Saturday, July 25, 2015

Then the Lord raised up judges

After a four year hiatus, I've decided to resume my series on the Bible on this blog. My other posts are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. No explanation for giving up on this series could ever be honest--it's been four years now, and I simply don't remember why exactly I stopped. I do remember that the last post on Joshua made quite an impact on me. Genocide and the Bible: it seems like it would be a common question, but if you Google it there's a surprising dearth of resources on the topic for a religious perspective. Most answers you get will be from skeptics, which makes sense. The best little article I found from a Christian perspective was from Peter Enns, but it's quite brief and doesn't get too deep. Other Christian responses more or less waffle between, "I promise there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for all this," and, "Does the potter have no right over the clay?" These are hardly satisfying answers.

The reason I harp on this is because war is in no way a small theme in the Bible. In the Old Testament, "salvation" means, almost always, God rescuing his people in battle. To enter into the world of the Old Testament is to rejoin a warrior nation with constant danger on every side. If I'm honest with myself, I must admit two things. One, I have no idea from real experience what this is like. Two, I nevertheless sense deep down an atavistic longing awakened by these texts. I mention this because, before we sit in judgment over the text with our self-righteous modern ethical mindset, I think we should let ourselves be disarmed by the Bible. Before we ask, "How do we interpret the text and apply it to our lives?" maybe we should first just try to enjoy the stories. If you do this, you will absolutely love the book of Judges.

The theme of the book is laid out near the beginning, in 2:11-23, of which I'll quote 16-19:
Then the Lord raised up judges, who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them. Yet they did not listen even to their judges; for they lusted after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their ancestors had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord; they did not follow their example. Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the Lord would be moved to pity by their groaning because of those who persecuted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they would relapse and behave worse than their ancestors, following other gods, worshiping them and bowing down to them. They would not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways.
There are basically two parts of the book after this. The first part, which runs through Chapter 16, is a series of tales recounting the deeds of the awesome judges. The Greeks had their pantheon of gods; the Israelites had their judges, each one of them known for showing glory in battle. You cannot find more entertaining stories, but let the reader be warned--there are blood and guts everywhere. The first of these stories is Ehud defeating King Eglon of Moab. "Now Eglon was a very fat man," says the sacred text. So do you know how Ehud killed him? He went before the king all alone to give him a "message from God," then he plunged a sword into his belly, "and the fat closed over the blade." This is in the Bible, folks.

Then there's the story of Deborah and Barak. Deborah the prophetess tells Barak to go to battle against Sisera, but Barak won't go without Deborah. So she tells him that because of this, "the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman." Now the woman she's talking about is actually Jael, who tricks Sisera into coming to rest in her tent after he flees from battle. Then while he's sleeping, she takes a tent peg and drives it into his skull.

Then there's the awesome story of Gideon, who defeats the Midianites. God commands him to narrow his army of 22,000 down to just 300 (why does that number sound familiar?), so that the Israelites will be convinced that the victory was truly miraculous. Gideon is one of my favorite characters because of something he says near the end of his story. From 8:22-23:
Then the Israelites said to Gideon, "Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also; for you have delivered us out of the hand if Midian." Gideon said to them, "I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you."
This beautiful statement of Israelite allegiance to God over all human authorities is that tainted by what happens just after. Gideon creates an idol for the people, and they bow down and worship it. The Bible is full of this kind of stuff: there is never a clean victory, because even the good guys always screw up something.

After Gideon one of his seventy sons, Abimelech, tries to establish himself as king by first killing off all of his brothers. Only one of them, Jotham, survives. Jotham prophesies that the people's allegience to Abimelech will backfire, and that is what happens: Abimelech burns all the people of the Tower of Shechem, and in the very next scene Abimelech has a millstone thrown on his head and dies.

Then there's story of Jephthah, who delivers the people from the Ammonites. Jepthah makes the most twisted vow I've ever heard of: he promises that if God gives him victory, he'll kill the first thing that comes out of his house upon his return as a sacrifice. So guess what that is? His daughter--his only child. And guess what happens next? He actually kills her. Even worse, his daughter agrees with his decision; she only asks to be allowed to go to the mountains for two months to "bewail her virginity."

