Pulsing through our national veins are two great myths. The first, we are a land of immigrants; the second, we are a land of exceptionalism. One blazes from the welcoming torch of the Statue Of Liberty; the other shines from the “city on a hill” seen by visionaries from the Puritans to Ronald Reagan. Today these two myths are in mortal combat with each another. Not only in Washington DC, but in dinner conversations across the country.
To be clear, myths are not lies, but neither are they exactly facts. They are the powerful collective beliefs by which a people live their life and meet their future. From Mark Twain’s idealized American cowboy to Hitler’s demonized German Jew. Today there are those who believe these two myths cannot co-exist. They fear that our exceptionalism dare not be polluted by too much immigration.
These gut-deep fears are as old as those felt by the first jungle tribe that cowered at what “the other” across the river might be. And yet such fears may be as recent as our own family albums. Study the faces of your grandparents and great-grandparents. Chances are they could have told you about those same fears back then that exist today. It wasn’t Islam then, it might have been Catholicism; it wasn’t Syrians, it might have been Italians; it wasn’t terrorism, it might have been anarchism.
My own family album begins in the Sicilian town Al Pacino’s “Godfather” made infamous: Corleone. My grandparents, perhaps like yours, heard of the “shining city” and booked passage on a ship to New Orleans in 1899. It was only later they learned the largest mass lynching in US history had taken place in New Orleans just eight years earlier. Not Blacks, but Italians. Nine immigrants were found not guilty of murdering Police Chief David Hennessy, but mobs dragged the innocent men along with two others from jail and lynched them all.
This was followed by mass arrests of Italian immigrants in the city and other parts of the country. A New York Times editorial on March 16, 1891, referred to the victims of the lynchings as “…sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins.” An editorial the following day added: “Lynch law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans….” John Parker, chief organizer for the lynching, was quoted in 1911 describing Italians “…just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in [their] habits, lawless and treacherous.”
John Parker went on to be elected Governor of Louisiana. Just as many otherwise decent citizens have over the years been elected to important offices; all along harboring in their DNA the same ancient fears of “the other.” The beat goes on….
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