Now that I'm a "man of leisure," although I may lack either the money or vigor to take full advantage, I've been studying quite a bit of American history. Many common threads appear - religion, the influence of the wide-open West, resources that put every other country to shame, and so on. Unfortunately, also up there at the top of the list comes bigotry.
In the beginning, the Puritans were bigots in a religious sense, going so far as to banish religious dissenters into the wilderness. And always, of course, there was the class consciousness brought over from England like so many pewter cups, not to mention distain for the "savages."
But it wasn't until generations later, when in the mid-1800s refugees from the Irish famine began flooding East Coast shores, that Americans really got into it. The fact that the Irish people were Catholics was a big factor, but the overriding reason had to do with fear of the "other," together, on the part of many, the fear that jobs might be lost to these newcomers.
I have no doubt that I could find countless racist comments against the Irish, but let me limit myself to the two most revered American poets so far: Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Whitman, as a young man, spent time teaching the poor - Irish "bog-trotters'" they were commonly called. He wrote he was spending the best years of his life "among clowns and country bumpkins, fat-heads and coarse brown-faced girls ... all with crude manners, and bog-trotters ... of ignorance and vulgarity."
As a young girl, Emily Dickinson wrote about Irish kids to her older brother - then a teacher in what today would be called the "inner city" of Boston. She was child, and she was joking, but she said that "So far as I am concerned I should like to have you kill some - there are so many now, there is no room for the Americans." You know she was parroting her elders.
Whitman went on, as we know, to celebrate - to SHOUT his celebration - of American diversity. And just before she died, at only 56, Dickinson asked that six beloved Irish servants - and none of the town's gentry - carry her casket across a deep meadow to her grave.
However, the years passed and the country went on - Jim Crow, wops, ragheads, you name it. But let's skip ahead to 2010.
The author of Arizona's new immigration law, state senator Russell Pearce, wants to ban the children of illegal immigrants born in the United States from being citizens.
Back in the 1930s and 1940s, certain people in Germany invented the term untermensch, which literally meant "under-people," or "less than human," to refer to those they wanted to ... well, you know. The next time you see a racist Internet joke about immigration, think a little about U.S. and world history.