We’ve Seen This Movie Before

Basic privacy concerns have always prevented me from writing about certain things, particularly some of the important people in my life. I did mention for the first time the other day that my next door neighbors growing up were an Irish-American family from Manhattan. Because of that, I learned some stuff I would have otherwise picked up only in books, if at all. I got to see firsthand how legitimizing it was for them to have an Irish-American president elected in 1960, and how painful it was to have him assassinated.

I also learned that in the 1960’s, a Holy Cross and Harvard-educated lawyer couldn’t join any of the prestigious non-Catholic law firms in Manhattan because of religious bigotry. By the 1970’s the firms began the practice of making just one Catholic partner so they could serve Catholic clients. As a result, Italian- and Irish-Americans banded together to create their own prestigious law firms which by the 1980’s were established enough to compete for customers like BMW. It probably didn’t hurt that BMW is a southern German corporation rather than a northern one.

Because of these direct early experiences with anti-Catholic discrimination and segregation, I’ve always thought of Irish-Americans as outsiders who have had to fight and scrap to become the “real Americans” Sarah Palin liked to talk about. And my neighbors’ contemporary experiences also informed how I thought about my Italian-American grandfather’s life growing up in Hoboken and then getting shipped off to live with Protestants in Virginia before embarking on a journey to Ann Arbor to become a doctor.

Jeff Greenfield is correct to point out that the hostility we’re seeing to immigration on the right in this country at the moment is nothing new.

The millions of Eastern and Southern Europeans who came to America in the early 20th century led to a smorgasbord of fears: they were bringing disease or alien ideologies or would undermine core American values. Senator David Reed argued that restrictions would need to “maintain the racial preponderance of the basic strain on our people and thereby to stabilize the ethnic composition of the population.” Successive laws in 1921 and 1924 established quotas that sharply limited immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe; quotas that were extended by the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952. In successfully arguing for Congress to override President Harry Truman’s veto, Senator Pat McCarran said: “We have in the United States today hard-core, indigestible blocs which have not become integrated into the American way of life, but which, on the contrary are its deadly enemies. Today, as never before, untold millions are storming our gates for admission and those gates are cracking under the strain.”

As difficult as it has been for the Irish and Italians to achieve equality of opportunity in this country, it’s been harder for Jews (as I pointed out to David Brooks) and simply impossible for people of color, particularly African-Americans.

I think the advantage of looking clearly at this history is that it enables us to assess how many of the nativists’ fears actually came true. It’s obvious that we didn’t get devastated by disease, for example. And I don’t think the American way of life was diminished, at least not in a strictly cultural kind of way.

On the other hand, the Congregationalist pilgrims of Massachusetts were completely supplanted politically by Irish-Americans. And we saw versions of that happen in many of our big cities in the Northeast and throughout the Upper Midwest. And this did provide a few oases of political support in the north for the Democratic Party which was then able to take power in the 1930’s and launch us on the path that led us to where we are today.

So, the big changes were about political power, and that did eventually change our culture by leading us away from Apartheid and Jim Crow and opening up a way forward for progressive reforms in the economy. It’s probably not a coincidence that the nation was finally ready to deal with Civil Rights around the same time it was ready for an Irish-American president, and it could be a similar type of evolution that gave us our first black president around the same time as we got our first national health care law and a major leap forward in gay rights.

If you did not and do not like these kinds of progressive changes, then you probably can blame (at least partially) our immigration patterns and policies for enabling them.

But we should be clear that we’re talking not about crime and disease. We’re talking about power. I don’t see too many Congregationalists leaving this country because it’s too unhealthy or dangerous. And I don’t think many of them believe that the country has left them behind culturally. They adapted to having less power and many of them had or adopted progressive values that fit in nicely with the priorities of the people who supplanted them in Boston.

Conservatives understand that the country is moving ahead and leaving their values behind, and they’re understandably anxious about it. But we’ve seen this movie several times now and the one thing we know for sure is that it doesn’t turn out the way they say it will turn out. It’s true that they’ll lose political power and see changes that make them uncomfortable, but the country will remain recognizable and chart a familiar course.

[Cross-posted at Progress Pond]

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.