A Different Immigrant Narrative

November 17, 2015 at 12:05 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

These days many of us are thinking about the security risks that accompany admitting Syrian immigrants to the U.S., and, sadly, to France. Sometimes it helps to step back and remember that earlier conflicts over immigration, even some that were fairly violent, had a happy ending.

The current movie “Brooklyn,” for example, is the story of two members of once-hostile groups, the Irish and the more recently arrived Italians, literally falling in love. It’s also a fictional version of the story that Paul Moses tells in his new book, An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians ( New York University Press, 2015. 368 pp. Hardback: $35; eBook: $14.04.)  Here’s a slightly revised version of my review of that book that appeared recently in Gumbo, the monthly publication of the Grail in the U.S.

 

Initially, readers—in Oregon, for example, or Louisiana—may wonder why they should read the story of a struggle between two white ethic groups in New York City between 1850 and 2001. But a glance at today’s headlines provides a ready answer: the hostility over immigration, and between previous immigrant groups and those just arriving, is as fierce as ever.

The author of An Unlikely Union, Paul Moses, is an award-winning journalist and professor of journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also a superb storyteller. And part of the story is his own—from pretend rumbles between Italian and Irish kids at his 1960s parochial school here in Brooklyn, to how he (half-Italian, half Jewish) came to marry an Irish-American girl, Maureen. The primary narrative, however, addresses the evolution of the two wider ethic groups from outright enmity in the nineteenth century to collaboration and even merger by the end of the twentieth.

The story, in some senses, is economic, with poor Irish Catholic immigrants whose families fled to the U.S. during and after the Potato Famine of the 1840s fighting equally poor Italian immigrants who arrived several decades later. Some of this played out on the New York waterfront, where Italians served as strike breakers till some of them realized that starting unions, not fighting them, would pay better in the long run.

Another dimension of the struggle unfolded in the Catholic Church, where the Irish immigrants who had identified for centuries with the papacy over against the English monarchy deeply distrusted Italian immigrants who supported the overthrow of the monarchical Papal States in 1870. An even darker chapter in the competition involved gunfights between Irish and Italian gangs struggling to control the streets of New York. And then there was politics, with Big Tim Sullivan’s Tammany Democrats eventually being defeated by Italian Republicans like the half-Jewish half-Episcopalian Fiorella LaGuardia, and eventually, Rudy Giuliani.

Moses attributes much of the gradual resolution of the hostility of the two groups to their shared religion. Indeed, his stories of Irish-American bishops and priests coming to terms with Italian priests and nuns over how to minister to the arriving immigrants are some of the most eye opening. My own personal favorite is Mother (later St.) Francis Xavier Cabrini, who had come with some of her sisters to work in the Italian community, refusing outright to return to Italy when New York Archbishop Michael Corrigan ordered her to do so. Moses also attributes much of the eventual cessation of hostilities between the two groups to Catholic sisters, in this case, primarily Irish ones, who helped Italian immigrants assimilate into U.S. culture during their time in parochial schools.

My other favorite chapters address the roles of music and food in bringing about peace between the two groups. The Irish came to realize that pizza tastes a lot better than potatoes and cabbage. And reading about the singing contests between Bing Crosby and Franck Sinatra almost brought tears to my eyes; my own mother, whose grandmother was an Irish servant, simply adored Frank.

Moses acknowledges that economic factors were as significant in the laying down of arms by the Irish and the Italians as they were in starting the hostilities. These include how families from ethnically segregated urban areas became neighbors in the New York suburbs after World War II, and how rising income levels during the post-war economic boom healed a lot of wounds. He also acknowledges the role that race played—how the Italians “becoming white,” as the Irish had before them, gradually eliminated at least one cause of hostility between them—though it certainly didn’t improve the situation of African Americans.

There’s always a danger that a book like An Unlikely Union will serve as a “happy narrative” –-making readers feel optimistic without facing up to the difficulties and complexities of the story. Indeed, one of the most discouraging aspects of the current immigration conflict, in this country at least, is that it’s led by the descendants of immigrants, people like Paul Ryan and Bobby Jindal, who seem to think that they rose up the economic ladder through their own hard work. But a book like this one can also help us to understand that things such as rising wages and racial reconciliation really can reduce anti-immigrant prejudice. God willing, this realization in turn will inspire us to get out there and fight to bring such changes about.

 

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My Exercise Bike

November 9, 2015 at 1:37 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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In the summer of 1992, Keith and I moved to Philadelphia for me to start the Ph.D. program in Religion at Temple University. Keith commuted back and forth to run the Doctor of Ministry program at New York Theological Seminary.

