Published in the Martinsburg Journal, February 4, 2018

Our American DNA

West Virginia is one of the most homogenous states in America, but not

necessarily due to any discriminatory actions in its past. It hasn’t been a

major destination for either jobseekers or retirees looking for warmth and

geriatric amenities. The mountainous geography, lack of major urban

areas, not to mention the circumstances of its birth, all contribute to the

93% Caucasian makeup of the population. But those demographics have

not safeguarded it from high rates of poverty, drug-related crime, divorce,

poor health and lack of education. Ironically, those are the very statistics

we associate with immigrants from inferior cultures on other continents;

people we’d like to prevent from becoming American citizens.

Evidently, Norwegians are now considered the cream of the crop of gene

pools. After they hurled their human exports onto Ellis Island a century ago,

Norway is now rated the “Happiest Country in the World.” Perhaps it’s

because they ridded themselves of many of their cranky, flawed

Norwegians---like my fathers’ family was, still is, and I am---that their

Scandinavian society is now the envy of the world.

My great-grandparents, who were part of that migration, exemplify the

reason why there can never be a formula for predicting success for

anyone. They arrived in the late 1890’s and within 15 years had completely

imploded as a family. The mother was permanently committed to a mental

asylum in Chicago, and two years later the alcoholic father was found by

his daughter hanging from a door frame after committing suicide. Their

seven children were dispersed to state adoption agencies or family friends.

Several later died of their own alcoholism. None led particularly exemplary

lives, and none of their children or grandchildren did, either.

Being white, my great-grandparents’ failure to thrive in America was not

seen as an inability to integrate into a new culture, or being from a country

of failed culture. Failure is more forgivable when you are part of the

majority, where it is less conspicuous. The safety net of our white

complexion allows failure itself to be assimilated into our adopted country.

From my observation, intelligence and ambition are not inheritable

characteristics. However, education and opportunity can be transferred to

our children, just as our US citizenship is, no matter if we deserve it or not.

But now we expect immigration policy to import people we did not have to

pay to educate, but yet provide us the advantage of their intellect, energy

and optimism, coming through the digital Ellis Island as whole, complete,

and capable.

Wouldn’t we prefer immigrants who are accustomed to adversity and

have the stamina to overcome unimaginable obstacles, like most of our

ancestors did? When so many of our own citizens seem to have lost

their will to succeed either to drugs, obesity, disillusionment and

depression, we might ask why the rest of the world is still trying to be

“US.” We should be flattered, but I suspect we are secretly resentful

when newcomers achieve more than we can once they arrive. Human

nature creates the assumption that upward mobility is our birthright, a

logical process that shouldn’t allow outsiders to leap-frog to the head of

the line while we native-born Americans still languish on the sidelines.

We should try to see this country the way our immigrant ancestors did,

and remember them when we go about our daily routines, using our

indoor plumbing, electric appliances, gym memberships and higher

educational systems. What would they think of us now, generations later,

on our comfy couches playing video games, sleeping through high school

classes, shopping on-line while we’re at work, easily irritated while

cruising the drive-thru for a Happy Meal, and taking it all for granted while

we complain about life not being as good as it used to be?

Perhaps mine would wonder if they should have stayed in Norway.