I actually heard a sermon about this passage once, for which I applaud the pastor. It was something about not acting on bad theology; Jephthah was basically the example of what not to do. For that I applaud this particular pastor.

By the way, Jephthah is where we get that word Shibboleth. The Ephraimites get angry at Jephthah because he went to battle without them, so they go to war with the Gileadites (Jephthah's people). If any of the Ephraimites tried to escape, here's what the Gileadites did (12:5-6):
Then the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. Whenever one of the fugitives of Ephraim said, "Let me go over," the men of Gilead would say to him, "Are you an Ephraimite?" When he said, "No," they said to him, "Then say Shibboleth," and he said, "Sibboleth," for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan.
Finally, the last great tale in this series is Samson. In terms of awesome heroes, it doesn't get much better than this: he kills a lion with his bare hands, he kills thirty men at once by himself in order to pay a debt, he kills a thousand Philistines with a donkey's jawbone. And last and best of all, he is seduced by Delilah, which turns out to be his undoing, because she gets him to tell her the secret of his strength. As 16:16 says, "Finally, after she had nagged him with her words day after day, and pestered him, he was tired to death." I'm telling you guys, the Bible can tell it like it is. The Philistines cut off his hair, which takes away his strength, so they capture him and throw him in prison. But do not fear, Samson's end is glorious. The Philistines make him perform in front of them in their temple. Then Samson asks God for one last bit of super-strength in order to crush the Philistines. His hair grows back just in time for him to push against the pillars of the temple, crushing all of the Philistines and himself.

The reason I list all of these stories is that they deserve the repetition. Simply trying to derive an abstract meaning from them would do them and the reader a disservice. This is not a morality play. I would never teach my children to try to be like Ehud or Gideon, certainly not Jephthah or Samson. These are heroes because of their strength, pure and simple.

Yet there is a clear message which comes through as all these stories are woven together. God will never stop saving his people. There are enemies all around, and God will show his strength by raising up a hero to stop them. But why? Why does God still love his people after they've betrayed him over, and over, and over again? That's love, folks. No matter how angry God is with Israel, he always welcomes them back.

There is a second part of this book, Chapters 17 - 21, which is just about the most horrifying thing you can find in all of literature. I read these chapters as one unit, framed by the repetition of the following verse, which is both 17:6 and 21:25, the very last verse of the book:
In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.
It is a tale of idolatry, rape, murder, war, and lawlessness. There is a clear comparison made between the Benjaminites of Gibeah and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah from Genesis. The whole story is not worth recounting here, and I'm not sure my stomach could take it if I tried.

The ending of Judges sends a mixed message. Is it now time for God to install a king in Israel? Perhaps that will turn them back from their wickedness. Yet all of this time, God himself has been their king; why do they need human protection? Later Samuel will tell the Israelites they have sinned in asking for a king, though God will give them one anyway. One way to read these words--"In those days there was no king in Israel"--is that the people had rejected even God as their king, and that is what they did "what was right in their own eyes."

If the first part was attractive because of its stories of strength and glory, the second part is nothing of the sort: it can only make one shudder. The Bible can be a very dark book.

But the thing is, I've always found Judges less disturbing than Joshua. It's no wonder that we see darkness when all the people do what is right in their own eyes. Somehow I can deal with that much more easily than I can with God himself commanding people to "show no mercy."

We'll just have to keep dealing with this as the Old Testament stories progress. War never stops being a central theme. Maybe by the time we get to Jesus there will be a way to make sense of it all.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

My one simple rule of politics

I have a simple rule for choosing the right view on any particular political issue. Whatever position makes you feel better about yourself--more patriotic, more compassionate, more socially conscious, more "American" (or whatever nationality you like)--is probably wrong. The right position is the one that makes you feel deflated--that you are just one small individual in a very large world, of no greater or lesser value than any of the other 7 billion people who walk the earth, wise enough to take care of perhaps your own affairs but not others', and that if there is hope for human progress, it comes from the unpredictable changes that occur when all these billions of people stumble onto solutions to their various problems.