We rented a loft apartment down on 3rd street, just west of the Delaware River. It was by New York standards huge and very nearly free. Since we had some space, I went out and bought a Tunturi exercise bike. As I recall, we paid $220 for it.  I rode it three times a week or so for the five years we were in Philly.

In 1997 we moved out to Berkeley, California, to begin our eleven years at the American Baptist Seminary of the West. We sent the bike out with the rest of our stuff. I continued riding it for forty-five minutes several times a week.  In 2008, when we moved back to Brooklyn, we shipped the bike back, too. We put it in the bedroom of our nine-hundred square foot apartment in Ditmas Park, and I went right on riding it.

In the past few years, though, the wheels of the bike began making screeching noises, and various parts broke off. My esteemed companion took to saying that he was afraid the bike was going to break up while I was riding it and that I’d fall off and fracture my skull.

Last weekend I rode up to Dartmouth for the Orr symposium (more on that in another post) and then went to visit my brother across the river in Vermont. I was lamenting the demise of my bike after only twenty-three years, and he said,”Oh, I have an exercise bike in the garage that you should take. I bought a new one a year ago, but they delivered two by mistake. I called and told them to come and get it but they never did.” He had paid $400 for his.

Keith had driven up to join me after the symposium, so we got the bike out of its box and put it into the Prius. It was the first time we realized that the car’s back seats went down! When we got home, Keith put it together for me. It’s actually a much better bike than the Tunturi, probably because my brother and his wife are bicycle racers and so have higher standards than I do.  I am winded after half an hour on mine. (I am not telling you the bike’s brand so the manufacturers don’t come and confiscate it.) Keith had a hard time getting the little computer on the handlebars to work, but after only seven or eight tries, he got it going; my boy is nothing if not determined.

I was in the habit of telling people that the Tunturi cost me nine dollars a year. This one is costing zero dollars a year. If I ride it for twenty-three years, as I did the last one, I’ll be ninety-two when it wears out.

Ross Douthat and the Theologians

November 3, 2015 at 1:30 pm | Posted in Catholicism, Vatican | 3 Comments
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Well, on Hallowe’en New York Times columnist Ross Douthat fired off another rocket in the Catholic culture wars with his “Letter to the Catholic Academy.” Douthat had, in recent months, published a series of Times columns and blogs about the Catholic Church under Pope Francis, culminating in his October 18th “The Plot to Change Catholicism.” On October 26, a number of Catholic theologians, led by Massimo FaggioiIi and the highly regarded Vatican II historian John O’Malley, S.J.,wrote a letter to the Times calling Douthat’s statements “unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is.” A number of conservative columnists and a few theologians rebutted the theologians’ letter, accusing them of trying to silence Douthat, especially since their letter states that Douthat does not have the credentials to make such assertions. Douthat’s October 31column is also a response to the letter.

Quite a lot has been written about this kerfuffle, and you may not have time to read all of it, so let me tell you what I think. Words like “heresy” and schism,” as well as “plot,” are very strong words, and have precipitated lots of nasty events throughout the history of the Catholic and other Christian churches. Consider, for example, the execution of Michael Servetus, founder of the Unitarian Church, at the order of John Calvin in 1553.  It’s also worth noting that even the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’, in their harsh condemnation of Elizabeth A. Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God, do not use the word “heresy” even once.

More to the point, as Michael Bayer of The University of Iowa Catholic Center argued persuasively even before Douthat’s latest broadside, the main issue in this debate is not the theologians’ supposedly despicable attempt to silence poor Ross (though Bayer admits the wording of the theologians’ letter could have been more careful in this regard). The main issue is that an article in the New York Times–the world’s most influential English language publication–has the potential to do enormous harm, much as the media’s “ubiquitous insistence that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, and that we needed to invade Iraq in order to eliminate this existential threat” did after 9/11.

Indeed, as Bayer argues, a number of conservative Catholic bishops no doubt read Douthat’s column, and may well adopt his erroneous identification of heresy with dissent. In my reading, Douthat is actually doing everything he can to bring about a schism, a schism of the very kind that his conservative forebears Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X initiated after Vatican II. (And the Vatican did use the word “schismatic” in condemning their actions).

This is so because Pope Francis’s teaching of mercy, and his argument, in Laudato Si’ and elsewherethat the destruction of God’s creation and the oppression of the poor are sins as grievous as abortion, contradict the absolute, sexual-morality-based Catholicism that led Douthat and others to the Catholic Church in the first place. God willing, Francis will continue to communicate that the Church is more that the Nicene Creed and the condemnation of abortion, as an unhappy respondent to the Commonweal blogpage once claimed. Maybe, before long, even what Jesus has to say about the poor, and the Catholic social teaching  rooted in his words, will be once again acknowledged to be the heart of Catholic doctrine as much as the defense of human life is.

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