Life’s good here. Maybe some people don’t realize it. Others might say, too good, undeserved, and conspire to take it away.
Commies. Commies would admit, though, life’s good here for commies. Long as they don’t break the law, even commies can rag and nag and denounce and protest their living hearts out. I use commies here as a metaphorical example, you may insert any radical antiestablishment group you want. Take your pick among the unenfranchised and the disenchanted, or start your own.
Say something nasty and clever and get your Andy Warhol’s worth before they shut you down. Who they? They who? You know.
It’s considered illegal to yell fire in a crowded theater, but only if there’s no fire. It’s a ruling under the so-called Espionage Act, I think. Even so, in America we never experienced a social order where typewriters and Xerox copy machines could be evidence of transmission of unauthorized information dangerous to the state. Samizdat? Say what? Out front of any crowded theater on Hennepin Avenue any given night somebody might be preaching about the End of the World, some way or other, and that’s free speech. Until or unless it incites a stampede among ticketholders inside the theater, hard to do without hardwiring the preacher outside to the crowd inside, a very deliberate event to which the preacher would be held culpable. Neat trick but not likely to happen, even in Minneapolis.
When I say life is good, I speak to a greater good. There’s no denial bad exists. Bad people. Bad trips. Bad omens. Bad luck. Bad relationships. Bad outcomes. There’s bad stuff all around us. Bad deeds are done. Bad stuff happens. And there is evil. Everywhere.
When I look for the good I don’t ignore, trivialize or overlook the bad stuff. Sometimes that’s all I can think about. Perhaps it’s an ancient obsession illustrated by the Greek playwrights and Dante, Spenser, Shakespeare and Stephen King — evil is much more interesting than good. I am so blessed by such a charmed life I feel compelled to brood over all the disparities and inequities between my life and the less fortunate. I get depressed contemplating injustice, inhumanity and misfortune. I seek serenity sorting the things I can change from the things I cannot. I seek ways I can change things I’d like to change, if I can, how I can, if I care so much. It’s hard to accept things cannot be changed. Sometimes it’s hard to accept serenity.
What helps is the five minute rule, which I learned from my daughter Michel. It’s okay to dwell and ruminate over something that really bothers you, but if it’s not resolved in five minutes it’s time to move on and think about other things. Important things always come back anyway, but it’s no good to obsess. You may even find caution thinking about happiness too much. Living existentially is a fluid soundtrack, voicetrack, movie within a movie. That it’s Real Life, as my granddaughter Tess calls it, then all the more lucid these experiences go mixed in the milieu of life, and the more serious. The more sincere.
An advantage is my age, an accumulation of trips around the sun and an awareness of awareness of trying not to be caught unawares. As I keep saying, mine is the perspective of a charmed life. Born privileged in the heart of the United States of America in the middle of the 20th Century, I got nothing to cry about from lack of opportunity at any level in my lifetime. Not born rich per se, but middle class bourgeousie, availed to all the niceties of life in modern America at a time when our culture prized itself as highly civilized. Such an upbringing leads, as you have seen, to a sense of exceptionalism, in a way not undeserved if not entitled. (See Untitled essay, 29 May, 2017.) I do blame my parents for several events in my life that changed trajectories of my history which I could not control, but not for the outcomes. For good or not I inherited their genes, but not their destinies. My life is a product of mostly unrestricted choices of my own in a universe of exponential possibilities. I made my own mistakes. I accept responsibility. If I enjoy no serenity it’s my own fault.
Arlo Guthrie had a talking blues about the Last Guy. It was a parable about the hierarchy. At the top he might group the ones we call the One Percent. Down under are various levels of the rest of us. And there we look down and down, those who don’t have it as good as we do. But don’t worry, even they can look down at somebody who’s got it worse. And they can look down at somebody even worse off than they. Then Arlo stops playing guitar and asks, but what about the Last Guy?
What if the last guy was a woman? Probably. Or a child.
Look at world migration this way and you see people trying to catch on to the bottom rung. They risk all kinds of unknown doom to escape a sucking abyss of torment for the slimmest, tiniest chance at a sliver, a grain, a crumb of a life I and my peers are born into. Everybody above them, ahead of them are the same way, looking up. Looking to better their place, their situation. Sometimes we fall. Sometimes we get back up. Some keep falling and falling, right off the earth.