To be sure, if you want to feel more compassionate, you can be more compassionate--by giving your money, your time, your work, and yourself to others. If you want to be more patriotic, you can do that, too--for instance, by joining the military (or perhaps better yet by actually reading what the Founding Fathers thought about government). But if believing in a particular public policy makes you feel any of these things without you actually doing anything, then it's wrong. Don't believe it. And definitely stop listening to anyone who tells you that you must believe in a particularly policy or else you won't be considered compassionate, patriotic, socially conscious, and so on.

In a word, the rule I'm talking about is humility.

That pretty much sums up my Christian pseudo-libertarianism. I say "pseudo" because it's not a philosophy primarily based on a love of liberty or a hatred of coercion. It's primarily based on a steadfast opposition to pride. And I suppose that makes it even less popular than actual libertarianism. In a world in which humans try so savagely to find a chieftain to rule their tribe, it's unlikely that humility will ever be considered a political virtue. I know of a man who once tried to declare himself a humble king. Well, they crucified him.

There is good news that comes after, or so I've been told. And I hope it's true, because if it isn't then I guess we'll just have to accept that the powerful get their way after all.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Morality in the abstract

There's a fascinating debate here between John Hare and Peter Singer, in which the latter opens by giving all the standard arguments why no belief in God is necessary in order to have a theory of morality. I won't rehash all the arguments. What I thought was fascinating was the point Singer conceded: the atheist has difficulty fully motivating a commitment to the moral life. The problem naturally arises once your ethical system makes high demands on you. Singer is a utilitarian, which, once you work it out, makes rather enormous demands.

What I found to be an amazing tension in his discourse was between his statement, on the one hand, that nothing could be more important than knowing how to live morally and, on the other hand, his answer to a personal question posed during Q&A. When asked how he dealt with moral failure in his own life, he revealed that he did not, in fact, feel guilt, but merely accepted that he is not as good as he ought to be. I suppose he also implied that he would try to improve bit by bit, which is fair enough. On the other hand, he was quick to add that, to be sure, he already gave more of his income than most people who call themselves Christian. It was truly striking to hear such an answer, coming as I do from a tradition which acknowledges human frailty, our constant need of forgiveness, and the need for humility.

The experience highlighted for me one common point of tension in these debates over God and morality. It is now a standard litany among Christian intellectuals debating the topic that "of course, atheists can be moral, too, and indeed some of them are so moral as to put most Christians to shame." All the same, we clearly do not quite agree on what really is right and wrong. So it's hard to know by what standard we're repeating this litany.

But that is not the point which stuck out most. Listening to Singer, I was left with a profound question: is morality nothing more than an abstract concept? It's important to mention that Singer (like Hare) emphasizes the central role of reason in determining right and wrong, and more particularly the necessity of taking the most universal point of view possible. By considering the consequences of our actions not only for ourselves and those around us but also for every other conscious creature in existence (an abstract form of the Golden Rule), we come to increase our ethical knowledge.

It is not the enormity of that task which particularly bothers me. Rather, the product of this process seems detached from reality. We get a theoretical vision of what might maximize something called happiness or utility or well-being. But the vision is ahistorical--it doesn't go anywhere. Commitment to this vision is entirely optional, as Singer concedes. If one commits to the ethical life, it is not in hope of any fulfillment, but merely because one is inclined to follow abstract principles wherever they lead.

The Christian vision of ethics, it seems to me, is entirely different. The point of Christian ethics is not to obtain a theoretical blueprint of how to maximize an abstract quantity, like happiness. The point is to be part of God's ongoing project of saving the world. Thus our commitment to live morally or immorally is not an arbitrary choice, but instead a response to a commitment that God has already made--we are either with him or against him. When we ask what it means to live ethically in the world, the question is not how to maximize an abstract quantity, but rather what will it look like to live in the world that God will one day realize.

