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Thursday, October 18, 2018

Actually, what divides us is not political

What divides the country has political ramifications, but is not at root political.  The differences go far beyond and into matters more basic than political policies  and preferences.

The dividing factors are between the honest and the criminal.  
Between the intelligent and the stupid.  Between the benign and the malign.  Between the courageous and the fearful. Those differences cannot be reconciled at the ballot box.

The situation is one that involved the settlement of America, but that is often not acknowledged in the immigrant experience.

It is undeniable that immigrants came to America for better economic and social lives.  But what kind of people actually undertook the journey.  There is a body of literature which portrays the coming of Scandinavian immigrants to America. It includes Giants in the Earth by O.E. Rølvaag and The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg, from which an excellent film was made.  But they portray the struggles of families to establish themselves on the frontier and they are faithful to what occurred, but there are other stories of emigration that represent quite different circumstances.

My maternal grandmother and two of her sisters came to America as single women.  Their parents and brothers remained in Sweden.   I have only fragments of their stories, but have been able to learn quite a bit about the social history that motivated them to move.  I attended a college that was formed by Swedish Lutherans and took courses in the Swedish culture.  Some of the faculty were experts on the migration from the Scandinavian countries and the experience f the immigrants in America.

My grandmother did not like to be questioned about her life in 
Sweden.  She would give us grandchildren cursory answers to our questions and then dismiss us by saying there were some matters that she left Sweden to get away from.

At the time she and her sisters left, Sweden was operating according to the centuries of European feudalism.  There was little future for any young people, and the brochures flooding the Scandinavian countries about the opportunities in America were powerfully enticing. For young women in in Scandinavia, the future was hopeless.  Marriage seemed like the only option for a better life.  Emigration was vigorously denounced as a betrayal by the dominant conservative society in Sweden.  For young women to leave the country was an act of defiance.  In his book A Folk Divided, H. Arnold Barton writes of the prevalence of young women making the

"More characteristic among the newer arrivals, however, was the young, unmarried woman ... As domestic servants in America, they ... were treated as members of the families they worked for and like 'ladies' by American men, who showed them a courtesy and consideration to which they were quite unaccustomed at home.”
My grandmother and her sisters did not come from a rural family in Sweden, but from the merchant class. But like their rural sisters, they found jobs as domestics in Chicago and Minneapolis.  They had a feminist streak in rejecting their subservient roles.  I remember my grandmother and her sisters (Hulda, Amanda, and Tekla) as always dignified.  My two great aunts married men in Minneapolis who forced construction companies.  My grandmother married an alcoholic charmer who floated from one place to another.  She had 16 children with him, 8 of whom survived into adulthood.  He eventually abandoned her, his seven sons and one daughter on the Nebraska frontier, from where they eventually worked their way back to Illinois where, as a Wisconsin friend puts it, the soil is so rich it's vulgar.  With all that, my grandmother never forgot why she left Sweden.  One of the history professors I worked with explained that Swedish society at that time was something people strove to get away from.  The revulsion among many of the people overrule any patriotic or family loyalties.  It was not a nation they wanted to be a part of.  While America offered them opportunities, the power that drove them was an intense disaffection with their homeland.

Oddly, that history professor and Arnold Barton, the history professor who wrote the book I quoted from, both went to Sweden to live when they retired.  The emigration of millions of people, the breaking away of so many families, impelled a social and political change in the Scandinavian countries.

Many Americans have reached the point where they think the no longer their nation.  With the election of Trump and the values and behaviors he so stridently displays, America has asserted itself as a socially depraved society.  Trump followers are more interested in nurturing their hatreds  than in developing liberty, equality, and justice.  While many entertain the possibility of voting Trump and the Trumpists out of power, the fact is that they have shown a strong anti-democratic and anti-decency strain in American society which will remain no matter who wins the election.  A growing number of people I encounter would simply like to leave them behind.

The problem is that there is no longer an America of opportunity and open spaces to go to.  A segment of the country has undergone a social and cultural decay that pervades the nation as a whole.  It has regressed us to the bigoted factions of the pre-Civil War era, and with a vengeance.  It leaves many people in a dilemma.  Stupidity cannot be fixed.  Benignity cannot change dedicated malice.  The fearful will cower before the force of malice.  The belief in human integrity that powered the Greatest Generation has been displaced by an admiration for the dishonest, the avaricious, the mendacious. As Proverbs point out, consorting with the evils of society makes one part of them. But how do you separate yourself from them?  You avoid them and oppose them when you must.  But the important thing is the avoidance.  That is what is going on in the nation.That is what divides us.  

Politics cannot cure the disease that has infected America.  It can only spread the infection.  The solution is for people of good will and good purpose to form enclaves in which the ideals of democracy can be preserved and practiced within a group, at least.  

The division of he people of America is not a bad thing.  The survival of decency depends on it.

1 comment:

Porter Lansing said...

We in the West are proud of our obstructionist ways and DeepState leanings. We are soon to form our own single payer healthcare program with 8-12 states participating. To all who read this. "Go West young Americans."

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