Where I live, in the middle of the northern hemisphere and the western hemisphere, where life is good, there is no shortage of sad stories of stuff gone wrong. There’s no shortage of humanity, so there’s daily evidence of best laid plans and worst laid plans going awry. Insurance actuaries make a living calculating these things. The costs get built into the prices. The price of a good life is subsidizing the ones who have a bad life. Prisons, for example. The chronically sick. The homeless.
And on up the ladder we subsidize each other, the charities and foundations, entry level employment, the service industries, the manufacturing jobs, the professions and the trades, traders, the entrepreneurs, capitalists, entertainers and artists, scientists, farmers and tycoons. This constant flow of subsidies is the basic economic climate of a free society. When somebody perceives the subsidies are getting out of hand, the flow changes. When somebody sabotages the flow, the disruptions are challenged. A greater good is achieved.
It’s no good to enact policies to knock the bottom rung off the ladder.
It’s fashionable among some people to hail America First. They know the good life when they see it and want to preserve its history and carry it forward to the next generation. They express resentment to immigrants as intruders, invaders. Some resent legal immigration as much as illegal. I can see descendant Native Americans rolling their eyes. Imagine seeing all these waves of white people, some with black slaves, all claiming land, just six, seven generations ago. See how far we have all come. To build a wall around that, arm the moat, crank up the drawbridge and not let anybody else in is like a religion saying there is no more room in heaven, that’s all the souls we can take, no more baptisms. It’s more than knocking off the bottom rung of the social ladder, it’s pulling the ladder out of reach. It’s saying, sorry, no more Promised Land.
You could argue, who promised what? The facts exist that the American Dream all came true here despite the dodgy white man’s ways. Somehow the Twin Cities on the upper Mississippi River evolved from scratch into prototypical urban modern metropolis amid vast grids of quasi-non urban populations. The tribes of European immigrants who settled in Minnesota the past two centuries all seemed to learn how to make nice among one another here in the New Country. As much so that people of color got a hind start in the social ladder, a factor today in the disparities calculation and worth mentioning in today’s comparisons about the good life.
It could be trendy to be color blind but to miss the subtle shades of individual features is to miss the beauty of each individual face.
Pity to people who hide their faces.
Who avert their eyes.
Assimilation works both ways. What worries the worriers is that we might feel compelled to be more like them. It begins with their food, when it enters the mainstream. Long ago it was Chinese. Pizza and spaghetti. Goulash. Enchiladas, tacos and fajitas. Indian curry. Not to forget ribs, fried chicken and mac and cheese. What could be next? Intermarriage. Interracial children.
We forget we are the first ever multiracial democracy on the planet, however it came to be so. We proudly called ourselves a melting pot, a mosaic. For all our stupid and tragic mistakes there are episodes of brilliance where America, as they call us around the world, showed how to become a more perfect union of We the People, and not just by its government but in the daily dumbass everyday relationships and interactions of everyday life.
Today America is looked upon as a crucible of incivility. A forge of dissolution. With or without Russian assistance, the squabbling memes and tropes are shattering the mosaic society into venal and selfish conflicts of identity. Identities. Less perfect union. Segregated outlooks. Jealousy of those perceived to be getting better attention. Outrage at feeling left out. Outbursts of We Will Not Be Replaced, whatever that really means. A president who pits the screwed against the shafted. Everybody’s got their own class action suit. Blame globalism. GMOs. Blame The Man. Whitey. Blame affirmative action. Robotics. Welfare fraud. Immigration. Blame somebody else for not living right. Feel righteously deprived and forgotten, no matter who you are. Disenfranchised. Disrespected. Disgruntled. Displaced. Deplored.
Cultural Road Rage.
We’re setting a bad example for the rest of the world. We’re misusing our superpowers. We’re disproving democracy.
