Thursday, October 29, 2015

Thoughts on immigration

A few weeks back, I was hosting an old college roommate who has Swedish roots like I do.  It was a beautiful early fall day so we elected to drive up the St.Croix valley.  When we got to Taylors Falls, we turned inland on the road to Lindström in Chisago County  This area figured prominently in the Swedish immigration to Minnesota and was immortalized by the legendary writer, Vilhelm Moberg, who wrote what many consider the definitive books on the immigrant experience. His emigrants series of four novels was written between 1949 and 1959 and describes one Swedish family's migration from Småland to Chisago County, Minnesota in the mid-19th century. This was a destiny shared by almost one million Swedish people, including several of the author's relatives. These novels have been translated into English: The Emigrants (1951), Unto a Good Land (1954), The Settlers (1961), The Last Letter Home (1961).  These books were turned into two absolutely stunning films by Jan Troell starring Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann (The Emigrants and The New Land.)

Tiny Lindström is especially proud of its Swedish heritage.  They have erected a statue to Moberg, they have agreed that the signs along main street will be in both English and Swedish, and perhaps most whimsically, they painted their water tower to look like a Swedish coffee pot.  The highlight of their efforts to remember their heritage is the copy of the statue raised to the emigrants in Karlshamn Sweden. It portrays a couple—the man looking resolutely to the new land while his wife is looking over her shoulder at the home and family she is leaving behind.

When I was a young man, I thought this statue was a message that without male determination, not much would have ever been accomplished.  Yet as I came to know the history of my immigrant grandparents, the statue became more poignant.  My grandfather came to USA in 1899 and found work in the Chicago steel industry.  The work was astonishingly hard and dangerous and by 1921, he was weary enough to try his hand at farming in Minnesota.  His timing could not have been worse.  The Great Depression may have started in 1929 but the depression in agriculture started in 1921 as commodity prices crashed.  So there he was stuck with a near-zero income in a tiny house without electricity or central heating in an area of the world with brutal winters.  Things went from bad to worse in 1929 and my poor grandmother was so miserable that she would often cry herself to sleep from homesickness.  In 1935, she entered hospital for treatment of a gall bladder condition.  She died of a botched surgery but she could have also died of a broken heart.  If she looked back when leaving Sweden, she was probably wise.

By all accounts, my grandfather was a superb foundry man and an excellent farmer.  He quickly learned English and was soon a citizen.  He was very politically active and helped organize several cooperatives and the Farmer-Labor Party.  And he worked himself to death.

original statue in Sweden
In many ways, my tribe were perfect immigrants.  We believe God wants us to work hard.  We believe in education.  We are honest to a fault.  And our politics are so admirable, Sweden was by FAR the most emulated country of the 20th century.  Our societies are essentially corruption-free.  Why even now, Bernie Sanders claims his ideas come from Scandinavian social democracy.  And while it is nice that Bernie thinks we are to be admired, I would be shocked if he knows anything about the evolution of Nordic social democracy.

But the biggest problem we face is that there are not many of us.  Even in good old Protestant USA, our version of Protestantism is different.  Our definition of a good public-private division is far from the dominant culture.  We have radically different ideas about war and peace.  We are not the people who believe in for-profit medicine, etc.  So there many days when I know I am a stranger in a strange land.  A second generation (mother's side) and third generation (father's side) American and I am not even close to being assimilated and the chance my tribe will ever have serious cultural influence is essentially zero.

The drive back from Lindström was quiet as the reality of our cultural irrelevance sank in.  We have struggled so hard and accomplished quite a lot yet for both of us, we are the end of the line—neither of us have children.  USA is not a good place for people like us.  I was really quite sad for at least a week.

Compared to the problems of Syrians now staggering into Germany or Iraqis landing in Northern Sweden, my problems are trivial.  Those people will not have assimilated in 10 generations.  The multiculturalists assure us that this poses no problems—especially if the dominant culture will only be tolerant and accepting.  My experience is that it is almost impossible to get the dominant culture to accept even excellent ideas like net-zero energy-efficient housing.  So I have reached the conclusion that rather than accept or encourage mass migrations of desperate people, it is much preferable to create the conditions so they can thrive where they are.


  1. Another "all you" article to the core. Totally poignant. Don't have time to say more than that for now...except thank you.

    1. Thank you.

      I just want you to know these all "all me" things that involve trips, photography, photoshop, and a bunch of research so I can remember the early 1970s accurately will be rare—mostly because they take so much work. So I really have appreciated the nice comments I have been getting. Thank you again.