Of course, the Christian vision is incomprehensible if one thinks of God himself as abstract and impersonal. Then one is left, as Singer is, with no plausible answer to the problem of evil. If God is defined by the three qualities of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence, then God does not exist. Yet I thank God that such a god does not exist, because if it did, I do not see how anything in the world would ever happen--everything would be predetermined by a set of principles, and the kind of spontaneity that characterizes all that is living and beautiful would not exist.

For the Christian, God is not known through abstract principles which define him, but through God's story. He, like us, has a history, which starts with glorious creation but also involves the pain and suffering not only if his creatures but also his own suffering and death. If the resurrection of Jesus tells Christians that God's victory over evil has finally begun, this does not mean that the victory will be easy or that it won't be messy.

Now, if Jesus really didn't rise from the dead, none of this really matters. But I think there are compelling arguments to suggest he did, and as a bonus I find it to be a much firmer grounding for ethical thinking than secular rationalism. I certainly don't begrudge anyone who wants to try and live morally for whatever reason. I simply find that when I contemplate the choice to make moral commitments, I can't help but feel paralyzed at the thought of how arbitrary such a choice would ultimately be--unless that choice is in response to a project which is already at work in the world. In other words, I have a hard time with morality in the abstract. The world is either going somewhere or it isn't, and if it isn't going anywhere, then I don't see much point in doing anything.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

A humble science

Mathematics is the lowest and humblest of all the sciences. It makes slow but steady progress, and it says little to nothing about the questions dearest to the hearts of human beings, but what it says is absolutely certain. What gives it such certainty? It is content to study objects which are wholly abstract, so that the relations between them are absolute, eternal, and necessary. The word abstract implies that they are drawn away from reality. In this way they are lifeless. Rather than exploring strange new worlds with their own vibrant existence, the mathematician is content to study lifeless forms which are absolutely transparent to the mind. Let the brave adventurers go off to study living creatures, the cosmos, and that most mysterious object of all, human pyschology. The mathematician will humbly work at understanding that which is already closer to home than anything can be--that is, close to the mind.

It would be a fatal mistake, then, to view mathematics as a lofty venture, towering over all the other sciences, for that is the opposite of the truth. Mathematics, like anyone who wishes to be great in God's kingdom, must be the servant of all. We happily live in a world which follows certain patterns, often not at all obvious, and the objects we encounter, though they have in some sense a life of their own, can be seen to follow abstract rules which can be studied at the level of theory. In this way the applications of mathematics are abundant, starting with the simplest of all objects (physics) and working our way up even to the most complex and spontaneous (biology, economics).

But it is a slippery slope from application to assimilation. The problem with much modern thought is the way it treats all objects as abstract, lifeless forms. What mathematics so useful and reliable is that it studies objects which have no independent existence and no context. To study living things--and particularly the human mind--in such a way would be (and often is) disastrous. Psychologists have noticed, for example, that searching for universal principles governing human thought by observing only Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic people is a flawed idea. Yet in observing that our methods do not lead to what we are searching for, rarely do we ask whether the search itself is misguided.

Why does modern thought push relentlessly toward that which is universal? I suspect the reason is as much moral as scientific. On the one hand, science seeks that which is universal because it gives us a deeper understanding of life as a whole, and that allows us to do the greatest amount of good. On the other hand, we would also find it unfair if our particular context really mattered. The universe should be, above all, fair, even if that implies it is meaningless. History must be random, because otherwise that would imply something special about the way things happen to be. We have concluded, after thoroughly deconstructing the moral pretentions of past generations, that there can be nothing special about our heritage, culture, or anything else passed down to us.

As an aside, I highly suspect this attitude explains why physicists have come up with the idea of a multiverse. If there really is one universe, with exactly one history, that means a practically infinite number of possibilities are shut off forever from all reality. That would mean all of reality is dependent on a particular context--it is no longer held captive by abstract concepts. Such a conclusion is intolerable in our intellectual climate.

