About a decade ago, I started wondering why you never heard about Jaime Escalante anymore. He was the famous calculus teacher whose success in a barrio school notoriously excited the jealously of administrators and the teacher’s union, and who was portrayed by Edward James Olmos in the 1988 movie Stand and Deliver. Escalante seems like the ideal Latino immigrant. In the 1990s, he even spoke out against bilingual education. You`d expect to hear of him giving a keynote address or otherwise cashing in on his deserved renown.
Well, it turned out that when Escalante reached his early 70s, he`d retired and gone home to his native Bolivia.
Why? Because Bolivia was home. He`d come to America, made a contribution to this country, earned some money, and now he could finally do what his heart wanted: go home.
Homesickness sounds like the least important topic imaginable. In modern America, a longing for the familiar places and people we are separated from is routinely castigated as an immature character flaw barely tolerable in children at summer camp, much less in adults.
Yet, when studied sympathetically as in Susan J. Matt`s insightful and touching new book, Homesickness: An American History , the subject turns out to offer deep insights into human nature. And it has direct implications for immigration policy and for demographic change.
Human emotions probably don`t change much over time, but the words we use to describe them certainly cycle, whipped by fads and social forces. For example, Matt cites a pair of contemporary psychiatrists who note that many of their unhappy patients come to them having already self-diagnosed themselves as “depressed”—a respectable 21st Century malady for which pharmaceutical firms invent and market expensive pills—”but were in fact lonely.”
Matt demonstrates that homesickness—whether for distant family, friends, houses, towns, landscapes, or climates—is close to a human universal. What differs is the particular. We each imprint upon different things.
(A friend has long argued that the political divide of the future won`t be today`s outmoded categories of left v. right, but instead universalist v. localist. Of course, the globalists possess a huge competitive advantage in imposing their simple-minded Davos Man cosmopolitanism because the particularists by definition differ and need to agree to disagree.)
While Alexis de Tocqueville and Frederick Jackson Turner emphasized the restless spirit that drove Americans to settle an entire continent, Matt quotes from the poignant letters and diaries of pioneers demonstrating the emotional pain they bore. In her retelling of familiar passages in American history, our forefathers seem more heroic because of the sacrifices they made in terms of loneliness and unease. In one incident from Gold Rush California, a minister`s daughter recounts how after Thanksgiving dinner in Stockton in 1851, she began playing on that essential fixture of Victorian domesticity, the piano:
“[Father] … looked out, and to his surprise the sidewalks and porch were filled with old and young men. Along the side of the house stood scores of men in the street as far as the eye could see and some were sobbing. On entering the room he said, `We have an immense congregation outside. Get out your familiar tunes—Home, Sweet Home, Etc. … Give these homesick sons and fathers a few songs more.`” [Sixty Years of California Song, by Margaret Blake-Alverson, p. 32 ]
Just as grief eventually accompanies love, homesickness is the flip side of attachment. Human beings have a mechanism that propels us toward contentment: we tend to grow attached to the familiar. Be it ever so humble, there`s no place like home. But, then, grow vulnerable to missing it when it`s gone.
“In the nineteenth century, many in the nation believed that it was acceptable to talk openly about these costs … Homesickness was not yet shameful, for love and loyalty toward home were the marks of a virtuous character.”
In the warmer-hearted Victorian era, homesickness was treated sympathetically even by such huge and hardheaded institutions as the U.S. Army. Matt writes:
“The phenomenon of homesickness … received systematic attention during the Civil War … The term nostalgia was used to describe the acutely homesick … In fact, during the war, Union doctors diagnosed more than five thousand soldiers as suffering from nostalgia, seventy-four of whom succumbed to the condition.”
Over time, however, as America`s big institutions—military, corporate, governmental, educational, and sporting—became even bigger, they became increasingly hostile toward Americans expressing their feelings of homesickness:
“Consequently, by the end of the twentieth century, few native-born adults overly discussed the emotion, although they displayed it in other ways.”
Homesickness was castigated as shamefully immature or lower class. Why? Because a longing for a particular setting makes “individuals less interchangeable, less fungible.”
Treating people as fungible makes giant institutions more efficient. After WWII, managers of IBM joked that the corporate acronym stood for “I`ve Been Moved.” The Cold War military relocated officers constantly, with notorious effects on the happiness of their Army Brat children, who grew up without ever having a hometown.
Over the last generation, middle managers and their families have, with some success, quietly rebelled against corporate cultures demanding incessant relocation.
On the other hand, some industries, such as academia, have become more nomadic as temporary hiring becomes the dominant employment mode. Dr. Matt, who now has tenure at Weber St., notes in an aside that she and her husband have lived in six states since they met at Cornell in 1990. Because she dedicates Homesickness to her parents and sister, I would guess that she found the frequent moves demanded by modern academic life to be wrenching.
“the longtime companion and sometime synonym of homesickness, has become a less troublesome emotion, signifying a diffuse, unthreatening, and painless longing for the past. … As an emotion, nostalgia has come to be widely celebrated, perhaps because it is now seen as harmless. Whereas the homesick may believe they can return home, the nostalgic know that moving backwards in time is impossible.”
