Thursday, 9 May 2013

What did immigrants ever do for us?

As everybody knows, that magnificent imperial power, Rome, was founded by Romulus and Remus, two twins who as babies had been suckled by a she-wolf.


Founders. Started well, ended badly. But later came glory

Later on, things turned a bit sour between the twins, and Romulus killed Remus, which is presumably why, in The Life of BrianJohn Cleese never asks  ‘what have the Remans ever done for us?’ 

In other versions of the Roman story, it wasn’t Romulus who struck the fatal blow but one of his mates. There was no doubt some squeamishness about a founding myth involving fratricide, though given the way brothers sometimes behave towards each other, I should have thought a desire to inflict fratricide is frequently a pretty strong desire in a lot of siblings, closely followed by an equal inclination in their parents to commit infanticide.

Of course, it would be unrealistic to expect two twins to launch a whole city – and anyone who has followed the story so far will no doubt have been struck by its gritty realism – so they had to enlist the help of others. That they did by inviting anyone who wished to come and join them, with no questions asked. So a great many unsavoury individuals, the kind of people with often pressing needs to be elsewhere fast, congregated to the site of the new city, which was built by as undesirable a collection of criminals and outlaws as you could hope to see anywhere.

They were all men, which rather limited the city’s hopes of longevity. They needed to find some expedient to attract a few women to join them. But these were men who were perhaps short of the capacity to attract, or didn’t think that attraction was a sufficiently reliable method, and didn
t find more energetic means unduly reprehensible. So they invited a nearby tribe, the Sabines, to a slap-up meal. As soon as festivities were over, they seized all the females in an act which set the bar pretty low when it comes to the treatment of guests, and which has come to be known as the rape of the Sabine women.
Nicolas Poussin:
a case of extreme bad manners towards guests?
When the far from gruntled Sabine men came back to wreak horrible revenge on the Romans, the women intervened between the two sides, calling on the ones not to kill their fathers and brothers, on the others not to kill their husbands and sons. Clearly, the refusal to take rape seriously and the inclination to be lenient in handling it, has long antecedents. 

But what interests me more was what the myth reveals of Roman attitudes towards assimilation: the Sabine women had been completely absorbed into the people of the city, as had all the wastrels who’d drifted to it in the period of its foundation. That Romans really believed in that kind of assimilation is revealed by their later history: huge numbers, down the centuries, gravitated to the city as slaves; in time, many were freed and as soon as they obtained their freedom, they were granted citizenship as well. The same happened throughout the empire, with Roman citizens in every province, many of them locally born.

In other words, the Roman Empire, one of the most successful the world has seen, which despite almost constant war around its periphery, kept the peace and stimulated prosperity in huge areas of Western Europe for four or five centuries, was built on the shoulders of immigrants. Romans spoke a huge number of languages and believed in a huge number of gods; the Empire testifies to the vibrancy and power that multi-culturalism, through the assimilation of the foreign born, can give a society.

Now fast forward to just a couple of hundred years ago and the words of Emma Lazarus, some of which are inscribed on the plinth of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.


Beacon to the world:
calling for the wretched refuse of other nations
It’s true that these words weren’t always honoured in practice, with successive waves of immigrants to the United States often having a torrid time of it when they first arrived, not infrequently at the hands of the immediately preceding wave. Somehow down the centuries, however, the US has been able to absorb Englishmen and Scotsmen, Irishmen, Scandinavians and Germans, Italians and other Southern Europeans, turning them all into US citizens. 

They took Anglicans and Baptists, Quakers and Catholics, Jews and more recently Muslims, Hindus and representatives of pretty well any faith on Earth or those with none at all. And, with a constitution keeping the state and faith firmly apart, guaranteeing that the former would be secular, assimilation into a huge, multi-cultural melting point has generally worked well.

Give the US another generation or two, and the Hispanic immigrants now forming the main inward flows, from the US's near neighbours in the Americas, will have been as well integrated as Minnesota Swedes or Chicago Irishmen. And they may even have taken further steps towards absorbing that great minority, the black descendants of the slaves who made the wealth of the south back in the eighteenth century.

‘The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.’ Isn’t that so like the Roman founding myth? Come to us, whoever you are, and whatever you may have been in your past, to help us build a country. It worked for Rome, and it’s worked pretty spectacularly for the United States too. Just like the Pax Romana, the Pax Americana has guaranteed peace for its friends for sixty years, though at the price of more or less uninterrupted war with those threatening the edges of its sphere. And it has driven unprecedented levels of prosperity for large parts of the world.

Immigrants. The restless, striving masses, driven to achieve, injecting new blood into societies to take them to unimaginable heights.

So why do we get so upset about them?

2 comments:

Faith A. Colburn, Author said...

People are thinking about their own local places where they're having trouble finding jobs and worrying someone else might get them -- maybe immigrants. They're afraid they might have to accommodate people who are different from them. And they're terrified that, for the first time in history, there won't be enough of them (the WASPs) to overwhelm the others.

David Beeson said...

Yes, I think that sums up the way they're thinking.

One of the best stories I know in this line started in the 70s when the Asians were being forced out of Uganda. The city of Leicester council put ads in the Kampala papers telling the Asian community not to come to Leicester - not enough housing, schools, jobs. The Asians came anyway.

Thirty years on, the council published an apology to them, admitting that they'd transformed the economy and life in Leicester.

If people could just overcome those fears...