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An Open Letter to a Cousin on Being a Patriotic American
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2014-08-05 11:52:33
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An Open Letter to a Cousin on Being a Patriotic American
What Immigrants saw when they arrived in America


Picture of Emanuele Paparella with his wife

Maria and son Francesco (the author’s father)
 taken in New York in 1914.
From a book published in 1993

Preamble: What follows is an open letter to a cousin of the author. It replies to a charge against the author that he had not shown sufficient patriotism, not to speak of gratitude, by not accepting as credible a u-tube video, taped in Brussels, that Sharia law was about to invade the US. The reply by the author was that the KKK and Republican obstructionism in Congress is a much more troubling phenomenon than the arrival of Sharia law in the US. Which prompted a not so veiled suggestion that he ought to return where he came from with the sardonic question: What keeps you here? 

Dear Cousin Dominick,

Your implied suggestion that I ought to consider returning to where I came from as an immigrant, given that I am not a bona-fide “patriotic” American (as the present President is also not a real American having been born in Kenya, as per your fellow extremists who see Sharia law everywhere threatening the Republic) does not come as a complete surprise. For a while now people’s motives and intentions are being impugned simply for ideological reasons: some of us are true Americans and some are pseudo-Americans, so the argument goes. The true Americans among us have a right to stay, they belong here, especially if they adhere to the right party and ideology, while the pseudo Americans are here abusively and ought to go back where they came from; they have not shown the proper gratitude and loyalty to their adopted country.

Those “right-thinking” people and their ilk usually flock together and support their common extremist mind-set. In fact, those arguments can be heard in the extreme right of the Republican party in Congress, and one begins to wonder if those “super-patriots” know anything of past history and what it may portent for the future: as recently as 70 years ago in Germany in the 1930s some 12 million Germans were found to be not "true" Germans, and we know full well what happened to them eventually. It is in the nature of extreme ideological fanaticism parading as the whole unadulterated objective truth.  

But that the impugning of my loyalty to our country and intentions should come from one of my cousins after 50 years as a naturalized American, that, I must admit, did come as a bit of a surprise, albeit not a complete one, since the ranting about President Obama ruining the people’s furniture by placing his feet on the desk in the Oval Office, that you sent me some time ago, in some way prepared me for it.

Of course you may well retort that I am raving; that you never accused me of disloyalty and betrayal;  that in my paranoia I am imagining those charges; that you simply asked a bona fide question. But perhaps you’d grant that those charges may be implied and read in between the lines of what you write, even if not spelled out. Be that as it may, let us grant that such was not your intention, that one cannot prosecute intentions and motives, but given your blunt written question that you find it “difficult to understand your desire [that is to say, my desire] to remain in this country…What is it that keeps you here?,” let’s take that question at its face value and attempt to hopefully make it  a bit less difficult for you to understand what keeps me here. The question, as is, even without its implications, deserves an honest answer.


Immigrants waiting to be processed at Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century

To answer your question adequately we need first to begin with the immigrant narrative of our immigrant family. As surely you know, our ancestors arrived in the US as immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century. There was a man in Bitonto, Italy (our common great-grandfather) by the name of Francesco, who had three sons: Emmanuele (my grandfather, the oldest), Dominick (your grandfather, the middle son), and Pasquale (the youngest). The first one, Emmanuele, emigrated to America when he was approximately 25 in 1902. He lived and worked in New York’s little Italy for a few years, made some money, then returned to Italy, picked up his two brothers and returned to America. So, it was Emmanuele who paved the way, so to speak, for his two younger brothers. They worked hard for a few years, Emmanuele as a merchant, Domenico and Pasquale as ice-men, then they returned to Italy to get married and then returned with their spouses to America around 1910 where they raised their large families and generated several children.


Immigrants arriving in New York at the turn of the century

My father and four of his six siblings (my uncles and aunt) were born in New York (my father was born in 1912), the same with your father John, son of Domenico. Eventually, as was the case with 50% of all Southern Italian immigrants, the whole extended family returned to Italy at the beginning of the decade of the 20s. My grandfather bought a sumptuous villa in town and raised his family of 7 children. Your grandfather, due to an Italian-American banker who defaulted on his clients and ran away with his money, was forced to return to America, Surely your father must have told you stories of his reminiscences of the brief  stay in Italy before returning to the US. You may wish to let the immigrant saga of the Paparellas begin with the return of your grandfather to America in the 20s, but that would be an incomplete narrative, the more proper beginning is the arrival of my grandfather Emmanuele at the beginning of the 20th century. All this can be corroborated with a look at the documentation stored at Ellis Island under the statue of liberty.


The SS Constitution which carried the author and his family to America in December 1956.
It now lies at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean 700 miles from Hawaii since November 1997

What we can conclude from this is that my father, albeit technically an immigrant to the US when he arrived in 1955 to visit his uncle Dominick, and then decided to stay, had every right to stay here, since he was born here and arrived here in 1955 as an American citizen with an American passport, and no cousin of his or even his host, his uncle Dominick, had any right to tell him to go back where he came from. That never happened, to their credit. My father was welcomed and helped with open arms and was of course grateful for the warm welcome. The rest of the family (my mother and my sisters) arrived in 1956. As you know, one of my sisters, Sandra, was born later on in Brooklyn in 1961. She returned to Italy with my mother in 1968, upon my father’s sudden death. She then returned to America, where she had been born, some twenty years later. And so goes the saga of a transatlantic Italian-American family.

