The Immigrant Mind: Immigration and Identity (Part One)By Luma Simms Wednesday, May 17, 2017
The light from the setting Arizona sun filtered through the two American flags undulating in the back of his pickup truck. They were secured on posts. I can’t remember the color of the truck because I was transfixed by the look on his face – serenity. He had reclaimed his homeland. He belonged. His black bandana was thin across his forehead, and was clean and crisp. Even his beard was well trimmed. He was neither rowdy nor frowzy. Sometimes we can read people’s struggles on their faces; I could read his. Like me, he also had his own identity crisis. But he had overcome. He had the look of a man finally at peace. Things were going to be OK now. His country, America, was going to be great again. And for a few seconds I felt again the gnaw of rootlessness.
It is ingrained in the American mind that the United States is “the great American melting pot,” as the old Schoolhouse Rock video sang it: “You simply melt right in.” But we don’t “simply melt right in” – not anymore. People across the country have noticed this; immigration itself has become one of the most contentious issues in our public square. “Why are immigrants not melting in?” people ask.
The answer is that we have an identity problem; that is, the host country – America – has national identity issues. And modern man in general is undergoing an identity crisis.
I have said in a variety of ways that the most fundamental problem of our age is anthropological. And the reason we have an anthropological problem is because we have a metaphysical problem. Looking at the world around us, examples as disparate as immigrant assimilation, children rejecting their sex and their bodies for something other, to the anemic state of modern art, across the spectrum of human identity, creativity, and life – all of these are but variant manifestations of the loss of metaphysics in our modern age. It is not that the metaphysical reality of the world around us does not exist anymore. No, it’s that the thinking patterns and habit of modern man has so shifted that he can’t “see” the metaphysical. The world has been bled dry of anything that is not material and rational.
But what does all of that mean? What does it have to do with the nationalistic, anti-globalization movements across the world? And how in the end does this circle back to America’s immigration problems? That is what I’ll be addressing in this series.
The Stars in the Heavens
It is good to feel small and in awe. That is the posture most conducive to wonder – to wisdom and knowledge. There was a time when men, women, and children sat staring at the night sky, allowing unhurried thoughts to slowly percolate. Stories were told. Songs were sung. Pictures were painted (if not literally, then in the mind). They watched a fire rise, dance, and smolder. Observing, contemplating. and imagining.
The observing, contemplating, and imagining would rise and fall over time in the history of humanity. Throughout, man was aware of his own being as man, and he was aware of all that which was other. Not only was he aware that he was man – a distinct, rational animal that thought, spoke, created, loved, hated, killed, and bred – but men were also aware that even between mankind there were distinctions, variations and divergences. Different peoples had their own stories, myths, music, and gods.
I won’t comment right now on the moral dimension of it. The reduction of a complex issue such as identity down to “racism” and “nationalism” is dangerous. Not that there is no such thing as the evil of true racism, but it is a perversion of the gift of human identity.
Spartans knew that they were not Athenians, and the British understood that they were different from the French. People grasped personal and national identity; they weren’t scandalized by their differences; rather, they believed they should be reinforced. An Irishman would glory in his Irish heritage – and don’t dare call a Scotsman an Englishman.
In a fascinating essay titled The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, George Orwell made some observations about people’s identities; his particular subject and audience was the English people. Critiquing the erasing of distinctions in his own day, he wrote,
One must admit that the divisions between nation and nation are founded on real differences of outlook. Till recently it was thought proper to pretend that all human beings are very much alike, but in fact, anyone able to use his eyes knows that the average of human behavior differs enormously from country to country. Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. And above all, it is your civilization – it is you. However much you hate it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from it for any length of time.
Throughout history, the metaphysical undergirded how people understood themselves and others. This is part of what Orwell meant when he wrote “that the divisions between nation and nation are founded on real differences of outlook.” People groups had a framework of life out of which they operated. The building blocks of this framework, or “worldview,” included such things as the history of that people, its religious habits, its cultural traditions, its intellectual life and art culture, and so on. People were linked to people, and people were linked to the institutions that made up their society. And it was within this embedded structure that they understood who they were.
Every person at some point will ask, “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “What am I supposed to do with my life?” These are the questions that man has always asked. When they were able to be answered satisfactorily, man tended to thrive. And even though these questions may universally be asked, each person asks these questions particularly – as a distinct individual at a time and place. To answer them, the individual draws on that framework peculiar to him (that is, the people he is linked to, the language, metaphors and religious habits of his surroundings, his cultural traditions and so on).
In the next installment of this series, we will look at selfhood, the good and ill of globalization, and the identity adjustments immigrants must make in order to assimilate.