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and let it begin with me. Over these last days, I have been wishing I would hear that song, instead of “God Bless America.” We cannot end terror, we cannot have peace until everyone agrees to live in peace, until no-one has a grievance or a hatred so deep that they will plot for years to wreak a symbolic destruction without compassion for the individual people they destroy. And that cannot be until we Americans have and act on compassion for the millions, perhaps billions, who are slowly but just as surely dying in pain and fear all over the world. America is both rich and free, two things that people everywhere have always wanted. Our parents, our grandparents, our great-grandparents many generations back in some cases, mostly came here from poverty, oppression, or both, beginning with the English, Germans, Scots-Irish, and Huguenots almost 300 years ago.
We are all immigrants here, even those who came before history was being written. Only one of my own great-grandparents came as recently as the 19th century, the others were all, as far as I can tell, part of the first great wave of immigration here in the early 18th century. At that time, the Thirty Years War had just ended, thirty years of armies crossing Europe, whole towns evacuating for years, crops unplanted or gone to feed the armies. Much of what is now Germany and northern France were then as much of eastern Europe, the Balkans, Palestine, Afghanistan are today. France evicted all Protestants, and the principalities that later became united as Germany switched religions at their rulers’ whims. Tens of thousands of Germans came west to the “new land”, in the holds of small ships, many dying on the voyage of two or three months.
The local authorities in Germany interviewed those who wanted to immigrate. Of Johannes Willig, 32, married 8 years with one daughter, they recorded that “Because he is poor and has nothing more than he can earn by hard labor, he seeks something better…The place is a better land, if one wants to work.”
Forty years later, an immigrant wrote back to Germany from here:
“Is it still as rough as when we left? As far as we are concerned, we are, compared to taxes in Germany, a free country! We pay taxes once a year. These taxes are so minimal that some spend more money for drinks in one evening when going to the pub. What the farmer farms is his own. There are no tithes, no tariffs, hunting and fishing are free, and our soil is fertile and everything grows…”
While most of us know about the “Pennsylvania Dutch”, I never realized until recently that many of the Germans who settled the frontiers of New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Carolinas moved west. The sons and daughters and grandchildren packed up, at first on pack horses and boats, later on the famous Conestoga covered wagons, and moved on. With the descendants of the Scots-Irish immigrants, Scottish Protestants who had been sent to make Catholic Ireland Protestant, and who came here in equal numbers with the Germans, the Germans settled Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, Illinois, Georgia, and Alabama. Their descendants moved even farther on, settling all the land from the Mississippi and on, all before the Civil War, and all before any major new streams of immigrants, pushed by the Irish potato famine and continued wars in central Europe, began in the 1850s.
The young George Washington’s first job was as a surveyor on the frontier, in what is now the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. Here is what he had to say about the German settlers there, the ones whose children and grandchildren fought the French for the interior of our country and then settled the Midwest.
“[April 1748] Monday 4th. This morning Mr. Fairfax left us with Intent to go down to the Mouth of the Branch. We did two Lots & was attended by a great Company of People Men Women & Children that attended us through the Woods as we went shewing there Antick tricks. I really think they seem to be as Ignorant a Set of People as the Indians. They would never speak English but when spoken to they speak all Dutch.”
These are the people who brought us the great symbols of our American frontier, the log cabin and the covered wagon. They were the “long hunters” in the Virginia and Kentucky wilderness, and the farmers who turned the forest and prairies into amber waves of grain. They were, in short, our ancestors, biologically or culturally. They also provided the first target for our long tradition of looking down on or even persecuting those who follow in our footsteps as immigrants, as if, having been here first, we alone (whatever generations we alone includes at the present moment) are worthy of the bounty here. They won’t speak our language, they won’t follow our religion, our customs, they want to bring their own culture. They should, in short, give up their own versions of everything that makes us human in order to share our freedom and plenty. And those who are not here, those not fortunate, hardy or foolhardy enough to give up all to come, they should give up their own cultures in their own lands to enjoy our benevolent help. Wear the clothes the missionaries say, run your businesses the World Bank way. Farm and mine and work in sweatshops to provide television, cell phones, and running shoes for America. See the results, unobtainable, on the one television in your village. And eventually, turn the technology and our blind complacence into weapons and destroy the symbols of American wealth and power.
The national grieving this week seems to be for us alone, just our losses (which are indeed terrible). But surely we should be mourning also for all those in all the places where terrorists grow up and are formed by hate, and for all the world if we cannot trust everyone to do right by each other. American flags bloomed everywhere last week, in what I cannot help feeling is still an arrogant blindness to the rest of the world. We will hang together, conquer and punish those who have trespassed against us. But should we not try to forgive or at least understand and have some compassion on those who trespass against us?
A colleague suggested that a better symbol would be flags with the famous photo of the earth floating in space. One wasn’t to be had, but a printout is posted on the wall of my cubicle, that ball of green and blue and white floating in black space. What if that symbol bloomed everywhere instead? What if we didn’t bomb Afghanistan? Do you or I deserve to live more than an Afghan peasant? Will the world really be a better place for it? Could we respond in some other way, one that brings those directly responsible to justice, secures our safety in the short term, and starts a long-term solution to the long-term injustice in the world? Could we Americans start doing without some of the huge share of the world’s resources that we take? We have been told for a generation and more now of what can only be seen by others as our greed, and still our consumption becomes more conspicious, far beyond what we need to live and enjoy. My daughter’s friends are already talking about the possibility of being drafted. What if they all served in a peaceful national and international service instead?
Thanks for still being with me. If you agree, pass this along to your friends, put up a banner or a poster of the earth, and think about how we can each live with less material goods and give more to the world. Let us use our famous American know-how, power, and resolve to work together to stop the terror peacefully. America was built by one family at a time crossing the ocean (or the Bering Strait long ago), clearing the forest, and building a new home. A free, just, and bounteous world for everyone can only be built by each of us taking daily action. Our government can only do what we will support, and our government will do what enough of us truly support by our actions.
Peace, love, and joy,
The quotes are from George Washington’s Diary, available on the web from the Library of Congress, and from The Palatine Familes of New York 1710, by Henry Z. Jones, Jr.