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As Long as We Remember...

September 14, 2010

The Union Still Stands

Roy Meachum

In the Great Depression’s worst days, as war storms blew up over Europe for all the world, American writer Stephen Vincent Benet wrote “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” The allegory’s most famous line, “Neighbor, how stands the Union?”


Mr. Benet’s 1937 question must be repeated now, provoked by Saturday’s 9/11’s ninth anniversary, the day after Eid ul-Fitr, the holy feast that follows Ramadan’s month of fasting. The Quran says the faithful may take no food, drink or smoke as long as the difference can be told between a white and black thread. The two special days have never come as close since terrorists hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.


“Who cares?” some Americans say. I would answer the question with Mr. Benet’s question: “Neighbor, how stands the Union?”


The writer of poetry places the words in the mouth of Daniel Webster, the profligate patriot; his Massachusetts’s underwear, for all we know, might have been red-white-and-blue, to match the flag still brand new when he was born (1782). By Mr. Webster’s death (1851), on the eve of the Civil War, the White Anglo-Saxon society that my Scotch-Irish ancestors sought to create was under serious siege. Protestant Americans assaulted the flooding into their country of the very Catholic Irish and Germans.


In defense, my forefathers and their likes formed the American Party, mainly to resist the newcomers’ perceived intent to bring the pope over from Rome to rule the United States; the members’ silence on everything about their party caused them to be dubbed Know Nothings. There’s no simple accounting for the rage that erupted against the surge of Italians who fled during the successful revolution to unite the baronial pieces and princely parts of their boot-like homeland.


During Mr. Webster’s days, riots against the Catholic refugees from Europe’s injustices became so violent in Washington, the U.S. Marines hauled out of their Navy Yard barracks more than one cannon.


The Civil War robbed the Know Nothings’ cause by drafting and enrolling people of all variations and national origins to fight the war whose coming prompted Mr. Benet’s question plopped in Mr. Webster’s mouth.


The Great Depression ruined Middle America’s prosperity taking away the target Italian new-arrivals supposedly slathered over. Right before Black Friday that caused banks’ failures and Wall Street’s jumping suicides, Nicola Sacco and Bartolommeo Vanzetti were executed on the charge they were anarchists, a peculiar 19th century movement against kings and other authoritarian governments. Their real crime, however, was the exotic nature and strange language they spoke, as Italians.


Turn of the 20th century xenophobic turmoil resulted in nine Neapolitans, Sardinians and fellow recent immigrants being hanged by their necks until dead, in New Orleans. Not incidentally, the mob dragged them from the jail where they had been locked up for their safety. Religion was no excuse among South Louisiana’s French and Spanish Catholics; in my view, they felt threatened because the immigrants’ ways were so different from their Americanized ways. They excused their reactions by pointing to the Sardinian Mafia. Forse, “maybe” in both Italy and on Sardinia.


Nearly 50 years ago President Lyndon Johnson pushed through Congress the Civil Rights statutes that generated near-acceptance for African Americans, but not quite. Prejudice against blacks still soils this society where all men and women are supposedly free and equal. Facing a black face in the Oval Office, the hounds of hate and discrimination must have new meat, which they sniff in Muslims.


Saturday’s 9/11 commemoration symbolized the pain in the nation’s heart from the willful and criminal act of 19 Muslims; backed by maybe the same number who provided the means, including money, for the strike against the symbol of America’s financial wealth. The number pales by comparison with the hundreds of thousands Christian crusaders raped, pillaged and murdered in the heartland of Islam. Very few among readers can think that’s relevant to today’s situation.


But to 1.5 billion Muslims the crusades are very much alive; by the way, their total count has risen past Christians’ numbers. And continue to grow. Islam is said to have learned proselytizing from Catholic and Protestant missionaries; I doubt that premise. The nature of all religions is to seek converts, to join and comfort believers – if for no other reason.


On the street outside my door, Mormon elders in white shirts and ties search for additional “saints” for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When Pushkin takes his daily walk, now with a leash, I’m not surprised when a passer-by slips a sheet in my hand, touting an Evangelist congregation. Particularly, when established religion loses active members by the wholesale, according to numerous polls and surveys; I accept efforts at recruitment by splinter churches increase, unceasingly.


The radical few who commit terrorism pose minor threats when held up beside the thousands killed and maimed by automobiles, trucks and other vehicles, every year. Under 3,000 victims were mourned Saturday, and I join the mourners. But to castigate, criticize and to declare war against an entire religion – remember 1.5 billion – simply makes no sense; it’s unworthy of a people who have produced such heroes as Washington, Lincoln and, yes, Webster.


Right now, the Union still stands. Old men constantly worry about what will follow their death. I worry, along with Stephen Vincent Benet, that my nation whose uniform I wore for six years 11 months may crumble into a very disjointed collection of quibblers, cranks and bigots, dedicated to grabbing what’s best for them. This country was constructed and improved by dedicated Americans, again, like Daniel Webster.


Unity, not partisanship, forged the United States of America, represented by the diverse red-white-and-blue flag. Long may it wave!


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