Sunday, September 23, 2018

Refugees In The Family

I heard the historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz say recently that nationalism in the US is rooted in militarism, and always has been. In fact I had just heard her say that on a podcast I was listening to, just before I pulled off the highway and read a text from my daughter. She was at a street fair in the allegedly progressive city of Portland, where we live. The text contained a picture, the back of a muscular white man with a t-shirt that featured a huge US flag along with the words, “if you don't like this flag then I'll help you pack.”

I don't believe in freedom of hate speech, or in the idea that such nationalist thugs should be allowed to terrorize our communities unchallenged. There are many neighborhoods I'm familiar with where someone sporting a shirt like that would not make it very far without facing consequences from the locals. The neighborhood this man was walking through, in fact, used to be one of them. But gentrification has changed that. The autonomous sorts who used to populate the neighborhood and set a solidly antifascist tone have mostly been priced out. The hipsters apparently have more of a “live and let live” attitude. They're very tolerant.

I'm not, but as I slowly regained my senses, about 24 hours after seeing that picture, I started giving a little more thought to what might have made this man the idiot he obviously is today. What if, instead of spending his youth getting indoctrinated by the Oregon public school system's spewage about the brave pioneers who settled and tamed this wild land, and then instead of spending his adulthood consuming lies from Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, he had learned about his own family's actual history.

What if he knew that he, like most white people in the US, is most likely descended from European refugees. What if he knew that most of the Europeans who came to the US came during periods of war and hunger, or because they were fleeing persecution from dictators or colonial masters. Or because they were fleeing genocide.

As with I would guess most of the people listening to my voice right now, if this man isn't descended from blueblooded religious zealots from England who came over during the 17th century, he's probably descended from people who came later than that. Maybe he's descended from someone among the one-half of Norwegians who fled Norway during the 19th century, or the one-half of Ireland who emptied out of the country during the famine, or the millions of Germans, French, Italians, or Hungarians who came during the period before, during and after the massive, bloody, Europe-wide worker and peasant uprisings of the 1840's.

What if he had some kind of ancestral memory of, who knows, a British officer with a Union Jack telling his great grandfather to love it or leave Ireland? Or perhaps it was the distant relative who had to choose between paying rent to the landlord on his failing farm in Norway, or feeding his family. And then the landlord came and said, “you can always go to America.” If he knew his family history was more likely something along those lines than anything else, what would he think then of the immigrants in his midst, such as my wife standing behind him with my daughter, taking that picture.

My Great Grandparents
My great grandparents were refugees
That should be a normal thing to say
I was born in New York City
My people came from far away
They fled the generals and dictators
The warlords of Moscow and Budapest
You could be conscripted for the rest of your life
Or you could head west

My great great grandparents were refugees, too
Just north and west of Brittany
Farmers in the hills somewhere 
On the starving side of the Irish Sea
They fled their colonial torturers 
They fled starvation, slavery
They fled across the Atlantic 
Along with millions of other refugees

My great grandparents were refugees 
But getting to the other side
Took such a toll it seems 
That my great grandfather died
So when his son was a little kid 
He grew up without a dad
And that's typical of the hard life 
So many other refugees had

My great grandparents were refugees 
Let me tell you what that means
They were escaping war-torn lands 
Ruled by tyrants, kings and queens
They did not come seeking fortune 
They were not pioneers
Leaving home, their hearts were broken
And all their cries fell on deaf ears

My great grandparents were refugees 
No one taught me that in school
It's dangerous information 
In the old game of divide and rule
My name is David Rovics 
And I know who my people are
They're on that raft upon the ocean 
They're in the trunk of that car

My great grandparents were refugees
That should be a normal thing to say
I was born in New York City
My people came from far away 

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