Over the summer, I wrote a series of posts on the American Revolution Reborn conference. Those posts included segments devoted to the American Dream and American Exceptionalism. In course of writing those posts, I had private communications with Mike Zimmerman, the initiator of the conference.
This led to him writing a post for The New York History Blog. In my opinion, part of that post derived some from immediate and current events in the American political arena, particularly the judgment in the Zimmerman/Martin murder case which seems to be in the news again.
Recently Mike sent me an email to which I have not replied. That is because I was in a funk about the immediate and current events in the America political arena. In my case it was the government shutdown and the botched Syrian “line-in-the-sand” decree by our President on the use of chemical weapons. As readers of “My Prayer for America” know, I prefer to be optimistic but I also am forced to acknowledge there are no legitimate grounds for being optimistic given the failed leadership which now exists with no relief in sight.
With that background in mind, I would like to turn to some articles from November 15 and ask your indulgence as I first present three threads and then weave them into a comment on New York and the American Dream.
The first is an op-ed piece by Roger Cohen, “French Muscle and American Cheese” (NYT). It describes how the French military had prepared for a joint military attack with the United States against Syria only to have it called off. Cohen cites the concern by Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister over the post-Iraq post-Afghanistan trauma in America leading to a “a rather isolationist tendency.” He went on to comment that since nobody can take the place of American leadership, this will lead to a “strategic void.” This is exactly where Mike and I disagree. I insist there is no substitute for American leadership but recognize that we may lead badly or not at all.
The second thread is an article in The Pennsylvania Gazette by Adam Goodman entitled “Family Matters” (Nov./Dec 2013). This doctoral student is investigating the impact of immigration to American and on the villages (in Mexico) left behind. He starts with observation that as many as half of a the town’s residents may have emigrated to the United States. He reports that the immigration reform act of 1986 under President Regan had a major effect on the small towns and villages in Mexico. The now naturalized-Americans from Mexico were able to freely return to their homeland and to contribute to the vitality of their towns and villages. As a result, when Goodman thinks of immigration reform he thinks about not the impact it would have in the United States but on the impact abroad as the connections between the new country of the immigrants and the country left are augmented.
The third thread is a front-page article in the New York Times entitled “His Roots in Italy, de Blasio Now Has Fans There.” The newly-elected mayor of New York city is the grandson of an immigrant from a small agricultural village near Naples much like those small agricultural villages and towns in Mexico. When his grandfather left in 1905, emigration from there was rampant. While in America, the grandfather maintained his connection to his homeland including visiting the town and bringing goodies from America when he did. This connection between the two countries continued to the third generation with the newly-elected mayor practicing his Italian with his barber, choosing Italian names for his children including the afro-haired son, Dante, who played such an important role in his father’s election.
In the experiences and links between the hometowns of the Italians and Mexicans and the emigrants to America, there is a remarkable similarity. But there is more to the story. The residents of the Italian town watched the New York City mayoral election returns as if they were watching Italy in the World Cup. Some plan to visit New York (cultural heritage tourism?) to attend the inauguration January 1. One resident said of the election, “It’s redemption for the entire village.” The town mayor said, “He made the American dream come true. But he didn’t forget his roots. It’s a message of hope for us all.”
This is the American Dream at work. Our New York City mayors can be Italian, Irish, Jewish, and black (unlike Boston which is almost Irish-only). Our presidents can visit their homelands in Ireland and Kenya as well as England. After fighting the last good war, we can elect as president someone of German descent who lead the assault on D-Day (Eisenhower in case your history is a little weak.).
The success of the American Dream is what makes America exceptional. I do not mean to suggest there aren’t problems, but New York History is not the venue for writing about the social, economic, and political problems which America faces today. It is for writing about history. Immigration very much has been and is a critical part of that history and it contributes to why only America can fulfill a leadership role on the planet. There is no alternative to American leadership in the world as everyone else seems to know except us so it is best if accept our role and dedicate ourselves to doing it right before others try to fill that void and fail.