13 September 2010

Empires and Immigration

The history of Rome is a lot like the history of the United States: we all know a lot about what happened. And a lot of what we know didn't.

We all know the empire fell, of a descent into decadent chaos. Actual history is a bit different. Much of the empire functioned quite well and without most of the decadence so beloved of Hollywood writers. Rome was far from perfect but it also was far from its contemporary image.

For one thing it lasted a long time.Cf.
Plenty of other states produced dramatic expansion, but survived for no more than a few generations or a couple of centuries at most. The western part of the Roman state survived for twelve hundred years and in its eastern form the Roman Empire had a further thousand years after that. The answer probably lies in another contrast with Greece: the Romans had very little sense of racial exclusiveness. They gave away Roman citizenship to deserving foreigners - by deserving, they would mean those who had something to offer them in return, if only grateful collaboration.(1)

Rome was apparently very generous with citizenship. "It was even possible for slaves to make the leap from being non-persons to being citizens, simply by a formal ceremony before a magistrate, or by provision in their owner's wills."(2) By contrast many slave holding societies including the antebellum Southern US never contemplated citizenship for freed slaves. Even after the Civil War, American Blacks had to fight for their citizenship status and as they have achieved it, the country benefited.

Contrast this with the mess that is American immigration debate today. We are in full blown paranoia about letting the aliens in. So too: Europe. Japan, now in a decades long economic slump, is so exclusionary that families that lived there for centuries are not citizens. It is for all practical purposes impossible to obtain Japanese citizenship.

America was for some time, in the period of our greatest growth and emerging prosperity, very open to immigration. We grew quickly on the backs of Polish, Irish and Italian workers flooding through Ellis Island and other ports of entry. Waves of Greeks, Hungarian, Serbs, Romanians and Ukranians provided the mills of what we now call the rust belt, railroads and mills with workers.

In one sense those immigrants (among them most my ancestors) were not welcome. Oh the country wanted our work, but they were not real interested in our culture. To this day one can spot elements that slipped through. American food before the immigrant waves came was very English. Pasta, bagels, vodka, paprika and even tomatoes became American standards as the new cultures came.

Without the War Between the States, would be where we are today? It was in part, the killing of so many young men that made us open to Ellis Island. We needed people. As horrible as that war was, it kick-started our industry, began a century of medical research and brought immigrants.

Immigration often brings crime, conflict and poverty. But immigrants bring more. They bring ideas, cultural assumptions that challenge what "everyone knows," and they bring courage. It takes amazing courage to start in a poor but fairly safe Guatemalan village and walk North knowing that America will not welcome you. If that is you survive the journey past predatory Mexican bandits and rapists. The survivors are strong.

Twentytwo centuries the Roman empires survived in one form or another. When the empires collapsed and provincialism took over, we entered what is still called the "dark ages." Light, the renaissance, emerged as transportation and printing made it possible for ideas and people to immigrate.

Now Glen Beck, Sarah Palin and others want to drag us back to the provincial times. IRD, ACNA and similar organizations want to drag the churches back to the 11th century. The example of Islamic countries all of which limit publication and all of which are not as prosperous as the West teaches them nothing.

Israel told to be hospitable (in Isaiah) to the alien, and in fact being open to converts, Rome granting non-ethnic citizenship England with its integration of its empire, France wining battles fought by its "Foreign Legion whose soldiers fought to gain French citizenship and America taking in those "masses yearning for freedom" all show the path to the future. Provincialism is the path to the past -- the dark times.


MacCulloch, Diarmaid Christianity The First Three Thousand Years Penguin Group(USA) New York, New York 2009 pp 54-55 cite>MacCulloch pg. 54

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