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GUEST COLUMN: if you want to be cruel and unmerciful, keep it to yourself.

I’ve been hemming and hawing about sharing an article that recently appeared in the August edition of National Geographic. The fact it revolved around human migration had made me reconsider until some momentary calm had been reached in the ongoing firestorm surrounding our own southern (and eastern and northern and western) border.

A recent visit to the post office convinced me that no such calm is likely to appear as anti-immigrant rage is stoked in our so-called “American melting pot.” In fact, I’m sure there are many in the reading audience saying to themselves right now, “Oh geez, not another log for the fire. Can’t you just talk about joy or bird baths or your long fishing weekend?”

Sorry, I’ve got to get this off my chest.

On this particular Monday morning, I stood in line at the Main Street Post Office while a local patron shared her recent experiences in Europe with the woman in front of me. Her daughter had moved to Germany and she had gone to visit on several occasions, and was actually considering moving there on a permanent basis.

She had travelled all over Europe, so I felt obliged to ask which country she had liked the most. To be honest, I’ve no overwhelming urge to ever visit Europe but it’s always good to take stock of others’ experiences. She related how she’d enjoyed Italy, and particularly Rome and the Vatican. Her singular complaint, however, was “all the immigrants begging for money” in the central plaza.

Now, having often dodged, and sometimes relieved, the uncomfortable suffering of beggars on the streets of Chicago, I understood her point of view. Our self-sanctifying cultural norms have made the shunning of the less fortunate nearly a national pastime.

Yet, her spiteful use of the word “immigrants” made my inner compass stand up and take notice. She’d emphasized the term “immigrants” the way someone might discuss a neighbor’s annoying dog. The woman in front of me immediately echoed her anxiety and near-disgust. “Oh yeah, those immigrants. They should do something to just take them off the streets. I’m sure it hurts the local economy.”

(To the Christians in the audience I would just like to add, “I say unto you, as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it also to me.” — Matthew 25:40)

She went on to describe how immigrant women were sending their children out across the plaza to beg for money. “I don’t know where they came from, but it was a real nuisance.” I interjected by saying, “I think that’s what they call poverty.” She sneered and said, ”Not with the nice shoes she was wearing.”

Now I’m no fool, and I would be the first to recognize that many beggars may be forestalling honest labor in favor of easier enterprise. Happens every day of the week on every continent in the world.

But still, you would need to be a self-possessed prophet to tell a woman’s life story by the condition of her shoes. I stood in line wondering how she’d somehow been unable to recall the fact that she was considering becoming an “immigrant” herself. But ahhhh… such is life. I only hope she remembers to wear her nice shoes.

To be honest, I think what bothered me most was the willingness of these two women to so openly share their disdain for immigrants, and by relation, other ethnicities. I mean, if you want to be cruel and unmerciful, keep it to yourself. Don’t get me wrong, I’m the last to want to torture anyone with politically correct nonsense. That’s a whole other category of mass idiocy.

But if you can’t keep it out of your head, at least have the decency to keep it in the closet. But so go the standards of modern communication. I couldn’t help but think of my mother. She’d been raised an Iowan farm girl during the Great Depression. My brother and I were raised in her house where she baked and jammed and sewed her own dresses and kept up all the homemade traditions that were so common to her place and time.

She also carried the same prides and prejudices of those times, yet always seemed to show the good Christian sense to keep her big mouth shut. One of her favorite sayings was, “If you have nothing good to say, say nothing at all.” I’m so thankful she hasn’t had to endure the exuberant inhumanity of the current generation.

Still, our postal patrons aside, I began writing this piece in order to share a bit of an article written by Mohsin Hamid, a National Geographic contributor from Lahore, Pakistan. And so I will.

He writes, “Ours is a migratory species. Humans have always moved. We move through time, through the temporal world, because we are compelled to.

“We move through space, through the physical world, seemingly because we choose to, but in those choices there are compulsions as well. We move when it is intolerable to stay where we are: when we cannot linger a moment longer, alone in our stifling bedroom, and must go outside to play: when we cannot linger a moment longer, hungry on our parched farm, and must go elsewhere for food.

“We move because of environmental stresses and physical dangers and the small-mindedness of our neighbors — and to be who we wish to be, to seek what we wish to seek.

“And yet we are told that such movement is unprecedented, that it represents a crisis, a flood, a disaster. We are told not only that movement through geographies can be stopped but that movement through time can be too, that we can return to the past, to a better past, when our country, our race, our religion was truly great.

“All we must accept is division. The division of humanity into natives and migrants. A vision of a world of walls and barriers, and of the guards and weapons and surveillance required to enforce those barriers.

“Such are the dreams of a species defeated by nostalgia, at war with itself, with its migratory nature, screaming in denial of the constant movement that is human life.”

Pie in the sky? Perhaps.

To be honest, I don’t know why that woman’s daughter chose to move to Germany. Maybe to escape her small, stifling bedroom, or maybe the small-mindedness of her neighbors or the increasing small-mindedness of her own nation. I really don’t know. Yet, given its history, how ironic she should choose Germany in order to do so. Ironic, indeed.

PAUL WHEELER, a former member of The Write Team, resides in Ottawa. "The River at Both Ends," Wheeler's most recent book of poetry, is available at Prairie Fox Books in Ottawa. He can be reached via

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