So, considering this brief history (which you can read more extensively in the book on Vico’s philosophy I once gave you: chapter IX interpreting the story in a Vichian key) it would appear that, aside from the fact that I happen to be a US citizen with an American-born wife and an American- born children and grandchildren, I have every right to stay in this country and nobody, all the more my cousins, have a right to suggest that I ought to go back to where I came from. We all came from somewhere else, the only authentic natives are the Native Americans. Consequently I will retain that right till some sort of fascist leaning government begins to certify the true Americans to distinguish them from the pseudo-Americans  to better discriminate against them.

Fortunately that time has not come yet, and hopefully it will never come, but as Jefferson warned, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. He, for one, ought to have taken his own advise and ought to have freed his slaves since they too were humans with equal rights as the Declaration of Independence proclaims. He closed his eyes to such enormous inconsistency, thus a civil war ensued only 70 years or so later.

Which brings us to the issue of patriotism, loyalty and love of country, albeit an adopted one. When I became a citizen in 1967, I had to study the history of the US and how its democratic government works, in order to pass the exam for citizenship. Besides that, I have since deepened considerably my knowledge with formal courses on American democracy and government and self-taught knowledge, to the point that, I dare say, I know much more than many American-born who go around waiving the flag and take it all for granted, and think that Jefferson had no slaves (Michelle Backman or Sarah Pelin, to give two glaring current examples). Patriotism based on ignorance of one’s history is indeed a very sad spectacle. How does the slogan go: in America everybody is entitled to one’s opinion: you to your knowledge, I to my ignorance. Fine, let free speech reign, but let us not say that ignorance is equivalent to knowledge and that science is a matter of opinion. Marco Rubio goes around debunking, for ideological reasons, the fact that much of Florida will be under water in a few decades and when asked how he arrived at the conclusion that no such thing will happen he says we should consult the scientists since he is not a scientist, but the vast majority of scientists agree on the fact that unless we take action now, a good portion of Florida will be under water eventually. Rubio is indeed clever by half, as the English say, he finds an inconvenient truth, not politically advantageous, not Republican enough, so he proceeds to deny the empirical facts of science itself. That’s pretty sad and a scandal to all truly educated people, perhaps you’d agree.

But aside from these examples grounded in the presently sorry political reality, let’s continue answering your bona fide question and look at the issue of patriotism giving it a more philosophical slant. Let us go back to four centuries before Christ in ancient Greece, to the father of Western philosophy, a patriot who had served in the Athenian army and was sentenced to death by hemlock (a bit more civilized than today’s poisonous injections that makes a prisoner condemned to death suffer for two hours to then the spectacle is justified by the dubious proposition that somehow two wrong make a right or cancel each other, never mind the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment proscribed in the Constitution). He was condemned, democratically it should be pointed out, for “corrupting the youth of Athens” by which they meant showing them how to be logical and coherent with one’s ideas while ignoring the piety due to the gods.  One of those politically incorrect teachings regarded loyalty and love of country.  Socrates approved of love of country, after all he had fought for Athenian freedom and independence against totalitarian Sparta, but he also insisted that truth is not a matter of convenience. He considered Truth is a bitter medicine that sometimes even the one who is proposes it has to swallow. He would adduce the example of the love of one’s mother (mother as an allegorical figure for country) which is pretty universal. So, he would say that the saying “My mother, drunk or sober” seems like a wonderful dictum expressing the unconditional love we owe our mother who gave us life, but on second thought it is a flawed concept. This is so because to accept your mother whether drunk or sober may mean that you blind yourself to the fact that your mother, as a drunkard addicted to alcohol (or perhaps incessant war and strife?) may need some help in disabusing herself from her addiction. To help one's drunken mother one needs first to acknowledge what afflicts her and then do something about disabusing her of the pernicious addiction. That acknowledgment does not mean that you love her any less.

So, Michelle Backman and Sarah Pelin may go around waiving the American flag and vehemently denying the warts and flaws that need to be corrected in our country. I suggest that that attitude is a terribly flawed kind of patriotism. It is the patriotism which ushers in extreme nationalism, xenophobia (fear of the foreign and the alien) and ultimately war. Of course if one were to make such an argument to those two “ultra-Americans” they would probably immediately brand you a communist, or a Sharia law advocate, or an foreign alien with foreign and "un-American" ideas, and have you deported or perhaps sent to a concentration camp (did we now do that to Japanese-Americans during World II?). That may still happen, not when Sharia law becomes the law of the land, a fantasy at best, but when the Republican fanatics now obstructing everything in the House proposed by President Obama (doing precious little otherwise, while we pay their fat salaries and privileges) come to power, democratically of course, (Hitler too become chancellor democratically) and govern according to their convenient truths. It would appear that the proper attitude should be “my country warts and all, but the warts and imperfections ought to be acknowledged first; that is a pre-condition for their removal. Indeed democracy is perfectible but it can also be destroyed by disrespect for the truth. Socrates made us acutely aware of that.

Now, you may disdain, even laugh at what I have proposed here, and so be it, if it makes your day, but I would much appreciate it if you do not return to cavalierly impugn my patriotism and indeed my life-work  dedicated to love of truth and genuine philosophy. We can disagree, as we obviously do on political matters, and still remain agreeable with each other, civil and respectful, as cousins should, and as our fathers and grandfathers certainly did, even when they did not see eye to eye at times. Perhaps we can agree on that much, while continuing to disagree on other matters. 


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Emanuel Paparella2014-08-05 12:46:42
A footnote: this is what one reads under the statue of Liberty:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

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