Harry Truman used to say that the only new thing in the world is the history you don’t know. I’ve always loved history. Even as a kid I had immense curiosity about different people in different places in the past. I’ve often thought about our pre-historic ancestors of even 10,000 years ago. They were folks that were much like you and me. And generation after generation lived, had kids, raised them and died. In some sense they were just like you and me. But we know so little about them. What was important to them? How did they occupy their time? What did they think about?
People have different ideas about history and how things change. For example, some people believe that history repeats itself. It really doesn’t. It doesn’t rhyme. It doesn’t do the hokey-pokey. And it really isn’t a pendulum.
There might be patterns. As humans we seem to go through periods when people live a fairly comfortable life with a degree of control over our fate. Other times centralized stability diminishes, and people are left to their own devices. In ancient Crete, there was civilization that had flush toilets and in-wall, hot-water heating that was literate. But then that civilization went away. Literacy diminished. And there was a shift in where local authority could provide stability. We don’t call that period the “Dark Ages.”
As it happens, the so-called Dark Ages weren’t quite so dark. And the Renaissance wasn’t a happy lark of a period in which everyone got to be painters and architects.
Certain periods are marked by heavier travel and migration. Historical linguists suggest that there are a host of languages from India to Russia to the Romance languages and German languages that are related in antiquity in a language called Indo-European. From what I understand, Indo-European has common words for such obvious things as parts of the body, some animals, and things like the sky. The interesting thing is that it appears that Indo-European speakers have common words for streams, water, boats and rowing. But they do not have common words for the sea. So, the speakers were together speaking relatively similar languages before they wandered away from each other and encountered the sea at different times and invented different words for that body of water.
History appears to have multiple huge migrations – the migrations of people theorized to have crossed the Bering Strait and came onto the American continent. In the 3rd and 4th centuries C.E. (“Common Era” or “A.D.”) there were displaced peoples. Tribes of people came across the plains of central Asia toward Europe. Some of the people in their path also became displaced, contacting and contracting with the Romans from across the natural barrier that is the Danube River.
By definition these mass movements of people is disruptive. Places where people had lived don’t have the same people. And new locations have new people who hadn’t been there previously. A good example is the land we now call France. When Julius Caesar strode the Earth, that region was Gaul because that’s where Gallic people lived. Then the Franks came. We still use “Gallic” as an occasional adjective, but the Franks were so successful that it became France – where the Franks live.
We can debate whether that was “good” or “bad” (whatever that might mean). I’m guessing that some of the previous residents of Gaul didn’t much care for the incoming Franks. These days it probably doesn’t bother us much.
For those of us in the United States, I’m ashamed to say we pay a lot of negative attention to our own role in working with migrating people.
Our national government has been mostly shut down for the better part of a month essentially over our president’s bizarre fixation on migratory barriers. I call it bizarre because his philosophy seems to rely on people doing a better job of choosing their parents.
The parents I chose worked out really well for me. Their ancestors had come over on boats from Germany long before the US Constitution was written. And so it was that when their boats docked at Philadelphia, they walked off the boats. No one admonished them to assimilate or suggested they had to wait in line or learn answers to questions or take tests or give oaths. (Being good Christian people, they might have bristled at suggesting they might need to speak an oath to anyone but their God.) I chose my parents very well.
But sadly there are thousands of little brown babies who did not choose well. They made the mistake of choosing parents who’ve lived in countries that have advancing levels of violence and/or poverty – violence and poverty that may have been abetted to at least a small degree by policies and culture of the USA.
According to the statistical report from UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) issued in 2015 for 2014 (the most recent report available on their web-site), there are about 3.1 million asylum-seekers in the world. The United States had an estimated 134, 600 new asylum applications in 2014, an increase of 42% compared to 2013. This group of people is out of an estimated 68.5 million displaced people in the whole world.
On the one hand, I shouldn’t minimize the heart-break and loss inextricably linked to many of the stories of those millions of people. But as a matter of comparison, the United States has a population of about 300 million or so people. The displaced world population is the equivalent of under 23% of that 300 million.
If it isn’t clear to the reader yet, let me articulate my point. In terms of pure numbers, it appears that human-kind is undergoing a fairly large migratory period right now. This has happened in the past and will happen again in the future. In the United States right now, largely due to the leadership of the President, we tend to look at this situation with trepidation rather than with confidence. We don’t have to be fearful. We have chosen to be fearful.
Understand that we claim to be the greatest nation on Earth. We have the largest military presence on Earth. But for some reason there are a lot of good folks who actually believe that our country can be undone by an influx of mostly children and their mothers with non-white skin.
Of course our civil servant folks in intelligence and defense know better. The master spooks recently gave Congress its annual global threat assessment. They spoke of such problems as North Korean nuclear developments, terrorism sponsored by factions in Iran, and Russian media trolling. Somehow they didn’t make much of a national emergency on the US/Mexico border that would match the President’s heated rhetoric.
I think much of the world looks on America as a somewhat arrogant nation throwing its considerable weight around to always get its way. It’s puzzling, then, to have this faction of Americans who give evidence of being fearful.
I recently found a trove of antique emails from twenty years ago. I was in an email conversation about actor training – a continuing object of fascination for me. I have some ideas about actor training, but I work to maintain an open space for thinking about possible differences that shouldn’t be ignored.
For example, Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold spoke about old-school actors he knew out in the provinces who had the skill to always get a hand of applause on every exit line. Speaking for myself, I don’t think I’d like to see a show with that kind of ham acting all of the time, but I also recognize that this ability is not a bad thing to know.
Likewise, I have a great deal of respect for Stanislavsky’s contributions to thinking about the creative process used by actors and all of the subsequent work done by those who’ve come since who’ve experimented with methods to help novice actors realize their potential.
But I also think about genius performers like Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx and WC Fields and Fred Astaire. Their talents were honed day after day and night after night in vaudeville houses across the country. A goodly proportion of the acts in legitimate vaudeville and the “Chitlin’ Circuit” were recent immigrants and marginalized minority performers.
From the Irish George M. Cohan to the Eastern European Jews like the Marx Brothers, Houdini, and Jack Benny – immigrant performers played for immigrant and non-immigrant audiences. In the process they created American entertainment. I don’t know that we can list anything more American than You Can’t Take It With You or The Odd Couple. Both pieces of entertainment came directly out of the Jewish immigrant experience.
As someone interested in how we make great performers, I worry about not having the harsh school of vaudeville out there for a new immigrant community. We have YouTube, of course. But a performer thinking about negative YouTube comments is far different than trying to tame an unruly Texas audience in real time – as the Marx Brothers did. And making randomized videos doesn’t teach you how to keep an audience’s attention with your quiet style after an audience has been revved up by a full Marx Brothers press – as Jack Benny had to do.
Is that performative expertise lost to us? Probably. As the old troupers like Carol Channing pass away, we get ever more distant from those strong men and women who found a way to bring a high-kicking show every single day to an audience who loved them.
But more than that. Even in the small, little world of entertainment – immigration has made American culture. What we think of as broad, popular entertainment has its deep roots in an immigrant community. As Americans we rob ourselves by not embracing immigration and welcoming today’s migrants in the same way my ancestors were welcomed.