On Immigration, the Revolutionary Movement of the 21st century: In Homage to Earl Shorris


Like you, I’ve been worrying a lot about the plight of the Syrian and Middle Eastern refugees we’ve been seeing in the newspapers these days. We see haunting images of their silhouettes trudging across a barren landscape, and heartbreaking images of their eyes peering through chain link fences, and painful images of thin young women carrying children, wrapped in makeshift plastic ponchos under the rain, as they bargain and plea to get a seat on a train or a bus out of the turmoil, headed for Austria, or Germany, or who knows where…

I’ll leave it up to the pundits and policy makers to decide how to find new homes for all these poor people in our wealthy Western democracies. I’d just like to cite some words of Earl Shorris (1936-2012), writer, visionary, and humanitarian, founder of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, who put immigration into a completely different light than I’ve ever seen it before.

It was not much longer than a week ago that I discovered the existence of the Clemente Course in the Humanities (an outreach program which provides elite seminars to impoverished, motivated adults) and got my copy of Shorris’s book, Riches for the Poor.*  Since then, I’ve been reading his book around the clock, captivated by his explanation of what it means to live la vie active, what it means to establish an authentic dialogue with other people, and why Socrates never wrote down any of his words, so as to avoid short-circuiting that essential connection with his pupils.  These are potent ideas!  I’m starting to wonder if writing is the be-all and end-all that I thought it was. Maybe it is enough to be a teacher, to reach out to other people, and to empower them to voice their ideas.

Here are some choice Shorris thoughts on immigration in honor of September 11 and the millions of Syrian refugees who are currently seeking a better life, with or without our help here in the USA.

“The nature of immigration is the search for a new social contract, inclusion, citizenship. Immigration is perhaps the only possible revolution in the twentieth century” (83).

“In every descendant culture, [politics] determines who will long suffer poverty and who will not. Any American, any person, may be strengthened by taking pride and pleasure in the knowledge of the new culture of his or her forbears, but an old culture cannot make a new life” ((83).

“The early years of the twentieth century saw a new kind of social mobility as the waves of immigrants came, but their change in status, from poor Polish or Southern Italian greenhorn to middle-class white was not cultural or even economical at its core. The successful immigrants were the beneficiaries of a political epiphany. To emigrate was to revolt against the past and to immigrate was to strike a new social contract that permitted, among other things, inclusion in the circle of power” (86).

Earl Shorris, Riches for the Poor: The Clemente Course in the Humanities (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2000).

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