You wouldn’t think The Great Gatsby would mean much to the hardened Brooklyn high school students I teach every day.
Yes, the classic novel by Irish American F. Scott Fitzgerald is a staple in classrooms. But there are moments where it’s difficult to feel any sympathy for these rich and spoiled characters, especially early in the book when they are just sitting around drinking and complaining.
And yet, I’ll never forget when the blockbuster film of Gatsby came out. I read the first half of the book with my students and then I took about 40 of them to see the film.
In other words, they did not know how the story ended. They were shocked. Angry. Several even cried.
Lesson learned: Some stories are uplifting. But others are tragedies.
This all came to my mind as we continue to rant and rave through a debate over the future of immigration in the U.S. We were appalled by the carnage in Paris. And then it came here, to San Bernardino. What appears to have happened (as best as we know at this point) is that an American-born husband and his Pakistani-born wife -- who was inspired by ISIS -- shot up a health center leaving 14 people dead.
And so came the calls, once again, to seal up the border, which we’ve been hearing loudly and clearly -- well, for centuries actually -- but certainly since the whole Syrian refugee mess.
Republicans pounced on this issue to make a broader point that we need to keep Syrians -- and others -- out because they are a national security risk. Sane people can agree that we don’t want terrorists strolling into the country.
What was really interesting to me, though, were the subsequent defenses of our immigrant traditions.
"It is very important ... that we do not close our hearts to these victims of such violence and somehow start equating the issue of refugees with the issue of terrorists,” President Obama said.
More passionately, New York governor Andrew Cuomo added, “If the day comes when America says ‘close the gates, build the wall,’ then I say take down the Statue of Liberty, because we’ve gone to a different place.”
Given our current political climate, this is impressive. It’s also poppycock.
Don’t get me wrong. I more or less agree with Cuomo and Obama. But let’s be clear about something: Righteousness and morality were never the reasons America became a nation of immigrants. We became a nation of immigrants because this nation needed immigrants. Especially the big business types who make a lot of money.
As sympathetic as I am to Cuomo and Obama -- and as disdainful as I am towards the nativist clowns juggling their way through the Republican circus -- they are perpetuating a myth that America, in the past, lovingly embraced immigrants and only now are we considering changing that tradition.
Nonsense. America became a great nation of immigrants not because of our traditions but in spite of them -- as in our paranoid nativist traditions.
And we became a nation of immigrants not because of our blessed hearts but because of our wallets. Then, and now, immigration is mostly about self-interest.
It is, of course, particularly sad to see folks with Hibernian -- or Italian or Polish or whatever -- names nodding their heads when Donald Trump and the other Republicans launch into their anti-immigrant shtick. Again, reasonable people can disagree on the particulars of immigration policy. And liberals, too, have their blind spots.
Let’s face it -- immigrants do commit crimes. Some of them ignore or resent American traditions.
No group radically altered the face of a city -- of a nation -- more so than the immigrant Irish Catholics. In the end it was for the best. But it wasn’t always easy to see that.
Next year, Eugene O’Neill’s epic of Irish assimilation A Long Day’s Journey Into Night will open on Broadway. This is fitting.
Because immigration is not a fuzzy feel-good Hollywood story. There is a tragic element to it.
If we are going to reap its many benefits -- as we ultimately did when the Irish assimilated -- we must accept the difficulties along the way.
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