The modern reaction against the Judeo-Christian tradition can be explained in these terms. If there is a God, its existence should be explicable in rational, abstract terms that do not depend on context--that is, mathematically. There is a long tradition of such proofs in Western tradition. But that is not what we find in the Bible. What we find there is a God who, though he is supposed to be the creator of all things, has attached himself to a particular people in the Middle East. "I Am Who I Am," God says, affirming his utterly transcendent identity, and then adds soon after, "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." How can all of reality find its source in a God so particular? How could one petty group of people out in the middle of nowhere happened to have stumbled onto the source of life and hope for all humanity, and indeed all the universe?

As much as it offends our sensibilities, we ought to be able to understand this. Life is a serious of decisions and commitments, each of which cuts off others which were at one time possible. Once you say a word, it will be forever true that you said it. Once you are married, it will be forever true that you decided to marry. Once you go to your grave, whatever you have done with your life is all that you have done. There is no going back. Indeed, we might perhaps better understand this than our ancestors, since because of the Internet, nearly everything we say in public will be forever recorded somewhere in this vast ocean of data.

Is it really so impossible to believe that God himself would make such commitments, and that those commitments would be the basis of all reality? In fact I myself find it very hard. If at one time in human development it was natural to anthropomorphize God, today it seems difficult to think of God as anything other than an abstract concept.

Theology isn't the only thing at stake. It is not just the living God whom we try to kill with our abstract thinking. It is anything living. We moderns are increasingly detached from our own history, living in the dream that we can transcend history, which was random and arbitrary up to exactly our generation, and then build the future on abstract principles from here on. Naturally, we refuse to believe that this dream came from anywhere other than our own reason.

To be sure, looking at the abstract principles behind living realities is a good thing. It helps us to simplify problems and find solutions agreeable to everyone. It can even help us know better what we observe, so that we can appreciate it all the more. (I find this especially true of music, and I suspect it is true of art. For me, music theory makes great works come to life even more than they already do.)

The problem comes when we confuse abstract principles with true or ultimate reality. That is the path to self-destructive rationalism--it empties the world of all meaning, it jettisons history as a source of knowledge, and it risks degrading civilization itself, which is built on living traditions. No, reality is not a set of equations. It is a living, spontaneous, external universe which imposes its particularity on us. I say this not to denigrate my own field, but merely to put it in its rightful place as a loving servant of the real.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Miracles and the problem of evil

Judging from the questions people ask scientists who are also Christians, I take it that popular opinion holds that modern science and belief in miracles are fundamentally incompatible. I don't know why this is exactly, but I'm sure it's all David Hume's fault.

The argument seems to go something like this. Science is based on the understanding that all of nature exhibits certain regularities, called laws, and that by examining its parts through repeatable experiments, we can learn more about it. If miracles exist, then this regularity doesn't hold. Yet we know that science keeps telling us more and more about the way the universe really is. So miracles don't exist.

But that doesn't follow. If science is based on studying things which are repeatable, then science will tell you about those aspects of the universe which tend to repeat themselves. One will find it extremely difficult to prove that the whole universe follows (and always has followed) certain laws without any irregularity. If you say that we have not found any such irregularity yet, you are begging the question. First of all, a lot of people disagree with you, based on the amount of testimony that exists claiming miracles have occurred. Secondly, your sample size is vanishingly small--especially if modern science is in fact correct about the size and age of the universe. The only way you could possibly extrapolate from such a small sample size is to assume what you want to prove.

On the other hand, I confess that despite my religious affections (or perhaps because of them, as I'll explain shortly), I am attracted to the idea of a globally regular universe--that is, a universe without miracles. This would appear to put me in quite a predicament, and I'm not always sure how to overcome it.

