My grandfather was awesome. He was a self-taught engineer (though never officially given the title) who was a part of some very important engineering projects like the Veterans Land Act and the Manitoba Good Roads program, both of which essentially plucked much of Manitoba from the sloughs and created homes and roads for people. He led a wonderful life, was in his own apartment with his wife well into his 90s, suffered a stroke, and died at 99.
Also, he was bloody funny. I used to take a weekend whenever I could to go to stay with them in Penticton. He would tell me the stories of his life, and I found it beyond enjoyable to connect with that living history. One of the things I would like to do one day is write a novel based very loosely on those stories.
I wouldn’t say that my grandfather was a racist, but by the time I was getting to know him as an adult, he certainly held a few of those squirrely old timer reactions to things that are different. I remember sitting with my parents, sister, grandparents, and aunt in the aunt’s apartment. My sister would have been around 18 and starting University, so someone asked what she was going to take. She replied along the lines of, “I’m taking a year of General Studies to try and figure out what I want to major in.” Grandpa chimed in with, “Well, why don’t you buy yourself a turban? Then you can join the RCMP. I’m not a racist, but if you can’t fit in with the way we do things, you should just go back where you came from.” I replied, “Yeah, that’s why we live in teepees and hunt the mighty buffalo.”
The look my dad shot me… To this day, it chills me. It was a look that said, “Son, your grandfather is old and may well be a bit off on this issue, but if you persist I will remove all the skin from your back with my belt before placing your empty head on the coffee table.” I shut right up.
I’d have been around fifteen, and I instinctively knew that my grandfather was being a prick at that moment. I don’t think he meant to be a prick, I just think he was old and a little cantankerous, and the topic was one that annoyed him. But facts is facts, he was being an ignorant prick. So that’s what I thought of when I read a post on Dispatches from the Culture Wars today entitled Schlafly’s Ignorance of History. Read the post, but the broad strokes are that Phyllis Schlafly was saying that the goddamned IM-mee-grints that the US is getting today don’t care about America, they only want to wage JEE-had, so we should just not let them in the country.
I don’t think that’s an uncommon attitude at all, and I would venture to say that it’s nothing new. People have a habit of looking at their own lives and thinking, “That’s what normal folk do”. Anyone who doesn’t do that isn’t normal, and when they come from another country and don’t do what they do, it probably means they just aren’t being American enough. But the thing is, America is a nation of immigrants. Aside from the native people, nobody can trace their roots all that terribly far back. And when their ancestors came to the country, they certainly didn’t give that same respect to the lifestyles of the natives. They made their own way, and each and every immigrant through the years has done exactly the same thing.
Personally, I do put a lot of stock in the notion of a national identity. As a Canadian, I would love it if our immigrants brought their delicious food and left their bullshit at the door. But you can’t legislate that; what it is to be Canadian or American or whateverian grows and adapts as the population changes.
If you read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book, Infidel, you get a wonderful glimpse of that transition. I often think back to the description she provided of going out into the world dressed in what Westerners would consider fairly Conservative clothing and being amazed that the trains continued to run, and that no man was suddenly driven to attack her simply because she was visible.
No matter who you are, where you come from, or where you are going, changing cultures brings a degree of culture shock. It’s easy, especially when you are new and overwhelmed, to think, “Hell, everything made more sense where I used to live, and here everything is crazy and backwards.” You won’t be able to effectively guage how quickly or completely a person is going to assimilate to “normal” in an immigration hearing, and you certainly can’t create an immigration policy that only allows like-minded people. That’s just assinine.
Miss Schlafly, thank you for reminding me of my wonderful (if bigotted) grandfather. And thank you for being a coot. If you have a plan on how to effectively screen for people who don’t want to assimilate and a method by which to sell that to the American people, then I suggest you do your Contitutional Lawyer thing. Otherwise, just shush.