The Corner

Time to Retire ‘Nation of Immigrants’?

I seem to have touched a sympathetic nerve in a lot of people when I dissed the “nation of immigrants” slogan.  I’m getting a lot of long, eloquent emails agreeing with me.  Sample:

Derb—Allow me to enthusiastically second your other reader.  I think this is another fruit of elite coastal opinion. The elites in NYC are surrounded by immigrants, it being a port of entry.  Most white people in that region are also the 2nd/3rd generation ‘my grandpa at Ellis Island’ types.  Look at our own commentariat’s stories, and the movies of Scorsese, Spielberg etc.  The West Coast elites often come from Midwestern American ethnicity themselves, but are surrounded by immigrants.   Neither set of elites gets the great middle swath for whom the American Civil war is more relevant than Ellis Island for nostalgia, and for whom this ‘nation of immigrants’ stuff both falls flat and is sort of alienating.  I discovered that particular regional quirk via my marriage. I’m something like 10th generation American, from Midwestern and southern roots, and married a NY girl of Italian and Polish roots.  Her mother asked me ‘what are you?’  All I could say is ‘American.’  Everyone up there is supposed to have an ethnic festival, a ‘little something’ urban neighborhood, and a few old country recipes from immigrant grandma.  But where I come from, the great middle of white and black America, we have NO OTHER ethnicity to claim, no recipes that aren’t American to cook.  Another anecdote regarding that division was in an elementary school field trip to an art museum in the 70′s.  The tour guide was from NY, and when interpreting a mid 19th century painting of Mississippi river life dismissed it as nationalistic propaganda since ‘most of us come to Ellis Island in this Century.’  She was actually corrected by several kids, the mixed group of WASP and black kids actually were people whose ancestors were Americans of that earlier era.  And statistically, still, the majority of Americans trace their lineage from well prior to Ellis.  But now our narrative–you know, the Revolution, the Constitution, the Civil War, Settling the West etc.–is deemed irrelevant to America, smacking as it does of national pride and past race crimes.  Now Ellis Island, which gives whites a nice handle on PC victimhood, is the new national narrative, and the rest of us should just shut up, it seems.

As a footnote, it seems lexicographically wrong to me to describe the pre-1787 Americans as “immigrants.”  They were not moving from one nation to another, as there was no nation at the receiving end.  They were settlers in an essentially empty land, mostly moving from one part of the British Empire to another.