My reason for being attracted to this idea is entirely aesthetic. The most incomprehensible thing about the universe, Einstein said, is that it is comprehensible. That is, the most incomprehensibly beautiful thing. You start with a very short list of axioms, you derive a mathematical theory, and then you watch in awe as physical objects actually seem to obey this theory, as if the Creator of the universe were some sort of divine mathematician. And you realize that whatever inherent limitations this puts on you and your life--for instance, I suppose it means death for us humans is probably inevitable--it is simply pure joy to see that at the heart of all reality is supreme rationality, such that only through the slow and painstaking efforts of the greatest minds can human beings start to glimpse the underlying principles. If we have a purpose in this world, it is to be the products of such a divinely rational order.

Aside from sheer awe, however, there is a big payoff to living in a world guided by universal, comprehensible laws. Through science, we can master the world, creating technologies which push back against death and disease, increase our comfort, and allow us to live more fulfilling lives. If this is starting to sound like some sort of modern secular religion, is that at all surprising? Haven't we, thanks to the scientific revolution, in fact stumbled onto something quite extraordinary? All religions have features both attractive and repulsive, and this new scientific religion is no different. It may not promise eternity or redemption, but it promises both awe of the transcendent and practical means by which we can live meaningful lives. That is hardly something to scoff at.

Now if miracles are real, then this glorious vision is tainted, if not shattered. Not only does it ruin the idea of perfectly uniform mathematical laws governing the universe, but it even makes us wonder why we put so much effort into understanding the universe when there is a much easier way. If God can simply cure diseases and raise the dead by the uttering a word, why doesn't he? Why do we slave away trying to understand laws which are not really laws at all, when all the while God could step in and just fix everything whenever he likes? It seems both sacrilegeous and immoral. Only a divine bully with no respect for transcendent beauty could possibly intervene at such irregular intervals, while hiding in the dark the rest of the time.

Thus the problem of miracles reduces to the problem of evil: how is God's existence compatible with the presence of suffering, death, and disasters in this world? These latter are most certainly consistent with the laws of the universe--laws cannot be broken, even if it would suit our purposes to do so. But a personal God, capable of intervening--how can he allow it?

The other side is not without objection. There is, for instance, the problem of good: how can we make the concept of goodness intelligible in a world governed entirely by impersonal, unyielding laws? We can push back against suffering and death, yes, but to what end? Short life and disease do not threaten modern people nearly as much as boredom, depression, and even suicide. Try as we might to create our own meaning, anything we invent without any reference to a transcendent source eventually appears, well, meaningless.

I am inclined to think that neither of these problems can really be "solved." So I find my reflections on this matter humbling, both as a mathematician and as a Christian. On the one hand, as much as many of us would love to claim science as the banner of objective truth, the reality is that the vision driving us is every bit as religious as Christianity or any other major world religion, with just as many weaknesses. On the other hand, as a Christian I need to consider this modern, secular religion to be a real contender for my heart and soul. When Einstein spoke of a "cosmic religious feeling," he wasn't kidding.

Whether one of these religions will ultimately succeed in shaping our civilization in the future surely depends in part on how we answer serious philosophical questions like that of miracles. But I believe the more important factor is the human heart, which, once it receives and adopts a certain of vision of the world, will follow it far and wide, for reasons far beyond the intellect's comprehension. For the Christian's heart, of course there are miracles. And for the modernist's, of course there are not. And for those of us somewhere in between, I suppose there is the hope that one day we'll know for sure.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Evolution, tradition, reason, faith

To me the Bible is the greatest book never written. Its contents were collected and edited over centuries until finally becoming the self-contained cornerstone of Judeo-Christian tradition that it is today. Like any great institution, the Bible was grown, not designed.

As a result of its history, the Bible carries around it now a sort of magical fence which, Catholic-Protestant debates notwithstanding, prevents any serious changes to be made to its contents. There is a marvelous double effect of the Bible on the community of Christian believers: on the one hand, conservative Bible believers are forced to confront a wealth of confusing, frustrating, and downright bizarre stories and passages which, by their own standard, cannot be erased; and on the other hand, liberals are forced to confront the reality that faith is not the result of pure reason, that rationalistic belief can only be something other than Christianity, and that it is in ancient tradition rather than current that the mind continues to receive its greatest stimulation and challenge.