If we don’t sort things out among ourselves, somebody will step in and sort it out for us. Censorship of the internet already is invoked to keep the peace. The worldwide web is policed. There’s a dragnet of metadata and cyber digitalysis every minute. We leave indelible prints in the Cloud every day. Privacy is surrendered at the door. Hate may be expressed in private, one supposes, but when expressed publicly there is the responsibility of attribution. Is it free speech to simulcast a massacre? To show videos of beheadings? These kinds of suicide missions on the web beg for attribution, there’s nothing stopping the Christchurch and ISIS types except where they might reveal themselves, expose themselves on line. What then of the dispensers of just plain old lies? What authority says what is true and what is fake? Are true examples of hate the sum of something truly fake about the motives of haters?
President Trump said there were fine people on both sides of the clash riot in Charlottesville, equivocating the nastiness of the White Nationalists and Antifa belligerents at the core of the violence. He said he supported the peaceful demonstrators who came to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E Lee, top general of the Confederate army in the American Civil War. He expressed admiration for Robert E Lee, which is odd for him, because Lee was a loser, and Trump disrespects losers. Lee commanded the army of rebellion defending the Lost Cause, slavery. Trump expresses a lot of attitudes sympathetic to the old Confederacy. Sometime you’d think he’d like to start the Civil War back up again, just to mess with history and make guys like Lee winners.
Where are our leaders guiding us? Are they goading us? What is the endgame of getting everybody pissed off at one another? Everybody shaming the next one? Where does the endurance of criticism endanger free speech?
This trend of cleaning up the worldwide web from the troll vigilantes who exploit the chaos of ideas with scurrilous and violent propaganda exposes a need to mind both intent and content of all the spectral messages we all send and receive every day because in cyberspace it never goes away, we are all publishing our histories. We all have forums to persuade others, which are linked to other forums. We can grouse our hearts out and be shared around the planet, maybe not everywhere but enough uncensored places to find company for our miseries.
Don’t think this isn’t overlooked by brain trusts who would exploit our naivete of opinion. Somewhere in Russia a guy named Edward Snowden might shed some light on just how sensitively and granular the powers that be pay attention to what people think and can be persuaded to think. It might be guessed that as much effort is being made to confuse and distract you and me as is made to conceal and reveal pertinent facts of life.
If the melting pot is boiling over and the mosaic is shedding stones it’s time to stir the pot, reduce the heat and restore the masonry.
There should be a cultural baseline by which we can measure a consensus of progression or regression of what constitutes the good life. Set the baseline whenever, wherever — 1865, 1965, 2015 — USA, Europe, Ukraine — and measure the qualities from before and after, and see what net values pertain to you, your family, community, region, state and so on. Is it really all that bad?
All the attempts of humankind to perfect itself and universalize the good life have not been in vain. It’s in the eyes of the Syrian families begging for alms and mercy on the street corners of Paris or the Bangladeshi street vendors hawking selfie-sticks around the train station at Milan. It’s why weary Hondurans and Salvadorans trudge through Mexico to get caught crossing into the United States for a chance to become the next Last Guy in America. Why migrants risk death and great unknowns to live in poverty and squalor at the very bottom of the rich world rather than endure one more day in the home town of their homeland.
Migration, of course, is nothing new, not to nature and not to the human race. The notion that people vote with their feet is just a modern meme to put a democratic spin on migration as a historic pattern of humanity. It could be inevitable, a part of human nature in keeping with its species evolution. It’s almost absurdly late to become so self-aware of this characteristic just now.
The latest humanitarian pattern clashes with the American government policy to restrict all entry into the country in order to restrict employment and economic benefits to citizens and authorized foreigners. It also is supposed to vet foreigners for threats to national security. Mostly the policy is meant to reserve menial jobs for unemployed citizens still not working in this current economy featuring very low unemployment, both of the skilled and unskilled variety. The argument that immigrants take away jobs from born citizens is almost like saying slaves took away jobs from free people back in the day. The entry-level labor force of people just starting out at the bottom is not all teenagers working at the Dairy Queen. The pressure in the labor market falls backwards into unfilled jobs at the lower rungs, and policy drives the unemployed and under-employed to take jobs formerly held by immigrants, this to satisfy a political base to placate Americans First. Tariffs and the trade war are meant to ramp up American mining and manufacturing, all to net jobs for all the forgotten and aggrieved bluecollar rednecks howling out there for Trump to give them back a slice of the pie. Will they accept this? More to my point, how forlorn and aggrieved were these people to begin with? Was it really so bad?