While you can`t buy a time machine, you can buy nostalgia-assuaging retro-junk. In a review of Homesickness in Slate, Libby Copeland observes:
“These days, while it’s not as permissible as it once was for an adult to muse about, say, missing her parents, it is more than permissible to indulge in casual nostalgia for one’s childhood. Specifically, we miss the brands of our childhoods. … This type of nostalgia lets us signal cultural hipness instead of the rootlessness and neediness we feel deep down.”
Do you miss the neighborhood where you grew up in the 1980s, which has since “tipped” demographically? Well, not much can be done about that. But feel free to relive the good old days back home by buying on DVD all three Transformers movies based on the 1980s toy robots that turn into cars (don`t ask).
Homesickness is seen as low class and culturally unsophisticated. Our society deplores people emotionally attached to their old neighborhoods. If they are black or Latino, they are laughingly put down as “homeboys.” If they are white, they are angrily denounced as “racists” or “nativists.” If you are a refugee from demographic change on the West Side of Chicago or in Southern California, well, you better keep your mouth shut.
Yet, you may have noticed that the biggest winners in American society often indulge their attachments to their native soil. Consider the three Americans who over the last 25 years vied for the title of world`s richest man. Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, famously kept his main home in tiny Bentonville, Arkansas in the Ozarks. Warren Buffett lives in his native Omaha. And Bill Gates lives in his hometown of Seattle.
Further, homesickness is hardly confined to the unlettered. The supreme English language novelist of the third quarter of the 20th Century, Vladimir Nabokov, made a career out of his carefully nurtured homesickness for pre-Revolutionary Russia. The exiled Nabokov explained, “homesickness has been with me a sensuous and particular matter.” During his years teaching at American universities, Nabokov refused to acquire a home, fearing that putting down roots would interfere with his superb memories of his stolen Russian home. Thus, he (and his saintly wife Vera) only house-sat for other professors on one-year sabbaticals.
Matt`s book makes clearer some of the emotional dynamics of immigration. We often hear: “All we have to do is get immigrants to assimilate!” But assimilation is emotionally painful. It`s more natural to form enclaves with people like yourself. For example, the federal government initially tried to disperse anti-Castro Cuban refugees across the country, but most of them eventually wound up in Miami (which they then took over).
Moreover, it`s common for immigrants to alleviate their homesickness by assuming they will someday go home, like Jaime Escalante.
This sojourner mentality can make immigrants formidable economic competitors. American workers are always nagged over why they won`t work as cheaply as Mexicans. One answer is because the Americans need to be able to afford a permanent home in America. The Mexicans have homes in Mexico, so they can live in America under conditions (e.g., six men in a garage) that nobody would put up with in their native land. (Similarly, the current housing bust has American workers trapped in underwater real estate, and unable to relocate, whereas new immigrants can come in to wherever the jobs are.)
Of course, many supposed sojourners never go home. Matt points out that a traditional way in which lonely immigrant women become reconciled to life in America is by having children, lots of children:
“It was by establishing a new family in America that immigrants frequently overcame their homesickness, abandoned their plans for return, and began to feel at home in their new land.”
Unquestionably, this helps explain the very high fertility among women newly arrived from Mexico—higher, in fact, than among those remaining in Mexico.
The policy lesson that I draw from Homesickness: scattering Americans via demographic change, while it makes a lot of money for various special interests, doesn`t make us happier on the whole.
If you want to move because some other place in America has gotten better, that`s great. But if you need to move because your hometown has gotten worse (for example, the public schools have been overwhelmed by the children of immigrants), that`s bad.
We`re often assured that no harm can come from immigration because America has lots of places left to flee to Yet having to move to Portland or Grand Junction or some other whitopia hurts not just for the obvious objective reasons, but because you and your loved ones will likely suffer some kind of homesickness for years as you all fall out of intimacy with the people and places you care about.
But Matt`s most valuable contribution might be this point: that modern institutions try to bully Americans into becoming as fungible as individual humans can be.
This can explain a number of conundrums of contemporary ideology.
We are constantly propagandized about the importance of equality and diversity. Everybody knows that anybody who isn`t completely on board with equality and diversity is a Bad Person. We are lectured on the virtues of equality and diversity by the President (whether Obama, Bush, or Clinton), Bill Gates, the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, Oprah, Angelo Mozilo, the editors of the New York Times, James Cameron, the CEO of Fannie Mae, the President of Harvard, and other powerful and wealthy people.
Yet, aren`t equality and diversity antonyms? And why are the lucky few who have clawed their way to the top so insistent that the rest of us worship diversity?
What`s really going on here?
Perhaps the people who run the giant organizations don`t actually value equality and diversity. Perhaps that`s just the cover story and what they want from us is fungibility. They want their employees, customers, and voters to be as atomized as possible, so that they can be as fungible as pork bellies.
Look how much money was made in 2004-2007 by imagining mortgages to be fungible. That`s the classic modern case: Scatter the population to distant exurbs by declaring that all mortgage-holders are equal.
What could possibly go wrong?
[Steve Sailer (email him) is movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog. His book, AMERICA’S HALF-BLOOD PRINCE: BARACK OBAMA’S “STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE”, is available here.]