Of Migrants and Mongrels

‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free…’ So go the words of The New Collosus by American poet Emma Lazarus and made famous by their being engraved on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty. Over time those words have become a symbol, a rallying cry to immigration. The words are a statement which says we should welcome immigration, that we should embrace it. All too often, however, this is not the case. Immigrants are often treated with derision and suspicion, an unwelcome blight… Those against it will say that immigrants take jobs and resources and they do not integrate into the local culture. Of the first two it is difficult to argue against… Of course they take jobs and resources, they have to make a living don’t they? They have to eat? As for the integration… Well that takes time. Moving to a place with an entirely alien culture can be daunting and frightening and by holding onto their own culture and identity they are able to feel more at home in their new and strange land. But eventually immigrant populations will integrate and they often become an integral part of their new society- There is a blending of the old and new and quite often this blending is beneficial to both sides of the coin.

‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…’ The words of Emma Lazarus (Picture courtesy of Wikimedia)

Opposition to immigration is nothing new. It is as old as time itself. I’m sure that when the first Homo Sapiens entered Europe the local Neanderthal population had a great deal of displeasure and there were probably frequent skirmishes between the two groups. Alas, we have very little knowledge about the interactions between Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals but it has been suggested that they interbred and so at some point there was certainly, after a period, integration. There is said to have been resistance when the Saxons arrived in Britain following the collapse of Roman rule (this might be an origin for the story of Young Merlin and the Red and White Dragons) and when the Vikings began to settle a few centuries later (after some raiding and pillaging) the Anglo Saxon population weren’t too happy about it… And if you look at the history of the Anglo Saxon Kings and their wars against the Vikings you can see that they are the ones who started it most of the time. More recently came opposition to all the immigration from former British colonies during the fifties and sixties, most famously from Enoch Powell. Wherever there has been immigration  there is opposition.

But in almost all cases the eventual benefits of that immigration outweigh the cons and all the opposition eventually dissipates to nothing. The Viking and the Anglo Saxon settlers eventually integrated with each other (it took a fair bit of bloodshed though) and today that integration forms the bedrock of English culture. Their legacy is in the place names and folk traditions. They live on in the genetic makeup of the British Isles.  And as for the later waves of immigration… Where would we be without a curry or a kebab after a night spent getting bladdered? Each successive wave of immigration has enriched our culture in countless ways.

I remember, years ago, a programme on the television called Mongrel Nation in which Eddie Izzard discussed how British culture was a bastard infusion of different bits sucked in from all over the globe- And when you look into things it turns out that he was so right- Our national dish is the Chicken Tikka Masala, a curry that was actually invented in Glasgow in the seventies. Nothing more perfectly encapsulates the ‘mongrel’ nature of British culture- A dish based in Indian cuisine but invented in Britain. The late Robin Cook said in 2001 that it was ‘the perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences.’ Look at the English language for another example… Its primary roots are Germanic but it has been bloated by pretty much every other major language on the planet, and quite a few of the minor ones too. Even the genetic makeup of the British people is an infusion… A mix of cultures from across the globe thanks to two thousand years of invasions and immigration. As much as fascists like the BNP would claim otherwise, the British are a bunch of mongrels.

And we are by no means the only ones. Let us return, for example, to the Statue of Liberty and her call for the tired and the poor and the huddled masses- They came.  They came in their thousands and the land in which they settled became even more of a mongrel nation than Britain… All you have to do to see the evidence is look at the city where they arrived. Its modern day neighbourhoods were shaped by that immigration… Look at East Harlem, commonly known as ‘Spanish Harlem’ or Little Italy or its neighbour, Chinatown. The modern city was built on immigration. And American culture as a whole was shaped by immigration too… What about that mid-western past time, the rodeo? It originally came out of cattle herding in Span and Mexico. Pizza, which television would have me believe all Americans love (and why not? Pizza is good!) originates in Italy. Hollywood, the so called dream factory and a quintessentially American place, is filled and always has been filled by people from across the globe- By plummy voiced Brits playing villainous bad guys, by Australians playing Canadian immortals and hammer wielding Viking gods… By countless nationalities who became its greatest symbols. Even those all American heroes, Superman and Spiderman, are currently played by Brits. And speaking of Superman… Brought up as an ordinary, american, Mid-Western farm boy but born on another planet? The all American hero is, himself, an immigrant and he perfectly encapsulates the mongrel bed rock of the nation. And what, I wonder, could be a better symbol for that aforementioned nation?

The Statue of Liberty, as seen by thousands as they immigrated to America
The Statue of Liberty, as seen by thousands as they came into America

The beauty of America, which we can all learn from, is that it took all those bits of culture from around the world, it took those thousands of immigrants and it made them their own. It adopted them and made them ‘American.’ It utilized them and forged a culture out of them. It put its own spin on things. Many of the things which we think of as being ‘American’ are, in fact, the product of elsewhere- The rodeo originating from Spain or Hollywood’s plummy voiced British bad guys. Where would the United States be without all of its culture? It would be a poorer nation and It would certainly not have had the same impact upon the world.

Today people are being driven into Europe by the rise of ISIS, fleeing from the horrors of evil men who would have us believe that they act in the name of God. They come in any way they can, risking their own lives for the sake of safety on our shores. As ever people have reacted against their coming- But rather than attacking them we should be looking at ways of helping them, perhaps welcoming them where we can. We should be figuring ways in which we can integrate them into our culture, even if it is only until the threat of ISIS has abated (which, and I seriously hope not, may be never.) We might not have the room or the jobs or the resources for all of them but if we do let them in then our lives (and theirs) will be so much better… Our cultures will be enriched by what they bring with them. In two hundred, one hundred, even fifty years time nobody will care where they came from or that people had gripes of their coming. We’ll just be glad they did come. They are today’s tired, poor and huddled masses… Whilst it would certainly be foolish to just open the floodgates and let them all in at once, that would overwhelm us, letting even just a small number of them in would be no bad thing.



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