Compared to the next guy. All the way up and down. Perhaps the thinking is, stop coddling refugees and they’ll go away. In that case we should stop advertising the good life, it only teases the underclasses and promotes jealousy and despair. As long as hope exists, however, people tend to learn a way to rise. There’s no reason the human survival instinct is any less acute than a common fish or bird or reptile or mammal. Somebody will always seek and find ways to get better than their baseline.
This is a real world example of that abstract thing called freedom, one of the components of how life is good. Like democracy and justice. Happiness. “Freedom”, as sung by Janis Joplin, Roger Miller, according to Kris Kristofferson, “is just another word for nothing left to lose.” Even a white bum can choose the hobo life even as migrants seek destitution as a means to plant roots in new lands. Rather than die out, the migrants go somewhere they hope to be free to live a life without constant threat of death. Sleeping under a railroad bridge in Minneapolis is considered a better life than hiding from gangs in San Salvador.
To characterize the migrants as invaders invites adversarial pejoratives dehumanizing the outsiders, memes and tropes to make your head spin. The president warns us of some pretty mean dudes in the caravans from Central America. Over in Europe Viktor Orban of Hungary is accused of harboring migrant Syrians in cages to encourage them to go home. The attitude persuades that migrants from foreign subcultures — in America the people of the tropics, and in Europe coming from the middle east or Africa — pose a threat to cultural sovereignty. This smacks of the old Nazi Master Race ethnic purity philosophy. At best it’s a white Christian nationalism. In the middle it questions whether migrants corrupt or contaminate an established culture and leans to a fear that the immigrants might someday dominate. Fear of reverse assimilation. Fear of conquest.
The current xenophobia in America has such narrow vision it might suffer from its own success. The trickle-down theory of deprivation could squeeze immigrants out of the labor market enough to raise wages at enough low paying jobs to scare up prices and require higher tariffs to keep foreign products from costing less. Agricultural workers, hotel housekeeping and sanitation jobs could be the earliest vacancies unfilled, and it could work its way up. The servants will disappear. People would cry, it’s so hard to find good help these days.
The straits need not get dire. If people are seriously looking at their cultural legacy they need a positive vision that accounts for the inevitable tides of the humanitarian condition. These refugees cannot remain stranded. Just as good people who foresee the steps leading to global warming and act to prevent the steps, good just people who recognize the human migration patterns and make ready to accept the future shifts of population should step up to persuade policies to accommodate these inevitable strangers and put them to work. Give them a chance. Opportunity.
These people today and their children are the future of the human race and cannot be denied a share of the planet’s bounty. America talks big about universal rights, equal opportunity, freedom and innovation, things that drove the motives to found a political, social and economic system for a greater good. A virtuous system like ours should not be hoarded, as if liberal democracy is only peculiar to America and can’t possibly happen anywhere else and cannot be understood by any other people. Treating people as ineligibles, excluding them into incarceration, walling them off from hope betrays the moral high ground and leaves our principles in a ditch, digs our society a mass grave.
The late Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone used to say, “We all do better when we all do better.”
Just because our union is imperfect we should not flinch from trying to perfect it. The right way. Stop the persecution of refugees and recognize international rights to asylum. Recognize the origination of migration and keep working toward the alleviation of misery. Liberate the refugee camps and enable migrants to join communities in societies. Stop wars and terrorism. Repatriate the displaced. Respect the dignity of these asylum seekers because these are the ones who come in peace and stand between the rule of law and the rule of terror. Mistreatment of migrants creates enduring resentments. Excluding migrants altogether creates an adversarial order. Migrants will either find their way in or be aggressively kept out. An open free society cannot sustain mass forced deportation of its population. Putting them in detention centers makes it worse.
Humane treatment of migrants is future terrorist prevention. Look at Gaza.
Where they will come from and where they will go, the next generation of people who vote with their feet, no predictions are overheard about the next diaspora. If indeed first humans walked out of Africa all the way to the Bering Strait and crossed to inhabit the land masses of the Western Hemisphere, the trend since reaching Patagonia has been a U turn back across the Isthmus of Panama to walk back north to settle in a geographic zone above the Texas border.
