Sunday, April 11, 2010

Why Woodrow Wilson Needs a Swirly

In his History of the American People, published in 1901, Wilson decried the mass influx of southern and eastern Europeans.  Between 1880 and 1890, the U.S. population increased by 12 million people, evidence, writes Wilson, that the nation was being overwhelmed by unwelcome, unproductive foreigners.  The huddled masses from Italy and Galicia and Hungary and the untold masses of Russian Jews were simply too much to bear.  America was choking on excess immigration.

In fact, between 1820 and 1870, years when immigrants were mostly from western Europe, the US population grew from 9.6 million to 38 million, an increase of about 295 per cent.  From 1870 to 1920, considered the peak period of southern and eastern European immigration to America, US population rose from 38 million to 106 million, an increase of 179 per cent.  Couple this with physical expansion of the United States during the 19th century -- eleven of the fifty states were admitted to the Union between 1876 and 1912, representing an addition of 1,411,041 square miles of land, an area larger than France, Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom, Greece and present-day Poland combined -- and not only did US population growth actually slow during these years, but the available land dramatically increased.  There was more than enough space to hold the newcomers.

Wilson's complaint wasn't just the numbers of immigrants arriving on American soil; it was where they came from.  In the early part of the 19th century,  Wilson wrote, "men of sturdy stocks of the north of Europe had made up the main strain of foreign blood which was every year added to the vital working force of the country...."  These new immigrants were something else altogether, "multitudes of men of the lowest class from the south of Italy and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland," possessing “neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence.”  Europe was turning the United States into a dumping ground for their halt, their lame, their imbecilic, Wilson added, and they came in such numbers that it seemed the countries of the south and east of Europe “were disburdening themselves of the more sordid and hapless elements of their population.”

Wilson later apologized for these remarks, when it became clear that he could not win the US presidency without the support of Polish and Hungarian voters.  

There are three mind-boggling aspects to this story.  First, it subtly teaches us the dangers of relying on the wisdom of the day.  Wilson, the former president of Princeton University, was a learned man, and the learned men of the day embraced eugenics as a valid and enlightened way of understanding human behavior.  Some strains of humanity were simply weaker, lazier, less trustworthy, than others.  The only way to correct the weakness, was to prevent those weak strains from reproducing.  Thirty years after Wilson's history was published, Adolf Hitler used those same notions to provide a pseudo-scientific rationale for his policy of race purity.  We have an obligation to learn, to expand our knowledge, but to rely solely on our own understanding, on the wisdom of the day, is a perilous excursion:  Today's geniuses are tomorrow's crackpots.

Second, it teaches us much about the great ignorance, and the great amnesia that marks political discourse.  Wilson never formally repudiated these beliefs.  Though he did offer an apology to Polish and Hungarian voters groups, and he did agree to veto a Congressional act requiring a literacy test at Ellis Island, the closest he ever came to correcting his contentions was to say something like, "The Eastern and Southern Europeans proved to have strong backs and a willingness to work hard, menial jobs, thus helping to build this country."  Just in my family, those Slav workhorses begat progeny that includes three attorneys, a theatre owner, a small businessman, a college instructor, a school teacher, a nationally recognized composer, the chairman of a college English department, several people in the medical professions, and by my count, more than 50 individuals with college degrees.  Of course, today, Woodrow Wilson is remembered, if he is remembered at all, not as a classist or a racist, but as a delicate flower, a thoughtful and sickly fellow, feebly waving his Fourteen Points at Versailles, urging the great heads of Europe to just get along, pleading for a League of Nations.  There is no one, no matter how egregious his crimes or outrageous his sentiments, who won't, with time, not enjoy full expiation by the American people.  Except O.J.

Third, Wilson's comments underscore the viciousness and the depth of separation that marks America.  We are not a melting pot.  We're not even a stew. We're more like one of those Hungry Man Dinners, each constituent part segregated from the others in its own little aluminum trough.  When things mix -- a little gravy ends up on the corn, say, or some of the brownie's sprinkles slip over onto the slab of pressed turkey -- there's the Devil to pay!  Multiculturalism is no problem, I once heard a longtime Houstonian say, unless we have to live together.  Two of my sisters-in-law are Asian.  One of my brothers-in-law is Tongan.  All of them have stories of being shunned, mistreated, and disrespected here in the United States.  A few years ago, my brother, his wife and I were eating in a popular restaurant in upstate New York.  We found a place to sit; the adjoining table was occupied by two men dressed in construction clothes.  They looked at us, shook their heads, got up and walked away, making comments about how "those people" were taking over the world, and wondering why "yellows" were eating in their favorite restaurant.  This happened in 2006.  So much for the New Millennium.

This separatist mindset, so clear in Wilson, is in evidence when Sean Hannity bloviates on immigration, or when Rush Limbaugh smirks at relief efforts in Haiti, or when Keith Olbermann declares someone the Worst Person in the World.  It's destructive, and wrong.

I hope that somewhere in that Great Elsewhere, Piotr Litwin gets to meet Woodrow Wilson.  And I hope Piotr gives him a swirly.  If I ever meet Rush Limbaugh, I promise I will do the same.

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