To commemorate this past holiday weekend and perhaps to salvage some credibility for the Republican party, Peggy Noonan, former assistant to President Reagan, published an article in The Wall Street Journal this weekend focusing on “three immigrant stories that illustrate what makes our country great.” Her intention was clear: she wants to steer the conversation that the country has been having about immigration into a more positive light. And thus she gave the kind of examples that made up the mythology of America. She cited the stories of people the Journal readers already knew and loved: immigrants who came here by boat, seeking promise in the New World of welcome and safety. White people who came from Europe. As if there has been any controversy about those people.
The first story focused on a man who came here from Germany as a teenager, speaking little English. He worked in factories, and was rewarded with the universal gift of baseball by the Italian immigrants who took pity on the poor lad. He would later go on to meet his hero Joe Dimaggio and become a Nobel Peace prize winner and politician of almost unlimited power. It is that power, however, that makes Noonan’s choice of immigrant suspect. As for exemplary heroes of American society that we can point to and attribute the success of the open arms of this country, she chooses Henry Kissenger, who the late Christopher Hitchens concluded was “the man who ordered and sanctioned the destruction of civilian populations, the assassination of inconvenient politicians, the kidnapping and disappearance of soldiers and journalists and clerics who got in his way.”
Hitchens’s accusations are not to be taken lightly. With the opening of secret documents that date back to Vietnam and the bombings of Cambodia, it is the limitless power orchestrated by the American dream that might have created such a monster. Is the monster of Hitchens’s accusations a uniquely American creation? Noonan attributes the success of Kissenger to the way he was accepted into American society, the friendliness and what she calls “the dissipation of the old hatreds.” In that hotbed of welcome and opportunity, anything was possible.
The second story she told was about an Irish immigrant named Mary Dorian who worked in the cosmetics department of her local Abraham and Strauss department store. It could only be in America that a (pale) girl of such means could make a living and so successful a life that black people came to her funeral to pay their respects. That was how great she was. And nobody even protested.
Her third example of American success was that of director Mike Nichols, who, upon arriving in New York was astounded to find lettering on a storefront in Hebrew. He supposedly questioned his father, “Is that allowed?” to which his dad replied, “It is here.” That one, my friend, is adorable. It is absolutely fitting with what white people think of when we think of our heritages, of the greatest generation, and about the building blocks of this country.
The problem is, nobody is talking about ex-pats who were escaping Hitler or communism or any other kind of -ism except “Mexicanism.” We don’t care if people from Canada wander in from the open borders up north. We would not bat an eye if some adorable people from down-under decided to live here paying their taxes by entertaining us with their hilarious accents. In short, what Peggy Noonan missed is that she is taking the easy side of a debate that no one is fighting.
Had Noonan come up with three stories of hard-working, tax-paying brown people who came here refusing to press 2 for Espanol, who landscaped while going to school to learn a white collar trade, she might have had some substance. Had Noonan described my cleaning lady who came here from Argentina because kidnapping in Buenos Aires is commonplace, as is severe poverty and violence. If Noonan had access to Gladys, who had been a preschool teacher in Buenos Aires and her husband Javier who had been a sportscaster in their country, but was a laborer here, who had purchased a house and given birth to a son, named for Dylan of Beverly Hills 90210, she might have given a human face to some of vitriol that has risen up in our beloved country. Noonan might have talked about how Gladys spoke broken English, but would not speak to me in the Spanish I was learning as a college junior because she was embarrassed by her language.
Of course, Noonan doesn’t know about Gladys and doesn’t have access to her: she went back to Argentina two years ago after her husband was arrested and deported. The attorney they had hired and paid over seventeen thousand dollars to had assured them that their papers were in order and that they could expect green cards soon, very soon. That attorney kept his kids in braces and summer camp with the money, never filed a single paper, and hauled off Javier like a common criminal.
These stories are as American as the old ones of the 1940s. These are the stories that we need to own and to own up to in order to address the growing divide that is overtaking this country. The Horatio Alger stories of coming here with nothing to becoming a home owner and a contributor to American society are the backbones of our mythology. But that mythology needs to be updated if we are going to make any real progress, before our children are told stories of a faraway land, that once upon a time was united.