In Minnesota, where I live, the Land of Sky Blue Waters, somewhere in the middle of North America, all the recorded human history is a story of migrations. The known people of the Ojibwe and Dakota meandered back and forth between the plains and the forests amid the lakes and rivers. It’s a toss between Norse and French explorers who first tramped through the region from across the Atlantic. French names prevail. The next cycle of migrants from the American east brought pioneers and soldiers to stake out the northern territory of the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon. As the indigenous people were chased out or sequestered, immigrants from Norway, Sweden and Finland, undeterred by the cold winters, homesteaded and farmed the open acres. Then from Germany. Ireland. They founded towns and swelled the new cities. Migrants from the Balkans came to work the iron mines. Czechs worked the brickyards. In one hundred years Minneapolis went from a scenic waterfall in the wilderness to a fancy sophisticated little model of Europe transposed via the American east coast.
Europeans, and other old world cultures, and Canada, make fun of America because it has such little history. It’s true, we’ve only been on the map a few hundred years. In that short time we’ve created quite an impact, yet micro places like Minnesota reveal what impact the rest of the world has made on America.
In less than two hundred years Minneapolis has gone from that scenic pristine waterfall on the Mississippi River to a cosmopolitan haven of international tastes and world markets. It’s jumped from pioneers in sod houses to smart houses almost overnight. The French can laugh at us because our grandest cathedrals are barely a hundred years old and are renderings of copies of original old world monuments. It’s okay. For some of us bumpkins it’s as close as they’ll get to baroque architecture.
This is not to justify the invasion of this land in the first place, but what’s done is done. We are eight generations deep. I cannot idealize the process either. Successive generations of migrants have faced conflicts of acceptance by settlers born here — the arrival of white people must have been the Native American’s worst nightmare come true. Like the African American migrations up here from the Deep South after emancipation, Jim Crow, after the two world wars and again in the 1960s, the black migrants worried the established descendants of migrant Europeans, who fretted time and again, there goes the neighborhood.
Minnesota is residence to waves of migrants for as long as recorded history and well into modern times. Both world wars brought displaced persons and refugees — my daughter’s father in law was a child born in a Nazi work camp of Polish parents, who as a family survived the war and came to the United States rather than go back to Poland, but had to wait a dozen years in Morocco first. The Korean War brought war orphans adopted en masse, some of the first Asian looking kids my generation grew up with. Romanian orphans became popular when the Iron Curtain collapsed. The Vietnam War brought a wave of refugee families seeking asylum from the North Vietnamese takeover. The same conflict in Laos brought Hmong refugees from camps in Thailand. Cambodians. Then Karen from Myanmar and Tibetans from Tibet. Liberians in exile from a nasty civil war. Same with East Africans, refugees from civil war. Ethiopes. Adoption of Central American guerrilla war orphans got popular in the Reagan era. Then Somalia failed as a state and its civil war drove some two million people from their homes, and tens of thousands ended up here in Minnesota. And all the while the Latino presence kept swelling in the community like panaderia dough.
Meantime the Ojibwe and the Dakota keep crisscrossing the landscape like shadows.
Suffice to say the puny history of my home state is writ large of human migration and integration of ethnic — shall we say — diversity. Along with the more high profile waves and tides mentioned above are many more examples of visitors and scholars and exiles and romantics and the lost and found from somewhere else found their way into the roots of this place — for example, I have not mentioned the Italians because everybody knows that like the Irish if there’s a town anywhere with any taste at all there are always Italians — frequently Greeks but always Italians, it’s a given. My home town is graced by all the diasporas of the globe.
And every winter I ask why anybody in this world would choose to live here if he or she were not born here. There must be something that fends off extremes. That something-something that makes things flow. Perhaps, as I suggested, it starts with the food. Soul food. Delicatessen. Chow mein. Pizza. Shepherds pie. Gyro. Subway foot long sub. Tacos.