It's a delicious irony. Conservatives, who hate evolution because they love the idea of God the designer of all things, are in reality relying on an evolved tradition, while liberals, who love evolution because they love the process of reason which discovered evolutionary theory, have in reality found the very principle which destroys their own rationalism.

If you really want to be a rationalist, the logical belief is not that the creation story was too short (thousands of years vs. billions of years) but rather too long, as Origen pointed out. Everyone knows God the great architect really created everything at once. Those seven days are all just metaphors.

Indeed, it's hard to accept that God might just like watching things grow. Evolution requires both patience and spontaneity; that is, one must go into it knowing it will take a very long time but not at all knowing the final outcome. And the really strange thing is that the conservative hates this because he is too impatient, while the liberal hates it because he isn't spontaneous--when it should really be the other way around.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Ellis Island

Last week I was in New York to give a mathematics presentation at NYU. On the side I did a little tourism, in particular a day at Ellis Island. These days the immigration issue, a hot button in politics, has become far more personal to me. My wife is not American, and it turns out these days you don't just show up on a boat to immigrate like you did back in the day--even if you're married to an American! But anyway, I've always been attracted by the story of America's great hey day of immigration. People left poverty and oppression seeking opportunity and freedom--there's nothing more beautiful to me than that, especially when there's a happy ending.

Ellis Island wasn't a completely open border in the sense that they let literally everyone in, but it was enough to satisfy me. About 2% of all people who showed up were eventually turned away, for health reasons or political factors (mostly unspecified by the tour). Still, that's only 2%. Today's system seems to make it the other way around--only a small fraction of people who would like to come here ever get the chance (legally). By comparison, the old way was far more welcoming.

Not that it was a picnic. You showed up on an overcrowded boat, you got in line with hundreds of other immigrants, you spent all day answering questions, getting a medical examination, and sometimes being examined further (to see whether you were insane, to see whether you were illiterate, to see whether you were a pauper...). Sometimes the immigration officers were kind, other times not so much. But again, you still had a 98% chance of making it out of that process (an 80% chance, if I understood correctly, of making it out in a single day) to live your new life in America.

And of course life was hard for new arrivals. There was a story commonly recounted by Italian immigrants that went something like this: "I came to America because I thought the streets were paved with gold. When I arrived, I learned three things: one, the streets of America were not paved with gold; two, the streets were not paved at all; and three, that I was expected to pave them." Just because there was more opportunity in America doesn't mean that wealth would be automatic.

I was highly impressed by the number of associations set up to welcome new immigrants. From the YMCA/YWCA and the Salvation Army to an array of organizations representing every ethnic and religious group you could think of. These groups took care of their own. Assimilation was not immediate; the first people you met in your new country were people who spoke your language and believed the things you believed. Yet there's no question that the immigrants loved America. How could they not, considering what they left to be here?

It was probably inevitable that Ellis Island be shut down at some point. Transportation has changed in the modern world--there's no reason to received everyone by boat on an island. Yet the real reason the center shut down when it did is that the laws become more restrictive. After World War I, America stopped welcoming newcomers. This seems to have been because of a confluence of economic protectionism together with anti-foreign bias that was aggravated by the Great War and the rise of communism in Russia. The 1920s may have been roaring, but they were not welcoming, and things only became worse shortly after. After 1924 Ellis Island went from processing new arrivals to detaining and deporting illegal immigrants. It finally closed in 1954, falling into disrepair.

I am glad to see the restorations they have done since the 1980s. It truly was a magnificent building, and, as they emphasized on the tour, this was not for kings but for the people--the rabble--who came here looking for a better life. It really makes my heart ache when I think of the difference between then and now. If I remember correctly, 40% of Americans can trace their ancestry back to someone who immigrated at Ellis Island. What would we be today if not for this amazing place? How can Americans despise their own history in accepting today's agonizingly restrictive immigration system?

I suppose history is full of such contradictions.