © 2008 Stephen Fender. Excerpted by permission of The Disinformation Company Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.