So many choices. So many grocery stores. These are the meeting halls of humanity, the aisles of democracy, the chambers of the good life. The place where all the ingredients of the good life are available. The chapel where an EBT card can get a bite to eat — spend it well, like a votive prayer. The shelves are like stained glass windows of logos and brand names. Bins of fresh produce are like choirs. This is exactly what Woody Guthrie meant by Pastures of Plenty. At every Aldi and Cub there is shared space of security and well being. A grocery store is the ultimate town hall of peace, freedom and prosperity. Even in the moments preceding an April blizzard there is no panic. There is a general sense there is enough for everybody.
There’s no reason to hoard opportunities for the good life, no justification to restrict access to mobility, and no excuse for making life worse for the refugees than if they stayed home. Migration is a fact. To lock people out is to lock people in. Consideration of greater good should prevail against criminalization of seekers of asylum. Such claims take time to evaluate but the answer can’t always be no.
Laws that can be respected are legislated by elected bodies who represent the temperate volition of citizens who agree to abide by rule of law. This is the continuing effort to build a more perfect union so said in the US Constitution. America has to codify its tolerance for the reality of global migration in light of its own success in promoting itself as a beacon of liberty.
Where I live there is a preponderance of evidence of good things contributed to the community by migrant cultures, including the original indigenous ones. If the human footprint has sometimes trod upon itself and tripped in its own tracks, the pathways to resolution and even redemption have been found and trails to more prosperous progeny tend to prevail. Here a girl from Somalia from a refugee camp in Kenya grew up to get elected to the US House of Representatives from a neighborhood district once settled by Finnish homesteaders. Prince grew up in a neighborhood used to be Jewish. Bob Dylan is Jewish. Hubert Humphrey came here from South Dakota. A lot of respected leaders come from Minnesota, which borders Canada.
Minnesota is a nice place. Life is good. Summer is taking hold and the trees are green again. Maybe too much mud for the farmers right now, but maybe the rain will hold off. A lot of sky blue water this spring.
Common cause is as common as common sense these days as we fend through daily bombardments of hype and breaking news. We rely on each other to remain grounded against brainwashing and gaslighting. It’s a conceit to the belief we can make consensus beyond identity politics to make a coherent case for liberal democracy.
That’s what it takes, though. Against demonizing propaganda a clear persuasive argument for the greater good is what it will take to un-inaugurate the current president, who will not go quietly unless he gives himself a stroke.
It’s one thing to hue and cry about the plight of the poor refugee (or just the plight of the poor) and blame reactionary rhetoric and nationalistic ult-right policies for inhumane treatment, and yet another thing to get lawmakers to write comprehensive legislation to establish a fresh immigration code and to elect an executive branch more interested in mitigating the causes of diaspora than punishing migrants. It’s a bleeding heart cause but the eventual will meet the inevitable and America faces vast incarceration and/or deportation of a significant percentage of its population, many of them born here, and almost all persons of color.
Not just in Washington, DC but at the United Nations, America could lead in promoting fair passage of refugee populations and in participating in stabilizing factors to prevent or repatriate diaspora, if there were an administration interested at all in guiding the future of the world, engaged in real world issues. Instead the president dismisses these distressed places as shitholes. He won’t even rebuild Puerto Rico since the hurricanes. He thinks he’s cute.
Until Donald Trump is repudiated at the box office — unelected at the polls — and uninaugurated, the United States Congress does not need him to craft legislation to govern America. If out of spite he vetoes sensible bills passed behind his back, he risks further exposing himself as a fraud more dedicated to his own glory than to Old Glory.
Whatever happens next, don’t be confused that life is good because Trump is in the White House. His administration is an extreme stress test of the resilience of American character. He has no character. No ethos. Those who put him in power and support his regime have nefarious motives. They are like him, dishonest, devious, deceptive and willing to go to extremes to advance their agendas and impose their will. It’s not an economic profit motive so much as a political monopoly campaign to wear out our minds and brainwash us (like George Romney) to hassle among ourselves with unresolved identity issues and contradictory beliefs, giving them the high ground of relentless moral certainty. Don’t be fooled. It’s iron pyrite.
The greater good will come from examples set by people who can envision a world beyond this century and keep sight of existential resolutions in the present tense. Who keep hope alive instead of pandering despair. Who can take criticism and turn it into advice. Who take integrity seriously and ask only honest effort from their fellow human beings. Who reject hate and hatred and persevere with love. Who keep paying attention and don’t get bored.